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The Kedushah Crisis

Sexual abstinence of married men roils the Hasidic sects of Gur, Slonim, and Toledot Aharon

Benjamin Brown
February 14, 2019
Photoillustrations: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustrations: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustrations: Tablet Magazine
Photoillustrations: Tablet Magazine
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Kedushah (holiness) was developed as a pietistic ideal for the virtuous few, encouraging married men to limit to the minimum the frequency and modes of sexual intercourse with their wives. Today, the Hasidic groups of Gur, Slonim, and Toledot Aharon (Toldes Aaron) have radicalized this ideal by imposing it on the community as a whole. Gur’s version is the most restrictive and the only one formalized as a set of ordinances (takunes), while Toldes Aaron’s version is the most lenient.

The radical kedushah norms have given rise to controversy and dissent. Prominent rabbis have argued that they were at odds with the Halacha, offensive to women, and harmful to men, while marriage guides within the Gur community have debated their rigidity and universal applicability. The Hasidic rebbes themselves are reticent about the topic, addressing it only in unpublished homilies and personal letters, from which excerpts appear here in print for the first time.

However, a very public dispute about the kedushah ordinances erupted in the Israeli arena in 2009, when a Gerer woman, Sarah Einfeld, appeared in a short documentary film titled in English Shrew (in Hebrew, Soreret). During the filming she decided to desert Gur and to adopt a secular way of life. In her blog, she reported on the “repression” of women in Gur and in the Haredi community as a whole, highlighting the suppression of sexuality and intimacy under the regime of the kedushah ordinances. Among other details, Einfeld described how a female marriage guide had suggested to her that whenever she felt the desire for intimacy with her husband, she should find solace in chocolate, which had a similar effect on the brain.

As is typical for Israeli mass culture, Einfeld soon became a media star. Israeli journalists, most of them secular and anti-Haredi, presented her as a heroine who had fought bravely and overcome the forces of darkness. But she attracted at least as much interest within the Haredi world, where many took it upon themselves to denounce her as a renegade tale-bearer on numerous websites.

Within a few days, thousands of comments and talk-backs accumulated over the internet, many of them addressing the issue of sex life within the Haredi community, and they sparked a debate on the question of whether or not the marital sexual act was to be performed among Haredim through the proverbial “hole in the sheet.” Einfeld, who used the phrase as the title of her blog, insisted that it was, while other Haredi women testified that it was not. Be that as it may, Einfeld contended that her bitter experience was shared by many other Hasidic women, who did not dare to take the radical step she had taken. Even if she may have exaggerated the extent of the women’s discontent, we may assume that the Gur ordinances, and the sexually restrictive norms adopted by other Hasidic groups, are controversial even within the Hasidic community.

The supererogatory ideal of kedushah is common to almost all Hasidic groups, and in many of them it manifests itself as sexually restrictive behavioral norms. These often include instructions designed to limit intercourse to the minimum necessary for procreation, and to refrain from “animal-like” behavior aiming at sheer physical pleasure. The famous “hole in the sheet” is probably practiced by no more than a small minority, but similarly restrictive methods are not uncommon. In many of the Hasidic texts that relate to the restrictive sexual norm of kedushah, these methods are presented in terms of the old Hasidic ideal of “worship through corporeality” (avodah begashmiyut), namely, the investment of physical acts with holiness by surrounding them with numerous restrictions. In what follows, I shall present only the three Hasidic groups that have turned kedushah, specifically in the sexually restrictive sense, into one of their central values, limiting the frequency of sexual intercourse between husband and wife beyond what is prescribed by the halachic commandment of onah (the husband’s legal obligation to perform sexual intercourse).

Prominent Litvish rabbis have pointed out that kedushah norms are at odds with the Halacha while also being offensive to women and harmful to men’s mental and moral well-being. Rabbi Y. I. Sher, the past head of the Slobodka Yeshiva, even accused the Hasidim of hypocrisy. Most of these criticisms have been directed at Gur—the largest Hasidic community in Israel and the most restrictive in its application of kedushah. The Gerer Hasidim have not responded directly, but a letter written by R. Nahum Rotstein contains a long list of arguments in defense of the rebbe’s ordinances. Some of his arguments, especially those that advocate kedushah as a means of establishing a more permanent, faithful, and purer bond of love between husband and wife, are clearly apologetic and cannot be taken to reflect the true motivation for kedushah.

In reality, some of the Gerer Hasidim are well aware of the damaging consequences of the ordinances for family life within their own community, and their negative impact on the standing of Gur men within the Orthodox community as a whole. This has given rise to internal debate, often beneath the surface but sometimes more openly, among the marriage guides as well as the ordinary Hasidim. The ideal of sexually restrictive kedushah, which was meant to facilitate and enhance the religious ascent of the entire community, has proved to be both inappropriate for universal application and sometimes detrimental to family life.

Why this style of kedushah should have emerged in these three particular Hasidic groups, and why specifically in the 20th century, is not entirely clear, but the most convincing explanations will be based on the three following factors: (a) the inherent Hasidic quest for spiritual renewal, which in time generated a range of supererogatory substitutes for mysticism; (b) the overriding Orthodox tendency toward halachic stringency; (c) the Hasidic struggle to resist the promiscuous sexuality of modern society, which prompted the rebbes to construct defensive fences even around the limited sphere of sexual activity that is permissible within the boundaries of Halacha.

That these stringent sexual norms emerged in these particular groups may be ascribed to the fact that all three viewed the ideal of kedushah as their own Hasidic heritage. This is especially true of Gur and Slonim, which strove to rehabilitate themselves after the destruction of their Eastern European centers in the Holocaust. They hoped to achieve this revival not only by reconstructing their old courts but also by generating new spiritual tension and energies that would attract to their ranks a new generation of virtuous young men. One of the best ways of realizing this aspiration was to renew the old battle against the traditional enemy—the sexual drive, a battle which seemed timelier now than ever before.

Kedushah in Gur: The Ordinances of R. Israel Alter, the Beys Yisroel

Gur Hasidism is a historical offspring of the Hasidic groups of Pshiskhe [Przysucha] and Kotsk. Even though Kotsk had its own ideal of abstinence, there is no indication that this was fostered by Gur until after the Holocaust and certainly not as a norm for the entire community. It was the fourth Gerer rebbe, Israel Alter (1895–1977), known in Ashkenazi Hebrew as the Beys Yisroel (after the title of his collection of homilies, the Beit Yisra’el), who brought about the change when he re-established Gur Hasidism in the newly founded state of Israel. Shortly after his nomination as rebbe in 1948, he inaugurated the Ordinances on Holiness, known in short as the takanot, and commonly pronounced takunes. They have never been published nor, in all probability, ever formulated systematically. He communicated them to some of his senior Hasidim, who later became the community’s first marriage guides (madrikhim), and they passed them on to the community as “oral law.”

These ordinances are known to many, even outside Gur, and, as I was able to verify in conversation with a number of Gerer Hasidim, they consist of the following:

• The couple shall have sexual intercourse only once a month, on leil tevilah (the night after the wife’s immersion in the mikveh at the end of her halachically prescribed menstrual period).

• The couple shall refrain from sexual intercourse from as early as the seventh month of pregnancy.

• After the wife has given birth, the couple shall refrain from sexual intercourse for a further period of six months.

• During intercourse, the couple shall aim to minimize physical contact. The husband shall wear some of his clothes, including his tsitsit (considered a segulah—supernatural remedy—against the sexual drive) and will not hug or kiss his wife or engage in any behavior that is not required for the performance of the act of intercourse itself.

