Discretion Advised

You should feel comfortable talking about sex. Why? I challenge the notion.

Forgive my hypocrisy for opening with such a provocative statement. Why must I feel comfortable casually referencing sex, either connotatively or denotatively? Why should I feel embarrassed that I blush (I admit it), when the topic is bluntly, unceremoniously, discourteously breached? Thrown open on the table like a bag of potato chips, available to everyone’s greasy, disregarding hands.

Is it because I should know more? Because I’m of the age when these topics are readily relevant? Because I should feel comfortable with this subject matter? No, I don’t buy it. Give me a reason why. And don’t throw the ‘facts of life’ argument at me. A biology class does a perfectly adequate job teaching me about the facts of life. If the purpose is to educate, whether within a scientific or religious context, the topic should be discussed openly and without hesitation. If a constructive purpose exists, please speak. (And don’t euphemize—coming from a Jewish day school and high school education I have heard enough about ‘marital relations’ to last me a lifetime.) But speaking about sex just to prove one’s worldliness, just to showcase one’s unruffled comfort level with promiscuity, is neither constructive nor positive.

I have an acquaintance. She is quite cool. Cool in that impassive, comfort-with-self, nonchalant way that is so attracting, so coveted. Effortlessly beautiful. Boldly unapologetic. Swears without blinking an eye. There is nothing more pathetic than forced swearing. Swearing to make a statement is about as bad as dressing to make a statement. If what you’re doing is apparent, you’ve worse than lost. But for this particular acquaintance, swearing is seamlessly a part of her dialect. And so is sex. Comments, terms that I would never use, and proudly so, are tossed effortlessly into her conversations, unconcerned about the possible sensitivity of the receiving ear.

I was driven to write this article by my unexpected response to this individual’s bluntness. I wanted to be okay with her statements. I did not want her to know I was uncomfortable. When we spoke and she offhandedly dropped a remark I was not comfortable with, I would force myself to boldly meet her gaze, without flinching, determined my naïveté remain undetected. Easily continued on with the conversation, even though my ears were still ringing with the vulgarity, so lightly disposed of, just sent my way.

I hope I do not describe a singular phenomenon. Whether it be that unrelenting English teacher who feels it his/her God-ordained mission to shatter your oh-so-sheltered world of innoncence and, thank heavens finally, open our eyes to the real world, or merely that aquintance who, consciously or unconsciously, pushes you to feel comfortable with something that you’re not comfortable with, there’s a lot of pressure to know. Know what exists and how it exists, even if it’s not relevant to you. Even if it’s ugly, uncouth, banal.

We’re scared to admit sensitivities. We’re uncomfortable expressing reservations. We live in a world, or, if not a world, at least a City (and I don’t hesitate to expand that to Country), that demands we be comfortable with a whole lot, disapproving eye brow shooting up when we’re not. This ain’t Sunday school, baby. Get with it. You’re in the real world now. Or seminary. You’re not in seminary anymore. No clicking the heels of your non-descript black flats will bring you back. So, lower yourself off your high-holy horse, why don’t you. Stop blushing. And get comfortable with the real world.

Why are we so embarrassed to admit that we don’t know, or that we don’t want to know? Being sheltered is equated with ignorance. And ignorance is unforgivable. Unsophisticated. Provincial. Archaic. If we live in a society that preaches knowledge as power, admitting to lack of knowledge, and even worse, voluntary lack of knowledge, is admitting to weakness. No one wants to associate with the weak. No one wants to be weak. So we nod along knowingly, even when we don’t get it. And we laugh at jokes that soar over our heads. And we try not to flinch when an inappropriate comment is unabashedly remarked.

Or, perhaps the pressure to know and be comfortable with knowing is a reaction to the unsavory cases of ignorance to which we’ve been exposed. Certain Jewish communities (no need to enumerate) work tirelessly to keep the real world out. If ads of scantily dressed females come part in parcel with the New York Times, newspapers are out. In an effort to preserve innocence and purity, much that is worthwhile and critically important in our eyes is uncompromisingly shut out.

This article is not an appraisal of whether or not that specific approach is good or bad. As with any approach to life, it has serious cons and beautiful pros. I will not be as close-minded and ignorant to critique an entire way of life based on my own limited, biased personal experiences (yes, that was a burn in case anyone missed it). What I will point out is that living one’s life under the precarious and all-to-often nebulous banner of ‘Torah U’Maddah’ can leave us floundering for definitions and guidelines. The insecurities that accompany walking the middle road leave us quick to judge extremes. If they are ignorant, we don’t want to be ignorant. We do not want to associate with ignorance. Recognizing that somewhere within the murky description of Torah U’Maddah knowledge is a highly esteemed value, we run towards the other extreme. We try to know everything.

But not everything is worth knowing, and not everything is constructive to know. I do not argue to shut out the world. I do not advocate silence or secrecy. But there is a proper, productive context in which to learn. Outside of that context, it’s ok to be uncomfortable. I hate to quote Professor Umbridge, but I don’t think ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ is a good thing either. Perhaps there is a value to ignorance. But if that position bodes too extreme, too dangerous, agree with me at least that there is a value to reticence. To innocence. To discretion. To maintaining sensitivities where sensitivities deserve to be maintained. Not out of fear, not out of shame, but out of respect.

Sometimes, it’s okay to blush.