Sexual Addiction

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing 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.

I was recently engaged in a discussion with someone regarding sexual addiction. Within the field of psychology, it is not at all settled that sexual addiction is actually a thing, with experts disagreeing on whether calling excessive sexual behavior an addiction is beneficial or harmful. For example, in his controversial 2012 book, The Myth of Sex Addiction, psychologist David Ley challenges the appropriateness and use of the sexual addiction label.

It’s not a distinction without difference. Some have argued that referring to sexual “acting out” as an addiction permits a person to abdicate one’s personal responsibility for his or her actions. After all, what’s an addict to do?

But there’s also the question of treatment.

The approach to addiction is not the same as the approach to other disorders. For example, recovering addicts don’t ever return to a balanced relationship with the subjects of their addiction. Former alcoholics don’t go back to drinking in moderation; recovering drug users don’t smoke a joint every now and then. They know that they are vulnerable and at-risk with respect to particular substance or behavior, and, knowing that, they avoid it like the plague. No drinks. No puffs.

Does that work with sex though? If sex is an addiction, can celibacy be the answer? Must a sexual addict entirely withdraw from society, from marriage, from reproduction?

So it matters how we treat excessive sexual behavior.

The famous biblical commentator Or Hachaim draws some powerful conclusions about human sexuality — and G-d’s expectations of the Jewish people — from this week’s double-Parshah, Acharei-Kedoshim.[1]

This week’s Parshah is, of course, perhaps the most contemporarily famous of all. When people refer to “Leviticus,” chances are that they are referring this week’s Parshah, which contains all of the sexual prohibitions and their punishments.

However, in introducing these prohibitions, the Torah first states as follows:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: I am the Lord, your God. Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. You shall fulfill My ordinances and guard My statutes, to follow them. I am the Lord, your God. You shall guard My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.[2]

Why, Or Hachaim asks, does G-d keep saying “I am the Lord”? Why does He refer to the practices of Egypt and Cana’an — why not just prohibit the acts that He wants to prohibit without reference to a particular country? And why does He add the apparently superfluous words, “Egypt, in which you dwelled,” and Cana’an, to which I am bringing you”? Surely, the Israelites had not forgotten the land that they had just left, and were not unaware of the land to which G-d was leading them? And finally, why does the Torah keep reiterating that “you shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes”?

Or Hachaim explains as follows:

There is a fundamental difference between all of G-d’s other commandments and those designed to curb our sexual  behavior. All other commandments are within a person’s ready control: if one simply chooses to observe the commandment, and firmly commits himself to fulfilling it, he will succeed.

Sexual temptation, on the other hand, is so powerful as to be virtually irresistible — unless a person gains mastery over two things: his thoughts, and his eyes. And he has to master both — one alone will not be sufficient. Stories abound in the Talmud of pious sages who, despite maintaining firm control over their thoughts, nevertheless nearly came undone when they were confronted with an overly-tantalizing visual. Conversely, even blindness will not allow a person to escape sexual temptation if he has an active sexual imagination. One must have constant and rigid control over both what he thinks and what he sees. If he loses control over just one, and certainly over both — and it goes without saying, if he has actually tasted this sin before — then sexual impulses become nearly impossible to overcome.

G-d acknowledged these incredible difficulties by referring to “Egypt, in which you dwelled,” and “Cana’an, to which I am bringing you.” The Jewish people were forged in a place I which there was a constant visual and cultural onslaught of sexual excess and temptation. And G-d was taking them to a place in which that sexual barrage would be even worse. It would be impossible to close their eyes to sexual temptation.

So how, then, are they expected to gain mastery over their sexual impulses?

It can only be done, G-d says, by strengthening one’s spiritual connection with the Divine; by cultivating a constant and conscious link with G-d Himself; and by developing a constant awareness that “I am the Lord, your G-d.” Our link with the Divine is what tethers us to something higher, that transcends the world of flesh and temptation; it is a harness that doesn’t permit us to sink or succumb to our natural vulnerabilities.

This absolute necessity of a maintaining a G-dly link is not, by any means, exclusive to the sexual domain. We have seen within the past 100 years how even the most “civilized” of nations, who undoubtedly appreciated the social wisdom and necessity of a rule prohibited murder, could nevertheless rationalize genocide. So long as morality remains a solely human endeavor, such distortions are possible. This is why Maimonides insists that the seven Noahide laws are an effective tool of civilization, “only when [a gentile] accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us through Moses, our teacher, that Noah’s descendants had been commanded to fulfill them previously. However, if he fulfills them [merely] out of  intellectual conviction, he is not…of ‘the pious among the gentiles,’ nor of their wise men.”[3]

But that’s really hard — especially in an era of religious skepticism and agnosticism! And it doesn’t help that G-d is invisible, and tends to work behind the scenes nowadays. He hasn’t split a sea in thousands of years!  As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once famously complained: “G-d, had You put temptation on a dusty shelf, and the Torah right before our eyes, things would have been very different. But when You put the Torah on a dusty shelf and temptation right before our eyes, what can you expect of Your children?”

And it’s not as though a connection with G-d is alone sufficient; after all there is no shortage of spiritual and/or religious Jews that get caught in the snares of sexual excess. As sincere as they may be in their beliefs and religious practice, their connection to G-d does not necessarily prevent their lapse of judgment.

So would it not be better, a person may ask, for me to completely withdraw from sexuality? Close my eyes to temptation, unplug the internet, move to a place with no billboards or magazines, and live a life of isolated celibacy? No marital sex. No reproduction. If there is a mitzvah involving sex, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to count me out. After all, does it not state in the Talmud that “Man has a small organ which satisfies him when he starves it, and makes him hungry when he satisfies it”?[4] What I need then, is to starve my libido and sexual urges, and in this way, I will be satisfied and not lose myself to sin. No?

No.

G-d says: Just as I want you to “guard my statutes” — to refrain from forbidden sexual relationships — so too do I command you to “fulfill my ordinances.” And that means sex. Lots of it. But with the right people, and at the right time. You don’t get to cop out by withdrawing to a life of self-denial and asceticism. It’s not all or nothing. It may be asking a lot, but “I am the Lord,” and I want you to be sexually active and to nevertheless resist the temptation to do something that I have forbidden. Do your best.

This rejection of the all-or nothing approach is echoed in a Talmudic anecdote that we previously discussed here. The gist of it is that, at some point, the Jewish leadership felt like it was a propitious time to beseech G-d to rid us entirely of our sexual lust. So they prayed and, sure enough, the evil inclination for sexual lust was delivered into their hands.

They imprisoned it for three days.

However, they suddenly found that they were unable to find any newly-laid eggs throughout the whole of Israel — and they realized the implications. The very same sexual urges responsible for forbidden sex are also responsible for ordinary and necessary sexual desire, without which reproduction and marriage would come to a screeching halt, and the world as we know it would cease to exist. Thus, there is no way to isolate the sexual desire for only excessive sexual behavior — and getting rid of sex altogether is not an option.

So the answer, according to Or Hachaim, is that resisting sexual temptation is exceedingly difficult; nevertheless, it is possible, when a person is uplifted with a vibrant connection to the Divine. Celibacy is not the answer, nor is living as an island hermit. Finally, one must always remember that G-d is aware of the struggle, and His message is:

“Think of Me, and do your best.”

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] See Or Hachaim, Leviticus, 18:2,4.

[2] Leviticus, 18:2-5.

[3] Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Melachim uMilchamot, 8:11.

[4] Babylonia Talmud, Sukkah, 52b.