The New Ethic of Pleasure and Its Unintended Consequences

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imageby R. Gil Student

In studying the commentary surrounding the biblical passage of forbidden marriages (Lev. 18), I was struck by a statement repeated by multiple commentators that rings hollow today. This got me thinking about why many would find it unacceptable. I arrived at a surprising explanation that combines modern history and theology.

I. Forbidden Relations

Medieval commentators debate the underlying reason for the prohibition against marrying flesh relatives (she’eir basar). Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:49) suggests that it is an attempt to limit the desire for marital relations by forbidding those people with whom we frequently interact. Abarbanel (Lev. 18) quotes Ibn Caspi as saying that marriages within a family are forbidden to maintain harmony within the family, to avoid infighting and the destruction of this important communal structure. Ramban (Lev. 18:6) argues against the Rambam (Akeidas Yitzchak, end of no. 64, rebuffs the attack) and instead proposes that the reason close relatives are forbidden from marrying is that the children born to those unions are generally less healthy. Regardless of how one concludes this debate, I was surprised by the lack of discussion about homosexual relations, which is at the end of this list of forbidden relationships.

Rambam (ibid.) merely states that the underlying reason for the prohibition against homosexual activity is clear. Ramban (ibid., 21) writes that the reason is well known: it is considered disgusting and does not contribute to procreation. Ibn Ezra (ibid., 22) writes that the Torah describes homosexual activity with the word “to’eivah” because it naturally disgusts the soul. This type of thinking and language convinces very few people today. Why, I wondered, did pre-modern commentators find it so obvious that homosexual relations should be forbidden that they did not even struggle to find a reason?

Much has changed in the past few centuries and particularly in the past few decades. I suggest that one specific change lies at the bottom of this change in religious thinking.

II. Is Pleasure Good?

The prevalent contemporary attitude in Orthodox Judaism accepts the value of enjoying the gifts of this world. Good food, fine wine, marital bliss and more are all part of a healthy religious life when their divine source is acknowledged and praised. Yet even a cursory review of classical texts of Jewish thought will find more ascetic attitudes. In his discussion of forbidden relations, Rambam (ibid.) makes clear his belief that marital relations should be minimized, as should all worldly pleasures, albeit not entirely abandoned. He states this explicitly in many places (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os ch. 3). Similarly, Ramban (Lev. 19:2) writes that you should sanctify yourself by refraining from enjoying too many pleasures. They praise partial asceticism as the ideal, an aspirational but not mandatory goal. These are not isolated views but the dominant attitude. I can only imagine what these great authorities would say of the plethora of kosher restaurants and cruises in our community.

Yet, this once-dominant attitude no longer enjoys favor. How did this change? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Varieties of Jewish Experience, ch. 1) notes this puzzle. He rejects the suggestion that the Medieval scholars were guided by their environment as “facile historicistic solutions” (p. 24). Rav Lichtenstein sets this aside and, following his mentors, advocates a positive view of pleasure within marital relations.

Rav Lichtenstein believes that the Talmud, while containing multiple streams, in general advocates this positive attitude. My sense is to the contrary. While I would normally defer to his vastly greater expertise, in this case I have the bulk of pre-modern Torah literature on my side. To them, while relations serve to build a marital relationship, the focus is on pleasing the other, not oneself. Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil (Semak, no. 285) expands the commandment to bring joy to one’s wife beyond the first year, considering it an ongoing mitzvah of “onah,” of providing marital pleasure (note that I use euphemisms because many readers have strong Internet filters).

But all this does not mean that I oppose enjoying life’s pleasures. Like many others, I have a weakness for good food (but more scotch than wine).

III. The Great Change

In the early Twentieth Century, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka), the leading Mussar thinker of his time, intentionally changed the focus of his teachings. In the past, Mussar centered on developing a fear of God through fire and brimstone preaching and intense behavioral training. Sensing that the culture had radically changed, Rav Finkel moved his focus to the greatness of man and the joys of a Torah life (Rav Dov Katz explains this at length in his Tenu’as Ha-Mussar but I do not have a copy readily available to provide an exact reference). Rav Finkel’s new form of Mussar did not change the entire Jewish world. However, others recognized what he saw. For example, worldly streams of Chassidus received much greater emphasis than the ascetic forms. In a world of unprecedented wealth, Jews will not be able to resist the temptations unless they may also partake, albeit within the bounds of Jewish law.

