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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, and Music is Female.
The relationship between sex and purity can be, literally, a sticky one.
In this week’s Torah portion there is an interesting verse – not even a verse really, but several words – particularly worthy of being added to our ongoing discussion about sexuality.
After hundreds of years of slavery and exile, the Israelites have finally been freed from Egypt, and have witnessed the demise of their former masters at the banks of the Red Sea. They have been told by Moses that their first major stop on their itinerary is Mount Sinai, where they and G-d will be formally introduced. Thus far, G-d has appeared through Moses, and has performed miracles using the instrument of Moses’s or Aaron’s staff of hand. Now, however, He will address His people directly, and provide them with their lifelong mission and destiny, gifting them with knowledge and insight of His will by the giving of the Torah. It is to be (and indeed was) a monumental moment that would reverberate throughout all of time and in all places. Such a moment required careful preparation.
How does one prepare for a moment as fateful as this? Well, in addition to the 49 days that the Israelites spent preparing themselves mentally and emotionally for this new stage in their existence, three days before the giving of the Torah
…the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai.”
So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, “Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman.”
Exodus, 19:10-11, 14-15.
Do not go near a woman? Why ever not?
Clearly, “going near a woman” is a euphemism for sex – something on which all of the commentaries agree. But why would sexual abstinence be an appropriate means of preparing to encounter the divine? In fact, as Kabbalah makes clear, few things are as divine as sexuality, which is a reflection of the spiritual unions that occur on high. In her book Repetition, Dr. Doris Eliana Cohen, PhD, argues that the human orgasm is an entirely transcendent and spiritual experience. Indeed, sex is described as the ultimate threesome: man, woman and G-d, who blesses the union and facilitates conception. So why wouldn’t sex be an appropriate preparation for our meeting with G-d? Why not sex?
Interestingly, the commentaries appear to agree that it relates not so much to sex itself as it does to the fecundity of sex; the fluids that result from sexual activity. Semen in particular. The basic principal is this: contact with semen renders someone spiritually impure.
Rashi therefore explains that the reason that the Israelites could not have sex for three days, is because semen lasts for up to three days. If a woman has had sex and immerses herself in water, she will be pure – but if any semen trickles out of her after her immersion, it will render her impure once again. After three days, however, semen is no longer capable of fertilization, and therefore ceases to be something that can cause impurity. So separating for three days was designed to ensure the woman’s purity.
A man from whom there is a discharge of semen, shall immerse all his flesh in water, and he shall remain unclean until evening…A woman with whom a man cohabits, whereby there was [a discharge of] semen, they shall immerse in water, and they shall remain unclean until evening.
Men, on the other hand, could simply immerse themselves after sexual intercourse, and they would regain their purity that very evening. (Men have it so easy!) Technically, then, in order to ensure his purity on a given day, a man would only need to avoid sex on that day. This explains why the instructions were “do not go near a woman”; because sex during the three-day period may not create problems for a man’s purity at the end of that period, but it could complicate a woman’s. So leave the women alone; don’t complicate their preparations.
The Talmud, however, suggests that Moses himself saw the three-day period of abstinence as an indication of how much distance even a man must place between spiritual impurity and an encounter with the divine. In Tractate Shabbos (87a) it states that Moses reasoned as follows: If the other Israelites, who G-d addressed directly only once, were required to be abstinent for three days in preparation, I, whom G-d addresses on a regular basis, should certainly be abstinent! And so Moses separated from his wife from that day forward.
Later in the Torah (Numbers, 12:1-4), Miriam is found criticizing Moses to her brother Aaron for his lack of family life. When He heard this, “the Lord suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!'”
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains why G-d acted so suddenly: “He revealed Himself to them suddenly, when they were ritually unclean following marital relations, and they cried, ‘Water, water!’ He thus showed them that Moses had done right in separating from his wife, since the Divine Presence revealed itself to him frequently, and there was no set time for Divine communication.”
From here, too, we see that it was not sex itself that was incompatible with Divine revelation, so much as it was the ritual uncleanliness resulting from the emission and contact with semen.
So why does semen, that life-giving protein-filled fluid, get the bad rap of causing ritual impurity? Let us leave that discussion for a later column.
But at least it’s not sex.