Sexual Hypocrisy Is Not A Jewish Value

When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce, "Who will be mine for a day?" And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce, "Who will be mine for a day?" (Yevamot 37b) … Read More

By / March 19, 2008

When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce, "Who will be mine for a day?" And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce, "Who will be mine for a day?" (Yevamot 37b)

What is the Jewish response to the Eliot Spitzer affair? Predictably, most of our leaders have joined in the chorus of disappointment, condemnation, or just plain embarrassment at the ex-governor of New York, whose brilliant political career was felled by a single (okay, octuple) transaction with a prostitution ring. Certainly, it's a shonde. But if we were more careful with both our sources and our values, we might not rush to judgment. First, the sources. The fact is that prostitution is a Christian, not a Jewish, sin. Look for the prohibition in the Torah, and you won't find it. On the contrary, you'll learn of Judah visiting a prostitute — without condemnation — as well as of concubines and polygamy. (Cultic harlotry is banned by Deuteronomy 23:18-19, but not secular prostitution.) Even the Talmud is ambiguous; sometimes it appears to condemn prostitution and illicit sex of all kinds, and other times it tells of lusty rabbis visiting prostitutes and otherwise circumventing our expectation of chaste monogamy. In fact, it was expected that men would have sex outside of marriage. It wasn't exactly celebrated, but it wasn't condemned either. In short, within the gendered context of Jewish law, it's a peccadillo. Of course, Jewish law is very concerned about adultery. But "adultery" meant sex with another man's wife. As in the ancient British law from which the English term is derived, it was "adultery" in the sense of "adulterating" a man's bloodline — and the offense was against the other man: abusing his property, confusing his lineage. The concern is about patriarchy, not sex. As usual, sex is problematic not in itself (indeed, you won't find any clear condemnation of heterosexual sex, by itself, in Jewish law) but because of its context. The source of the religious disapproval of sexuality is not the Hebrew Bible, but the New Testament. Paul does condemn prostitution, along with all other forms of non-procreative sexual expression. And Paul reframes sexual sin in terms of carnality itself. The Jews? Not for another thousand years. So much for the texts. What about contemporary values? Some progressives today argue that prostitution is against Jewish (and universal) values because it objectifies and victimizes women, as well as supports an international slave trade. Certainly, these claims have merit, as does the observation that Jewish law is sexist and asymmetrical, banning for women what it permits for men. But while all these concerns are important, are they really what's motivating our outrage today? Sure, progressives dislike prostitution for feminist reasons, but Christians hate it for Christian ones. And think about it: what really brought Spitzer down? Was it the hypocrisy? The objectification of "Kristen" the call girl? Or — let's admit it — the sex? Condemning Spitzer for feminist reasons creates an unholy alliance between the pre-modern Right and the post-modern Left. Indeed, there are good Jewish arguments for seeing the Spitzer case as indicting society more than the philandering ex-governor. We live in a sex-crazed society, and we are crazy because of repression. Few cultures in history have enforced the monogamy ideal as we do. Jewish culture was polygamous for most of its history, approved of concubines, and tolerated harlots. European and American cultures usually looked the other way at prostitution, regarding it as a (male) private vice. Many non-Western cultures had elaborate systems of concubines, harems, brothels, and so on, before Christianity told them it was evil and sinful. We are, in short, an anomaly. And we are equally anomalous in our puerile approach to sex. Our media culture
saturates us with cheap, vulgar sexuality, objectifying to women and pandering to men. Surely, if Spitzer is a hypocrite, our media culture is even worse: titillating us with the endless commercialization of sex, then wagging its moralistic fingers at someone who buys sex for money. If Judaism celebrates healthy, robust sexuality, then it must condemn all three of these trends: the Puritanical repressiveness, the puerile vulgarity, and the pious hypocrisy. But there is a fourth and final Jewish reason to hesitate before condemning the ex-governor. Yet again, a conservative party which defends thieves, crooks, and warmongers has taken down a liberal because of sexual peccadillos. No one cheered Spitzer's fall more than the crooks of Wall Street — including those who just benefited from the multi-billion dollar corporate bailout of Bear Stearns. Just like no one cheered Clinton's fall more than those same crooks, and their war-mongering friends who embroiled us in Iraq. If Jewish values mean anything, they mean that senseless war is worse than a blowjob, and that billions of dollars of thievery and greed are worse than a visit to a whore. Of course, none of this is to excuse Spitzer's violation of his marital vows, or his own hypocrisy — he portrayed himself as an ethical crusader, and so perhaps was right to resign. Nor is this an argument for legalized prostitution or open marriages. Questions of sexism, privilege, and economics are too serious for simple answers. But our culture's rush to judgment, its phony piety, and its outrageous moral hypocrisy have neither textual antecedent nor philosophical basis. Not in the Jewish tradition anyway. Quite the contrary. While Spitzer may be a moral failure and a hypocrite, many of those who condemn him are worse.

Tagged with: