Sex and the covenant

Former Hollywood writer, Kabbalist Tzvi Fishman on family purity.

tzvi fishman 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
tzvi fishman 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'It was only when I met Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi that I realized it wasn't enough to live in the Holy Land," says author and blogger Tzvi Fishman. "You have to live here in a holy fashion, as well." For Fishman, a veteran ba'al tshuva [a secular Jew who became observant] from the United States, this means being ultra-stringent where sexuality is concerned. "Modesty is terribly important for us," says the former screenwriter - best known for his 1974 film, Law and Disorder, starring Ernest Borgnine and Carroll O'Connor. This might sound peculiar coming from someone who lived a "hedonistic and bohemian life" in California, with "lots of money, a nice sports car, glamorous friends, an apartment by the beach in Santa Monica and evenings spent hitting all the best discos." But that was before Kenneth Harris Fishman had an epiphany which cured a severe case of ulcerated colitis, and put him on a plane to Israel. That was before the Reform Jew, who celebrated his bar mitzva in a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, discovered the Torah and the Kabbalah. That was before the young hotshot, who had an early "rise up the ladder of success," came to attribute his "emptiness" to something other than "external acquisitions and ephemeral achievements." Today, the 57-year-old father of seven - who met his Israeli wife through a shidduch [match] while he was undergoing his transformation to Orthodoxy - talks about those years with the distance of a story-teller. Which is what Fishman has always been, after all - though he refers to a Dell novel he published in his previous incarnation as "junk." Since then, the winner of the Israel Education Ministry's "Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity" has authored and co-authored several other works, among them The Kuzari for Young Readers, Tuvia in the Promised Land, four commentaries on the writings of Rabbi Kook and his most recent book, Secret of the Brit: Torah, Kabbalah, and Sex. But his main focus these days is his Web site, Inspired by and with the blessing of his mentor, Rabbi Levi - whom he refers to as a "true Kabbalist" - the site delves into the subject of its title with the kind of detail some surfers might consider more prurient than pure. This is particularly ironic, since a main target of Fishman's campaign is pornography. He has a forum where people can share their problems and experiences, and even provides a 12-step Torah program, similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, for what he claims is a growing population of Internet "pornoholics." Asked whether the graphic descriptions of forbidden acts might not have the opposite of the intended effect, Fishman admits that it's problematic. "The rabbis have always warned that such things should be discussed with discretion," he acknowledges. "That's one of the reasons the religious world rarely dealt with these issues, other than in private, one-on-one situations. That would have been fine if the world hadn't reached its current state, where everything is so exposed. So, are we going to continue to stick our heads in the sand? Or are we going to use the tools at our disposal to put out the fire - or at least to educate people of the dangers?" These "dangers," according to Fishman, include lustful thoughts - a big no-no, he asserts, adding, "Everybody falls down in the sexual arena. But the Torah and rabbis teach us ways to overcome. One of the ways to do this is to guard one's eyes - because the eyes see, the heart desires and the body acts." Indeed, throughout our hour-long interview, during which Fishman was unabashed in his articulation of the topic that makes most people blush, he avoided gazing at me directly. Your Web site's approach to sex sounds more haredi than that of other Kabbalists I've heard. How do you explain that? There are real Kabbalists and there are frauds. My Web site is inspired by Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi, who is the real thing. The Zohar [Book of Splendor] is extremely strict when it comes to sexual relations between a man and his wife. Again and again, it warns of the danger that can happen to the individual and the Jewish people as a whole if they are lax in their adherence to the brit, the covenant, and the laws of proper sexual behavior. Rabbi Levi found that when people adhere to the halacha laws governing sexuality, every aspect of their lives and the lives of their children improves. This is because the covenant between the Jewish people and God was sealed on the sexual organ - it is the brit mila. This is not only the term for circumcision. It also refers to the safeguarding of our sexual lives. This is the foundation of the Jewish people. It is what distinguishes us from all the other peoples of the world. We are supposed to be a holy nation, and that holiness is most represented by our staying away from forbidden sexual practices and relationships. The Torah is filled with stories of love and lust, not only those that serve as a warning. The greatest leaders - such as King David and King