I recently participated in a panel on Judaism and Sexuality where I spoke about the potential of healing and transformation in sexuality. Where once there was only hurt, we can have corrective experiences around our vulnerability that allow us to access pleasure and joy in sexuality. In my experience this has required my willingness to confront my pain, to communicate, to take risks and to trust that I can be met and received in my authenticity. When I spoke on the panel I noticed that it was much easier for me to speak about my own pain and victimhood, than about reclaiming my sexuality and sharing my experience of deep pleasure through the dissolving of boundaries in intimate sex.
Of course it is vital that I and we speak to our experience of pain and suffering. I got feedback that what I shared helped others access their own past traumas and memories. But what I am noticing is something about my own resistance to owning and being seen in relationship with pleasure. This resistance is what I am fighting against. It has to be possible to feel and claim passion while also holding a space for pain.
In the lead up to this Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew Lunar month of Av, a day of fasting at the end of a period of mourning the destruction of the holy temples and deep collective mourning for the Jewish people, I have been thinking about the imagery of the devastation of women. This harsh imagery as well as motifs of women’s unbounded sexuality are represented in connection to the destruction of Jerusalem as it appears in Lamentations – the biblical book read on Tisha B’Av – but also in other canonical and midrashic writings. We should resist relating to the metaphors of women as being humiliated and defiled as metaphors for the destruction of Jerusalem and instead of cringing because of their misogynous uses, we use them instead as a point of connection to violence against women of all types.
For me, accessing this darkness and pain, is the rightful venue for the mourning of Tisha B’Av. But we don’t live in Tisha B’Av and there are correct limits to our mourning. The mourning and devastation of Tisha B’Av is only one aspect of our story. The mourning of Tisha B’Av is all the more poignant because we are not engaged in it throughout the year. Moving away from a stance of mourning in the presence of pain can be a courageous journey where one places trust in something that one does not yet fully know. We may trust that things can be different but we don’t yet know what that looks and feels like. Our bigggest hurts and breaches happened in relationships – and it is through relationships that they can also be repaired.
The journey that incorporates both pain and healing in relationships is brought into fuller relief through referencing Tu B’Av, the 15th day of Av, celebrated in modern Israel as the Jewish love festival and emanating from the Second Temple period as a time of matchmaking. The first mention of this date is in the Mishnah where Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel/Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What were they saying: Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)?” (Ta’anit, Chapter 4). The young women wore borrowed dresses so all of them would have access to dresses and none would be disadvantaged because of his or her economic situation.
Let’s leave for another time the discussion of how in the mishnaic source the woman is constructed as object to be chosen by the man who is the subject and rather focus on the relationship between Tisha B’Av —that evokes about the devastation of the feminine — and Tu B’Av that suggests the beauty and joy of love and intimacy.
To be fully alive means that we need to feel our pain and our joy alike. To be alive means that we can’t exercise preferences about which parts of experience we are willing to accept. Feeling our pain expands our capacity to feel joy and to feel the fullness of life in all its dimensions.
For the past twenty years I have been on a journey of repair and transformation including sexual healing. What that has meant for me is that AT TIMES instead of avoiding sex, or getting out of my body during sex, I have gone the difficult but necessary path of being present with what feelings arise for me in the moment and allowing myself the space to be with those feelings until they pass. What comes up during sex is not an interruption, it is the thing itself and this is because sex is also about intimacy and vulnerability and about being able to be present in the moment. It is not like sex isn’t also about play for me, sure it is, but because of the hurts and loads we carry sometimes we have to let out quite a lot before we are ready to just play.
In order to access my own pleasure I need to be willing to be present with what is arising for me, but I also need to let go and resist the urge to allow myself to go through what feels like a tunnel of not-knowing. Moving out of my head and being with my breath helps. Building trust is vital and in my experience takes a lot of time, like ten, twenty years and still building.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12 we learn that God will hold us accountable for the permitted pleasures of this world in which we did not take part. We have been gifted with an incredible capacity to feel so deeply pleasured and bonded through sexual intimacy – both bonded to the other but also embraced in divine love and bliss. And it is through confronting, feeling and releasing the darkness and pain of my own experience that I make space for the pleasure, light and ultimate connection.