• The husband shall direct his thoughts as far away as possible from the sexual act.

Beside these ordinances, the couple’s conduct in everyday life is governed by certain additional norms that relate to the ordinances without fully belonging to them. For instance, the husband should never walk alongside his wife in public but must always keep a distance of at least four cubits (about two meters) between them; the husband should not address his wife by her first name; etc.

Notably, the ordinances are all addressed to men. In Gur, only men are full-fledged Hasidim, and the Hasidic religious endeavor (avodah, commonly pronounced avoyde) is their duty alone.

Ironically, Gerer women were traditionally known to pay close attention to their external appearance and to dress more fashionably than most other Hasidic women. When a few years ago the current rebbe first imposed some limitations on women’s dress, this was received with consternation in anonymous Gerer forums on the internet. There are individuals who serve as marriage guides, either for men or for women, in all Haredi communities, but under the impact of the ordinances, the men’s guides in Gur play a much more dominant role in the young couple’s life. Usually they prepare the bridegroom for his wedding night, and continue to accompany him during his first months or even years of marriage. Often they advise him on marital problems, but above all else, they are authorized to introduce him to the ordinances. One of the older madrikhim, R. Avraham Yosef (Avrum Yoysef) Irenstein, is considered a supreme authority in matters of kedushah.

The ordinances do not function as rigid norms. In particular, the length of the period of abstinence following childbirth is subject to variation. The Beys Yisroel had recommended a whole year, but the limit he actually set was six months. His brother and successor, R. Simhah Bunem (the Lev Simhah, 1896–1992), lowered the bar to three months. He also allowed the Hasidim to have sexual intercourse not only on leil tevilah but also on the subsequent Friday night. The next rebbe, their half-brother, R. Pinhas Menahem (the Penei Menahem, 1926–96), recommended that the limit be shortened to six months, and the present rebbe, R. Yaakov Aryeh (born 1939), the Lev Simhah’s son, has again tended toward relative leniency. There are also special circumstances in which the marriage guides allow and even suggest certain leniencies to the young couple. A Gerer Hasid has told me that when he traveled with his wife to the United States, his guide instructed him to increase the frequency of sexual intercourse, because America is “a country of promiscuity.”

The ordinances have had far-reaching social implications. By presenting the Gerer avrekhim (young married men) with a demanding religious challenge, they have raised their collective pride and enhanced their sense of group identity, distinguishing them from other Hasidic groups. On the other hand, the ordinances have had a detrimental effect on the demand for Gerer bachelors in the Haredi matchmaking market, and there are Gerers who complain that the ordinances are too stringent or even question the need for them. Consequently, from time to time, rumors spread that the ordinances are to be revoked or attenuated, although this may reflect wishful thinking rather than the rebbe’s actual intention.

Recently, it was rumored that the Beys Yisroel had addressed the ordinances only to an elite group of virtuous men and not to the entire community, but all the reliable sources point to the contrary. This is a typical attempt to rewrite the past in order to gain legitimacy for tendencies or aspirations emerging in the present. In truth, it is likely that no Gerer rebbe would ever be able to revoke the ordinances, as they have become something of a Gur “trademark.”

Kedushah in Slonim: The Morality of Aspiration

Another Hasidic group that adopted an ideal of marital abstinence is Slonim. Here we find no ordinances. The Slonimer rebbes only preach the ideal of kedushah as a religious value, leaving it for each individual to decide to what degree he is able and willing to fulfill it—kol had kefum shi‘ura dileih (each according to his own [spiritual] degree). In Lon Fuller’s terminology, the ideal of kedushah in Slonim is not a “morality of duty” but rather a “morality of aspiration.”

Slonim is a historical offspring of the Hasidic groups of Lechovitch [Lachowicze] and Kobrin, where some elements of the ideal of kedushah may have been fostered, though probably with different emphases and to a lesser degree than in present-day Slonim. The practice of sexual abstinence within marriage apparently began—though it is impossible to establish this with certainty—with the third Slonimer rebbe, R. Avraham (Avrom) II (1884–1933), known by the title of his homiletic work, Beit Avraham, as the Beys Avrom. At that time, Slonim was a small Hasidic group, and there is no way of knowing how effectively he was able to control it. Subsequent Slonim rebbes have tried to instill the value of kedushah, with varying degrees of insistence.

The most impressive figure in the history of modern Slonim is R. Shalom (Sholem) Noah Berezovsky (1911–2000), known by the title of his major work, the Netivot Shalom, as the Nesives Sholem or, in short, the Nesives. He was the son-in-law of R. Avrom III (1889–1981), and as such was nominated in the 1940s to be head of the Slonimer Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In that capacity, he played an important role in the restoration of Slonim in Israel, preserving and publishing its oral traditions, and advancing Torah learning within the Slonim community. He also maintained a relationship of mutual appreciation with the Beys Yisroel of Gur. When his predecessor R. Avrom III was incapacitated by illness and near the end of his life, the Nesives was crowned the next Slonimer rebbe by the majority of the Hasidim. This was exceptional and in terms of traditional Hasidic ethics, even outrageous.

After the passing of R. Avrom, a minority that refused to accept the leadership of the Nesives followed R. Avrom IV, husband of the late rebbe’s granddaughter, who established his court in Bnei Brak. The group that followed the Nesives, known as Slonim Vayse (Weisse—the White Slonim), is considered more liberal than its rival, known as Slonim Shvartse (Schwarze—the Black Slonim), but their liberal approach is mostly confined to their attitude to modernity and Zionism, while on matters of kedushah, the Weisse are as strict and perhaps even stricter than the Schwarze.

Even though the Nesives was otherwise relatively moderate and even open-minded, in regard to kedushah he had a strong urge to revive and even radicalize the old values of the past. Still, when addressing the topic in public, he used the most abstract and elusive language, trusting his audience to understand the internal codes, and he was even more careful in this respect in the published version of his addresses to the Hasidim. Kedushah in Slonim was never promoted as a set of formal ordinances, and the rebbes did not set any fixed standards of abstinence. The only rule has been to refrain from sexual intercourse on the Sabbath.

Both Slonim and Gur place a theological emphasis on the sanctity of the Sabbath, but the practical implications of this for each group are different. In Gur, the Sabbath is the day when a second monthly sexual intercourse is allowed, while in Slonim it is forbidden, as if the crude physical act of intercourse would defile the spirituality of the holy day. There is even a Slonimer saying that a man who has sexual intercourse on Friday night is not allowed to recite the Nishmas (shorthand for nishmat kol hai)—a paragraph in the Sabbath morning prayer, considered one of the high points of the Sabbath service in the Slonim tradition. The Slonimer rebbes have encouraged their followers to dedicate Friday night to Hasidic communions that often end late at night. Besides the value that Hasidism normally places on such communions, it is quite clear that they are also designed to encourage the men to stay away from home during the hours in which they are most liable to be sexually “vulnerable,” and perhaps even to create a tacit mechanism to ensure compliance with the kedushah goal of abstinence.

The fact that the Slonimer rebbes have not standardized the kedushah restrictions as ordinances does not mean that they have treated them lightly. The Slonimer Hasidim can be very radical in their practice of sexual abstinence, and some of them avoid intercourse for very long time spans. According to current rumors, some Hasidim complain that the very proximity of their wives is a distraction from the endeavor to attain the desired goal, but we may assume these cases to be unusual.

