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Reflecting on Jewish ethics with Muslim teens

A group of senior Muslim high school students, their teachers, a Catholic priest and I, an Hasidic, bearded rabbi, sat down recently for a discussion about Jewish marriage and sexual ethics as part of their Studies of Religion course.

I told the students what they needed to know for their course about weddings. I noted that in Judaism there are two distinct ceremonies. In earlier times, these typically happened first at the home of the bride’s parents and then that of the groom’s parents but today are done at the same time with only a symbolic break between them. I shared that I found it interesting when two Muslims I know got married, it was not a one-step process. I attended a nikah religious wedding ceremony in a mosque and a wedding feast with loud Lebanese drums.

I was more interested in talking about marriage than weddings. I shared a memory with the students from a time when I was not much older than them. I had watched a scene in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. The devoutly religious Jewish husband turns to his wife Golde, and asks her, “Do you love me?” She finds the question bizarre and wonders if he had indigestion. She replied, “Do I love you? For 25 years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house … milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?”

As a young man I was terribly troubled by the implication that in my very orthodox world we could not expect to ever be in love. I had read some novels and romantic love seemed marvellous, but not for me, it seemed. Years later I realised that, due to modesty, ultra-orthodox couples don’t show affection to each other in front of other people, making love invisible.

I explained to the students that Golde’s list of 25 years of caring action also reflects a Jewish idea about the feeling of love being a product of caring and loving behaviour. In the Torah we read that Isaac brought his wife Rebecca into his tent, he married her, and he loved her. In that order.

I shared with them a Kabalistic teaching about Adam and Eve first being created back to back as a double human, one side female and the other male. “But God split them so that they could face each other, face to face, light in light.” Marriage is meant to be about a powerful experience of connection between a couple. Unfortunately, for many people in our time the mundane requirements of earning a living and house work leaves little energy for anything else.

We are human beings, not machines. For this reason, we also need to consider sexual ethics. Due to the syllabus requirements, the students and I spent some time on technical questions about restrictions and exceptions relating to contraception and abortion. But we also got around to the requirement for consent for sex, and guidance about the right way being that the couple should have sex when they are not angry with each other but rather out of joy.

We discussed pleasure. Specifically, Jewish teaching that encourages men to consider women’s sexual pleasure. Part of Jewish marriage is a contract called a Ketuba that stipulates a husband’s obligation to be available to his wife sexually.

I was pleased to learn from the Catholic priest that it was not correct that sex is the original sin. He explained that it is more appropriate to think of a child being born into a morally troubled world.

A few days after the session at the Islamic school I was reflecting on all of this and it got me thinking about the Jewish attitude to pleasure. Not just as a requirement of kindness from a husband to his wife.

One explanation of why snakes are not Kosher is because they “go on their bellies”. This is interpreted as being symbolic of a person being pleasure driven, both in terms of food and sex. However, I recently read that God creates our desires. I don’t believe sexual desire or pleasure are bad – they are only problematic when they’re out of balance with other ways of being such as altruism, attentiveness to others in a range of ways, and being of service.

This is the heart of the matter. Human beings, essentially similar, but significantly different in various ways, connecting in understanding each other and ourselves.

Rabbi Zalman Kastel, AM


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