Rav Lichtenstein and many other contemporaries argue for a positive ethics of pleasure. My sympathies lie with Rav Finkel’s concession to pleasure. Because none of the Medievals believed that enjoying physical pleasures is forbidden, just unwise, we Moderns have room to maneuver. Rav Finkel and others believe that today we must adopt a concessionary (bedi’eved) attitude toward pleasure. You can have your steak and scotch because without it, too many people would forsake Torah observance. We–including me–live what is in one respect a sub-optimal life, a concession within Jewish law to our environment. Ideally, we should eat only for our health, living a life not just of moderation but of bare sustenance and health. From my observations, this is not the general path of today’s Orthodoxy.

IV. Unintended Consequences

Which brings us to the forbidden relations. To Medieval Jewish thinkers, pleasure never constituted a necessity nor a form of self-fulfillment. Physical pleasure is an embarrassment, something to be minimized. To contemporaries, it is the spice of a Torah life, part of the joys of being Jewish. To classical thinkers, a ban on a pleasure with no procreative or other purpose, such as homosexual relations, needs no explanation. It should obviously be avoided, in this case banned by the Torah. To contemporaries, though, any forbidden pleasure needs explanation. We enjoy our pleasures and find it frustrating that someone would be barred from such important pleasures.

I see the concession to pleasure as a wise, if difficult, decision. Of course, I am a beneficiary of the decision because I can enjoy my meat and potatoes with only a little guilt. Yet I try to regularly remind myself that, while permitted, this is not an ideal life. Pleasure is a concession to the wealthy society in which we live. I eat (relatively) well because I live constantly in a world of non-kosher temptation. Yet my loyalty, at least in theory, lies with a more ascetic ideal as described by the Rambam. When we forget our ideals, we run the risk of losing our balance and suffering the unintended hashkafic consequences of a bold bedi’eved. Medieval commentary on forbidden relations is a wake-up call, a reminder to realign our views, if not our actions, to classical Torah thought,

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. There are sources both ways

    .12תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נז עמוד ב
    שלשה משיבין דעתו של אדם, אלו הן: קול ומראה וריח. שלשה מרחיבין דעתו של אדם, אלו הן: דירה נאה, ואשה נאה, וכלים נאים.

    .13תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת קידושין פרק ד הלכה יב
    רבי חזקיה ר’ כהן בשם רב עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל שראת עינו ולא אכל. ר’ לעזר חשש להדא שמועתא ומצמיח ליה פריטין ואכיל בהון מכל מילה חדא בשתא:

    קרבן העדה מסכת קידושין פרק ד הלכה יב
    ולא אכל. שחטא על נפשו שסגפה חנם:
    חושש להדא שמועתא. היה חושש להלכה זו והיה מקבץ פרוטות לקנות בהן מכל דבר המתחדש פעם אחת בשנה ל”א עשה כן לברך שהחיינו וליתן שבח והודיה לה’ על שברא בריות טובות ליהנות בהן בני אדם ברוך אל ההודאות:

    8.תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ג עמוד ב
    והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: שתים עשרה שעות הוי היום, שלש הראשונות הקדוש ברוך הוא יושב ועוסק בתורה, שניות – יושב ודן את כל העולם כולו, כיון שרואה שנתחייב עולם כלייה, עומד מכסא הדין ויושב על כסא רחמים, שלישיות – יושב וזן את כל העולם כולו מקרני ראמים עד ביצי כנים, רביעיות – יושב ומשחק עם לויתן,

  2. It has been a while since reading R. Lichtenstein’s article, but I think you misunderstood his point. The point was that the Gemara did have a positive view of pleasure, but later authorities took a different approach. So the fact that later authorities took a different approach doesn’t invalidate R. Lichtenstein’s point or understanding of the Gemara. I would add that the turn towards asceticism in Judaism occurred at the same time as that of other religions. R. Lichtenstein’s reluctance to ascribe our turn to the surrounding culture is very understandable, but he does not provide a compelling alternative narrative. A discussion and classification of attitudes towards pleasure/asceticism is found in the memorial volume dedicated to R. Leo Jung.

