[Editor's Note: This is the fourth post in our Sex with the Rabbi series. Each column profiles one rabbi's response to an assortment of sexuality and Judaism-related questions. Rabbis from across the denominational spectrum are invited to participate. Our series kicked off with Rabbi Rachael Bregman of Atlanta, Georgia and continued with Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe of Austin, Texas and Rabbi Drew Kaplan of Long Beach, California.]
Bio: Rabbi Aaron Alexander is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (American Jewish University – Los Angeles) and Lecturer in Rabbinics and Jewish Law. He is a certified mashgiach (kosher supervisor) by the the Conservative Movement’s Rav Hamachshir program and currently serves on its Committee for Jewish Law and Standards. Most recently, Rabbi Alexander has been vigorously devoting his energy to ending the gun-violence epidemic our country faces. He traveled to Washington D.C. with the Pico National Network’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign, meeting with Vice President Biden’s task force on gun violence. Rabbi Alexander has also been widely publishing on how God, faith, and the Jewish tradition ought influence the current debate rustling throughout America.
What’s the most common sex-related question you get from your community members?
Is Sex before marriage forbidden by Jewish Law?
What story from the Torah do you think has the most to teach us about sexuality?
Actually, for me it is a rabbinic interpretation that speaks most eloquently to this question. Sex can be life-affirming and sacred or life-disrupting and sinful. The challenge is not letting sex become a tool for one’s attempt to wield power over another, physically or emotionally. This text speaks to that:
“Ramban (Nachmanides) The Holy Letter, Ch. 2″
And you can understand the secret of the cherubs from that which is said,“the voice [of God] is heard between them.” Know that our Sages said that when spouses bond together the Shekhinah (presence of God) rests between them. When they heat up, the Shekhinah leaves them. This is like what we read in Tractate Sotah in the Talmud; Rabbi Akiva explained: two people in love, if they act well, the Shekhinah is between them; if they do not act well, fire will eat them. The explanation of all this is that when a couple bonds in holiness, then the Shekhinah is with them…But if they do not intend a holy bond, rather just to fulfill their selfish desires, from the desire and the coveting they heat up like fire. And understand this for it is the entire secret.”
(This isn’t to say desire shouldn’t be a part of a healthy sexual relationship. Certainly it is and ought be. But if desire isn’t accompanied by respect and honor for the other, people get hurt. Too often seriously.)
What’s the best way to keep a relationship vibrant?
Not losing one’s self to the other. The goal, as Dr. Erich Fromm puts it, is: “From this it follows that my own self must be as much an object of my love as another person. The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e., in care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. If an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all.”
What do you think is the biggest sexuality-related problem for the Jewish community right now?
Inclusion, acceptance, and love for the transgender community.
What’s your favorite Jewish book on sexuality?
The Passionate Torah by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Wild card: You choose a question or thought to share.
My favorite rabbinic text on sex as a authentic expression of Torah and Judaism:
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, 62aRav Cahana went to the home of Rav and lay down under his bed. [Rav Cahana] heard [Rav] talk, laugh, and “do his needs” (engage in sexual intercourse with his wife). Rav Cahana said to himself, “Is the mouth of my teacher like one who has never before tasted food?!!” Rav, [suddenly aware of Rav Cahana's presence] said, “Cahana! Are you here!? Get out!! This is not proper behavior!!” Rav Cahana replied, “This too is Torah, which I need to learn.”"