Hasidic Attitudes Towards Sexuality


One cannot hope to understand the Hasidic attitude towards sexuality, unless one places it within the wider context of the Hasidic world view. I would like to make it clear from the start that I am no expert in Hasidism, nor indeed am I a Hasid. The only qualifications that enable me to tackle this work are rather nebulous. I have, over the years, been blessed with the good fortune of having made some friendships with certain Hasids and their families, and in the way that one thing leads to another, my interest in them deepened. I then decided to offer a psychological service to the Hasidic community. My main role there is as adviser to four Hasidic schools, two for boys and two for girls. It follows that my views will be affected by my role and function in the community.

This paper touches on three aspects: The first part is concerned with my understanding of the Hasidic community; in the second part, I will explore the Jewish ideal of sexuality; finally, in the last part, I will look at how these apply in the daily life of the Hasidic community.

While the identity of the secular Western person is composed of a multitude of streams that reflect the complexity and contradictions of the society in which we live, the Hasidic identity is radically different. It depends on tightly knit communities which comprise a different world. In London, this world is called Stamford Hill. This is a place where Jewish Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups converge. They all live together, yet separated by their own regional identities. There are numerous Hasidic groups like the Belz, the Bobov, the Satmar, the Gur, the Ritzhin, the Yerushalmi, and the Lubavitch. Their names indicate where each of these groups originated from, which was usually some small town in Eastern Europe or Russia. In the unfolding of history, the Jewish communities in this part of the world were forced to emigrate, and were scattered around the globe. In spite of this, the Hasids managed to hold on to their regional identities, and endeavored to keep their traditions alive.

What is a Hasid? I will quote at some length a definition given by Simon Glustrom in his book. The Language of Judaism, which I found quite enlightening:

"Hasid - a pious man. Coming from the word Hesed (lovingkindness), the Hasid was most highly regarded in the Jewish tradition. If any word in Hebrew approximates the word saint, it is the Hasid. He is placed on an even higher scale of virtue than the Tzaddik - the righteous man - because of his godly nature.... Unlike the man who seeks merely to observe the law, the Hasid is anxious to go beyond the requirements of the law. He does not wait until he is asked to perform a mitzvah. He says, 'Mine is thine, and thine is thine.' He is hard to anger and easy to pacify.

"In time, the term Hasid, like Tzaddik, came to be associated with a sect of Jews. Their way of life was called Hasidism. The Hasidim in some ways patterned their lives after the original type of Hasid. They too prayed with deep religious fervor, not confining their prayers to appointed times. Among their devotees, they encouraged humility and love for all God's creation. They often went beyond the confines of religious law to experience an extra measure of spirituality. As their movement became more highly developed, however, their mystical beliefs, their emphasis on miracles, their unquestioning devotion to their leadership, created a different emphasis, far removed from the way of life espoused by the original Hasid.

"With all the luxuries and pleasures that are offered to modern man, and with the secular demands that require his attention, it becomes exceedingly difficult to pattern one's life in the image of the original Hasid. Yet, one cannot help but admire his religious devotion, and appreciate his spiritual goals. Even if this generation of Jews can keep a vivid picture of the Hasid in mind as it deals with its own day-to-day problems, and if it learns the value of self-control or goes beyond the requirements of the law in its religious enthusiasm, it shall have paid lasting tribute to the Hasid in Jewish tradition."

The question that arises is how Hasids manage to retain their identity in the modern society. Many do it by insulating themselves from the wider world as much as possible. This insularity was best explained to me by a perceptive Hasid: "The communities are like delicate tropical plants; in order to survive in this climate, they have to live in a glass house. God forbid that anyone should start throwing stones!" However, it is important to understand that the Hasidic communities have an international dimension, because they are in touch with other Hasidic communities in other parts of the world, and they often support each other in a variety of ways.

This will suffice as a good background. In discussing the Jewish ideal of sexuality, it is useful to consider the words of Rabbi Hershel: "Life passes on in proximity to the sacred, and it is this proximity that endows existence with its ultimate significance. In our relationship to the immediate, we touch upon the most distant. Even the satisfaction of physical needs can be a sacred act. Perhaps the essential message of Judaism is that in doing the finite we might perceive the infinite."

In the Hasidic world, sexuality is perceived as sacred and conceived of in the context of marriage, and with the possibility of procreation. Then in essence it is never separate from a spiritual dimension which always includes God's will. This concept not only represents an ideal in the community; it is also part of the collective psyche.

This could well differ from a purely secular consciousness where either no spiritual dimension is present or there is a wavering between the two polarities.