Kedushah in Toldes Aaron: The Milder Version

The third Hasidic group that adopted the kedushah norms of marital abstinence is Toldes Aaron. Reb Aharon Roth (1894–1947), known as Reb Ahrele, was born in Hungary and came under the influence of the rebbes of Belz [Bełz] and Blozhev [Bła˙zowa]. He immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1925, returned to Hungary, and in 1939 finally settled permanently in Jerusalem. While still in Hungary, and subsequently in Jerusalem, he established small groups (havurot) of Hasidim who adopted high standards of religious observance. In particular, he called for the investment of great effort in prayer, mutual assistance, and modesty. The latter, in contrast to the Gur norm, entailed an emphasis on women’s dress and on men’s duty to refrain from looking at women (kedushat ha’einayim), as well as a strict prohibition of masturbation (shemirat haberit).

Reb Ahrele also emphasized the attainment of kedushah in other spheres of physical activity, such as eating. He too, issued ordinances for his Hasidim. The printed version, published shortly after his death, does not refer to sexual intercourse, but we may assume that he did issue directives on sexual matters, which probably circulated orally.

Shortly after R. Ahrele’s death, his Hasidic following spilt into two groups: A minority followed his son, R. Avraham (Avrom) Hayim (1924–2012), who later settled in Bnei Brak, while the majority followed his son-in-law, R. Avraham Yitshak (Avrom Yitshok) Kohn (1914–96), the rebbe of Toldes Aaron in Jerusalem. Surprisingly, R. Avrom Yitshok was a former disciple of the Satmar rebbe, who had come into conflict with his father-in-law, R. Ahrele, in Hungary. He brought to the group some of the robust characteristics of Satmar, including a stronger emphasis on the anti-Zionist stance. Toldes Aaron Hasidism soon became a symbol of ultra-Orthodox extremism and social enclosure.

The rebbe of Toldes Aaron, too, urged his Hasidim to observe the norms of kedushah, but the standards he set were somewhat lower than those of the otherwise moderate Gur and Slonim. He permitted sexual intercourse not only on both leil tevilah and leil Shabbat (Sabbath night, i.e., Friday night), but also whenever the wife expressed her desire for it (never overtly but rather by subtle indications such as self-adornment or the use of perfume). Moreover, the rebbe permitted the moderate expression of physical affection between husband and wife. Hugs and kisses are allowed, and during intercourse are even recommended. No directives to distract the thought from the act were given. He even published a short pamphlet titled “Divrei kedushah,” based on his talks addressing this issue. The outer cover of the pamphlet contained the warning: “Intended for married men (avrekhim) only; bachelors (bahurim) are not permitted to read this text.” “Divrei kedushah” does not issue any detailed instructions, but the basic rules can be read between the lines, and the language is certainly more explicit than that used by the rebbes of Gur or Slonim.

On account of the relative openness and leniency of the kedushah discourse in Toldes Aaron, Gur, and Slonim Hasidim often scorn it as being crass, but this is probably part of the generally condescending attitude of all Polish and Lithuanian Hasidic groups toward Hungarian Hasidism. At some stage, the rebbe appointed Rabbi Daniel Frisch (1935–2005) to be the official Toldes Aaron marriage guide. Rabbi Frisch was a renowned kabbalist, the author of the voluminous commentary on the Zohar, Matok midevash, who commanded a great deal of prestige in his community. His function was to seclude himself with every young bridegroom immediately after his hupah, at the peak of the wedding excitement, in order to explain to him in detail what he should expect and do on the first night of his marriage. The explanations would be very explicit—“only pictures were missing,” as one of my informants added with a smile—and quite shocking to many of the young men, who were being exposed to the facts of life for the very first time. Some would even receive a short written document with practical instructions. Often they would need guidance even after the first night, if they had failed in the task of consummation or just wished to relieve their anxiety about it.

Evaluations of Rabbi Frisch’s personality by renegade Toldes Aaron Hasidim vary: Some describe him as the “horror of the bridegrooms” while others portray him as a considerate person who did his best with the unprofessional tools at his disposal. Rabbi Frisch wrote a number of books and pamphlets on Jewish laws, customs, and ethics (musar), of which one became particularly influential: Kedushah utseni’ut (Holiness and Modesty). First published in the 1970s, the book ran into many editions, growing larger and more comprehensive from one edition to the next. Except for the introductory chapters, it is, in fact, a selective anthology of quotations from standard books of ethics, kabbalah, and Hasidism—a strategy adopted as a defense against potential critics of the book. It is also furnished with a large number of endorsements (haskamot) by prominent rabbis and Hasidic rebbes, including the rebbe of Toldes Aaron. The rebbe’s own pamphlet, “Divrei kedushah,” was incorporated in the later editions of Rabbi Frisch’s book. Frisch copied verbatim the warning on the cover of the rebbe’s pamphlet, pasting it on the front page of his own book. It is available in Haredi bookstores, but generally sold only to married men and never displayed on the open shelves (booksellers would pull it out on request from a concealed storage place).

Kedushah utseni’ut is probably the most explicit Hasidic text on the norms of sexual life. While being written in a delicate rabbinical idiom, it refers to almost every aspect of the physical interaction between husband and wife. The relatively mild character of kedushah in Toldes Aaron is surprising but may be explained by the socio-cultural background of the group. In Hungarian Hasidism (and possibly in Hungarian-Jewish culture in general), the family is considered a very important institution. Family cohesion is held to be a foremost value in the life of the individual and an important element contributing to the fortitude of the community as a whole. The idea that affectionate relations between husband and wife might interfere with man’s religious “ascent” is almost inconceivable in this culture.

Kedushah in Its Theological Context: The Beys Yisroel of Gur

The Beys Yisroel enacted the kedushah ordinances only after he became rebbe in 1948. However, there is some evidence to suggest that his stringent conception of kedushah was developed and implemented even earlier, albeit on a small scale. We know that when he was still in Warsaw (1914–40), he cultivated a select group of young married men at the Gerer shtibl (prayer and meeting house) on Nalewki Street. Here he may have initiated them into his notion of kedushah, for according to at least one historical testimony, the Gerer Hasidim of the Nalewki shtibl were observing stringent sexual restrictions as early as the 1920s or 30s. In addition, a letter he sent during the same period from Warsaw to a Gerer Hasid in Haifa instructs the addressee on the practice of kedushah, emphasizing the prohibition on looking at women (kedushat ha’einayim). Instructions on sexual intercourse are mentioned in the letter only once and very allusively. This is hardly surprising, given that when he subsequently became rebbe, R. Yisroel refrained altogether from referring to sexual restrictions explicitly, both in writing and in his public addresses.

The addressee of the letter, Moshe Rosenstrauch, had apparently complained that he was unable to devote enough of his time to Torah study. R. Yisroel assured him that this omission was not too grave, stressing instead what he believed to be a more important challenge:

If at present you do not have enough time for learning, you are not at fault, and the Lord Almighty may yet help you find more time for learning. But those things that do depend on you, you should observe meticulously. Once again, I tell you expressly that I do not mean [abstaining from] things that are done unintentionally or out of real necessity but rather [from] those that are not absolutely essential. You should take care to observe the same standards as a married scholar (avrekh) six months after his wedding, or as a bachelor who follows the path of Hasidism. You must guard your eyes as much as possible and close them altogether whenever necessary, as it is written: “[He that] shutteth his eyes from seeing evil.” By this you would avoid evil thoughts. I ask you not to take the matter lightly, because it is the main thing. … You should know that in my opinion, the very essence of Hasidism (and even of Judaism) depends on this.”

