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BINTEL BRIEFCan I be both religious and ‘slutty’?

Bintel advises respect for one’s body while taking observance one step at a time

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send us your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work via email, Twitter or this form.

Dear Bintel:

I am a Reform Jewish teenager and over the past year I have begun practicing a lot more frequently.

Recently, however, I’ve become concerned that I can’t be both religious and slutty.

This past year I have been struggling with the balance of my life. Five days a week, I partake in programs that connect to Judaism, but I still don’t feel like I fully fit in. A lot of this is because I feel I am not “pure” or “whole” enough.

Later in life, I would like to become more religious and uphold certain modesty laws. How can I say I want to do that, if I act like this?

What a lot of people don’t understand is that my “slutty” behaviors only happen because I need to be validated and accepted in some way.

I feel really bad. How can I practice this amazing religion if I can’t even respect all of the laws? I understand that as a Reform Jew, a lot of these laws are not fully necessary for me to observe. But I still want to be able to find my self-worth within my religion, and not from how I am perceived by others.

The way I am perceived by girls and boys in my class makes me feel like I am not doing a good job at being a Jew. But deep down I know that no matter what, I will always crave the validation that I get from certain people. I am not sure how to feel connected to my religion, while also feeling validated by others.

I find so much joy in prayer and going to shul. But since I do certain things, or dress a certain way, people perceive me as someone I’m not.

How do I balance having “sluttish” fun while also connecting to Hashem?

Sincerely,
Religious Slut


Dear Religious Slut, 

I deeply empathize with so many aspects of your letter: The need to be seen for who we are, the desire to be accepted into particular Jewish communities and the balance of healthy sexual exploration with religious observance are all themes that many, many Jews are navigating. 

These issues can also be especially fraught for teenage girls like yourself, who face extra layers of toxic messaging around their bodies, and their ownership of their sexualities. Welcome to the patriarchy! 

The need for intimacy

Thankfully, Judaism is chock full of sexual ethics guidelines that can help us detangle some of the complex issues you’re dealing with. 

Let’s start with the shame you express around needing validation from other people. While it’s important to not rely on external sources for self-worth, we all crave community and intimacy. Rabbi Samantha Frank, half of the female rabbinic duo behind the Jewish lifestyle Instagram account Modern Ritual, pointed out in an interview that one of the first lines of the Torah exhorts the need for companionship: “It is not good for a human to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” 

Sex and other forms of physical intimacy are holy ways to explore both our own bodies and each other, and carry great potential for validation when explored amid shared respect and consent. But I worry, when you say “my slutty behaviors only happen because I need to be accepted and validated in some way,” that your physical encounters may be lacking in the respect quotient.

Judaism sees the body as holy and worthy of care. It might be worth considering the next time you’re debating whether or not to be intimate with someone whether the action you’re contemplating aligns with sacred care for your body. You should choose to have sex with someone who respects you, and with whom you share a mutual attraction — not with someone you think will make you popular.

Reform Judaism’s take on sex and ‘purity’

You describe yourself as a Reform Jew, so let’s dive a little deeper into the Reform movement’s particular approach to your dilemmas. In a 1979 responsa on sexual activity before marriage, Reform leadership noted the rabbinic principle that a law should not be made if it cannot be followed, acknowledging that many Jews of all denominations do not wait for their wedding nights. The primary concern for Reform Judaism regarding sex, then, is respect — for your own body, and for the other person. “Part of Jewish sexual ethics,” Frank, who is a Reform rabbi, said in our interview, is “you can’t ghost someone you’re seeing.” 

She noted that the biblical concepts of tamei (ritually impure) and tahor (ritually clean), while connected to sex and menstruation, were originally about readiness for service in the ancient Temple, “not questions of morality.” That said, she suggested the concepts could be used as a framework to test your own comfort with a certain sex act or behavior — ask yourself, Frank suggested, “Does it make you feel more whole?” 

Experimentation 

You ask how can you simultaneously want to “act slutty” and become more religious/modest. Let me state unequivocally that it is possible to hold two conflicting desires at the same time. It is also important to say that many religious Jews, Reform and Orthodox alike, do not follow all of the laws regarding modesty, both because they are human and gloriously imperfect, and because there is no longer a Temple and animal sacrifice. 

You seem to be struggling with the tension between biblical norms around sexuality — namely, that sex is for marriage and procreation — and a desire to experiment and explore. 

Acknowledging this tension, and accepting it, could help mellow the very harsh self-criticism you’re engaging in. 

When I spoke with Rabbi Frank about your case, she mentioned that many Jews seem to be “constantly looking over our shoulder, feeling like we’re a fraud and that ‘the real Jews are over there.’” I suggest you stop looking over your shoulder for the ‘real Jew,’ Religious Slut, and love the real Jew that you are.

Steer clear of black and white

Since you mentioned that you are interested in upholding “certain modesty laws” generally associated with Orthodoxy, I reached out to Toiby Hayes, an Orthodox Jew and modest stylist who runs the popular TikTok Toiby Continued. She suggested starting with “one thing that feels doable,” like switching from tank tops to short sleeves, and then another. At each stage of experimentation, Hayes said, you can assess how it’s working (or not) for you, making the change intentional. 

Hayes’ advice applies to more than just modest dress. “It’s very easy to feel like things are black and white and all or nothing, especially when it comes to observance,” she said. “It’s so important to remember that God holds space for who you are and what you have to give.” 

Instead of worrying about how you are perceived, Religious Slut, tune in your own feelings — do these Jewish programs you’re participating in five days a week feel like yourself? Does your “slutty” behavior? Find the things you think are amazing about Judaism, and do more of them! Listen for the rabbi or the community or the mitzvah that gives you that loving spark of wholeness, of being seen, and draw closer to them. 

“We are nuanced people in a nuanced world with a nuanced God,” Hayes said. “All the parts of you can exist at once.” 

Signed,
Bintel

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