I often have conversations with couples who share the most intimate feelings with me. One of the issues that is expressed is sexual deprivation that one partner feels. I think that in a healthy marriage, a couple can fight about anything, but then they can make love and soothe the bad feelings like a forgiving ritual. But when one is deprived of this opportunity, bitterness, sexual resentment and desperation build up. Surveys actually show that infrequent sex is the most common marital problem today. Partners express satisfaction in their relationship only when they engage in cuddling, talking and sex.
According to Judaism, marital sex is not intrinsically dirty or evil and in fact, is a mitzvah if it is done with love, within a marriage, and at the proper time. Interesting enough, there are many talmudic stories about men, who in spite of the commended obligation to sexually satisfy their wives choose to be celibate so that they can focus on Torah learning. There are other stories who tell about men (rabbis or pious) who have sex with prostitutes even though they are married. I hope to bring these stories to my blog very soon. This time I want to share a very unique story that triggered a number of social, gender and marital issues.
In the Gemarah, Kiddushin 81b we read a powerful story of Rabbi Hiyya and his wife, who is nameless.
Every time Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba fell upon his face [i] he used to say: “The Merciful save me from the evil inclination”. One day his wife [over] heard him and reflected: “He has abstained from being with me sexually for many years, so why is he praying for such things?” One day, while he was studying [Torah] in his garden, she disguised herself as a harlot repeatedly walking back and forth before him.
He asked her: “Who are you”?
She replied: “I am Herutha [ii] and I have returned today”.
He desired her and had sexual relations with her.
She said to him: “Bring me that pomegranate from the uppermost tree branch”. He jumped up and brought it to her. When he later returned to his house, he [found] his wife lighting the oven fire, where he got into this oven. She asked: “What does it mean”? He told her what had happened.
She said: “I was that woman”.
He replied: “Nevertheless, my intention was evil”.
I cannot even imagine this woman’s life but the text is clear that her sense of suspicion that perhaps her husband desires another woman is driving her to act in a stange way. Her masquerading herself to a harlot is telling a great deal about her need to be needed in the intimate way. If Rabbi Hiyya will be able to resist this “harlot” than she (the wife) can be assured that there is no way he desires another woman, and thus, she will find a good excuse why she sacrifices her intimate life for Sh’lom bayit – “peace at Home” for the sake of Torah study.
Being married to a man who takes her for granted, she needs to claim her own sexuality and dignity by giving herself a real boost to her self-esteem. She desires to be more than just a mother, housekeeper and wife who keeps the family running smoothly.
This is a story full of ironies; she gains her identity by acting like a prostitute and naming herself Herutha - Freedom. Sadly, she is paying a heavy price for this freedom, as it seems. How more painful could it be when he does not even recognize his wife as he asks: “Who are you”? She forces her husband to sin sexually – but doing it with her is not really a sin. And, all of this takes place in no other place than the garden – his place of study (a reminder of the story of Adam and Eve) to show that Torah learning is no protection against his sexual urges, and the lack of sex at home does not prevent him from thinking about it.
I believe that this story can be understood within our own cultural setting. It begs us to ask some critical questions about the status of women in the private and the public sphere, about the ethics of sexual relationship and intimacy and communication. What does it mean to be in a marital sexual ethical relationship? How do a husband and wife go without intimacy? Do women have to prostitute themselves in order to achieve proper recognition from their husband? What kind of “freedom” is there if a woman has to hide behind a mask in order to be recognized?
My last thought has to do with the lack of open communication between this couple, which cannot be healthy. There are only secrets and suspicions. Instead of confronting her husband directly, she questions his intentions in her own mind. Only after her proactive “test”, when he sits in the oven, ready to suffer a punishment for not controlling his urges, do they finally talk to each other. To his credit, he confesses the truth about his adultery. It is not his private prayer that makes a marriage go well, but in the real heart to heart discussion with intimacy.
I vote for Herutha as a model who demands consideration of sexuality and gender equality in our society. She holds this mirror for what a marriage should not look like, and asks not to become numb to the basic needs of a healthy marriage. Let us find a “Herutha” test in our own life not necessary.
[i] In Talmudic times after the Eighteen Benedictions each person prayed privately for whatever he desired while falling on the face.
[ii] A well-known prostitute of that town
©Rabbi Ziona Zelazo