05/14/2013 09:48 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Torah for Mature Audiences

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This content is for mature audiences only.  What does that label mean?  Usually we think of mature or adult as a euphemism: there will be obscene language, there will be nudity, there's going to be a lot of sex. But while those elements certainly make something not for children, are they really marks of maturity?
In fact much about sex in our culture is hardly mature.  Because of how graphic and ubiquitous these images have become through various forms of media, we and particularly our children are desensitized to images and even language, but are neither more knowledgeable nor nuanced about the human body and human relationships.
Some may feel strongly that society suffers from too much exposure to sex and that it has led us away from some perceived norm.  Others may feel that we are actually too hung up on certain definitions of what is moral sexual behavior and see in permissiveness a way of breaking out of restrictive expectations. However, for many who relate to the complexity of this mature subject, there are multiple appropriate responses to these questions.  

Somehow we have reached a point where a book like "Fifty Shades of Gray" is mainstream reading, but there is controversy around a new uncensored edition of Anne Frank's diary that includes her explicit descriptions of becoming aware of the changes In her own body. Gossip sites provide graphic details of the affairs of the rich and famous, but Sandra Fluke, a woman who spoke openly about being sexually active in graduate school during congressional testimony about birth control, is called a slut.  Culture wars rage over questions of sexual orientation and abortion but issues like sex trafficking and forced prostitution rarely make the front page. 
We often seem caught in a dilemma between prudishness and promiscuity.  Is there a way to remove the shame and stigma that so often go hand in hand with sex and at the same time promote sexual morality and protect against exploitation?
In fact, this question is at the heart of the approach to intimacy in the Jewish tradition.  
The Torah, as award winning educator Barbara Rosenblit has said, is not really a story for kids. Many sections of the Torah are at least PG-13, if not R or even MA. The erotic intrigue between Tamar and her father-in-law Judah, the laws in Leviticus detailing the impurity of bodily fluids, and the swift justice meted out to an Israelite Prince getting busy with a Midianite princess in public all lurk in the pages of the Torah portions read each week.
But those stories, while complicated and open to various interpretation, regard sex and sexuality as part of a bigger picture including societal status, power dynamics, fidelity and purity.  
The book that expresses in vivid and graphic imagery an erotic vision that is both passionate, playful and unbounded by social mores is the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon.  So overtly sexual are the poetic descriptions in the Song, there was a movement among the early rabbis to leave this book out of the canon.  However, Rabbi Akiva insisted that if all the other parts of scripture are "Holy" than this book is in fact the "Holy of Holies."  Still, the inclusion of the Song came with an understanding that in some circles is applied to this book like a disclaimer: this is not in fact a description of two young people both yearning for and experiencing the pleasure of physical intimacy but an allegory describing the love of the Holy One for the Jewish people.  In the Christian world, with the allegory shifted to Jesus and the Church, many scholars insisted that only the most, well, mature readers could be trusted to find this lofty meaning and ignore the sensuality in words that were admittedly quite sensual.
However, these warnings miss something very important about the power of the Song: it is not either the love between G*d and Israel or the sex between two young lovers.  It is both.  And as such this book breaks down the wall between intimacy and sensuality and love and spirituality.  And that is what makes the Song the blueprint for what is mature about the Torah: not fantasy as a shallow escape from reality, but as an embrace of sexuality, intimacy and pleasure that deepens appreciation of the body, makes stronger bonds of relationship, and opens pathways to the sacred or, in Rabbi Akiva's words, the Holy of Holies.

This Tuesday night begins the holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. While there are many images used to describe this iconic moment, it is not surprising that the Sages turn to the Song of Songs to express mist vividly the passion with which the Israelites said yes and yes again to each word before sealing the covenant with a kiss "sweeter than wine." And so the Torah, the gift vouchsafed to the children of Israel, is acquired by adults in a manner most fitting for a mature audience.