These quite profound differences create different types of conflict and have significant implications when we come to understand how a society organizes itself. In a purely secular consciousness, the concept of sexuality may be studied and understood from a variety of points of view, but if the concept is a sacred one, all other points of view must be subsumed under the sacred or spiritual one which joins man to God.

This brings me back to Rabbi Herschel's view that life passes on in proximity to the sacred. If, as he says, this proximity endows existence with ultimate significance, it follows that it also endows sexuality with its ultimate significance.

Here the Zohar provides some explanation of the idea that sexuality expresses a mystery which is referred to by Gershom Scholem in the book, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: "In so far as the Zohar shows a positive attitude towards the function of sexual life, within the limits ordained by divine law, it may be said to represent a genuine Jewish outlook. Chastity is indeed one of the highest moral values in Judaism: Joseph, who by his chastity has 'upheld the covenant' is regarded by the Midrash and the Kabbalah as the prototype of the righteous man, the true Tzaddik. But at no time was sexual asceticism accorded the dignity of religious value, and the mystics make no exception. Too deeply was the first commandment of the Torah, 'Be fruitful and multiply' impressed upon their minds."

This injunction to procreate is understood as a commandment to be carried out, and has a particular poignancy for the post-War Jewish consciousness, a poignancy which is never far from the Hasid's mind. This sexuality connotes not only a biological function, or the union between man and wife which reflects the union between the King and the Shekhinah, but it also fulfils a commandment. This is why asceticism is not an ideal within Judaism and the Hasid shares this view. Thus, within lawful limits, the attitude to sexuality is a positive one for the Hasid. Sexuality is therefore understood as an expression of love, a reflection of the divine, a union by which means a commandment can be fulfilled.

Those who hold a purely secular view can argue about the truth value of the sacred view and vice versa. In this work, I am more concerned to understand how these concepts are experienced by the individual and his community.

In the next section, I would like to highlight aspects of the sexual ideals in Jewish law which Hasids take seriously, and which they try to live up to. I will discuss briefly the education of boys and girls, the meeting process known as shidduch, and the onah or time of conjugality between man and wife.

Boys and girls are separated into single sex schools from the earliest age, and their education is not exactly parallel. The teachers and parents form part of a close-knit community; consensus is considerable, and the educational styles of the schools place the main emphasis on religious education. What a man is, what a woman is, and their duties and responsibilities towards each other, towards the children they may raise and towards the community, are central to this type of education.

Just as boys and girls are protected from the earliest age from contact with each other except in a family context, children are also protected from the influence of television. The male and female ideals currently present in our society do not form part of their world of meaning.

It may come as a surprise to some to discover that while material success is not rated very highly, sexual success in the sense of conjugal happiness and mutual satisfaction is highly valued. Hasidim have clear ideas about providing the best facilitating framework for this to take place

As a first step, I would like to discuss the initial painstaking efforts that precede the first meeting of a young man and a young woman, which is part of the process of shidduch. A girl is considered of marriageable age from about 18 or 19. A boy is thought to be ready for marriage by the age of 22 or 23. At this stage it is likely that the girl will have completed 2 years of study at a girls' seminar, and the boy will have completed about 6 years of Yeshiva education.

Parents may choose to go to a match-maker, whose success is partly dependent on his extensive first-hand knowledge of the young people of the community. The role of matchmaker can be either a formally recognised one or a more informal one. Depending on what the family values are, extensive preliminary enquiries are made into the prospective partner's family, character, vocation, habits, capacity for study or material circumstances. The fact that transatlantic matches are often made is a reflection of the fact that young people in these communities travel far more widely than is generally realised, and often carry out their post-secondary school studies abroad, in countries such as France, Australia, the United States, Canada, etc.

The reticence which has been cultivated regarding the opposite sex also means that young men and women are usually strangers when they first meet. The preliminary enquiries are crucial because they serve to prevent embarrassing objections which may arise, once a face to face encounter has taken place between the young couple.

The first meeting is a highly charged affair. This is due to the fact that in principle both should be ready to choose each other for marriage. Meetings prior to a decision are comparatively few, perhaps two or three. The young people do not engage in any physical contact; instead, they actually interview each other quite thoroughly. Despite these strictures, as one rabbi put it, "The enquiries are for history, the meetings for chemistry".

Once the decision has been made, an engagement takes place in the presence of their families and friends. It is thought advisable that the marriage should take place soon after this, preferably within about 3 months. During this time, the young people are encouraged to meet and to continue to get to know each other, while maintaining the ideals of modesty which preclude physical contact. In all cases, the head is supposed to rule the heart. When the young people marry, they are expected to have a period of time together, and the young man does not go to work at this stage. Both partners would have received instruction as to their sexual duties and responsibilities.

