Though I am not entirely sure why, people seem just plain fascinated by the (supposedly) cloistered communities of black clad Jews who briskly swarm -- entourage and side curls in tow -- through the streets of Brooklyn, the Diamond District and Old Jerusalem. For sure, some of it is the sheer "otherness" of their look and their seeming lack of interest as to what is occurring street level, including you and all the other passers-by. But whereas the Amish seem to spark a warmer, folksy response for their dogged embrace of the sartorial choices of their 18th century forbearers, Hasidim are often treated as circus freaks for having made a similar decision. I think it is this same lurid fascination that compels us to respond to the barkers call to gawk at the bearded-lady and the boy with the lobster claw hands that draws our imaginations to contemplate Hasidic intimacy.
I saw two examples of this in action in the popular media this past week. The first was through the lens of Deborah Feldman, a former Satmar Hasid whose rejection of that tradition has recently garnered her a good measure of media exposure -- and book sales. The ladies of "The View" tremulously queried her as they might an escapee of the Taliban or some tribe of Cannibals, but the discussion could not conclude until Barbara Walters (prompted by the producer) gave her all of 60 seconds to explain the (apparently primitive) Satmar mating practices. What she did manage to cover, though it ended up sounding like some antiquated misogyny rite, formed the basis of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity), a brilliant and beautiful concept that is practiced by religious Jews of all stripes -- from the most Hasidic to the most left-wing modern Orthodox.
To hear a better explanation of the idea, I would direct you to Oprah Winfrey's generous and open-minded interview with four Lubavitch women in Crown Heights. There too, she wanted to hear about how they had sex, but unlike Ms. Feldman, who seems to have had an unusually negative experience, these women were proud of their tradition and eager to talk about it.
In short, religious men and women physically separate during the days of menstruation and add on an additional "clean week," making about 12 days out of the month in total. This is not done, as Ms. Feldman suggests, because the women are considered "impure," which is a common and unfortunate mistranslation. Rather, the women are tameh -- a word that indicates a spiritual change as the result of the loss of potential life. When men ejaculate, they also become tameh and also require immersion in a mikvah or ritual bath (though due to the relative frequency rates, most men -- Hasidim excluded -- do not hold themselves to this standard). In neither case is there any assumption of dirtiness or lack of purity. In that same vein, a human corpse is considered the most tameh object on Earth as it is now the empty shell of a former actualized living force. The mikvah -- through its laws, dimensions and construction -- is a kabbalistic practice that restores the non-corporeal equilibrium of the practitioner.
For those who don't accept the spiritual basis for the practice, there is a sociological one as well. As correctly explained by one of the women conversing with Oprah, when there is no physical outlet available for a couple, they are compelled to deal with each other on an intellectual and emotional level. They communicate only through words and body language which engenders another -- perhaps deeper -- level of intimacy. In addition, many couples describe the conclusion of this period of separation as a monthly honeymoon, and in a time when the majority of marriages fail, sustaining the excitement level can only be a good thing. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it does wonders for other anatomical regions. In truth, to the average observant Jew, sex is not something mundane and titillating, but, rather, holy and sacred. From this perspective, it is the puerile obsessions of the secular world which are bizarre, not the concept of family purity and seeing one's intimate life as something sanctified -- to be guarded and cherished.
Ms. Feldman also intimated that the purpose of Hasidic (aka Jewish) marital intimacy was solely to procreate. This is obviously not the case as couples continue to perform the mitzvah (right action) of intercourse during pregnancy, after menopause and when there is a biological inability to conceive. Actually, the main purpose of sex -- as explained by Jewish law -- is to create something called devek, best translated as an intense spiritual/emotional cleaving between the couple. The stringencies associated with this practice -- general separation of the genders, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex and the modesty laws -- are all designed to promote the ardent primacy and exclusivity of the marital relationship. Nothing is meant to stand in the way of its fullest development.
Are there times when devotees, or entire communities, fall short of these lofty goals? Yes. Does that mean that their underlying principles are weird or beyond the contemplation of the average person? No. In fact, the world at large would do well to consider the adoption of a version of them. I've heard it said that divorce is the second most traumatic experience that a family can go through next to the death of a close relative. Wouldn't it be in be in everyone's interest to gird marriage to the greatest extent possible thus sparing couples, families and nations from voluminous anguish?
Their style might not be everyone's cup of tea, but in this regard, the Hasids have it right.