Published in the Jewish Standard, Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column
I attended an all-boys Yeshiva for high school, and I am going off to live on campus at a coed college. I have not been dating until now. To be upfront, will you give me some advice and guidance about sex?
Blunt in Bergenfield
To be candid with you in return, no I will not. Why? First off, the subject is immensely complex and your question is overly vague. The spectrum of human sexuality is wide and it varies significantly from person to person. Some people are driven strongly and are intensely engaged by sexual forces and others are not. I’d need a lot more specificity about you as a person before I would even try to answer your question. And without any details I prefer not to infer or read between the lines of your inquiry.
Second, I simply have no training in counseling or expertise in advising anyone about that complex set of subjects related to your inquiry about “sex”. I am a rabbi, not a sex counselor.
To train as a rabbi I studied Bible, Talmud and religious law codes. Those books do in fact contain information related to sex and to relationships between sexual partners. But some people could contend (and I would agree) that content is anecdotal, antiquated and quirky at best.
Furthermore, as is well-known, many of the guidelines of the Talmud in this area are rules that instruct people in what not to do in sexual relations. On that subject of prohibited sexual things, you might consider me informed. But I sense that what not to do is not primarily what you want to know about.
And even in the area of sex-no-nos, I am not sure I qualify to offer you significant advice. I got some of my training in the laws of the rabbinic menstrual taboos, for instance, years ago from a series of lectures by a noted rabbinic authority in the field. While sitting in his classes in rabbinical school, I recall that I wrote one time in my notebook in puzzlement about why this man was teaching us this subject, “I’m pretty sure this rabbi has never menstruated.”
Candidly, I came out of the Yeshiva with more than a few unresolved questions about sexual matters. And unfortunately, I need not remind you now about what you may have read recently in the press; that Yeshivas do not have perfect track records in this arena; some rabbis have been involved in deplorable sex scandals at these schools.
So since I will not help you out with advice, who then should you turn to? If you believe that written guidance will help you there are respected, accessible, sensible non-religious sources. Sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s books, for instance, are full of competent professional advice.
Keep in mind also that sessions with a professional psychologist or therapist can provide you with a means to achieve better self-awareness and to clarify your personal needs. And once you are in touch with the characteristics of your own basic sexuality, you can be more confident that you will find a compatible partner at the proper time.
So to conclude and repeat, I have no direct advice for you on the subject. Rabbinically however I am obliged to remind you of our high ideal about which you undoubtedly already know from your Yeshiva studies and from your personal background. Even after you believe you have found a suitable partner, contemporary observant Judaism advocates that sexual relations be delayed until you are married.
I have a Jewish friend who has taken up some Buddhist practices. He has spoken to me of the fulfillment he feels especially after engaging in meditations of compassion. Can you supply examples that I can use to explain to him that he does not have to turn to Buddhism, that he can find and practice meaningful compassionate living within our Jewish traditions.
Compassionate in Closter
It seems that your friend has been attracted to the compassionate practices of Buddhism, in particular perhaps the embrace of those others who are distressed and the praxis for feeling their pain. This is a core doctrine of some forms of Buddhism and, along with it, a prominent part of Buddhist meditative practices. But you are right that the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is a major part of Judaism.
Let me provide a few recognizable examples of compassionate practice in Judaism and then I will discuss one more that is not so easily recognized.
In Judaism, the grace after meals stands out as a prominent example of a prayer and meditation of compassion, and it is squarely within the common daily regular practice of our faith.
Birkat Hamazon is a composite prayer. When I recite the Birkat Hamazon, I find in it the quest for compassion from a divine source, in the repeated invocation of God as Harachaman, “The compassionate one.” The prayer’s major purpose is to enunciate the grace and compassion that God bestows in stages upon those who have eaten a meal, upon the household in which they ate, upon all Israelites, and upon the entire world. I can recall how I rejoiced when I recognized that our own Birkat Hamazon is an instance of true compassionate meditation, a full expression of a meditation of loving-kindness, joy and equanimity for all living beings.
So when I say the words of this grace after eating and feel their meanings, I create for myself a full exercise of compassionate meditation that brings with it the expected peace that I seek for myself and for others.
Next, the Tachanun liturgy that we recite (alas, often in haste) at the conclusion of many morning and afternoon prayer services is another great prayer seeking compassion from God and thereby reminding us to be compassionate in our lives.
And so too, the Selichot prayers that we say prior to Rosh Hashanah and on fast days are wonderful, complex and rich examples of meditations of compassion which also invoke many themes of our Jewish tradition.
Those prayers speak on the surface of compassion. But in my view the greatest meditation of compassion in our tradition is another less obvious one – the Kol Nidre formula that we recite at the start of Yom Kippur.
You may shake your head and ask, where is the compassion in that prayer? Indeed a few years ago I asked myself about this prayer, How is it that nearly every Jew in the synagogue feels that a dry legal formula for releasing vows is one of the most moving prayers of the year?
I considered that it could be that the context of the Kol Nidre gives it a dramatic impact. We gather in synagogue at night, but we take out the Torahs and we (the men in the Orthodox shuls) wear taleisim and kittels, giving the synagogue setting a surreal and heavenly aura.
We tell ourselves that God will close the book of life in 25 hours with our verdicts, and that we must repent now so that we can live another year. And we are fully sated and fed from our final pre-fast meal and looking forward to the long fast of the coming day. So surely, this context makes us pay special attention to the inaugural Yom Kippur prayer.
But after much study and contemplation I concluded that the full impact of the Kol Nidre derives most of all from its content. I recalled that Buddhism teaches that to be able to have real compassion for others one first must appreciate one’s own weaknesses, failings, faults and deficiencies. It seems to me that is what we do on Yom Kippur.
Surely, we are summoned to recognize that we have sinned during the whole period of the High Holidays. Now at the end of the season of repentance, on Yom Kippur, we want to finally fix that situation.
In the Kol Nidre we say that we nullify our vows, prohibitions, oaths, and consecrations. This is how we express in our unique legal-liturgical way a profound core meditative idea -- that we take compassion on ourselves, we forgive ourselves, we release ourselves of our wrong ways of living and free ourselves to follow more proper paths.
And from that crucial meditative starting point we go forward, with the guidance of the Yom Kippur machzor, to the details of correcting ourselves. And then we go even further to begin to forgive others, to have compassion for our families, friends, for all Jews, for all peoples and for all of God’s creation.
So you may inform your friend, based on these examples (especially those from our current season of meditation, the Selichot and Kol Nidre) that it’s not at all necessary to look outside of Judaism to find substantial practices of meaningful meditations of compassion.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com