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A letter exchange between Rabbi Nathan A. Barack and James W. Prescott, Ph.D. on the subject of Prescott's article "Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence". Published in "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists", March 1976, pp. 81-82.
and peaceful societies:
a psychologist's view
Nathan A. Barack
'A brief for licentiousness'
The face and article title of Andrei Sakharov on the cover of the November issue of the Bulletin thrilled me; but James W. Prescott's article, "Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence," shocked me. A pseudo-scientific brief for licentiousness in the Bulletin! Incredible!
By means of experiments with animals Prescott arrives at a way of human conduct as if man had no reflective mind and no culture which evolved over the centuries. The objectivity of his research is implicit in his declaration, "How many of us feel like assaulting someone after we have just experienced orgasm?" The answer to his question is found in his quoted excerpt telling that the G.I. rapists later killed their pleasure medium.
Prescott vents his anger on what he calls the "Judeo-Christian concept" of morality. He betrays a pathetic ignorance of Judaism. Not only does Judaism regard sexual relations natural and desirable in the right relationship and at the right time, but it also advocates affection and love. (Prescott confuses pleasure-seeking with affection.) The Torah points out that the patriarchs loved their wives. The Talmud teaches, "He who loves his wife like himself and respects her more than himself, and guides his children on the upright path with have harmony in his home." Judaism regards life precious and sacred, and teaches self-discipline and sanctity, as well as compassion and integrity, to preserve and enhance life. The validity of the Jewish way was shown during almost two thousand years of Jewish non-violence, non-delinquency and non-divorce (all comparatively) despite the inhuman violence and vicious vilification practiced against them (often by those who did not adhere to their own church's morality teachings, as historians of the medieval times report). In contrast with the Jews, the Nazis were the most violent people in history and also among the most immoral. Criminals today often come from homes where the religious moral code was not followed. Significantly, the rise of crime has corresponded with the decline of religion.
Prescott's biblical quotations are distorted and unrepresentative. He cites the case of Lot who left his uncle to dwell among the immoral and unjust Sodomites and fails to mention Abraham, the founder of Judaism, who gave up his Rights for the sake of peace, who refused to accept reward for deliverance of the weaker antagonists and who pleaded for the lives of the wicked Sodomites. (Prescott would probably point to Abraham's readiness to offer up his son Isaac for truth and justice—for that is the real meaning of chapter 22 in Genesis—as evidence of Abraham's violence.) Further Prescott quotes a symbolic tale from Ezekiel, torn out of its context, and fails to note Ezekiel's profoundly ethical chapters 18 and 33.
Prescott's article seems to be an attempt to give a rational facade to juvenile rebellion and undisciplined pleasure-seeking. It is probably a commentary on our contemporary culture that "scientists" who reject the values of the truly great scientists and prophets, who eschewed pleasure-seeking and even the quest of comfort in the endeavor to preserve and elevate life, should be featured in the official organ of nuclear scientists.
Nathan A. Barack is rabbi of the Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Violence, pleasure and religion
James W. Prescott
Rabbi Nathan Barack's comments upon my article are welcome because they indicate the enormous difficulty of communicating a different perspective upon old problems and the substantial misunderstandings that arise therefrom.
First, Barack misinterprets my article as a "pseudo-scientific brief for licentiousness" which reflects a major misunderstanding of my thesis. The misunderstanding is also reflected in his failure to note my distinctions between sexual pleasures that are exploitive and violent in nature (sadistic) from those that are mutually sharing and peaceful in nature; and that chronic, perseverative (pathological) pleasure-seeking behaviors are a consequence of physical affectional deprivation during the formative periods of development.
It is through deprivation that licentiousness, promiscuity, and violence are bred—and I have never advocated deprivation, licentiousness, promiscuity or violence. On the contrary, I have advocated body pleasure in the context of "meaningful human relationships" and have emphasized that "affectionately shared physical pleasure ... tends to stabilize a relationship." These statements are equally valid for relationships between parents and child rend and lovers alike. Body pleasure should not be equated with genital pleasure, although the latter is a major source for the former.
Barack, unfortunately, fails to recognize the major moral issue in Genesis (19: 1-11) and Judges (19: 22-30) where no moral reproach is given to fathers and husbands who were willing to hand over their virgin daughters and wives for gang rape to avoid homosexual rape of their male guests.
My indictment of the Judeo-Christian traditions with respect to sexuality and body pleasure in general is still valid but requires qualifications which were not possible in the original article. The Old and New Testaments, as a major source for Judeo-Christian values, contain many mixed, inconsistent and contradictory values: a benevolent God versus a punitive God; exploitation of women versus exhaltation of women (virginity is an example of simultaneous exploitation and exhaltation); the inherent shamefulness of nudity and immorality of sexual pleasures (many examples) versus the exhaltation of sensual pleasure (very few examples), and so forth. It is not denied that many fine and noble ethical principles are contained in the Bible. The question is which values of the many contradictory values in the Bible are finally adopted by the people—and why?
The account of this process is a story of the evolution of humanization and civilization. In this respect, it is my personal conviction that Judaism is the most humanized and civilized of the three great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and that the greatest humanistic advances within Judaism have been made within the past two thousand years. Unfortunately, it is the Christian and Islamic religions that have maintained many of the primitive and barbaric values espoused in the Old Testament and consequently are retarded in their evolution of humanistic values when compared to Judaism. Nazi Germany is a classical example of a nation with centuries of primitive Christian values, and the horrible consequences of that tradition are obvious. Why is it that Christianity was founded upon an act of physical violence: the torture, mutilation and destruction (crucifixion) of an innocent life? And where that brutal act was called an act of love by an all-loving God who was willing to sacrifice His only begotten Son! Does not the continuing worship of the symbol (crucifix) of that atrocity help mold the human psyche to make possible other atrocities, for example the Inquisition and the Nazi holocaust? There are reasons why Christianity has failed in its humanistic traditions and why Judaism has been relatively successful in maintaining and promoting humanistic values.
Judaism, however, is not entirely free of its heritage of repressive sexuality as is evident in Moses Maimonides' The Guide of the Perplexed; and the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 150: Laws of Chastity; Chapter 151: the Sin of Discharging Semen in Vain). A brief quote from Maimonides is illustrative:Similarly one of the intentions of the Law is purity and sanctification; I mean by this renouncing and avoiding sexual intercourse and causing it to be as infrequent as possible, as I shall make clear (III:8);
andSimilarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quite a state as possible.... The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision (III:49).
The recent 6,000 word "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics" issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirms the immorality of premarital intercourse; condemns homosexuality; and teaches that masturbation is "an intrinsically and seriously disordered act"; all of which are considered vices contrary to the virtue of chastity. Roman Catholicism and Judaism have much in common on these issues and both ignore the scientific evidence of the harmful, destructive and immoral consequences (violence, drug abuse, rape, etc.) of somatosensory pleasure deprivations.
The relationship between physical violence and physical pleasure is complex and religion is at the center of that complexity. An 11 page article and a brief exchange of letters cannot begin to resolve these issues but, hopefully, they can contribute to a better measure of understanding.
James W. Prescott, a neuropsychologist, is a health scientist administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland.
Prescott's letter republished with the kind permission of James W. Prescott; Barack's letter republished under fair use. Transcribed by Joel Schlosberg. Please inform us about any spelling errors you find. If you want to write a translation, please contact Erik Möller.