Monday, February 28, 2011

Theory vs. Practice

It has been a long time. I wish I had something substantial to say about how my life is different now – for example, that I am seeing someone, or engaged, or married – but unfortunately none of that is true. In fact, I have not had any sort of relationship since the one I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago. Many dates, but nothing that led to anything worth writing about.

However, there have been some changes in my approach to the issues of negiah and sex, at least in theory, so I thought I would write a new post. I know some of you are interested in the application of this halacha and how it actually affects people in real life, so I want you to know how it is affecting me.

(Also I want to apologize to people whose comments waited for many months or even years before I approved them. There was a batch that I did not see until now.)

I am now 40 years old, and I have never had sex. I have "made out" with one man, and that was more than 5 years ago. I am trying to deal with it with as much humor and grace as I can – I do not go around complaining to my girlfriends, for example, and I try to keep busy so that my life is not all about feeling sorry for myself – and for the most part I am still a normal member of society even though I do sometimes succumb to deep sadness.

But I am angry, even though I cannot always explain who I am angry at. Perhaps myself. Perhaps life. Fate. God? It is difficult to shake the feeling that I was so incredibly naïve to internalize the idea, when I was younger, that if I acted a certain way and had certain very solid and rooted, wise values, that a like-minded man (who was also socially normal, intelligent and somewhat decent-looking, at least to me) would think I was wonderful and would want to spend his life with me. How innocent I was, how stupid, not to realize that no matter how "religious" a man may seem on the outside, no matter that every Friday night he sings "sheker hachen v'hevel hayofi," if you are not pretty enough nothing else matters, not really, not in dating.

The internalization of the fact that Orthodox people are every bit as superficial as everyone else has shaken my love for the community, and by extension for the laws that govern it. So much of what I value about the Torah was related to family life. The kind of Shabboses I wanted to spend with my own children, the way I want to celebrate holidays with my family, the values and memories I would like to share with a husband and pass along to future generations.

Without any of those things invested in it – if my observance of mitzvos is only for me – then it all starts to feel more annoying. Shabbos is annoying – lonely, boring, and annoying. Holidays are time consuming, boring and annoying. Purim, for example, is coming up. Take away the children and Purim is just hearing the megilla again and giving food packages to a couple of people and having a big meal with relatives I do not particularly feel like seeing, especially when they have had too much to drink. I would actually rather go to work since I like my job.

On the outside, few people know that I have changed. I wear the same modest clothes and, publicly, at least, still keep Shabbos and all other observances exactly the same way. But I have changed. I have less patience for it all. I feel deep down that if I am not going to get the practical benefits of a Torah lifestyle – if it does not even make me feel particularly spiritual anymore, and I am angry at God and I cannot seem to attract a decent Orthodox man – then I would at least like to have some fun. I toy with the idea of spending a Shabbos at the beach instead of keeping it at home. I am very seriously considering not going to shule on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur this year because God has already heard what I want many many times, and I am not in the mood to ask for forgiveness from a God who I feel so deeply has turned away from me.

Part of me knows that is self-centered and petty since it is the same God who has given me my health, my income, my family and friends but let's be real. I am 40, lonely, bored and sexually frustrated. I am starting to have had enough. I feel sad about this, becoming the kind of person who would have appalled me when I was younger.

I wrote once on this blog that being and staying Orthodox is not for wimps and that it takes a lot of fortitude to keep the mitzvos day after day, year after year. I guess I am losing some of that fortitude.

One of the comments I approved today was from a woman in a similar situation as me, in her early 30's, who wrote that she stays strong by remembering that Hashem loves her like a father loves a daughter, and that everything has a reason. I have tried to feel like that and there was a period of time that I was able to feel that at least sometimes. But it is getting more and more difficult for me. I hope the woman who wrote it is able to continue feeling it because for what it is worth it does help, if the feeling is there.

What is interesting is that when it comes to sex, the purpose (or one of the purposes) of the prohibitions against touching or sex before marriage is fully and completely upturned the older I become without it.

People say that it is important to save sex for marriage, and even kissing/touching, so that it will be special. We live in a Western society that cheapens sex, and the Torah-observant community wants to keep it holy and unique, something special and mysterious that one shares only with a life-long partner.

When I was younger, that worked. I saw sex exactly that way, as something incredibly intimate that one should never, ever do with a person who has not fully committed to you. As I have said in the past, I do not think that being shomer negiah, or at least celibate, is a bad idea for teenagers and people in their early 20's. It is good to keep these things special. It is good for people who get married young.

But what happens as one gets older is: As one's sexual frustration grows, it starts to weaken the threads that used to hold together "sex" and "specialness" in the mind. Sex becomes more and more of a simple primal need, like food or air, and eventually, if one does not eat or breathe, one will not care if the food is full of preservatives, or bland, or if the air is slightly polluted. You have to eat, even if the food is not gourmet, as long as it is not poisonous. You have to breathe, even if the air is not clear and refreshing, as long as it is not toxic. And you have to have sex, even if it is not with the man of your dreams, as long as he is not a sleazebucket.

The idea that a person can "live without sex," used so often to minimize the suffering of people who, according to halacha, must live celibate lives, does not take into account that one can also "live" with food being pumped into one's stomach, but never eating. One can "live" on a ventilator. But who calls that living? Yes, I am living without sex in the sense that I am both a virgin and still alive. But it has led to depression and misery. It is not "living" any more than subsisting on 600 calories a day is technically "living" or breathing very polluted air and coughing all the time is "living."

So to me, at this point, sex is something that I feel I want, need, MUST DO whether I am married or not. No, I do not want it to be cheap. I do not, for example, plan to hire someone to have sex with me. Nor do I plan to have sex with someone I have just met, or who I do not like, or who is not nice to me.

But, in theory, if I got to know a man whose company I enjoy, and who I share a sense of mutual respect with, and who I feel would stay around in my life for at least a few months – even if only as "friends with benefits" – but who, for whatever reason, was not marriage material, I do feel that it would be fine – good for me – to enjoy a sexual relationship, and that I would not feel cheap. Disappointed, still, not to have found a deep and lifelong love, but not cheap. One of the privileges of being 40 is that I know well what would make me feel cheap and what would not. It is one of the advantages of not being 18 anymore.

What keeping this halacha has done in my life, over time, is erase the connection between sex and love, and instead has made sex-by-itself something so vital that it that requires "only" basic respect and liking each other. Pretty much what most people in their 30's and 40's expect out of sex in Western society, if they are not religious, I am guessing.

Lest you rush into judgment and fear thinking that Nice Jewish Girl is about to debase herself by finding herself a "Sex Buddy," please remember that I have absolutely no idea how to find such a situation. I do not know how to communicate with a man that I might be willing to have sex with him. I dress like a frum girl, and have a reputation as a frum girl, and I would not know how to communicate to appropriate people that I am willing to tarnish it even if the opportunity came up with a decent man. I do not, after all, want to become a target for sleazy people. And most decent men who are not Orthodox and who want sex after say a few dates won't bother with me because I don't know how to let them know that I'm not one of those Orthodox girls who wants marriage or nothing at all.

My ideal situation is still to get married to a man who loves me and wants to have a Jewish home and family with me. But I would be willing to settle for a cute man with a sense of humor and lots of patience who could initiate me into the world of sex. Right now, I do not know how to find either one of those without risking becoming a target of oily people.

So, like I said, nothing substantial has changed. It is all theoretical.