I have been thinking about the following story from the Talmud (Menachot 44a). The story is about a young Jewish man who went illlicitly to visit a prostitute, but as he undressed, he saw his tzitzit, the fringes on a four-cornered garment that Jewish men wear, and can’t go through with the act. He sat naked on the floor and the woman joined him, asking what flaw he saw in her; he said that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but that his tzitzit seemed like four witnesses testifying that God punishes sin and rewards virtue and he could not go through with the sin. The woman asks the man to write down his name, the name of his city, the name of his Torah teacher and the yeshiva where he studies. This the man does and leaves. Meanwhile the woman sells her property, gives a third to the government and a third to the poor and uses the remainder to travel to the man’s city, where she asks his rabbi to convert her. He is sceptical, thinking she wants to convert simply to get married to a Jewish man, but when he sees the list of names he seems to intuit the story and oversees her conversion and she marries the man who came to her.
I should say that I have not seen the story in the original, only quoted in various places, particularly Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ essay A Jewish Sexual Ethics in Essential Essays on Judaism. I don’t have my copy in my flat, but from memory of what he says, the part of the story that has always struck me most strongly is the bit where the man and woman sit naked on the floor innocently, like children. Rabbi Berkovits describes this in terms of Jewish religious existentialism, as an I-Thou encounter (cf. Martin Buber) where two people relate to each other from the depths of their internal worlds, really relating to each other as human beings and not as objects (which is how they had been behaving up until that point: he wanted her body, she wanted his money). I have got quite interested in Jewish existentialism in recent years, but even before I was conscious of it, this part of the story spoke to me as a very touching encounter: the depersonalized sexual urge suddenly transmuted into something much more vulnerable, human and emotional, yet also in some ways more erotic than the purely physical.
I think that when I think about marriage, it is this that I have in mind, even if I am not consciously thinking of this story. The moment of human connection, of sitting naked with someone (literally or figuratively) and being able to be accepted as myself with all my flaws and to accept my wife for herself, with all her flaws. That to me is more powerful than mere sex without emotion. I’m not really able to achieve that connection in a non-sexual way in real life, with friends or peers. Rightly or wrongly, I do open myself up a bit in that way here and in my comments on Hevria and Geeks vs. Loneliness, but maybe it’s a mistake to try to do this too much or too publically. But I do long for that intimacy and understanding and I wonder if I will ever find it, if I’m even capable of it.