There is no doubt that the phrase cited above refers to limitations on sexual intercourse within marriage. Even at this early stage of his development, the Beys Yisroel had adopted the idea that kedushah was the essential tenet on which Hasidism, and even the whole of Judaism, depended. In later writings, he often used the term “a fundamental principle in Judaism” (yesod bayahadut) and sometimes even “the fundamental principle of Judaism” (yesod hayahadut). Consequently, Gerer Hasidim often refer to kedushah as yidishkeit (Judaism or Jewishness). This rhetoric suggests that R. Yisroel conceived of kedushah as a timeless and immutable value, although a subsequent passage in the same letter implies that he regarded it as particularly relevant to the challenges of his own time:

In our times, when concerns about livelihood are so great, and while hearts and minds are small, the main challenge for a man is to guard himself so as to avoid committing those acts from which it is possible to refrain. Given that it is so difficult to comply with “Do good …,” it is even more necessary to observe “… and depart from evil.” This is why I consider this particular point a great principle.

The Beys Yisroel states clearly, then, that his interpretation of kedushah stems from his understanding not only of Hasidism but also of the challenges facing his own generation, a generation which has deteriorated both morally (hearts) and intellectually (minds). When the Beys Yisroel became rebbe, he stressed these ideas time and again in his talks (shmussen), especially on the Torah portion of Kedoshim (Lev. 19:1–20:27). He often took as his starting point the conflicting interpretations by Rashi and Nahmanides of the verse “Ye shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi interprets it as follows: “Separate yourselves from the forbidden sexual relations [mentioned in the preceding verses] and from sin.” Nahmanides, by contrast, sees the injunction to be holy as relating to all spheres of life, and emphasizes that it calls for a more restrictive standard than that required by the explicit Torah prohibitions. He warns that one should not be “a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah” and that therefore, one should refrain from drinking wine to excess, stay away from impurity, avoid gross overeating and coarse speech, and, in the same spirit, “minimize sexual intercourse.”

In his early discourses, the rebbe stressed that the main aspect of kedushah was “the Holiness of the Eyes,” and that the endeavor to achieve kedushah belonged mainly to “the days of youth” (an allusive reference to the struggle to refrain from masturbation). Yet all these motifs become quite scarce in the Beys Yisroel’s later discourses, where—although he does not directly address the issue of marital abstinence—the most recurrent themes, stressed time and again, are that whoever sanctifies himself “from below” receives assistance from Heaven and is sanctified “from above,” and that one should try to disseminate kedushah to others. Nevertheless, some allusions to the more stringent restrictions on marital sex entailed in kedushah do occur here and there in his collection of homilies. One example is the homily on the Torah portion of Yitro, dating from 1957. According to Scripture, God said to Moses: “Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow.” Moses, however, said to the people: “Be ready for the third day, come not to your wives.” The sages had already noted that “Moses added one day out of his own understanding,” i.e., at his own initiative. The Beys Yisroel interpreted this addition as an example of “Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you.”

“Come not to your wives”—[not even] next to [your] wife. And the point of kedushah is, as it was written: “Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you.” The verse may imply that Moses added an extra day … even though this had not been commanded [by God]. And this is the point of kedushah, to sanctify oneself beyond what is decreed. The verse “sanctify them today and tomorrow” teaches that the idea of sanctifying oneself by what is permitted refers to all the generations, and that the addition [namely, the requirement to go beyond the Halacha] is the method of attaining kedushah.

In this homily, it is clear that the Beys Yisroel is referring to kedushah in terms of conjugal relations, and that he calls for “additions” in this sphere that go beyond the requirements of Halacha. These additions allude to the extended duration of sexual abstinence (as Moses “added an extra day”) and to the avoidance of such actions as do not directly relate but may lead to intercourse (“[not even] next to [your] wife”). A few lines further in the same talks, the Beys Yisroel explains that these restrictions are conducive not only to the attainment of kedushah in the future but also to the atonement for sins committed in the past. Moreover, he is no longer speaking about an individual scale of values but rather is setting a norm for the whole of his flock.

Kedushah in Its Theological Context: The Nesives Sholem of Slonim

Rabbi Sholem Noah’s voluminous work, Netivot Shalom (commonly pronounced Nesives Sholem), which is based on his addresses to his Hasidim, contains many discussions on the concept of kedushah. He writes that the requirements of kedushah are pertinent in two spheres of activity: eating and coition. Food nourishes the blood, and thus eating “for the sake of Heaven” renders one’s blood holy and pure. Similarly, as sexual desire comes from the “boiling of the bloods,” he who engages in sexual intercourse “not in order to satisfy his lust,” but rather to “elevate his evil desires according to God’s will,” manages to “purify and refine his blood so that it does not boil for sin.” Kedushah is very difficult to attain because man is born with the “capacities for lust,” and because, if he fails to “guard the holy covenant” (i.e., engage in sexual sins, especially masturbation), his failure damages spiritually not only the organ that committed the sin but also his entire body. In fact, kedushah cannot be achieved by man alone, without the help of Heaven.

The Slonimer rebbe often refers to sexual matters as midat hayesod, namely, the human equivalent of the kabbalistic attribute (emanation) of the godhead known as the sefirah of Yesod. This sefirah, the ninth in the order of divine emanations, is symbolized by the male sex organ. The Slonimer rebbe contends that sins related to this attribute are the main cause of the exile, and therefore the practice of kedushah in respect of the sexual sphere of life is the key to the redemption. This holds true for “the redemption of the collective” just as it does for “the redemption of the individual.” Thus the battle against the sexual urge is man’s most important task: Just as in a war between adversaries, the decisive battle is fought over the strongest fort, … so it is in the war against the [evil] inclination: The main battle takes place at this attribute, the attribute of Yesod, which is called the attribute of desire—the gateway to the body, the gateway to all that is corporeal and material, at which the decisive battle is waged between the divine soul, which comes to man from above, and the animal soul. [This determines] whether the divine soul will prevail, so that one would be holy and pure, like an angel from Heaven, or whether, Heaven Forbid, the animal soul will prevail, and one will be reduced to living like an animal.

Against potential moderation in this respect, he reiterates a statement, which he attributes to the Beys Avrom, and adds: There is no middle way in worldly affairs; [rather, there is] either a commandment or a transgression. As has been transmitted by the true tsadikim with regard to “Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you,” you may imagine that something is permitted, but the truth is that nothing is permitted; everything is either an obligation or a prohibition.

Eighteenth-century Hasidism spoke about turning the ego (ani) into naught (ayin), or the nullification of one’s sense of existence (bitul hayesh), advocating what would seem to be an ideal of mystical self-annihilation. Later Hasidism, however, took the same terms to denote an ethical ideal demanding the ultimate degree of humility. The Nesives invests these terms with yet another meaning: one should nullify one’s material existence, namely, purify it to the extent that it becomes spiritual. In other words, one should direct the energies of one’s physical desires to the love and worship of God.

An attitude that allows no room for compromise with the evil inclination is typical of many radical religious movements. But Slonim is not a radical religious movement in other aspects of religious life. The rebbe is consistent in his view that this uncompromising stance should be adopted only in respect of the one important battlefield—sexual desire—where human nature is least likely to comply with a restrictive discipline.

In Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer rebbe addresses the community as a whole. Personal directives he may have issued to individual Hasidim are hardly to be found. This is why I ascribe great importance to two letters he wrote in the years 1956–7, long before he became rebbe, to students in the Slonimer Yeshiva. Neither of the documents has ever been published. The Slonimer Hasidim regard them as confidential and give them only to “serious” bridegrooms (warnings against delivering them into unauthorized hands appear in both of them). The letter of 1956 is called “The Wedding Day Letter” (Mikhtav yom hahupah), and is handed to them a few hours before their wedding, as part of their marriage guidance, and the one of 1957 is called “The Three Months Letter” (Mikhtav gimmel hodashim) because it is given to them after three months of marriage.

