Sex and Holiness

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Holy Sex

Written by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus. Bat Sheva is the clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality in NY, a prolific author and an observant Jew. For more pieces by Bat Sheva, visit the Better Sex Blog.

Rated PGI was speaking to a group of rabbinical students yesterday, and after the talk I was challenged by a young rabbi-to-be. He said that while I talked about sex being safe, consensual and fun, I had left out all references to it being “meaningful” or “holy.”

He was partially correct. I struggle with what it means to have sex be a “holy” experience, although I believe it can be one of the most transcendent and meaningful experiences one can ever have. I struggle because having been raised in a fairly religious environment, I saw firsthand how much damage can be done by putting the full weight of holiness on the experience. I struggle because I think that there can be moments of holiness in sex, but that trying to make every sexual experience “meaningful” is both unrealistic and a set up for failure. I struggle because while I think sex in a specific context (within a committed relationship for example) is in and of itself a holy act, I am not at all sure exactly what that means for the action of sex itself.

In truth, when he was talking about holiness, he was arguing using language that I would define as “mutual.” Sex should not be a selfish act; it should not be all about one person’s pleasure but about considering the other person in the equation. And I agree whole-heartedly, but I’m just not sure that ultimately defines “holiness”.

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  • This makes me think about Shabbat – another example where holiness is an important element but not the only one. Shabbat is also about rest, family and community – as well as gathering yourself after one week in preparation for the next. It’s the same with sex. It’s good to have all the elements available in your sexual catalogue but every time is different (or it should be) so that on some occasions we have more of one element while at other times, more of another. Frankly, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if every time my husband and I had sex the over-riding energy was one of holiness. It’s gotta be fun and naughty at least some of the times, no?

  • Sender Rozesz

    To add to Shosha’s point, I have the same complicated relationship with Israel – the “Holy” Land. Going to Israel used to be an intense experience for me. I psyched myself into the fact that I was going to the Holy Land, in which I must be on my best behavior, dotting all of my ‘i’s and crossing all of my ‘t’s. I would say more Tehillim while I was in Israel than the whole rest of the year back at home in the U.S, combined. And how could i be in the Holy Land without making a point of visiting all of the holy biblical gravesites, and the Kotel at least several times.

    And when I’d finally leave, I would exhale, and allow myself to slowly relax; the spiritual pressure to be in a constant state of “holiness” would finally be relieved. Now I could finally release the rest of me – all of those “unholy” parts – from the box that I had locked them in during my stay, and let them flow back into me as I returned to America.

    Ultimately, I realized that this is an extraordinarily narrow and truncated view of holiness.

    Jews are a holy people – with all of their seeming mundanities. On some days – such as Yom Kippur – our holiness takes a more concentrated and focused form – but that doesn’t make us less holy on the rest of the days of the year. Our holiness is embracing enough to capture all that is us: the spiritual, the physical, the mental and the emotional.

    Israel is a holy land – with all of its complicated character. It is holy at the Kotel, and it is holy in the cafe. It is holy at the Ma’arat Hamachpelah, and it is holy at the beach. It is not a holiness that demands an artificial restriction of oneself; it is a holy land that fully embraces the holy people to whom it belongs. It wants us to pray and study in it, and it wants us to relax and make merry in it. Once I realized this, my relationship with Israel was transformed from an intense and stressful experience into an enjoyable and *real* experience; I can now actually enjoy being there, and for the first time, I find that I can even consider moving there, living there.

    I believe that the holiness of sex is much the same, and your essay hits the nail on the head. Sex is holy whether it is on Friday night, on mikvah night, or any other random time. There are different shades to that holiness, of course (50 shades, perhaps?), depending upon the time, our frame of mind, our purpose. Just because we don’t always *feel* that it is holy, doesn’t make it less holy; at the same time, when our intentions are pure, then we inject a subjective holiness into an act that is already objectively holy. That *feels* more holy, and is important at times, but it in no way detracts from the inherent holiness of our more “mundane” sexual activity.

    Does that make sense?