This leads to a consideration of the concept of Onah, the lawful time of conjugality, when sexual communication is positively encouraged. Viewed in the simplest way, according to Jewish law, having sexual relations (within the right framework) is considered to be a woman's right and a man's duty. Sexual enjoyment and satisfaction are valued highly within this context. This is why it is said that when a man and his wife engage in a lawful sexual act, the Shekhinah is with them. The Shekhinah is understood as the Divine Presence, and thus the sexual act becomes holy. Husband and wife are enjoined to procreate, to enjoy each other, and to strive for each other's enjoyment.

It is a fact that people often fall short of this ideal. Equally, everyone in the community has a friend who acts as a counsellor or Mashpiah. Any problem can be discussed with the Mashpiah. This is an indication of the great care that is taken to try to uphold particular values in the community.

According to Jewish law, sexual relations between a man and his wife alternate between periods of abstinence and periods of conjugal intimacy. A five day period of the menstrual cycle followed by a seven day period of further abstinence ends when the woman goes to the ritual bath, the Mikveh. The time of conjugal intimacy is then allowed until the onset of the woman's next menstrual cycle, when the period of abstinence begins again. It may be that relatively few studies exist within the broader scientific community of the advantages or disadvantages of this pattern. However, no such study could be concluded without evaluating the ethics and ideals of the community in question. My point here is that it is not only a matter of examining what one might call the conditioning of the community; the vantage point from which an enquiry is conducted is also subject to conditioning, and this conditioning may take a different form.

By conditioning, I am referring to the assumptions which are present in every society, and which are the result of particular belief systems. As an example, Western economics rely on an assumption of growth as an aim in itself, and this is leading to destructive impacts on the environment. The belief in the desirability of growth is in conflict here with the ethical ideal of conservation.

When an investigator examines a community with a value system different from his own, he is not entirely objective because he too relies on assumptions which are part of his own conditioning. Currently in Western society, the provider / customer model has led to considerations of educational and medical providers and their customers who 'consume' certain services. The relationship between a teacher and a student is much more than a provider / customer relationship in societies as yet unaffected by this model. The teacher has responsibility for the transmission of values and tries to help the student develop his character. He does not merely provide facts and information.

This model also affects our understanding of sexuality in subtle ways. If we care to view ourselves primarily as providers and customers, then we begin to think of sex as an end in itself, an item we have to get. We may develop the idea that we have to shop around for the best sex. Current preoccupations such as the multiple orgasm widely discussed in popular literature are a reflection of this tendency. Quality is reduced to quantity. There are communities with a different world view where this type of preoccupation is not an issue. This is why it is important that the investigator should become aware of the assumptions he has incorporated which are the result of his own belief system. This belief system, in turn, is a product of the society in which he lives.

Too often psychotherapeutic practitioners observe the casualties: those who are considered deviants in the communities. While it is fair to say that certain problems can be understood in considerable depth, simply because we all share the same condition of being human (e.g. fears of sexual inadequacy, personality shortcomings which have a bearing on our sexual behaviour), no adequate counselling can take place without a sufficient awareness of the person's cultural, ethical and religious background. It is important to discover whether there are shared concepts which can act as a common language between those within and without the community. This in turn becomes a door through which a deeper mutual understanding is attained.

I have considered briefly the role of the psychotherapeutic practitioner, because my own experience has led me to a deeper consideration of these issues. In a more secular environment, we may view ourselves as functioning in a freer system with a wide range of choices as to styles, values and ideals. Thus close-knit communities such as the Hasids may appear to us as over-regulated, or even claustrophobic. Looking from the viewpoint of those within these communities, the more secular life outside is seen as fraught with dangers of too much choice and too little guidance. Society does not appear at present to be particularly stable, and the high divorce rate bears this out.

These facts suggest that much more thought should be given to those factors that contribute to good relationships, within which a balanced sexuality plays an important role. A purely instrumental view of sexuality does not seem to lead to sexual happiness.

I would like to conclude this paper with a brief consideration of some differences between religious and secular communities. The role of man and the role of woman are clearly defined in Hasidic communities, whereas in the broader secular world there is continual flux and an ongoing search for role models. For instance, these may be pop stars, sporting heroes, wealthy people or other 'successful' individuals. It is quite likely that the modern consciousness contains a number of conflicting role models simultaneously. While this allows for change, it also reflects a situation where people are unable to digest adequately the pace of change. Some resulting casualties are also seen by psychotherapists in their consulting rooms every day. As part of their own training, psychotherapists have had to struggle with precisely the same issues. Equally, they have not been devoid of guidance and their ideal remains a full and balanced sexuality which is an expression of mutual love and respect. In this there is a shared ideal and it can provide the basis for mutual understanding. I hope that the issues discussed here will enable others to pursue further enquiries.