Sex, Love, and Purim

Jewish sexual ethics might help explain the difficulty in imparting Catholic sexual ethics

The Jewish calendar features a holiday this week that has garnered the unofficial moniker of the Jewish “get-drunk-off-your-ass” day. To properly commemorate Purim, a day-long celebration of the Jews’ escape from destruction by the hands of a wicked vizier in ancient Persia, the Talmud decrees that one must so wasted that “he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman [the villain]’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai [the hero].’” Because a literal reading of this passage would essentially mean that Jews must put themselves in danger in order to commemorate escaping from danger, alternative readings abound as to how much alcohol one must actually take in. My favorite opinion, however, is that of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who asserts that regardless of how much you drink, you should only imbibe “for the sake of Heaven.” That is, there is nothing inherently wrong with getting gratifyingly tipsy (within reason) on Purim, as long you are getting intoxicated not for its own sake but for the sake of something greater than yourself.

This philosophy can ironically help explain the woes of a religious group that is not quite in such a festive mood right now. Last week, to kick off this year’s Lenten speaker series, Professor Lisa Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, lectured on the “Generation Gap in Catholic Sexual Teaching.” Cahill argued that many Catholic students tend to embrace a lifestyle of promiscuity because they feel alienated by traditional Catholic views on sexuality. This happens, she asserted, because although the Church’s viewpoint has progressed beyond the myopic notion that sex is for “procreation only,” that is exactly how many Catholic students unfortunately understand it, leading many to deem abstinence as “unrealistic.” Cahill went on to delineate the Church’s current views, but the absence of a key ideological point in her outline that is implicit in both Isserles’s dictum and in Jewish sexual ethics as a whole could point to an even deeper reason as to why some Catholics are drawn to fleeting romances.

As a primary source for modern Catholic sexual ethics, Cahill cited the “Humanae Vitae,” an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Before this, argued Cahill, the Catholic perspective was indeed primarily that sex is solely for procreation. This encyclical, however, written on the issue of artificial birth control, modified this view. While Pope Paul affirmed that “every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” he also asserted the equally important function of sex as a tool to entrench a “love” between husband and wife, the epitome of “human fulfillment.”

This, however, became lost on today’s students of Catholicism because the past generation focused on the Humanae Vitae’s stance against birth control more than its reworking of Catholic sexual philosophy. From her own experience, Cahill asserted, many Catholic students seem to care more about the apparent obsolescence of laws than forbid pre-marital sex than they do about issues like birth control. To promote abstinence today, therefore, Cahill argued, Catholic pedagogues ought to associate sex not merely with procreation but also with “commitment” and “integrity.”

She, as well as the Humanae Vitae, however, never mentioned “pleasure.” And that’s where the difficulty in imbuing the value of abstinence might very well lie.

Failing to legitimize the enjoyment one normally gets from sex (or, in the case of Paul and Augustine among numerous others, equating it to sin) has tremendous potential to alienate students of the faith. Although the Catechism cites a statement from Pope Pius XII that “spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit” through intercourse, the role of sexual pleasure in marriage has been hotly contested throughout the history of Catholic thought. The solution could therefore be less to emphasize the gravity of the sexual act than to ensure that students understand that they are meant to redirect their sexual energy towards a productive end rather than repressing it completely.

Indeed, this is a prominent stream of thought in traditional Jewish philosophy. As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits argues in his essay “A Jewish Sexual Ethics,” while many Christian denominations advocate a repression of sensual desire, Judaism humanizes sexuality by framing its pleasure as a mitzvah if it is experienced in the proper context. Although procreation is paramount and pre-marital sex is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism, physical gratification itself is viewed as anything but corrosive. On the contrary, the Talmud records that it was common practice for Torah scholars to have sex their wives on the eve of the Sabbath since, as one prominent commentator notes, the Sabbath is meant for “delights” and “bodily pleasures.”

Sexual desire, in other words, can become a vehicle for consecration if it is acted upon in the proper place and context, and Catholic ethicists ought to emphasize this aspect of their thought if they seek to promote abstinence in a relevant fashion. When one directs his energy towards something meaningful, whether he utilizes intercourse or, in the case of Purim, beer and wine, the spiritual heights he experiences can only be exalted. As long as, to cite Rabbi Isserles, he is doing it for the sake of Heaven.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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