The Baby and the Bathwater

From the very beginning, men and women have been attracted to each other. We were created that way. It’s in our instincts, in our psychology, in our genes. And all that stuff that is hardwired into us we have to balance with morality, ethics, and social cohesion in general. Enter religion.

Most, if not all, religions address the many ills that can arise from men and women being tempted to engage in inappropriate relationships with each other. As humans, we have difficulty abstaining from romantic attachments in the workplace, outside of marriage, with superiors in the workplace and military, and with mentors and spiritual guides. They prevailing answer? Segregate the sexes.

But segregation misses the point of the temptation. An Arabic saying I once read says, “if a woman wishes to give herself to a man, she will do so even through the keyhole of a locked door.” Now, regardless of arguments about oppression of women and the like, the point remains that trying to avoid temptation only causes stronger temptation. Examples can be found throughout the major religions of the world. Historical transgressions of celibacy vows among cloistered Catholics, rampant sexual impropriety among Haredim, and the list goes on. And many conservative religious movements (Judaism included) use this fact in the form of reverse psychology to encourage married couples to procreate.

We were created to be tempted. Denying that part of our nature denies the wisdom of the Almighty in creating us that way. What we need to do is develop our individual self-discipline and the communal consequences for misbehavior. It is a challenge, not a design flaw.

The vast majority of romantic entanglements are consensual. Those that are not involve an abuser/predator and a victim. Arguing that a consensual attachment (physical or otherwise) “just happened” is a cop out. Mindful living, which we are continually exhorted to throughout the Torah and throughout the breadth of human experience, involves not allowing things simply to happen. We choose what we eat, what we wear, how we treat our neighbors, and where we live.

Likewise, we choose how we behave towards and with the opposite sex. Personally, acknowledging to myself that a man is attractive is not the same as planning an illicit rendezvous, and shaking hands with a man is not the same as accepting a sexual proposition (or making one). When it is said people of the opposite sex should not be allowed to sit next to each other unless they are married or related, it is the same as saying that sitting next to a person of the opposite sex is a form of foreplay, making it extremely difficult for individuals to learn to exercise self control. It also says that individuals are unable to control their behavior in difficult situations, and consequently, that self control is an exercise in futility. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one.

Things usually don’t happen without a willingness for them to happen on the part of the participants. If you enter a situation without an openness to sexual impropriety the chances of it occurring are drastically reduced. And if you find yourself strongly tempted (to the point that the addition of alcohol or the like would lead to regrettable actions), you need to examine why you are so easily tempted. If I, for example, feared my ability to avoid adultery would be compromised if I were drunk, it would behoove me to examine why I am so dissatisfied with my marriage as to desire the companionship of another.

It is from the development of self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-examination that we satisfy the requirements placed on us by the Divine. He gave us free will that we could choose whether to follow His Laws. It is through our choices in that regard that we show our dedication to Him and our fellow man.

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