September 22, 2004

The Valley of Sex

I have posted before about peaks and valleys, but let me recap: A peak experience is exciting, exhilarating, scary, anxiety-provoking, interesting – all those experiences that get the adrenaline going, make the heart start pounding, whether positive or negative. A valley experience is just the opposite, it is peaceful, relaxing, homey – I’m having a hard time finding good adjectives, which is part of the problem – it is those experiences that give you a feeling of well being, of being at home in the world, the feeling that life is good.

A fundamental problem in western culture is that it doesn’t transmit the value of valley experiences. Peak experiences it knows well, we see them in almost every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, cartoon, etc. No doubt, part of the problem is that they transmit well over the media that we have available to us – you can use them to make some have a genuine peak experience. Valley experiences, on the other hand, are way undervalued – in fact, their value, even their very existence, is not transmitted by western culture.

Judaism, on the other hand, seeks to transmit both of them, where they correspond to the two fundamental forces of human nature: hesed (חסד) – sometimes translated as “grace”, and g’vura (גבורה) – sometimes translated as “might” – though neither term can be exressed in English by a single word. Hesed is a taking-in force, a static force, a being force, it is associated with the female essence (which men and women both have, though not necessarily to an equal degree), while g’vura is a going-out force, a dynamic force, a doing force, associated with the male essence (which, again, men and women both have). Looking at it this way, it is easy to see why it is so much easier to transmit peak values than valley values: It is easy to show doing, it is much harder to show being. You can vicariously experience doing. Can you vicariously experience being? Ironically, the only way to experience being is to do something, yourself.

The peak/valley dichotomy is closely related to the subject/object dichotomy discussed before. Peak experiences invariably involve the self interacting with the not-self (going-out). Valley experiences involve the self incorporating the not-self (taking-in). You feel at peace, one with the universe, existentially at home, when you incorporate the world into your self, when you identify with the world – when you love the world.

How is this achieved? My long-time readers will have guessed the answer already: by the tribal paradigm. Human beings are tribal by nature. Our natural habitat is the tribe. We need to belong to the tribe in order to have a feeling of well-being. We need to identify ourselves with the tribe, to feel: The tribe is me!

The thing I love most about Judaism is that embraces human nature. It is a traditional religion, which means that instead of embracing a particular ideology and imposing on society its logic, it embraces society’s logic (i.e. traditions), and from that formulates an ideology. Human nature is inherently tribal, therefore, so is Judaism. But Judaism builds on it, extends the paradigm. In contrast to the particularist tribalism of our hunter-gatherer forebears, Jewish tribalism is universal. Anyone (Jewish or not) can build their tribal world of their family, community, country, to include, finally, the whole world.

How is this done? It is done by creating relationships. Though we humans are limited in the scope of our actions – we can have relationships only with people nearby – we have been granted the ability to generalize. Thus, when the relationships around us are good – in particular our relationship with our spouse, family, and community – we can easily extend the paradigm outward, to take in ever more of the world.

This is what Judaism does; it is why I call it more a lifestyle than a faith. It is exceedingly concerned with these relationships, and maintains institutions to promote them. How do you promote relationships? By having people do meaningful things together. This is one of the functions of rituals, and Judaism has them on all three of the aforementioned levels. On the level of community is synagogue service. Jewish prayer is communal – the shaliah sibur (prayer leader) exists merely to keep people synchronized with each other, he has no special status – the importance of communal prayer is that it is communal.

On the level of family are numerous rituals: the festive meals on the Sabbath and holidays, building a Suka on Sukot, cleaning for Pesah, qidush, havdala, etc. In fact, it is often said that the center of Judaism is not the synagogue, but the home.

Finally, with your spouse, is sex. Now, don’t start thinking anything weird! The point I want to make (finally, getting to the title of this post) is just the opposite! There is a notion in western culture that sex is supposed to be a peak experience. Nothing could be further from the truth; sex is the ultimate valley experience! True, meeting somebody new, or doing something new, or scary, or unusual, is a peak experience, but none of this has anything to do with sex itself. This misunderstanding alone is responsible for a tremendous amount of misery – people for whom sex becomes boring, who as a result seek ever weirder or more dangerous sex. Desperately seeking sex, they are never really experiencing it – it is indeed a kind of addiction: though they seek ever more, more can never satisfy them.

I suppose you are still wondering about Jewish sexual rituals… Really, it’s nothing exciting! Traditional Jews abstain from sex for the first 12-13 days of a woman’s cycle. The night after the last day, the woman immerses herself in a pool fed by free-flowing water, and only then may the couple have sex. What valley can be deeper than reunion with your other half, and eternity?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 22, 2004 02:14 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

What a beautiful and insightful post. I've often described Judaism as a legal system rather than a "faith," but "lifestyle" captures it even better. It is truly a way of living.

If I had to boil Judaism down into a single imperative, it would be Tikun Olam. By our actions and relationships with our fellow humans - by the way we live our lives - we are supposed to make the world a better place. What could possibly be a better directive for us all?

Posted by: Steve at September 22, 2004 05:52 PM Permalink

David, another beautifully evocative post. The more I learn about Judaism, the more I wish that everyone in the world was a Jew.
But there is more than one kind of love. Cortical mappings exist for three; lust, romantic love, and the steady, "valley" love you describe. Valley love ensures the survival of the tribe.
The other two kinds probably evolved to protect the genetic variability of the species. :)

Posted by: jinnderella at September 26, 2004 04:49 AM Permalink

Thanks, jinnderella.

Unfortunately, most Jews are as cut off from their traditions as most other westerners - probably more, since they are almost completely urban, the relics of tradition being mostly preserved in rural areas.

Do you think I've forgotten your wonderful post? I am deliberately not calling lust a kind of love: it is a peak experience which we mistake for love, and the cause of much confusion. Romantic love, on the other hand, is the peak experience that comes from expectations of true love. Unfortunately, like all peak experiences, it is not long-lasting. When it doesn't result in true love (which is rarely a painless process) it dies.

I don't see lust and love as having separate purposes. I see them as being conflicting strategies for propagation of the species. It is an example of the evolutionary pressures of the individual conflicting with the evolutionary pressures of the tribe. Both are working at once, but the lust "gene" is advantageous only when it is the exception to the rule. Individuals belonging to tribes that favor lust over love will have less of a chance of survival. I see lust as being a parasitic "gene": it depends on the love "gene" for its life, while negatively impacting its chances of survival.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at September 26, 2004 09:37 AM Permalink

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