Solomon - were extremely promiscuous. How does this jibe with what you're saying? You have to distinguish between the Torah stories that speak about romantic love and those that speak about lust. A story that speaks about love in the romantic sense might be that of Jacob and Rachel. It illustrates a wonderful love and sense of destiny. And even though it's not a story in which everybody lives happily ever after, it is looked on in a very positive light. Whereas stories that concern lust are always followed by a punishment. For instance, when King Solomon went astray by taking foreign wives, his kingdom was divided and stripped from his sons. Also, when Yehuda's sons, Er and Onan, spilled their seed for their own personal pleasure, they were struck down from heaven. Both the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch consider masturbation one of the severest transgressions. Why is it considered such a transgression? Because the seminal fluid contains souls. Everybody has a soul, and that soul originates in the semen. Masturbation wastes those souls, by causing them to get scattered in the world, without the ability to find a proper home. Yet you also mention on your site that proper relations between husband and wife include those with a wife who is barren or post-menopausal. Why, in such cases, is the seminal fluid not being wasted? There is a spiritual world and a physical world. When a man has proper relations with his wife at the proper time when she's permitted to him, even if she's pregnant or barren, those souls are brought up into the spiritual world. They're recycled, so to speak. They go back to the maker and, according to the Kabbalah, eventually become the souls of converts to Judaism. Converts are given the souls that are brought into this world when a man has relations with a wife in the proper holy fashion, when she is incapable of conceiving. The only thing wasted in those cases is the physical water of the seminal fluid. Do you think that maybe God isn't being a little cruel to man by creating him as an extremely lustful being, and then putting all kinds of restraints and punishments on him for that? People experience all kinds of appetites, among them hunger. Yet, the only constraint for Jews is that their food must be kosher. Imagine if God made us hungry, yet forced us not to eat at all for long periods of time. Not even look at food. In other words, why treat natural instincts as though they are impure? I wouldn't use the word "cruel" - but it's certainly a test. There are a lot of tests in life. If you look at the parallel you made with food, for example, God created us with a desire to eat. For the Jewish people, he said that there are things we can eat and things we can't eat. In the same way, in the sexual sphere, there are times when people can have sex and a time when they can't. They must be married, for one thing. And certainly it's hard for a young man who doesn't have a wife and therefore doesn't have an outlet for his sexual energies. For thousands of years, Jewish people married very early. That was one way of dealing with the problem. In our times, when marriage is postponed, a great many problems arise. Would it be better to return to marrying earlier? After all, we are all biologically mature enough to have children at the age of about 13. Well, I don't necessarily think we have to return to the practice of getting married at age 13, but certainly boys and girls are ready physically and mentally to get married by the time they're 20 or 21. In the haredi world, they still get married at around 18-19. Your site focuses a lot on modesty. You say that when a woman is provocative, it is as though she is putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person. Can you really compare a man with free will to someone who can't see? I think you can, and not only in the area of attraction. That metaphor applies to any form of enticement to transgression. If you put a stack of $100 bills on a table and then walk away, you are creating a temptation for another person at that table to take at least some of the money. Everybody has impulses, some bad. Didn't you say that it is our test to resist those impulses? The person sitting at the table is being tested in his ability not to take the money; but the one who leaves it there also has the responsibility not to put others in that situation. It is God, not he, who is supposed to be doing the testing. So, a woman who dresses provocatively to attract a man's attention - knowing that men have lustful reactions when they see an attractive woman - is leading him to have fantasies. Then, when he goes home and has relations with his wife, he might fantasize about this other woman, and that cheapens his relationship with his wife. The other woman, then, is directly bringing about that problem. You mentioned King David. It says specifically both in the Bible and in the Psalms that right after his mishap with Batsheva, King David was punished. Their first child died and David was stricken with terrible diseases. He was bedridden. And he knew it was from transgression. Rabbi Levi said that if he had been on the rabbinical court at the time, he wouldn't have punished King David, because he was put through too great a test for any man. The story is that Batsheva