Thursday, January 17, 2008

Shomer Follow-Up

I had forgotten the oh-so-sweet rush that comes from a blog posting- the sense of accomplishment when you look at the torrents of words that have somehow poured forth from your fingertips; the anticipation laced with a bit of anxiety as you wait to see how the world has accepted your offering; the thrill of joy each time you check and see that there is a comment, and the curious suspended excitement as you wait for the page to load. So addictive it is. Enough to stir me from my habitual torpor, actually having something useful to say be darned.

And from that unusually florid introduction onward:

I was talking to one of my roommates about my last post (She reads, apparently, but will not comment, thus necessitating actual verbal dialogue. The horror, the horror.) and we both attributed the shomer negiah phenomenon to reason #2 below: the gap with the values of society.

To elaborate: once upon a time, Jews lived largely among Christians or various ascetic sects and could generally go along with the idea that sex was- generally or entirely- bad. Of course, they realized that sex in marriage was a different story, but then again, so did the Christians and so everybody was happy and halacha developed along lines that fit everybody's values and that was that.

But nowadays, general society has massively different opinions on a number of different fronts. The first is that sex is pretty much alright when done for almost any reason or situation (barring a mutually accepted loveless marriage, which still is somehow very immoral.) The second- and more interesting- is that love justifies all. People in books, movies, real life will do unbelievably silly and/or immoral things under the banner of love and even if it ends tragically for themselves or others, Love is brought out as some ineffable, overarching, incontrovertible justification.

Last year, I attended a shiur in which the speaker suggested (based, I believe on Paradise Lost and C. S. Lewis) one of the most compelling definitions of Avoda Zara that I had ever heard: Idolatry is taking one value or ideal and setting it above everything else- putting it in the place of God. Over the years, there have been idolatries of nationalism, of honor, of nature.

And ever since then, those have been the terms in which I have framed my annoyance with almost all bits of culture out there, from ridiculous paeans to Love like Enchanted to otherwise sensible books. They seem to worship love. But I believe (with the firmness of one who has no personal experience on the issue) that love justifies nothing that is not otherwise justified, and nothing that is overwise justified needs love to justify it. (Including sex.)

The problem is that even for those who intellectually agree with that sentence, I think society's canonization of love makes it difficult to wholeheartedly pledge themselves to a standard that is often going to be in conflict with the all-important Love. And therefore pro-shomer arguments are forced to base themselves on the relatively weak ground that shomer is actually the best servant of Love, rather than the stronger and less arguable point that it is a religious requirement likely formed with little to no interest in what effect it will have on Love, one way or the other.

19 comments:

Halfnutcase said...

except for the minor problem that the entire secular definition of love is extremely questionable but, whatever.

e-kvetcher said...

"Idolatry is taking one value or ideal and setting it above everything else- putting it in the place of God."

If I were cynical, how do you think I would relate the primary value/ideal of frum jews to your statement?

Tobie said...

Halacha over God?

Just a wild guess there ;)

e-kvetcher said...

Yes, halacha, but only in the broadest meaning of the word. The worship of "lerning" and casuistry, of bilbul (oops, I mean pilpul) the deification of the halachic process...

But only if I were cynical... ;)

e-kvetcher said...

BTW, you tangentially mentioned something that I'd been thinking about for some time...

See this post...

Kate said...

Maybe this comment belongs to the previous post, but I'll say it here anyway.
How do we know that most Jews before the emergence of "modernity" (or whenever, really) actually were shomer negiah? Maybe what we see today--the majority of MO people failing to justify their non-shomerness--is just a continuation of past behavior and nothing to be alarmed about. (Assuming you are alarmed by the innovation of ignoring this perceived halakha rather than the act of ignoring itself.) The explicit writing we have on the subject is rabbinic, and I don't know of any MO rabbi today who is or sanctions not being shomer negiah.

Halfnutcase said...

kate, if it helps the rabbinic responsa from the 13th century, as well as from other times seems to imply that non-marrieds were sleeping with each other and pestering the rabbis about going to mikva in order to legitimize it, so I would suspect that it follows that they were touching each other.

The big difference seems to be that modern rabbis don't seem to permit women to go to mikvah when they're unmarried. (not that they actualy have the reshus)

thats all.

I know that the rama when discussing the psak about beating people who marry without "shiduchin" (which does not mean what it means now) says that "some say that we do not hit thiem, and I don't see any reason why we should."

Halfnutcase said...

I mean the rabbis have the reshus to say no. They can't forbid the permitted, and any rabbi who tries needs to be sacked, tarred and feathered.

Miri said...

I have to agree with Yoni on this. if you look not only at responsa from earlier centuries but even at the Talmud (granted, single women went to the mikvah then, but still there were arguments) there's a lot there that implies that it was not uncommon for a whole lot more than just touching to be going on.... (I'm thinking specifically of one gemarrah, but I don't want to quote it without being able to give you the precise place, so I'll have to get back to you on that one...)

e-kvetcher said...

kinda blows the whole notion of yeridas ha-doros to smithereens...

Halfnutcase said...

oh yes, and the rabbis actualy facilitated it within halacha.

:)

(sometime I want to get a list of such quotes so that I can throw them at anyone who claims we should change what we do because there is more pritzus in our generation than in previous ones.)

Tobie said...

So, true that I don't think that 100% of people were shomer negiah right up until today, but I also don't get the sense that the communities as a whole were okay with it. I mean, I'm not sure how I would gather facts to support that premise, but I feel like the wipespread indifference to the transgression is what makes this generation unique- once you had to sneak around to sleep with somebody, today you can freely admit that you aren't shomer. (Although sleeping with them is still largely verboten... So maybe the difference is just that we're more permissive of non-sex displays of affection?)

Miri said...

Tobie-

"Although sleeping with them is still largely verboten.."

1)not necessarily true. but people don't do that in public anyway (mostly) and it's generally rude to question people about their sex lives. so how would one know, exactly?

2)Even if it is, there are ways around that....

The real problem with this discussion is, we have no real way of knowing exactly what was and wasn't accepted. By reading the writings of the rabbis you kind of get a peripheral sense. But what you need in order to really know what went on would be to interview a typical person in the community (preferably someone young) and the fact of the matter is, those people are all dead now. So, basically, we can only speculate.....but I will say that in my personal opinion, man doesn't change much from generation to generation. And if stuff goes on now, chances are it always did.

Halfnutcase said...

and the fact of the matter is, those people are all dead now.

Beautiful!

Miri said...

I guess beautiful is a matter of opinion, but it's certainly true.

Gabriel said...

So, because of these posts and some stuff that's happened over the last week, I'm considering going shomer. Any suggestions or specifics to help me out?

Also, actually related to this post: I imagine that people in previous generations got married much earlier, giving them less time to violate shmirat negiah stuff. Those who didn't were probably seen as weirdos anyway, but popular society (both Jewish and secular) probably still made them think twice about jumping into bed with randomers. So to get back to where shmirat negiah is commonly accepted, not to mention encouraged, we need not only to get back to a place where popular society encourages keeping it in your pants, but also a Jewish society that encourages marrying at 15, which is something that we need to do anyway to get our population numbers back up.

e-kvetcher said...

>Any suggestions or specifics to help me out?

Saltpeter?

Tobie said...

Gabriel: The fun thing about having everybody get married early and start making babies is that it's terribly tricky to reconcile with the whole women being educated and/or working thing. So it would solve the shomer crisis, perhaps, but I have a vested interest in it not happening. ;)

Halfnutcase said...

unless of course you upend the early making babies part of that :)