They say that nothing sells newspapers like sex and Haaretz had a doozy last week: the second part in an expose (OK, just a spicy research study) on the sex lives of a particular group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel – the Gur Hasidim. The article was the talk of our table this past Shabbat.
As too often happens, stories in the media aim to titillate first; present the facts only secondary. But this article seems to have some meat to it. It’s based on the doctoral dissertation of Nava Wasserman, who conducted her research under the guidance of Prof. Kimmy Caplan, at Bar-Ilan University.
A central part of the study quoted in the Haaretz article focused mainly around the wedding night. Wasserman describes how Gur members are taught that sex – and any sexual thoughts – are a sin and how young men in the sect by and large know nothing of the subject…until two hours before the wedding.
At that point, a Gur “counselor” reveals to the groom what he must do on his wedding night. “There are grooms who throw up or faint when they hear these things,” Haaretz quotes Wasserman as saying. She cites an interview she conducted with a young Gur man who related that, “I saw black circles in front of my eyes and all of a sudden I found myself on the sofa.”
Wasserman explains that “the sect is willing to pay this price, to receive the benefit of sanctity.” Girls, by the way, receive more extensive counseling, a few weeks before the wedding.
The rules of sex in the Gur society apparently stem from the late Rabbi Israel Alter (also known as the “Beis Yisroel”), who led Gur from 1948 to 1977, and wanted to unify the sect by distancing it from Western society which, Wasserman notes, Alter felt “blew sexuality out of its natural and necessary proportions.”
“When my goals are spiritual, I must do everything to reduce my natural desires,” Wasserman continues in the article. “Gur Hasidim contend that it is possible to control sexual urges. When a Gur Hasid walks down the street, he will direct his gaze downward. On a bus, he might remove his glasses.”
With this in mind, it’s not too hard to understand how we’ve come to the separation of men and women on buses.
Wasserman is clear to emphasize that the Gur are a small group within the greater ulra-Orthodox community and that stereotyping an entire population is unfair and incorrect. That was certainly the response at our Shabbat table where the kids didn’t want to hear from Abba’s presumably bigoted pontifications. In response, I sent them the articles to read after Shabbat.