A few years ago, I managed to obtain copies of these letters, which turned out to be quite abstract, conveying the same ideas as those encountered in R. Sholem Noah’s homilies. However, while “The Wedding Day Letter” is altogether theoretical, “The Three Months Letter” adopts a somewhat more intimate tone and speaks a little more explicitly:

It is against my nature to write about these matters, but I am concerned, and I care about you …, as I have brought you up, fostered and guided you up until now, [showing you how] to be wholesome during the days of your youth [=bachelorhood]. But now that you are a married man, I see that once again, you stand alone, engaged in a raging battle that is even fiercer than the previous one. For in that [first battle, i.e., before marriage], it was prohibited, while in this [second battle, i.e., within marriage], it is permitted. Many have already been slain, and many others will be slain [in this battle]. Only the elect few [yehidei segulah], whom God has preserved and planted in every generation, can emerge from it [unharmed] and gloriously victorious. By virtue of this they go on to illuminate other realms [of life] as well. I pray that you, my beloved, will be among them.

Notably, the picture drawn by the Nesives is quite the opposite of what we usually find in the Talmud and the traditional ethical literature, where the challenge of controlling the sexual drive confronts man before his marriage, while after marriage, he “has bread in his basket” (pat besalo), namely, he is able to satisfy his desire lawfully. In the struggle to control the sexual drive, marriage is traditionally presented as the solution, not the problem, and yet here the position is reversed: The most difficult struggle takes place within matrimonial life, precisely because in marriage, sex is prima-facie permissible.

Following many Musar and Hasidic thinkers before him, the Nesives maintains that the challenge of observing kedushah lies mainly in the first year of marriage, the year that determines the husband’s conduct for the rest of his married life: “When Satan sees a young husband who strives to excel in his divine service, he instigates a quarrel between him and his wife, and this enables him to ensnare the husband in whatever he does.” The idea is that a quarrel between husband and wife during the day is likely to lead to reconciliation (namely, sexual intercourse) by night, and this is precisely what should be avoided as much as possible; it is even offered as a rationale for maintaining peaceful relations in the home! Moreover, when sexual intercourse does take place, to fulfill the mitsvah of onah, the husband must act “as one compelled by a demon” and avoid thinking about his wife for the rest of the day. When he “faces all manner of physical and mental temptations,” while at the same time “having compassion” [for his wife, who is assumed to crave marital intercourse], he should “resist all this with [the dedication of] self-sacrifice, for the Torah endures only in him who sacrifices himself for it, becoming cruel to himself and to members of his household. Only then … would his mouth and heart open up with Torah and prayer.” The rebbe urges his addressee not to despair, promising him great rewards in this world and the next if he rises to these challenges.

Kedushah in Its Theological Context: Toldes Aaron

R. Avrom Yitshok Kohn, the rebbe of Toldes Aaron, also invokes the rhetoric of religious “ascent,” stressing the need to guard oneself against the “street,” but he dwells much more on the detrimental outcomes of unholy conduct. His pamphlet, “Divrei kedushah,” opens with his favorite topic—the requirement to overcome the evil inclination “in youth,” namely, to refrain from masturbation. But he soon arrives at the main issue, quoting a tradition attributed to R. Aharon II of Karlin (the Beys Aaron): The difference between the Hasid and the ordinary person is that the Hasid says: “That which is forbidden is certainly forbidden, while that which is permitted—I nevertheless do not have to do it.” The ordinary person, on the other hand, says the opposite: “That which is permitted is certainly permitted, while that which is forbidden—I can nevertheless seek permission to do it.”

And he concludes: “Even that which is permitted requires a great deal of careful attention and prudence in determining how to behave rather than being eager to satisfy one’s lust. And this is what the sages meant by ‘Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you”’ [B. Yevamot 20a]. The rebbe focuses on the destructive consequences suffered by the child who is the product of unholy coitus. By contrast, children conceived in holiness are righteous and better equipped to overcome their own sexual drives. Such children possess the “grace of holiness” and display a better aptitude for Torah and prayer. On the other hand, those who fail to comply with the requirements of holiness and who indulge their physical desires would never truly feel the love of God. Even if occasionally they may be stirred by a certain “liveliness” in prayer, none of it would endure.

Kedushah, however, applies not only to sexual intercourse but also to other areas of family life:

It is one of the principles of Hasidism, as well as the rule for our group, that husband and wife do not walk together in the street. Many other Hasidic groups also observe this strictly. And if the couple must walk together, as, for example, when they return from their parents’ home, the husband must walk ahead with his wife behind him. Now there are those who not only walk together but almost touch each other, and this is very unsightly and reproachable. … Some [married couples] take care not to pass [to each other] an object from hand to hand even during [her] days of purity, especially if this may be observed by others, because others are not supposed to know at what stage she is in her menstrual cycle. Whoever can act in this manner should do so, although in truth, this depends on one’s own feeling: If he is not affected by this [contact with his wife], and if it makes no difference to him whether he hands her the object or puts it on the table—then, according to Halacha, there is no need to observe such a stricture. However, he who is affected [by such contact] and experiences lust or an erection, God forbid, should take it as an absolute prohibition, as the Sages said “He who brings himself to a state of erection will not be allowed to enter the division of the Holy One, blessed be He” [B. Niddah 13b], and this is a very grave sin. And if his wife does not agree to comply with this stricture, he should explain to her the gravity of this transgression.

The rebbe goes on to emphasize the importance of “holiness of the eyes” (kedushat ha’einayim), urging his followers to refrain from looking at women, especially “in our times,” when “the streets are full of obscenity and promiscuity, and it is very difficult to guard oneself.”

Even though the pamphlet touches upon practical aspects of kedushah in a language that is much more explicit than that used by the rebbes of Gur or Slonim, it nevertheless remains virtually silent about the most important issue, sexual intercourse itself. For the rebbe’s thoughts on this, we must turn to other sources.

The frequency of sexual intercourse prescribed in Toldes Aaron for most married men is approximately three times a month: leil tevilah followed by the next two Friday nights—a standard that complies with the Halacha on the frequency of intercourse appropriate for “scholars” (onat talmidei hakhamim), which, according to later halachic authorities, may be adopted by laymen as well. There are no specific prohibitions on displays of physical affection such as hugging and kissing; all that is required is that during intercourse, one’s thoughts should be holy and focused exclusively on the fulfillment of the mitsvah. But an interesting three-way correspondence from 1977, between the rebbe of Toldes Aaron, R. Daniel Frisch, and an individual whom, to protect his privacy, I shall call Y, sheds additional light on this issue. The correspondence has never been published, but through personal contacts I was able to obtain copies of the letters written by the rebbe and by R. Frisch, while the background of the correspondence was explained to me by members of the community who remembered the events described.

Y was a prominent follower of Toldes Aaron, a member of one of the most respectable Jerusalem-Hungarian families. According to one hearsay, immediately after his wedding, while R. Daniel Frisch was instructing him on the conduct of his first marital night, he fainted. Sometime later, he became acquainted with the Beys Yisroel of Gur, and was so impressed by him—especially by his attitude to kedushah—that he became a Gerer Hasid, turning his back on his former Hasidic community. He clearly considered the ordinances of Gur superior to those of Toldes Aaron by virtue of being more stringent and more demanding, and he was particularly critical of R. Daniel Frisch as the Toldes Aaron marital guide, although the specific points of his criticism remain unclear.

