May We Heighten Pleasure?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Kedoshim, implores one to “… Be Holy; for I the Lord Your G-d am Holy.” According to Rashi, this means one should be separated from forbidden sexual partners and from sin. This seems to imply that man should not just avoid the forbidden, but take measures to keep out of the range of temptation to indulge illegitimate appetites.

Hypothetically speaking, if a new pill were invented that would massively increase one’s physical pleasures such as the sexual and appetitive, would it be permitted for a religious Jew to take it? He then would be experiencing these gratifications in an intensely heightened fashion.

One might ask what law is being violated? The pill has no non-kosher ingredients, so what could be the problem?

This leads us to the question; does Judaism regard carnal pleasure as evil? It is noteworthy that certain branches of Christianity view sexual intercourse as a forbidden activity that may be performed only because it is essential to procreation. Thus, intimate relations are not acceptable, even in marriage, except when the aim is to impregnate the woman. This sounds like an exceedingly harsh and impractical theological doctrine that places many of that religion’s adherents in a state of conflict between very powerful instinctual and emotional needs and one’s conscience.

The Kedusha (Sanctification) approach of Judaism is different from the Abstention method of other religions. Judaism recognizes the potential danger of excessive indulgence in lust, but is also aware of the positive aspects of sexual activity. The first of these is of course reproduction, but that is not the end of the story. It also must be seen as a vital component of the spousal relationship, which is the main building block of the family unit and healthy society.

The Rambam says that while husband and wife may have relations at any time, except when the woman is a Niddah (distanced), one should not constantly indulge but should exercise some element of restraint. While Judaism does not impute any evil to the sexual instinct because it is part of the creation and is the instrument through which the human race is perpetuated; still, if man distorts its purpose and treats it as an end in itself, it can cause a distortion of his nature. A human being must dominate his instinctual drives and not be controlled by them; because the essence of man is his Tzelem Elokim (Divine Image), not his animalistic constitution.

In order to exercise free-will, there must be a balance between the force of one’s reason and of one’s instinctual desires. Only the Creator knows how powerful the inclinations of man must be in order for him to be able–via the utilization of his intelligence–to keep them under his control. We should not tamper with the manner in which Hashem established our instinctual constitutions.

Therefore, one who seeks to be in control of his nature would not want to increase the power of any one of his impulses, as this would cause him to be more attracted to the lustful side of his nature. So, I would tell him not to take the pill which will enhance the enjoyment he derives from carnal indulgence. This could very well cause a serious alteration in the “balance of forces” necessary for the proper manifestation of human freedom.

The challenge of being holy is not to renounce all the pleasures and temptations of this world. According to one Talmudic Sage, a person will be called to account for every (legitimate) pleasure that he had the opportunity to enjoy but passed over because of some “spiritual” aversion. One who adopts a posture of asceticism violates the philosophy of the Torah. The Rambam regards him as a sinner and the practice of extreme abstention as the behavior of idolaters.

The truly holy person lives according to wisdom and controls all of his instincts through the power of his reason. He engages in all of his physical activities to achieve their designated purposes and maintain himself in the best physical and emotional condition to achieve his ultimate goal of being a true servant of Hashem.

That person zealously guards his free-will so that he can perfect his soul through obtaining wisdom and performing good deeds. He doesn’t run away from the physical desires that are rooted in the Yeitzer HaRah (Evil Inclination). Rather, he seeks to implement the teaching of the Rabbis that one should “serve G-d with both his good and evil inclinations”.

This means that the energy one derives from his natural inclinations may be sublimated and utilized for higher purposes. King David exemplified this ideal. His militaristic impulses were directed toward the fighting of Milchamot Mitzvah (Righteous Wars) and protecting Hashem’s nation. His musical proclivities impelled him to create the most awe-inspiring compositions of supplication and praise to Hashem, the Psalms. Only a truly holy person who is a master of both his good and evil inclinations can reach the level of the proper service of Hashem. May we merit to achieve it.

Shabbat Shalom.

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