The Silence Around Sex in the Haredi World — and Its Unfortunate Consequences
It was the evening before Israel’s Memorial Day more than five years ago. I was living on Mount Scopus and waiting for any form of transportation to take me to the Kotel for the state ceremony. With little time to spare, a taxi pulled up with a Hasid in the back and a seemingly secular man up front.
I knew the rules: The seating arrangement was just not going to work, and I had no time to wait for another ride. So, we quickly played “musical chairs” and arranged for the Hasid to sit as far away from me as possible during the brief ride to the Old City.
Upon arrival I began to make my way through the cobblestone alleys of the Jewish Quarter, when I noticed the same Hasid was nearly scaling the opposite wall to allow for the most distance between us. Too rushed to be bothered by his exaggerated piety, I continued until I heard him speak. I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that nobody else was around and he was addressing me.
The real shock came, however, when I was finally able to decipher his words. The very same man who refused to sit in the back seat of a taxi with me, in the name of modesty, was propositioning me for sex. I walked away as fast as my ballet flats could take me, with his cat calls trailing behind, until a group of passing yeshiva boys absorbed him into their sea of black and white and he vanished into the night. And then all fell silent.
Nearly a year later, after my faith in the good intentions and holiness of Haredim was restored, I found myself waiting for a ride on Mount Scopus once again. As my patience wore thin and I cursed the bus’s tardiness in every language I could speak, a yeshiva bokher with a fresh driver’s license pulled up and offered me a ride.
The timid and innocent smile on his acne-riddled face convinced me to accept. I proposed to sit at the back, but he insisted that it was okay for me to ride next to him in the front.
Five minutes of silently driving was interrupted by the click of his seat belt, and in a series of violent motions he lunged across the passenger side, with his tongue darting in the direction of my face. “A shande” I shrieked in heavily accented Yiddish as I exited the car panicked. And then all fell silent.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, please don’t be alarmed. There is no sexually devious endemic plaguing the Mount Scopus/French Hill ultra-Orthodox communities specifically. I’ve read about symptoms of this disease flaring up among the men of Monsey, N.Y., and afflicting the women of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, as well. And I would venture to say that similar incidents occur in most, if not all, sexually repressive communities.
If you don’t believe me, ask one of the many boys who have been robbed of their youth by trusted authority figures who molested them, or the girls who have been raped repeatedly and shamed into silence, or yet still, the young married couples who, because of an unfamiliarity with their own anatomies, have difficulty consummating their marriages .
On second thought, perhaps they might not be able to tell you a thing because they lack the vocabulary to explain such matters; and even if they belong to the precious few who have a decent awareness of their own sexuality, their shame would guarantee their silence.
Whether the victims be Catholic choirboys or Jewish seminary students, the culprit is almost always silence. The silence in which sexuality is so tightly shrouded within the ultra-Orthodox community is deafening. Its repercussions are destroying the community from within, as the violators and their crimes earn the support of their community, and as the victims earn their own exile for breaking the silence.
A community’s attitude toward sex and the mores it promulgates has a tremendous bearing on the health, the psyche and the behavior of that community’s members.
Sex is not a subject for discussion within the ultra-Orthodox community. In fact, students are not offered instruction in sex education (or at least a censored version of it) until the 10th or 11th grade. And often, said instruction is delayed, only to be conveyed in preparation and leading up to marriage.
Young men and women go through the hormonal rush of adolescence with little to no knowledge of what is happening to their bodies or why.
As a result, the innate curiosity typically attached to this period is explored inappropriately, and first-person accounts have shown that this can lead to severe violations of Jewish Halacha, including pedophilia — much worse than a cartoon diagram of the human body quickly explained in the classroom.
Furthermore, when a first contact with the human anatomy and sexuality is made only days before the ketubah is signed, the transition from chastity to marriage can be awkward and difficult, and lead to marital problems. Vaginismus, a subconscious spasm that prevents a woman from having penetrative sex, is a byproduct of unhealthy restrictive attitudes toward sex, many cases of which have surfaced within religious communities.
The silence around sex in religious communities can also prevent an honest conversation about incidents of sexually transmitted infections contracted by visits to brothels and other adulterous activities. No matter how hard religious leaders might try to avoid it, these unintended consequences exist.
Desire exists, too. It is strong. It is human. It is undeniable, and it can’t be silenced. Attempts to suppress it will ensure that it manifests itself in unhealthy, un-Jewish ways, be it with a stranger in an alley, in a car or worse. It will break through the silence and roar louder than ever.
In the Torah, the word for “sex” is derived from the root of the word “to know” (Dalet- Ayin- Tav) From this we are reminded of the importance of knowledge in the context of sexuality: To know one’s body is consequently to know one’s soul. I maintain that the ultra-Orthodox community is doing a disservice to itself and its members by restricting this knowledge.
I’m aware that those who could benefit most from these words will probably never have a chance to read them because of the same restriction of knowledge. Still, for those who do, may you walk away with a reminder that there is no shame in sexuality. Judaism is a sex-positive religion that encourages the act and recognizes it as a mitzvah between a husband and a wife that is meant not just for procreation, but also for pleasure. Your body, mind and soul belong to you alone. May they be treated with love and shared with love.
Margaux Chetrit is the founder and president of Three Matches, an international dating agency.