Many Rabbinic rules and aspects of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle are built on the premise of minimizing temptation to misbehavior. The sexes are segregated so as to prevent inappropriate sexual temptation, for example. Much of rabbinic practice centers on “building fences around fences.” But there’s one main problem with this train of thought: Judaism isn’t about avoiding temptation.
Semitic cultures center on the importance of action. What you do is more important than what you think. You can’t be punished for having bad thoughts. In fact, the Laws set forth in the Torah are built on the premise that temptation will occur no matter what. And the ubiquity of temptation is demonstrated very clearly by the story of the Garden of Eden.
Rather than trying to prevent the inevitable, the Torah defines what behaviors are inappropriate and sets consequences for those behaviors. The severity of the consequence sets the standard for the difference between undesirable behaviors and unacceptable behaviors.
Using the example cited above, the Torah assumes that sexual impropriety will occur. Masters will sleep with their maidservants, the unmarried will fornicate, women will play the harlot, fathers will sell their daughters into prostitution, men will violate women, and adultery will occur. It’s going to happen. No matter what anyone says about it. That’s why we need rules about these things. However, rather than suggest that men and women be separated to ward off the opportunity for impropriety, the Torah sets consequences. The master must pay a fine to the father of his maidservant. Unmarried people need to marry if they behave like married people with each other. Harlots will not be tolerated (provided any witnesses are willing to come forward about it). Fathers will be shamed for ruining their daughters. Rape will not be tolerated, and neither will adultery.
The Torah is written with human nature in mind: we are imperfect and easily led astray. We need laws to help us keep our heads on straight and discourage us from doing bad things. The fact is that no amount of asceticism will keep the human mind from temptation, it will only lead the mind to greater temptation as the individual comes to feel deprived and envy (or naivete) sets in.
The real answer is to develop strength of character. One must have the will power to be tempted and decide to do the right thing nevertheless. Just because a person is attracted to a coworker does not mean that they are biologically forced to cheat on their spouse! They have a choice. But if they have no prior experience of withstanding lesser temptations at earlier times, they will not have the strength of character to do so when it really matters. Besides how do you know whether a man is good if he has never had to choose to do what is right?
The will power developed by recovering alcoholics is a good example. While a recovering alcoholic should probably avoid bars and other sources of temptation he knows he can’t resist, he does need to be able to handle the fact that he lives in a world where people consume alcohol. He needs to be able to turn down politely the beer offered by the well-meaning coworker at the annual office party. He needs to be able to refuse the proffered wine list when eating at a restaurant without becoming angry at the waiter. Most importantly, he needs to be able to walk past the liquor aisle at the grocery store without falling apart. Developing this strength is a major part of the work done in therapy groups for recovering addicts.
Practically speaking, of what use is an individual who has no experience resisting temptation? Will that person have the strength of their convictions and the will power to turn away from things that are truly wicked? In the TaNaKh YHVH continually tests those He uses as instruments of His will, and He regularly uses people who learn from experience the limits of their own will power (and taste the consequences), ranging from Adam to Moshe (Moses) to David and beyond. All of them are flawed and all of them have to be tested at one point or another. More importantly, a person who has no understanding of temptation cannot lead during difficult times–the times when leadership is most needed. That person will be unable to resist the draw of seemingly “easy” ways out that carry impossibly high price tags. More importantly, such individuals will be unable to understand the struggles of more flawed individuals or motivate such people.
Time and again, YHVH calls on the Israelites, not to avoid awareness of the existence of idols, but to smash them, melt them down and grind up the metal, to cut down cultic groves, to destroy altars and temples, and to wipe out the names of foreign gods. The Israelites, in following the most important and most mentioned of the commandments are not to avoid temptation as if it were a plague or curse, but are to face it head on and struggle with it. They are to be like Yaakov (Jacob), their namesake, when YHVH renamed him “Yisrael” because he “struggled with G-d and with man and prevailed” (B’resheit [Genesis] 32:29).