No Holds Barred: The dangers of religious sexual repression

Once a woman is overexposed, men lose interest. The element of modesty in a relationship is crucial.

May 29, 2013 15:52
The cover of the first edition of Playboy Israel

Playboy cover 370. (photo credit: NIV ELIS)

I discovered via Saturday Night Live that Playboy had launched a Hebrew-language edition in Israel.

About a week later I received a call from its publisher, Dan Pomerantz, asking if I would contribute an article to the magazine.

The call was not without precedent.

Thirteen years ago Playboy chose my book Kosher Sex as its main selection for the cover of its 30th anniversary edition (a distinction accompanied by two tickets to the Playboy Mansion West celebration party, which my wife promptly destroyed, saying, “No bunnies for you”). Why Playboy would have chosen to highlight a book that argues pornography closes the erotic mind is anyone’s guess. But the magazine was deferential in honoring my wishes not to have any nude pictures near the serialization and even chose to publish the chapters about the erotic quality of modesty.

With this in mind, and with Mr.

Pomerantz ever the gentleman, showing respect and boldness in allowing me to challenge the magazine’s central “entertainment for men” model, I agreed to write an article about the three laws of lust, culled from the Bible’s Song of Solomon and based on my upcoming book Kosher Lust, to be published in November.

In my article I discuss the centrality of desire to relationships and how mystery and unavailability, as opposed to nakedness and explicitness, is the very soul of carnal lust. But just as nudity represents one extreme in deadening eroticism, religious discomfort with lust in marriage represents an equally destructive extreme.

An example is an article recently sent to me by a friend that appeared on, an outstanding and comprehensive website I use for daily study. The article, entitled “The Jewish Take on Lust,” was prompted by an inquiry from a reader raised as a Christian and who, believing Christianity is hostile to lust and erotic urges, asked a rabbi whether the position (no pun intended) of Judaism was similar.

The rabbi states plainly that in Judaic thought “[we are expected to] muster enough inner fortitude to overcome our bodily drives” and “overpower [lustful desires] when they arise.” And how is a man or woman expected to suppress or ignore erotic lust? The general solution the rabbi proposes is to adopt his comprehensive system of vigilant deprivation coupled with raw distraction as tools in man’s service of the Creator. “An empty mind is a blank screen waiting to reflect a fleeting lustful thought or image. So we study the Torah daily, and by doing so, we beef up our spiritual immune system.”

Attitudes like these make me feel bad for Jewish wives the world over.

Is there any woman reading this that doesn’t want her husband to lust after her? Is there any woman who would prefer that, when her husband feels erotic yearning for her, he quench it with a healthy dose of Torah study? Is it any wonder that mindless advice of this nature so often backfires, leading otherwise pious and devout individuals toward ever more egregious sexual sins rather than quenching the rightful desire for a lustful life with a fiery and passionate marriage? Libraries of nonsense have been written about religion wanting to repress rather than focus our sexuality. So let’s be clear. Suppression is no means of preserving our awareness of a higher calling. The outlook of Judaism, let alone a century of medical and psychological research, is that stifling our innate sexuality is at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. Moreover, the Jewish position on lust is emphatically the opposite: lust is a beautiful and sacred gift from on high, intended to be used in our lives to make the world a holier place. Erotic love is not something to be unduly restrained but to enjoy with a partner grafted on to us in the bond of marriage.

Indeed, whereas other religions emphasize human love for God, the very heart of the Kabbala is that the soul seeks unrequited ecstasy in its emphatic lust for God.

The tenth commandment is clear: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” which means, by direct implication, you ought to be coveting your own. About 80 percent of husbands who cheat on their wives claim to love them. But lust for another woman has trumped that love. Lust is, quite simply, much stronger than love. So why aren’t we using this powerful tool in our marriages, letting it serve as a reinforcement for couples who are deeply committed to each other? Why do so many well-meaning religious teachers mislead the public into believing lustful tendencies are a force that should be denied rather than channeled to our spouse? I maintain that Jewish observances of periodic distance and marital sinfulness – the idea that one’s spouse becomes forbidden for a period each month – are specifically designed to increase a man’s lust and sexual appetite for his wife and a wife’s craving for her man. To live in a marriage without strong desire is to be incarcerated in an ossified institution. Lust is enhanced through an inability to attain the object of one’s longing. It’s where passion is magnified by the failure to satiate one’s yearning.

And it’s the reason why the Torah makes a wife sexually unavailable to her husband every month (laws of Niddah) so that sexual hunger can intensify.

But it’s also true of every other area of life. The fare in every fast-food restaurant always tastes bad. The reason: nobody makes you wait for it. But in an upscale restaurant they purposely delay your food, even if you ordered the ready-made special of the day, because appetite is enhanced through denial.

Furthermore, lust is enhanced in darkness and shadows. Ironically, the more the body is covered the more one lusts after it. The most boring place on earth is a nudist colony, because it leaves nothing to the imagination.

Once a woman is overexposed, men lose interest. The element of modesty in a relationship is crucial because it acts as a electrifying mechanism of mystery.

Many complain that Judaism creates prudish, sexual taboos in relationships.

But sexual taboos ironically increase lust. The success of applying the Torah’s laws of lust to one’s marriage and sex life leads to a relationship suffused with life, passion and erotic excitement.

The author, “America’s Rabbi,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.

His website is Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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