“Understanding Jewish Intimacy in a Changing World” by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
When it comes to the weekly Torah reading, I find concepts that make sense to our intellect and stories that speak to our emotions. Then there are large sections that seem to be only about ancient history, especially the chapters describing in extensive detail the roles and responsibilities of the Kohanim (priests) and their service in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) or later the Temple. The Kohanim come from the tribe of Levi. They are the direct descendents of Aaron, who was appointed by G-d, after the Exodus from Egypt, to be the first Kohen as well as the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). The profession of the Kohen was to officiate in the Mishkanand the Temple. The Kohanim were also teachers and spiritual guides. They were dependent on the generosity of the Jewish people, who would bring offerings and tithes from which theKohanim would get their daily meals. As Jews, each one of us is expected to maintain a high standard of behaviour. The Kohanim were expected to go above and beyond that of the average Jew. They were responsible for ritual practice in the Temple, which requires holiness and purity, concepts we have trouble relating to in our modern world.
In this week’s parsha, Parashat Emor, we read about the strict guidelines of purity the kohanimwere required to follow, as well as the laws of whom a kohen could marry. In our day, these limits seem archaic and very difficult to understand, especially when many people no longer equate sexual behaviour with morality. In Western society, sexual intimacy is regarded either as an act of love or as a biological mechanism for physical pleasure. If it’s about love, then why should there be any limits as to whom a person can choose to marry? If it’s only about physical pleasure then there isn’t much difference between sex and eating a hot-fudge sundae.
Last week, as I was pondering the difficulty of understanding the constraints placed on theKohanim, I came across two articles in our local newspaper that made me stop and think. The first was about a recently released report on sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian military. Retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps interviewed hundreds of military personnel. Her report described an environment of sexual violence that included everything from swearing and sexual innuendo to rape. Relationships between low-ranking women and high-ranking men are common. Sexual force is used to maintain a power structure or to punish and ostracize members of a unit. Victims are reluctant to report incidents, fearful that they will face retaliation from peers and supervisors or that they won’t be believed or that reporting will hurt their careers.
Similarly the documentary “The Hunting Ground” described some of the personal stories behind the statistics on sexual assault at university campuses. According to a review in the newspaper, studies suggest that 16 percent to 20 percent of female students are assaulted and nearly 90 percent of them don’t report the crimes. Their stories often began with a female student meeting a “guy who seemed nice,” until he proved otherwise, and the all-too-frequent occurrence of women being plied with alcohol and then assaulted.
While unfortunately this kind of information isn’t new, I was surprised by just how widespread the problem is. The Canadian military is known throughout the world for its role in peacekeeping. It is portrayed as a military with a heart. We send our kids to university campuses for a “higher education.” Big tuition, charitable endowments and tax dollars pay for what we assume is a positive learning environment. If the most base behaviour takes place in these two select institutions, then what does that say about the rest of the world?
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, France) explains that the Kohanim are told to teach their children the laws that apply specifically toKohanim. The rabbis regard this section as the source of the mitzva to educate our children in the beliefs and practices of Judaism. Rabbi Yissocher Frand wonders why these verses, which are specifically related to the Kohanim, would be the source for an obligation that applies to all Jewish families. He quotes Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who describes what it must be like for the parent of a Kohen to explain to his child that there are rules that a Kohen must follow; and those rules don’t apply to his friends who aren’t Kohanim. A Kohen can’t cut through a cemetery to get to the ball field. A Kohen has to have greater concern about maintaining spiritual purity. He is restricted in who he is allowed to marry. Rabbi Weinberg explains that theKohen has to find a way to inspire his child to take pride in his role, to see himself as having an elevated stature, which the child will want to live up to. If the focus is only on the challenges of what might feel like difficult restrictions, the child will discard his priestly roles and responsibilities (“Rabbi Frand on the Parshah 2”).
As Jews we certainly value love and we do not negate the importance of physical pleasure. G-d has given us bodies, souls and intellects. When we focus on one at the expense of the others, we lose out. Taken to an extreme, we end up with a culture that allows or even encourages harassment and sexual assault. My friend Rochel Goldbaum, a fabulous teacher and speaker, asks why a parent would encourage a child to see himself or herself as just an apple in the fruit bin to be handled and then rejected. She encourages us to empower our children to see themselves as diamonds, precious souls placed within bodies deserving of dignity and respect.
It seems that when it comes to sexuality there has been a breakdown in the message parents transmit to their children. It’s a huge challenge to teach our children to behave differently when everyone else is doing it. We can start by using words like noble, dignified and refined. Just like the kohanim, we can teach our children that they have inherent value, a special stature and calling and, with that, a standard of behaviour to strive for. We can teach our children that they are souls within their bodies, and that they should choose to live lives of dignity and holiness and to find love and physical pleasure with healthy and appropriate limits. After all not every Jew is a Kohen but as the Torah tells us, every Jew is a member of a treasured nation, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Shabbat Shalom, Lauren