I would like to begin by acknowledging Stuart Dauermann and Ellen Goldsmith for their excellent introduction to our discussion on Intimacy and Sexuality.1 They have presented a thoughtful, and at times brilliant, overview of the topic, and have helped me better conceptualize some of my own thinking on some important related issues. I am truly grateful for their contribution.
The first half of their paper is the strongest, exploring the relationship of intimacy and covenant, its embodiment and reflection within HaShem, Creation and Israel, and the holiness of sexuality within the confines of marriage. Given their relational approach and the appropriate use of thinking from individuals whose work embodies a relational model, particularly Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber and Jonathan Sacks, they have already clearly articulated the contours of the discussion. Had they not already quoted these thinkers, I would have done so.
Therefore, instead of echoing and strengthening what they have already said, I will simply turn my attention (and word limit) to the second half of their paper, where their previously brilliant analyses begin to break down. By far the weakest sections are their handling of parenting, its larger role and impact upon the marriage relationship, and a dismissive side-comment regarding Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
As the father of a preschool-age son, I am currently in the midst of actively parenting a young child. Therefore, I must admit that this section elicited the greatest amount of scrutiny. I wholeheartedly agree that education and support for young parents is greatly needed. I also agree that the demands of young children, especially infants, can take an incredible toll on parents and their relationship with one another.2 It is true some husbands can resent this greater attention a mother must now direct toward her child(ren) and vice versa, however, the reason for this is not as the authors state:
Husbands often feel neglected as the wife is now bonding with the child or later, with the children, and oftentimes not only does this require a lot of time, but women often prefer their parenting role to spending time with their husbands (emphases mine).3
This assumption greatly bothered me, so I discussed it with my wife. Both of us agreed that in a healthy relationship spousal neglect is not because a woman prefers her parenting role over her spouse, but rather, it is largely due to the demands and stresses of parenting itself. This is especially true in our 21st century context, where parenting is especially exhausting and isolating.
When our son was born, no amount of preparation, warnings, or jokes from others about the lack of sleep could have prepared us for the brutality of those first few months. You are completely exhausted and living in survival mode. The full attentions of both parents are spent on getting from one minuscule amount of sleep to another, while at the same time trying to keep a newborn baby alive, clean and calm. All of this is further exacerbated if additional children are added to the mix, let alone other factors (like careers).
Anthropologically speaking, families traditionally lived in extended family units, with grandparents and/or other family either living within the same household, or within the same village. Although parenting is exhausting in and of itself, there was support from the extended family in caring for a child and their parents. As the saying truly goes, “it takes a village.”
Sagely advice was also readily available, as the authors correctly note:
In Jewish life people often would rely on the advice of sages – people of wisdom and experience – to whom one can be accountable and who help those grow. Having such “sages” in one’s life, seeking and heeding their counsel, is a smart thing to do.”4
But again, anthropologically speaking, this support was not just academic, it was tangible and practical as well. Before the invention of the automobile and the airplane, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins often lived within a stone’s throw of each other. When a new member of the family was born, they did not sit around the hearth lecturing the parents about how to best raise their children. Instead, they directly participated. This included washing soiled diapers, serving as wet nurses, minding a child while its mother slept, worked, or traveled, feeding the child and teaching the child how to prepare food, meting out discipline, teaching the child a skill or trade, studying with and tutoring the child, modeling a Jewish lifestyle, and actively managing the child’s education.
In the 21st century, it is now possible to spend several decades of adulthood having minimal contact with children. Indeed, neither my wife nor I had ever changed a diaper before we became parents ourselves. In our wider society, children are often viewed as an inconvenience, a distraction, or a “consequence” of poor decision making. This is reflected in our public policies and our workplaces, which, for example, penalize women financially for bearing children. This is reflected in our public infrastructure, which prioritizes the needs of adult commuters over children, young families, the elderly, and the disabled. This is also reflected in our public discussions about parenting, which are rife with snap judgments and stereotyping. What underlies this dysfunctional attitude towards children is the sense that able-bodied adults are entitled to enjoy “peace and quiet” and pursue their interests, careers, and intellectual pursuits without interruption. How easily have we forgotten that God does not give us health and vigor as an end unto itself. Rather, God gives us gifts that we might use them to serve others. Nowhere should this be truer than within the boundaries of our Messianic Jewish community.