One of the allegations he leveled was, apparently, against the permission to engage in hugs and kisses during intercourse, acts that are strictly proscribed in Gur.

Gur received Y with open arms, while the rebbe of Toldes Aaron was naturally distressed by his desertion. To appease his former rebbe, Y wrote an apologetic letter explaining his move, which he sent to the rebbe via an intermediary—the very same R. Daniel Frisch, of whom he had earlier been so critical. Frisch wrote back to report that the rebbe was refusing to read Y’s letter, quoting him as saying angrily (in Yiddish): “He [Y] is of no interest to me. He has made a mockery [leitsanut] of me, and a mockery of our whole community, including his own father, as if whoever wanted to be a [good] Jew had to run away from us.” R. Frisch also responded to the accusation Y had leveled at him:

You referred in your letter to me, too, claiming that I was inadequate as a marital guide, and that on account of this, all our young married men are rolling in filth, etc., etc. I really do not understand; for surely, the act [of sexual intercourse] as such may be performed in a lustful and degenerate manner [even though it is a mitsvah], while—with the right intention—it is possible to engage in hugging and kissing [which are not required for the fulfillment of the mitsvah] in a state of holiness and purity. I know that there are [diverse] views about this among the tsadikim of our generation, but the main thing is to direct one’s heart to Heaven.

To his next letter, R. Frisch attached a letter from the rebbe, and he offered Y the opportunity to restate his original grievances in more polite terms, so that he would be able show them to the rebbe.

The attached letter from the rebbe, which is quite long, was addressed to Frisch, but it is quite clear that the arguments in it were addressed to Y. It begins with an expression of concern for Y and for the souls of his children, and then proceeds as follows:

Now let us consider the crux of the matter. Even if, by means of this self-sacrifice, he appears to be committed to maintaining himself in holiness and purity, and his intention [appears to be] good, it is nevertheless clear from the addenda of R. Tsvi Elimelekh of Dynów to the book Turn Aside From Evil [and Do Good …] that if a person adopts stringencies and departs from the ways of the world [i.e., strays from the accepted norms of conduct], he draws upon himself accusations [from Heaven] …, and who knows whether he would be able to withstand them. It is explained there that this was the intention of Aharon and Miriam when they spoke against Moses who had adopted the path of abstinence that diverged from the ways of the world. The Lord told them that this [i.e., the ways of the world] applied to other people but not to “my servant Moses” [Num. 12:7]. … You also know that according to the Zohar, this was why [Satan] accused Job, for he had sacrificed only burnt offerings, which are entirely consumed by fire on the altar, and he did not give any share to the sitra ahra [the Power of Evil]. Had he sacrificed peace offerings [which are partly consumed by the sacrificer], then Satan would not have accused him. Now the Lord has given us his Holy Torah, and whoever follows the path of Torah receives Heavenly assistance and protection from above. But he who pursues a path that lies beyond his reach, Satan eventually collects his share from him.

The rebbe adds a homiletic interpretation of Exodus 15:9, from which he seeks to demonstrate that to overcome the evil inclination one must “share the spoils” with it, i.e., satisfy it to some degree. I assume that this unpublished correspondence is the most outright and explicit formulation of the idea underlying the relative leniency of Toldes Aaron regarding kedushah. Although it is apologetic about this leniency, it justifies it in theological terms that conceal psychological sensitivities: The Evil Inclination cannot be suppressed altogether, and any attempt to achieve such a goal is liable to lead to undesirable consequences. Therefore, one should “bribe” the Evil Inclination with leniencies, satisfy and placate rather than provoke it to a full confrontation. This approach reflects a willingness to allow precisely those compromises to which the Nesives so staunchly objected.

The Kedushah Polemic

The ideal of kedushah as posited by Gur, Slonim, and Toldes Aaron met with opposition within the broader Orthodox camp. Shortly after the Beys Yisroel enacted his ordinances, prominent Litvish (mitnagdic) rabbis criticized them sharply both on halachic and on Musar grounds. The polemic eventually subsided, and kedushah, though rejected by many, gradually came to be viewed as a legitimate Hasidic norm. However, in Gur itself, the ordinances became a controversial subject. Here no one denied their validity, but the Hasidim, especially the marriage guides, disagreed over their interpretation.

Already in pre-war Poland, a prominent Hasidic teacher (but not a rebbe!) criticized the application of the kedushah ideal in Hasidism, although his criticism was not publicized until the 1990s. This was Rabbi Avraham Shimon Engel-Horovitz (known as Reb Shimon Zhelichover), the renowned mashgiah (ethical guide) of the famous rabbinic academy in Lublin (yeshivat hakhmei Lublin). In a letter to one of his newly married former students, he acknowledged that “one should take great care to avoid thinking about sexual matters, even in reference to animals or to one’s own wife,” but he sharply criticizes those who took the ideal of sexual purity to extremes: “As for sexual matters—I am fully aware that many have fallen into this trap. They broke down on account of what they had read in the books or had heard from their rebbes, which they failed to understand correctly. They believed that if a Jew was not as pure as an angel he was worthless and there was no hope for him. This drove many to despair and desolation, which in turn prompted some to withdraw from the permitted and fall, Heaven forbid, into the prohibited, even though they were virtuous and righteous. … Even some of our own men have adopted excessive stringencies, [and there is no need to spell out] the damage that they have caused; the Lord Almighty knows the truth.”

The most famous document criticizing the kedushah norms is a letter by R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish (1878–1953), who was the most influential Haredi leader in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even though he does not mention any group or person, it is quite clear that the letter addresses the conjugal norms of Gur. The Hazon Ish does not refer to sexual abstinence as such—he himself is reported to have practiced it, refraining from physical contact with his wife once she refused his divorce proposal—but rather focuses on the Gur kedushah norm of “distancing” the husband from his wife in everyday life.

The Hazon Ish is particularly outraged by the Gerer Hasidim’s adoption of this practice even in the first year of marriage, about which the Torah says: “He shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken” (Deut. 24:5). He insists that to “cheer up” means “striving to demonstrate affection and intimacy through conversing with one’s wife often and addressing her in placating terms,” since “at times, a formal and respectful attitude can express lack of intimacy.” It is therefore preferable for the husband to adopt “a jocular and light-hearted manner” in addressing his wife. He also advises the husband “to tell his wife where he is going whenever he leaves the house, and on his return, to share with her [news on] what he has been doing, and [to discuss with her] other such trivial matters, to encourage and gladden her heart.”

The Hazon Ish probably wrote this letter in Bnei Brak in the early 1950s. At approximately the same time and in the same place, another Litvish rabbi, R. Yitshak Isaac Sher (1881–1952), the head of the prestigious Slobodka Yeshiva, wrote an article entitled Kedushat yisra’el [the Holiness of the Jewish People], which dealt somewhat more bluntly with the same sensitive issue. It is no wonder that his article remained unpublished for many years and has only recently been posted on an internet site.