was bathing on the rooftop when a wind came and blew off the curtain around her. That is what aroused his lust. Rabbi Levi says that a superman wouldn't have been able to withstand that, and that Batsheva should have been more careful to make sure that the sheet was secure against the wind. This is not to say that women today are to blame. They are part of the surrounding culture of the commercial, materialistic society we live in. Women want to be just as attractive as other women and as the sex goddesses in magazines and the movies. They're not doing it on purpose to entice men to transgress. But we all have to be aware of what our actions lead to. And throughout Jewish history, our rabbis warned us about guarding modesty. What about a wife's being provocative in order to seduce her husband? A woman is supposed to look attractive for her husband, but even that has to be within a framework. The rules of the marital union are that it should be conducted in darkness. Why? To emphasize the spiritual side of the relationship - to stress that the main thing between a husband and wife is love, not lust. Rabbi Levi describes a man having relations with his wife and saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you," but when he finishes, he rolls over and begins snoring, leaving her unsatisfied. So what happened to all of that love he just professed? The answer is that it wasn't love, but lust, and now that his lust is spent, he just wants to sleep. The Torah tells us that the marital act - one of the holiest in Judaism - should be based on real, spiritual love. So, if a woman bounces around in lingerie to entice her husband, and if their marital union is filled with lust, what's the difference between them and animals? That's why it should be conducted in darkness. Do you think most married couples who practice taharat hamishpaha [family purity] really adhere to the darkness rule? Only God knows. But the Talmud teaches that nothing good will come from having relations in a lighted room or during the day. You say many great men have been punished for their lust. Yet, just as many have suffered, in spite of obeying God's laws. Look, that's a major philosophical discussion that is too complex to get into here. But when a good person suffers, it's not a punishment. The suffering has come to elevate him to a higher spiritual level. Let's move on to your pet peeve: pornography. On your Web site, you have a program to help "pornoholics" kick their addiction. Surely you know about studies showing that the people most susceptible to a prurient interest in sex are those who hail from sexually repressive communities. Can you address that? I am not familiar with those studies, nor do I believe them. I don't think that a guy who is used to seeing women in bikinis is watching less pornography than one who lives in a repressed culture. Before I became religious, my living a hedonistic, bohemian life didn't lessen my interest in watching movies with sexual content. I know non-religious people who watch a lot of pornography, and I know religious people who do not. And I know that there are a great number of both who do watch a great deal of pornography on the Internet - especially young people who are at home while their parents are out. The Internet opens up the world to them, and if their parents have not installed a filter against explicit material, the kids are surfing away. How would you define pornography? If you say it is forbidden for a man even to look at women, your definition is probably different from mine. We only use the word "pornography" because that's the term used in the popular culture. The definition isn't important. The main thing is to understand what it says in the Torah: that a man shouldn't be driven by the lust of the heart and the eyes, which means that even looking at the lingerie department in Macy's is forbidden, because it arouses lust. While that might not be considered pornography in the eyes of Western society, from the Jewish point of view it's just as forbidden as hard-core porn. In that case, parents would have to filter just about every Web site there is - not to mention ads. Yes, it's a big problem. But there are filters and combinations of filters that help, even though a kid who's smart can get around them. One such filter, developed in Israel, is called "Rimon." Some filters block out all pictures. Most Orthodox families have problems with that, because sometimes at school, a homework assignment - say, on the tigers of India - requires photos from the Internet. That's one catch. Another is that a filter can block lingerie sites, yet still enable you to get into You-Tube. Let me play devil's advocate here. Your own Web site could be a source of titillation. It is all about sex after all, and quite explicit. Yes, that is a problem. The rabbis have always warned that such things should be discussed with discretion. That's one of the reasons the religious world rarely dealt with these issues, other than in private, one-on-one situations. That would have been fine if the world hadn't reached its current state, where everything is so exposed. So, are we going to continue to stick our heads in the sand? Or are we going to use the tools at our disposal to put out the fire - or at least to educate people of the dangers?