When we made the decision to return to Los Angeles to lead Ahavat Zion, we settled in a city isolated from either of our families. Prior to our having a child, their absence was of course noticeable, but we were functioning as autonomous adults with little need for daily assistance. It was not until our son was born that their absence was truly and desperately felt. It is extremely difficult to raise a child(ren) without family nearby. Those of you who have done so, know this.
Nowadays, young parents are more often separated from their extended families due to jobs, education or other factors. This begs for greater tangible, spiritual and emotional support from our congregations. If we want to create congregations that are welcoming to young families, then we desperately need to be sensitive to the demands and needs of young families, especially of new parents. It is not just theoretical education that is needed, but practical and tangible support.
The authors go on to assert: “As the intimacy between the mother and child increases, it often effects the intimacy between the spousal partners with a reduction in sexual intimacy.”5 Again, the issue is not so much a lack, or a decrease, in intimacy and love felt between the spouses. In our case, the love and bonding over our newborn child were there, but as already mentioned, we were exhausted and in survival mode. There are also other external and internal factors that affect sexual intimacy. For example, giving birth is a traumatic experience, and not too long ago, childbirth was one of the leading causes of death among women. The fact that childbirth is now considered an almost in and out, same-day procedure, is a modern medical marvel. The pain and discomfort is even more pronounced if other factors, like a caesarian section were involved. Furthermore, a woman’s body is continually going through radical changes during the postpartum period, which lasts several months. Studies have demonstrated that men’s hormones are also changing, as testosterone levels decrease during this time in order for the husband to better bond and care for his spouse and their newborn child.6
Additionally, the authors give absolutely no credence to just how painful sex is for many women following childbirth. Thus, discussions of sexual intimacy following childbirth are far more complicated than presented. Within a healthy relationship, I again would argue that a reduction in sexual intimacy has much more to do with the physical and logistical challenges of caring for a newborn, along with minimal family support, than a change in a preferred role.
In summary, if we are truly concerned about a decline in intimacy between young parents, the appropriate response is not to chide a woman for “preferring” her child(ren) to her spouse or to insist that the best remedy is to pay a total-stranger for child care. Instead, the best response is “when can I babysit?” or “Here is a pre-cooked dinner for your freezer. How else can I help?”
Parenting and Marriage
In discussing the challenges of parenting and its strains on the spousal relationship, the authors correctly observe:
There is often a dynamic in the family that reflects a lack of mutual submission and engagement as the marriage years press on. Communication is often lost and particularly in our culture, the marriage is often lost within the family. Marriages are now neglected because the children take precedence (emphasis mine).7
This can be an inherent challenge for any parents. And I would agree that it is even more difficult today, as our children’s schedules get busier than our own, with soccer practice, music lessons, tutors, and scheduled play-dates. At the same time, anthropologically speaking, most creatures spend the greatest amount of their energies caring for their young. This is historically true and remains so.
From our experience, the greatest long-term affliction to a marriage is not the presence of children, but avoidance of deeper issues. Marriages tend to dissolve because the baggage brought into them was never fully addressed. Rabbi Jason Sobel is fond of describing marriage as “sandpaper for the soul.” It is only in the context of a marriage covenant that we confront each other’s deepest weaknesses in stark and glaring terms. Marriage provides an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to heal us in the most raw and intimate places. But this healing requires that we allow God and our spouse to enter the deepest recesses of our neshomas. The vulnerability that is required is exquisitely painful. Usually we summon all our well-honed defense mechanisms to cut off access to these deepest pain points. Then when children, financial stress, and other pressures of life stack up, we become distracted or downright avoid the painful process of deep spiritual healing that is offered in marriage.
The “real” problem(s) are often within the parents and their already existing relationship. The “children” and other external factors on the marriage only exacerbate the underlying condition, or provide an avoidance mechanism.
Therefore, our challenge and assignment is to ensure a proper balance between maintaining ourselves and a healthy relationship with our spouse, along with the demands of parenting. This is, again, another place where I think our communities can do a much better job of supporting one another. We must provide opportunities for couples to grow as individuals and as couples, and provide the tangible encouragement and support to weather the challenges of parenting that often exacerbate pre-existing issues. The major exception to this is when a disabled child or an aging parent requires long-term, high demand care. The amount of stress, fatigue, and relational drain, compounded over time, often wreaks havoc on even the healthiest of relationships. In such cases, an even greater amount of communal and spiritual care is needed. Again, the appropriate response to an exhausted caregiver is not a lecture about where their priorities should be, or an insistence that they should “remember self-care.” Instead, we should offer tangible support that also enables them to remain connected to their spouse.