Rabbi Sher begins by drawing attention to an apparent controversy between Maimonides and Nahmanides, the former condemning sexual desire and the latter condoning it as holy. Rabbi Sher concludes that there is no real disagreement between them: Sexual desire, like all other physical desires, is natural and should be condemned only if it is indulged by way of excessive pleasures, but it is holy when it functions within the boundaries set by the Torah, namely, in order to fulfill the commandment of onah. He proceeds to analyze the views of Rashi and Nahmanides on the matter, concluding as follows:

One does not observe the mitsvah [of onah] properly if one performs it only in order to fulfill one’s obligation. … In truth, he who performs coition without ardor violates [the commandment] “her duty of marriage [= onah] shall he not diminish” (Ex. 21:10). … Just as it is prohibited to abstain altogether from the act itself, which is the husband’s duty of onah in respect of his wife, so it is prohibited to refrain from physical intimacy with her, which is what the wife craves—to enjoy her physical intimacy with her husband. This entails desire that goes beyond what is required for [the performance of] the act itself. The husband is commanded to satisfy her desire as she pleases. And see [B.] Yevamot 62 and Pesahim 72, where it is stated explicitly that whenever she desires and yearns for her husband—this is her [rightful] onah, even if it exceeds the prescribed minimum.

Rabbi Sher goes on to attack the Hasidic understanding of kedushah:

I have heard that some pretended God-fearing and pious men [mithasedim] take great care to fulfill this mitsvah for the sake of Heaven, without any desire. Such a person would busy himself half the night with Torah and prayer … and only then, after midnight, would he come home and wake up his wife, prattle to her placatingly in order to fulfill this mitsvah. [Naturally,] she allows him to do with her as he pleases, and he is proud of having managed to fulfill this commandment without [succumbing to] the evil inclination, [namely], without any impure lust. He later wonders why the sons he has produced in this way have turned out to be wicked or stupid! Surely, the reason is the false belief that it is wrong to perform the commandment [of onah] with desire, whereas [the truth is that] a son conceived without desire turns out to be foolish, as is well known, and when intercourse takes place without the wife’s full consent or desire, that is, when she would rather be asleep and is angry with her husband for disturbing her and doing with her as he pleases rather than as she pleases, then he violates a Torah prohibition, and his sons will possess the nine evil traits of the rebellious and sinful.

As an adherent of the Musar movement (musarnik), which developed in the Lithuanian yeshivot in the late 19th century and called for ethical self-improvement, R. Sher acknowledges that the couple achieve sanctification by ensuring that during coitus they focus on nothing other than the ethical and religious significance of the act. He takes this significance to be (a) the creation of a new human being, which resembles the work of God; (b) the union of male and female in the image of God, by which, “through the power of desire,” they come to resemble Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and (c) a means of enhancing their love for each other, which is not only a virtue in itself but also serves to enhance their love of God and of their fellow human beings. He admits, however, that the virtue of love “is not properly developed among us [the Haredim]. Those who have claimed in their learned books that marital love is contingent on transient factors (ahavah hateluyah badavar)” are wrong. For surely, this love is natural, and it is a mitsvah to enhance and develop it properly,” which includes the husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife whenever she desires him.

It is for this reason, Rabbi Sher contends, that when the couple come together, the husband must address his wife in a way that conveys not only “awe, piety, and chastity,” but also tenderness, affection, and erotic love (agavim). He clearly anticipates the reader’s astonishment at the latter: “The point of erotic love seems difficult to understand,” but he quotes the Zohar and Maimonides to bolster his argument that the husband must speak to his wife explicitly even “about her [physical] beauty.”

Without expressly mentioning the Gerer Hasidim, he condemns what he calls the bad habits arising from a common misunderstanding of the ideal of kedushah: “As for the bad habits that many of them have adopted in error, believing that in order to maintain themselves in holiness they must refrain from talking to their wives—the rabbis must strive to make them realize that this kind of holiness is the very essence of impurity … and that the husband must speak to his wife, addressing her with wondrously affectionate words of placation.”

Having elaborated on how coition is to be performed by both parties, each according to his or her nature, in order to achieve the appropriate mental state during the act, R. Sher admonishes the Hasidim (to whom he consistently refers as mithasedim, namely self-proclaimed, sham pietists) who rely on the talmudic statement that the husband should perform the sexual act “as one compelled by a demon.” This, he explains, is not meant for ordinary people but only for the small minority of those who are “perfect.” Among the sham priests, however, the following situation prevails: With the passage of time, when the husband’s passion has died down and his love has evaporated, he begins to boast about [performing the act in] holiness, as if compelled by a demon. This is a grave error, which gives rise to numerous problems: the wife loathes her “righteous” husband and quarrels with him—about other issues, of course, as she is embarrassed to tell him what really upsets her and what she really misses; there is no harmony (shelom-bayit) in the home, and the children are neglected, deprived of a good education on account of the quarrels. May God have mercy upon them.”

Rabbi Sher repeatedly criticizes the sham priests for presuming to perform the sexual act without experiencing any pleasure. In truth, “they are wallowing in lust, like animals, as dictated by nature.” They think that they are fulfilling a mitsvah, while in reality they are committing a sin. He calls on all teachers and parents to explain to their young charges that it is a mitsvah to awaken sexual desire, as this is a means of harnessing nature to the service of holiness, through an act that enables man “to delight in the Lord and to sanctify himself with His sanctity.”

What seems to bother R. Sher is not so much the violation of the halachic norm of onah but rather the imbalance that results from the Gerer Hasidim’s practice of kedushah. It creates an unhealthy, self-deluded, unbalanced personality, while also disturbing the balance of the commandments that regulate the relations “between man and God” as against those that govern the relations “between man and man” (to which the commandment of onah belongs). Both these sensitivities are typical of the Lithuanian Musar movement, in which Rabbi Sher was a prominent figure.

Another important document on the subject of kedushah is a letter written by the Hazon Ish’s brother-in-law, R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler (1899–1985). The Steipler was of Hasidic origin, but he grew up in the extremist Litvish Musar yeshiva of Novardok [Nowogródek] and was very much influenced by his illustrious brother-in-law, the Hazon Ish. After the Hazon Ish’s passing, he emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the Haredi community in his own right.

The letter, often titled “Iggeret hakodesh” (The Holy Epistle), begins with praise for the ideal of kedushah, advocating self-restraint in the realm of sexuality, but it soon turns into a staunch attack on the extreme versions of this ideal: “It is true that to abstain from worldly pleasures is a great merit, … but this does not apply unless a person fulfills his obligations as prescribed by the Torah. When, as a result of [observing kedushah], he fails to meet his obligations as stated in Torah law, … his actions become undesirable. … Even if he imagines that he is thereby ascending higher and higher, it is his arrogance that leads him to deem himself so very virtuous. In reality, he causes spiritual damage to himself as well as to others. Sometimes his actions are exposed as being downright shameful, as eventually he is bound to break an actual prohibition, which I know for a fact to have happened, God save us. Onah is a positive biblical commandment, just like the eating of matsah [on Passover]. He who violates it at the time when his wife is likely to conceive (if she did not forego her entitlement to it truly and wholeheartedly) is an absolute sinner. Such a sin is one of the transgressions “between man and man,” for which even the Day of Atonement or death cannot atone. Such a man is comparable to a thief and a robber, as he steals from his wife that which he is obliged to give her. This amounts to killing his wife, as it is known that a woman’s utmost aspiration is to have a loving husband, and when she sees that this is not the case, she is so disappointed that at times her very life is in danger, on account of her great sorrow and grief at being as lonely as a widow while her husband lives.

The Steipler goes on to refer the reader to the halachic sources for the commandment of onah, reminding him that it should be performed only with the wife’s willing consent, but he then resumes his criticism of the excessive Hasidic strictures of kedushah:

If the husband performs the duty [of onah] abruptly [hotef uvo‘el], without intimate contact with his wife, if he withdraws just as soon as the act is over and keeps his distance from her, he may think that he has thereby ascended to a high [spiritual] level, but in reality his lust and his [sexual] impulse have not diminished at all. Rather, they have been fully satisfied and pleasured, while his wife has experienced no pleasure at all. On the contrary, she is distressed and humiliated, weeping in private. … This undoubtedly … brings down [heavenly] judgments upon him, God forbid, and he deprives himself of the help of Heaven in both spiritual and material affairs. The notion he has of himself as one who ascends to ever higher degrees [of holiness] is illusory and utterly false, for sins and transgressions can only damage and defile, not elevate.

