Sunday, August 17, 2008

Staying in the Haredi World is Good for Your Sex Life

Jewish Philosopher likes to argue that the reason why people leave Orthodox Judaism is because they have sexual desires which they are unable to pursue within the confines of Orthodox Judaism (See here and here). While one can challenge his generalizations about those who leave Orthodoxy, I would like to approach the issue from a different angle. While Jewish Philosopher’s arguments might have at least some grain of truth in many cases, this line of argument can also be turned around and used against those who remain within the Haredi world. One can make a very strong case that there are many people who remain within the Haredi world, in large part, because, by doing so, they are maximizing their opportunities for sex. This might sound counter-intuitive considering how constrictive Jewish law can be when it comes to sex. But consider that, while Orthodox Judaism strongly opposes pre-marital sex and is one of the few societies left in American culture in which there are real consequences for being caught fooling around, particularly for women, it is perfectly normal for Haredim to get married in their early twenties or even in their teens. Not only that but Haredim have a well-developed matchmaking system to help people get married.

In the spirit of Rodney Stark, who analyzes organized religions in terms of economics (People make religious choices based on their rational self-interest, and act so as to maximize their social resources.), I offer a curved model to describe one's sexual opportunities within Orthodox Judaism. We start with the Haredi world, in which one has a statistically high chance for sex. As we move toward the left one undergoes a statistical drop in one's opportunities for sex. This rises slightly once you get to the outer fringes of Modern Orthodoxy, where there is an increased tolerance for pre-marital sexual activity, and rises greatly once you get outside of Orthodox Judaism, where one is no longer beholden to Orthodox sexual mores.

While I do not have any hard statistics to back this theory up, it does confirm to my own anecdotal experience. To give two examples of this. Recently I got into a conversation with a Haredi woman about the television show the Tudors. I have not seen the show, but I was able to fill her in about sixteenth-century English history in general and Henry VIII in particular, which she was quite unfamiliar with. While her Haredi education left her ignorant of English history, it has not stopped her from watching television, even television shows that have graphic sexual content. In another conversation with a Haredi person, we shared our mutual love of Bernard Cornwell, a writer whose high adventure works of historical fiction are filled with blood, violence, and sex. I have previously listened to this person’s iPod, a banned object in his yeshiva, and found it full of secular music, much of it rap music with explicit lyrics.

I do not see these people as hypocrites for bending the rules and doing things that the Haredi world forbids. I would hope that this exposure to secular things, and the recognition of their own weaknesses will, in the long run, make them more tolerant and not lead them into becoming the sort of people who, due to their own insecurities about their lives, suspect everyone else and go around on witch-hunts to ferret out those who fail to live up to community standards. Their actions are not the momentary lapses of a people caught in the heat of the moment nor do they appear to be addicts. The only explanation left is that they are making fully rational decisions to go against Haredi norms; this must be viewed as part of an ideological disagreement. There is nothing wrong with this; it is perfectly normal for people to find the society that they best fit into and remain there despite minor disagreements.

My question to them, though, would be why they remain within the Haredi world. They could easily declare themselves to be Modern Orthodox and live exactly as they do now and no one would think twice about them. On the contrary, they would be viewed as deeply observant Jews. What have they gained by remaining in the Haredi world? Well, the girl, despite being a rebellious teenager, got married at the age of nineteen and now has several children. This past week I got to meet the boy’s fiancé. She is a cute little thing with the same name as a character from the musical Rent. That is not a bad deal for a young man in his early twenties.

(To be continued …)

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

After googling Rodney Stark, I can see that I would be one of his problem students if I ever had him as a professor. I do not know if in the year 2008, the policy of applying the laws of economics to people's choice of religion totally flys (although I can understand the logic).

I was not born or raised anything close to I will not even pretend to sympathize with feelings of the fear leaving the Haredi world along with the implications of that choice. I did grow up in a dual culture of sorts though. My Grandparents who raised me where super conservative and old-fashioned when it came to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (yeah, I couldn't even LOOK at boys, much less have one call the house!). My parents, who I had a good amount of contact with, were quite opposite. My father, being the conventional Jamaican man would have two (or more?) girlfriends simultaneously. My mother knows about more rap music than I ever knew existed really and would be visibly embarrassed by my clueless regarding the latest fashion trends and slang.

But in the end, it leaves me to wonder...what in the world is the big deal? Why is sex placed on this high pedestal? Is it the aura of mystery that surrounds sex or something? I am not trying to minimize the effects of very human, natural feelings. But I think that sex is dangerously glorified...even within the frum world.

I guess this is where the secular education comes in. The sexual experience involves many various ingredients, including physical involvement, psychological factors, personal libido and "talents", and chemical hormones thrown in the mix to keep things progressing. To think that all of those factors will be in tip-top condition -- as the movies and TV shows love to portray -- is so completely off base.

The definite advantage that the Haredim do have (and I'm not quite sure if they even see this) is that they find a mate earlier as opposed to later which helps with the psychological factor (most of the time) in regards to developing a life/identity which includes their spouse. The unfortunate flip-side is that you get Haredi singles, who when they reach the ages of 25 and older, start freaking out and just stagnate until they find their bershert. And woe be the dear Rivkle or Shmuley who stays single...

The labels on hashkafah may be black & white but we exist in an infinite spectrum of grays. As MO as I am, I can surely offer up my share of TV, sex, movies and surely explicit rap music (I would still need to hold onto the R&B and reggae however) to the lowest bidder. The main thing that concerns me is the needless guilt held by these haredim who secretly dip into these indulgences; as well as the let-down they may be in for if they discover that the coveted prize of losing their virginity earlier and within a proper timeframe was not really worth it in the end.