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My Date With Lena

An Orthodox Jew and an unorthodox feminist seek common ground

By Avishai D. Don

Before I came to Harvard, a Rabbi from the Israeli Yeshiva where I spent my gap year cautioned me about the spiritual dangers of attending a non-Jewish university. He wasn’t going to discourage my attending a “secular college” like Harvard, he said, but he was going to warn me about the corrosive effect that the frivolity towards sexuality on campus would have on my religious devotion if I let myself interact extensively with that culture.

Basically, he meant that Harvard can be a hazardous place for religious Jews like me because of people like Lena Chen ’09-’10, the former sex blogger extraordinaire with whom I met this past Friday.

The goal of our meeting was simple. Driven by my own curiosity, I was determined to find out if, despite our wildly different backgrounds and religiosities, Chen and I could find overlap—any overlap—on our personal sexual philosophies. Fortunately, despite my initial trepidation, our meeting did not fall short.

Chen, of course, is best known for her blog Sex and the Ivy, in which she chronicled every excruciating detail of her explosive sexual life at Harvard during her sophomore and junior years. Indeed, while I was experiencing a religious awakening in Israel, Chen was experiencing a sexual awakening, and from its inception in August 2006 her incendiary and provocative blog spellbound the campus.

Eventually, however, she stopped writing entirely about her personal sexual exploits after a few months of dating her current beau. “I was like, okay, so I’m never writing about my sex life again,” she said. “Ever. As long as I’m in this relationship. And I’m still in this relationship.”

Her sudden interest in monogamy was an area in which I originally thought we would be able to find common ground. My own personal sexual philosophy is probably best expressed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his essay “The Redemption of Sexual Life.” The sex drive, he says, represents the “eternal quest of the unique, lonely individual to flee his solitude,” and the extraordinary longing for a deep “metaphysical union” with another. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Biblical Hebrew word for copulation is the same as the word for “to know.”

Although Chen told me that she believes in neither marriage nor religion, I thought that perhaps on some basic level, Chen’s long-term sexual commitment to a single person reflected an idealistic overlap between us. Perhaps, I thought, her decision to settle down reflected an epiphany about the meaning acquired by sexuality in a monogamous relationship.

I was wrong.

“People place so much emphasis on romantic love,” Chen explained. Although her boyfriend is “one of the most important people in [her] life,” within the confines of even a committed relationship, she told me, such an intimate love would probably be detrimental to her own well-being. “I don’t think the emotional bond to my boyfriend should be different than the emotional bonds to other people in my life,” she said, “and it would probably be unhealthy [if it were].” Indeed, “if you’re actually looking at the quality of that one [romantic] relationship compared to all other relationships in your life, there’s no reason why that one relationship should supersede all others.”

To make sure I understood her position correctly, I asked her, point blank, if she truly made no distinction for herself between having sex, either with her boyfriend or some random stranger, and going out to eat at a nice restaurant. Her answer? Other than the fact that it feels more pleasurable to sleep with someone you’re committed to, “no, probably not.” In fact, she claimed, the only reason that she practices sexual monogamy within her romantic relationships in the first place is that “there are some social constructs that are really hard to overcome.” Because she places no inherent meaning in the sexual act itself beyond pleasure, I discovered, we are on entirely opposite ends of a spectrum.

So why was the meeting not a total failure? Because halfway through the interview, I suddenly realized that neither of us was attempting to convince the other that our position was superior.

“The goal of sexual liberation,” Chen told me, “should not have been to create new sexual standards that people had to adhere to, but rather to create a society where you didn’t feel pressure to have sex, or to not have sex, or to do anything really.” Her ultimate goal is not to convince everyone to behave as she did before meeting her boyfriend but rather to create an environment where people are not proselytized for behaving sexually in a way “that they are comfortable with.”

Indeed, despite my and Chen’s disparate beliefs about pretty much everything about our own sexuality, we are both able to acknowledge our limits. I find a quiescent beauty in my philosophy and Chen finds happiness and fulfillment in hers. Both of us are still able to contribute to the marketplace of ideas at Harvard without attempting to run each other out of business. Regardless of your own religiosity, that fact alone ought to fill you with a sense of awe.

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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