Insisting that physical affection and intimacy—“hugs, kisses, etc.”—are an integral part of the duty of onah, the Steipler promises that so long as the husband offers them “for the sake of Heaven and out of compassion [for his wife], so as not to upset and humiliate her,” he will attain true kedushah.

We do not have a response to these accusations by any of the prominent Hasidic leaders. If they did engage in some form of dialogue with the Litvish rabbis who criticized them—indications of this appear in Rabbi Sher’s letter, quoted above—none of it was recorded. To account for this apparent silence, it should be noted that the Haredi community as a whole is not inclined to air intimate issues in public, especially not when they are the subject of intense dispute, and the Hasidim for their part do not require public explanations or justifications of their rebbes’ directives, which they are expected to follow without question or argument.

We do, however, possess one Hasidic response to the Litvish allegations, written by one of the most prominent figures in Gur—Rabbi Nahum (Nuchem) Rotstein, current head of the all-Hasidic Nezer Hatorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The undated letter, which—in the form in which it circulates is replete with grammatical and typographic errors—was undoubtedly addressed to a Litvish personality during the “reign” of the Beys Yisroel.

Rabbi Rotstein begins with the declaration that he is not authorized to speak in the name of the rebbe (to whom he does not refer explicitly even once), and is therefore offering only his “personal point of view.” Gur, he contends, does not advocate that path of abstinence [perishut] that calls for abstention from all worldly pleasures, beyond the requirements of the Halacha as set out in the Shulhan arukh: “In Gur one is not required to stray, God forbid, from the path of the Shulhan arukh even by an iota; the only requirement is to maintain and reinforce the path of the Shulhan arukh.” Gur aims to ensure that the Hasidim do not conduct themselves like animals or roosters, guiding them instead to a life marked by “gentility, peace and tranquility, domestic harmony, delicacy, and good manners.” This is certainly an apologetic claim, as the values it promotes are alien to the practice and internal discourse of the Gerer Hasidim, who disdain all manifestations of what they view as sheer sentimentality.

According to Rabbi Rotstein, the norms of kedushah should be explained to women “gently and agreeably,” to “win them over to the paths of Torah.” He elaborates at length on how the husband should convince his wife that the kedushah restrictions are beneficial to their mutual spiritual growth. He even develops a quasi-platonic, noble ideal of marital love, suggesting that when the couple are united physically, their union is “animal-like,” they are “immersed in fleshly lust,” and their love is conditioned by transient factors, whereas if their love is based exclusively on the common spiritual goal of fulfilling the commandments, the bond between them is profound, permanent, and unbreakable. Thus they are able to invest with holiness the crude and unavoidable physical act that is entailed, by dint of their “created nature,” in the commandment of onah, so long as they fulfill it only “for the sake of Heaven, just like all the other commandments of the Torah.”

Anyone familiar with the Gur ethos is bound to look at this text with some amusement. The Gerer Hasidim are known for their rough, brisk manner—in their dealings with family members at home just as much as in other areas of life where displays of tender feelings, which they deplore, might be expected of them. The notion that they distance themselves from their wives in order to love them better would seem to be absurd. It is no wonder that the idea was ridiculed by a number of Haredi internet surfers on the Israeli Hyde Park website in 2009. Rotstein goes on to explain that only the person who has reached the highest degree of spirituality is allowed to follow the practice—associated with Isaac Luria, the “Holy Ari”—of hugging and kissing his wife during intercourse, since only such a refined person can “raise” or restore to their divine source the “holy sparks” that have fallen into the “lowly” domain of corporeal sexuality. For the ordinary person, on the other hand, “corporeal acts are very dangerous, as it is extremely difficult to transcend [the domain of] materiality, and very great care is required to avoid remaining in it.” With these claims R. Rotstein is effectively inverting the conventional view, advocated in all the traditional halachic sources, whereby those who are permitted physical intimacy with their wives are the ordinary men, while members of the intellectual and spiritual elite are allowed to refrain from it!

This valiant defense notwithstanding, the Gerer Hasidim are well aware of the damage the kedushah ordinances have caused to their standing within the Haredi community. Gerer bachelors often find it difficult to secure a marriage, as even young women brought up within Gur prefer to marry other Hasidim in order to escape the strictures of the ordinances. From time to time there are rumors about men who have failed to comply with the kedushah norms, or about marriage guides (madrikhim), who are being called to resolve complex marital crises. Indeed, the kedushah norms have attracted not only external censure but also internal disapproval and some dissent. Following the fluctuations in the norms prescribed by the Gerer rebbes who succeeded the Beys Yisroel, an internal debate erupted among the community’s marriage guides. Some called for greater flexibility in the implementation of the ordinances, while others insisted on maintaining the more traditional stringent line. The debate continues to the present day, conducted within the closed confines of Gur’s inner circles, without allowing any of the arguments to circulate in writing.

Nevertheless, one of the community’s more lenient marriage guides, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai (Avrum Mordkhe) Roshetzky, anonymously published a Hasidic Musar book in which he alluded to his position on the subject. The book deals with a variety of topics and expresses systematically and vividly the basic tenets of mainstream contemporary Hasidism. When it comes to kedushah, which occupies only a very small proportion of the book, the author has this to say:

Apart from [the ordinary commandments], the Holy Torah ordered us, as the Sages put it: “Sanctify yourself by that which is permitted to you” (B. Yevamot 20a). … This requires a great deal of insight and prudent caution. [One has] to grant the body what it needs without becoming inflamed, swept by or attached to the permitted material excesses. [How to go about] this is up to the discernment and consideration of anyone who seeks the proximity of the Lord. This applies to all the other commandments that are to do with cleaving to God, which have been given to us without setting precise standards.

To the outside observer, this text may seem to be harmless and even banal, but in the internal Gerer discourse, it is almost subversive to suggest that the norms of kedushah are not determined by fixed standards, and that they may be adapted to the needs of every individual to suit to his own character traits and particular circumstances. R. Roshetzky seems to suggest that the individual is free to determine the standards for himself, although elsewhere in the book he emphasizes the great importance of the guidance provided by a tsadik in every sphere of life.

It seems obvious that the kedushah norms—especially in Gur but also in the other Hasidic groups that have adopted them—no longer serve their original purpose. They were initially conceived as a means of injecting fresh rigor and spiritual vitality into a Hasidic community that had faced near-extinction and was struggling to re-establish itself in an unfamiliar post-War environment. But the ordinances soon gave rise to new problems, placing the entire community under strain. The more institutionalized they became over time, the more they came to be viewed as a burdensome duty rather than an invigorating challenge, and the more they proved to be unfit for universal implementation. However, the rebbes of the Hasidic communities that adopted these norms in the first half of the twentieth century are no longer able to revoke them. Most persist in the rhetoric of religious “ascent,” to which they presumably continue to subscribe, but it is no longer possible for them to abandon the practices that have become group-identity banners for their followers.

Adapted from “Kedushah: The Sexual Abstinence of Married Men in Gur, Slonim, and Toledot Aharon,” which appeared in Jewish History 27:2-4 (December 2013).

Benjamin Brown is a professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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