    • So the fact that later authorities took a different approach doesn’t invalidate R. Lichtenstein’s point or understanding of the Gemara

      I understand. All I meant is that my understanding corresponds to the understanding of that of most Rishonim, which is why I am not deferring to Rav Lichtenstein even though I normally would. I never meant to claim or imply that his understanding is somehow invalid, just that I do not share it nor do the many Rishonim he concedes disagree.

      the turn towards asceticism in Judaism occurred at the same time as that of other religions

      Rav Lichtenstein mentions this and rejects it, as I mention in the above essay.

    • While proving causation is difficult, if one notes a number of instances of correlation between trends in the outside world and trends in the Jewish world, it does ask for explanation.

  3. Rabbi Student: I think that you could have broached the subject of the Torah’s proscription of homosexuality with greater empathy and sensitivity. You define the issue as a forbidden pleasure. But if you listen to articulate, compelling voices on the issue, you will find that they frame it as a forbidden relationship. See in particular R. Steven Greenberg’s writings on this issue. You may disagree with his and others solutions to the problem, but it is important to recognize that they do not experience the difficulty as one of being unable to fulfill bodily desires but of maintaining intimate relationships. The central (and painful) tension derives from the fact that our tradition outlaws the only vehicle for a close relationship that some people feel is natural for them.

  4. Here’s a different explanation: We now realize that there is a small minority of people for whom homosexuality is actually not disgusting, but is actually attractive in precisely the same way that most of us relate to heterosexuality. This includes the desire to marry and build a home, not just sexual pleasure. And halacha recognizes that this type of desire is so strong that one is required to get married to avoid the inevitable sins that would occur otherwise (this would apply even to someone who unfortunately can’t have children), so that saying “we can’t always get what we want; for example, I can’t eat a cheeseburger” is quite beside the point.
    So I think that the main distinction is that the Medieval commentators didn’t even know that there was such a minority phenomenon as homosexuality on par psychologically with heterosexuality. To them it was just an activity inherently disgusting to all humans that only someone intentionally trying to be evil would try.
    My evidence would be two-fold. One is that the difficulty in explaining the prohibition has increased geometrically in very recent years, much past the beginning of the “modern” age. The second is that you see the exact same trend in general secular society.

  5. I think that there is no essential disagreement between the various sources – all agree that pleasure is good. Indeed does not the Ramchal for example teach that Hashem’s purpose in creating the world is to bestow the greatest possible pleasure upon human beings. If human pleasure is the goal of existence, how can anyone claim that pleasure is inherently bad? But it is the greatest possible pleasure that is the goal and if indulging in lesser pleasures would interfere with the ultimate goal of the ultimate pleasure, then it is to be avoided. For example when a parent does not allow a small child to overindulge in ice cream it is not because the parent does not want the child to have too much pleasure. Rather it is because too much ice cream will have negative consequences (a stomach ache for example or the inability to have a nutritious meal that will in long run contribute to the greater pleasure of a healthy body). If the child could be allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted without any negative consequences, the parent would not only allow it, the parent would buy theice cream.

    I think that if you read the writings of those Rishonim who advocate some form of prishus, you will find that it is always because it will contribute to a greater good or avoid a negative consequence. For example the Ramchal, whom I would venture to say would be considered in the pro ascetic side, in Mesilas Yeshorim does not say that one should avoid permitted pleasures because pleasure is bad. He cannot take that position because human pleasure is what Hashem wants. Rather the purpose is too prevent harmful consequences of one type or another that will result in the long run in less pleasure to a human being. For example wearing fine cloths tends to lead one to arrogance and should therefore be avoided, says the Ramchal. But if everyone around you wears fine cloths that danger is not as relevant and therefore there is no need for that particular restraint.
    If I am correct then there is no real inconsistency in the sources; there is only a difference in circumstances, and perhaps in judgment as to the effect of various indulgences upon greater forms of pleasure.

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