While traditional Jewish texts include a variety of views toward marital sexuality, they skew heavily, overwhelmingly toward an ascetic minimalism. Yet, with the exclusion of limited ascetics, contemporary Orthodox attitudes lean heavily toward celebration of sanctified, approved relations. This incongruence is striking, even after reviewing the few existing texts that support modern views. In a passage displaying great awareness, R. Aharon Lichtenstein acknowledges this puzzle and settles it, primarily, by relying on recent Torah giants.
R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Varieties of Jewish Experience, pp. 26, 29-32:
While I have conducted no empirical survey, I believe there is little question regarding the sensibility of the contemporary Torah world, irrespective of camp and orientation… We assert the value of romantic love, its physical manifestation included, without flinching from the prospect of concomitant sensual pleasure; and we do so without harboring guilt or reservations… With regard to the basic phenomenon of sexual experience, however, our instincts and our attitude are clearly positive. We have no qualms…
Assuming these facts to be correct — as regards my own spiritual environs, I can attest directly — we ask ourselves: How and why do we depart from positions articulated by some of our greatest, “from whose mouths we live and from whose waters we drink” and, is this departure legitimate? Are we victims of the Zeitgeist, swept along by general sociohistorical currents? Do we tailor our attitude on this issue to conform to appetitive convenience and erotic desire? Have we, in this case, adopted a self-satisfying posture of facile world-acceptance clothed in culturally correct garb?
To the extent that I am capable of candid self-awareness, I trust these questions can and should be answered in the negative. Our commitment to sexuality, properly sanctified, redeemed and redeeming, does not derive from libidinous passion but is, rather, grounded in profound spiritual instincts — upon our recognition that “God saw all that He created, and behold it was very good” (Bereshit 1:31), on the one hand, and our quest for meaningful interpersonal commingling, on the other. It is, for us, not merely an instrument for parallel intense enjoyment, nor a vehicle for reciprocal consumption. It is, rather, a fundamental component in a comprehensive relationship — at once, both itself an aspect of that relationship and a means toward molding its totality. This is our honed perception of “cleaving to his wife and they become one flesh” (Bereshit 2:24) — partly carnal, in one sense, and yet powerfully existential in another.
As to the basis of our attitude’s legitimacy, within the context of authoritative tradition, several factors may be cited. At one plane, we are buttressed, be it only subliminally, by the conviction that we are siding with Hazal, and they be with us. At another, we are assuaged by the sense that while, at worst, we may be disregarding that attitudinal counsel of some Rishonim, we are not countermanding their pesak; and that, with respect to issues of hashkafah, reliance upon minority views is more of a legitimate option than as regards specific halakhic matters.
Probably most significant, however, is our reliance upon our own mentors. Sensing that modern gedolim, ha-shofet asher be’yamekha — for our purposes, most notably, the Rav, but not he, alone — have examined the issue and the evidence and adopted a positive stance, we, ordinary students of Torah, follow in their footsteps, as we identify with their position. Whether they felt justified in accepting, out of the depths of their own conviction, a minority view; whether they held that our topic was essentially a matter of hashkafic proclivity, not necessarily amenable to the normal procedures of pesak; or whether some other unknown but imagined element — might, for instance, the hospitable climate of Kabbalistic sources, have had some impact — is a matter of conjecture. That the authority of our mentors can inform and sustain our sensibility is not.
I am left, nonetheless, with a lacuna. Even while adhering to the Rav’s position, one may freely concede wishing that he had done for us what we have been challenged and constrained to do here: examine the various tiers of tradition and elucidate the basis for his own judgment and commitment…[S]elf-examination is, collectively and personally, a religious imperative. Nevertheless, with respect to our specific issue, we remain true to our abiding spiritual intuitions… Consequently, impelled by our spiritual instincts and animated by the faith instilled in us by our Torah mentors, we opt for consecration rather than abstinence. In this most sensitive area, we strive for a life which is energized rather than neutralized — not merely sterilized and sanitized but ennobled and ennobling. We are challenged to sanctify — by integrating sexuality within total sacral existence, characterized by the systole and diastole of divinely ordained denial and realization; and by infusing the relationship itself with human and spiritual content. This is by no means the easier course. May we have the wisdom and the commitement to render it the better.