Attention Deficit Disorder
I must admit, the most shocking statement of the whole paper was this claim:
Finally, many parents today do not really discipline their children and this may also contribute to childhood disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder.8
I concede that far too many children are not properly “parented,” are often over-medicated and that doctors are far too quick to label children with an “alphabet soup” of diagnoses.9 At the same time, to simply blame a disorder such as ADD on a lack of parenting is quite a misnomer. Therefore, I will simply point out:
[ADD] has been recognized as a legitimate diagnosis by major medical, psychological, and educational organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. The American Psychiatric Society recognizes ADHD as a medical disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders … .
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (also known as attention-deficit disorder) is biologically based. Research shows that it’s a result of an imbalance of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, within the brain.10
ADHD is also the most extensively studied pediatric mental health disorder.11 Having a family member who has been legitimately diagnosed with ADHD and working with children as an accredited Jewish educator, I find such a claim to be completely erroneous and unfounded.
I began by thanking the authors for their excellent introduction to our discussion. They truly have presented a largely thoughtful, and at times brilliant, overview of the topic. Any criticisms are with great respect and with the hopes that these thoughts would only strengthen their original work.
If our congregations are to truly be effective at reaching and raising up another generation of healthy families, then we (myself included) should also be careful to build congregations and communities that are not just sound intellectually, but are also healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically, providing tangible and practical support for one another and strengthening relationships. As I am always emphasizing within our congregation, it really all boils down to two things: our love for HaShem and our love for one another. If we can foster congregations that do this well, then we will definitely be on our way to better preparing the world for the return of Mashiach.
Rabbi Joshua Brumbach is the spiritual leader of Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Santa Monica, CA, an adjunct instructor for the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and the author of a recently published commentary on the Book of Jude. He additionally serves as Vice-President of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), sits on the Theology and Steering Committees of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, and on the Administration Committee for the International Messianic Jewish Alliance. He holds a MJS in Rabbinic Literature from MJTI, a BA in Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Biblical Studies, and an AA in Anthropology from UCLA.
1 Stuart Dauermann and Ellen Goldsmith, “Messianic Jewish Ethics Concerning Intimacy & Sexuality” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Hashivenu Forum, Enfield, CT, May 18-19, 2016). See infro 3-33 (hereafter cited as Dauermann & Goldsmith).
2 Dauermann & Goldsmith, infra, 22.
3 Ibid., 21.
4 Ibid., 22.
5 Ibid., 21.
6 Christian Nordqvist, “Men’s Testosterone Drops Steeply When Baby Arrives, Medical News Today September 13, 2011), accessed online, May 9, 2016, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/234266.php. Pam Belluck, “In Study, Fatherhood Leads to Drop in Testosterone,” New York Times (September 12, 2011), accessed online May 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/health/research/13testosterone.html?_r=0. Bonnie Rochman, “Why Fathers Have Lower Levels of Testosterone,” Time Magazine (September 13, 2011), accessed online, May 9, 2016, http://healthland.time.com/2011/09/13/why-do-dads-have-lower-levels-of-testosterone/.
7 Dauermann and Goldsmith, infra, 24.
8 Ibid., 25.
9 Daniel F. Connor, “Problems of Overdiagnosis and Overprescribing in ADHD,” Psychiatric Times (August 11, 2011), accessed online, May 8, 2016, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/adhd/problems-overdiagnosis-and-overprescribing-adhd/page/0/1.
10 “7 Myths About ADHD … Debunked!” ADDitude (August/September, 2005), accessed May 8, 2016, http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/873.html; Steven Reinberg, “Brain Studies Show ADHD Is Real Disease,” ABC News, accessed online, May 8, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/brain-studies-show-adhd-real-disease/story?id=4508193; “When the Diagnosis is ADHD,” New York Times (February 15, 2011), accessed online, May 8, 2016, http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/when-the-diagnosis-is-a-d-h-d/?_r=0.
11 Ibid. Daniel F. Connor, “Problems of Overdiagnosis and Overprescribing in ADHD,” Psychiatric Times (August 11, 2011),