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Pure and chaste … from afar

Posted by Ron Coleman on March 11, 2007

Dawn Eden, more than a little interested in the subject, clarifies the word chaste:

[E]veryone is supposed to observe chastity according to their state in life, so there’s single chastity and there’s married chastity. Chastity is really a way to look at all your relationships so that they no longer become mere exchanges of commodities. It’s a plan for your whole life, for your happiness, and for eventually going to heaven. I look at chastity as a way to practice what it’s like to be in heaven.

Huh — live and learn. It reminds me of the Jewish concept of tzeniuth, which is usually translated as “modesty” (typically alluding to modesty in matters of dress) but which I learned really means “dignity.”

There is one use of the word “chaste,” though, that I will always remember. It was on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, when Murray Slaughter — the crypto-Jewish copywriter played by Gavin McLeod — his heart filled to bursting, finally has to tell Mary that he’s in love with her. (This was before McLeod became captain of, ironically, the Love Boat.) Mary, perpetually single but very desirable, expresses how flattered she is and gently reminds Murray that he’s married (thus avoiding the more painful truth that he’s not in her league). Murray, the literary romantic, resolves it by assuring her that he knows this, he loves his wife, and that he will still always love Mary (“Myeh-ry” as he says it; the Jewish part of his character is not played out as Rhoda Morgenstern’s is, but with that accent in Minneapolis, and his literary pretensions, it’s pretty clear) “pure and chaste from afar.”

I found that very touching, and of course somewhat sad, but also was impressed by the level of maturity that Murray showed in making this acknowledgment. I must have been impressed — I am sure I saw that episode about 30 years ago, and it still sticks with me. Still and all, the higher service for Murray would have been to keep his feelings to himself — this would truly have been pure and chaste and, especially, “afar.” In Jewish sensibility we call this k’rivath hadaath, literally, “the bringing-close of the mind” — for such a revelation of one’s feelings about another, regardless of acceptance or rejection, opens up new mental gateways between the two people in conversation. The Torah teaches us that merely expressing something verbally, among other things, can cross a line of the heart, breach a wall of emotional propriety that protects far more than mere emotions.

Murray, in fact, pushes the point and cannot restrain himself from asking Mary if the feeling is mutual. Of course, it isn’t. So she kind of says, “I love ya, buddy” and bear hugs him as his aunt might — thereby bursting his bubble — not as if he could ever have dared to think otherwise.

Yes, Murray would have been better nurturing, or neutering, his secret love secretly. I wish I could remember in whose name I saw this bit of doggerel — it went something like this: “Not everything that is said should be written; not everything that is thought, should be said.” Imagine where the blogosphere would be with such a worldview; and yet this golden rule — and not merely whether my swinging fist implodes your visage — is , perhaps, the very minimum guideline of a civilized, i.e., social, person. Perhaps this too it is of a piece with Dawn’s definition of chastity.

16 Responses to “Pure and chaste … from afar”

  1. craig mclaughlin said

    It certainly isn’t the conventional wisdom, but I agree that a great many things can be made worse by talking about them. It seems to me that a useful, though sadly out of favor, indication of maturity is knowing which things. That’s where the rabbi or priest was thought to be of some value, right?

  2. Well, Craig, I’d guess that people who knew enough to ask a clergyman before talking were already way ahead of the game.

    The fact is that Judaism has intricate and in fact very restrictive rules about “guarding one’s tongue” (shemirath ha-loshon).

  3. jaymaster said

    Am I still chaste if I tell you that I love you, Ron?

    I really do, I think. But not in a sexual way, for sure.

    Unless maybe I’m projecting Sarah Silverman upon you somehow…

  4. Gosh, Jay, I luv ya too!

    I must, even though you go ahead and mention that classy lady in the comments on a post about chastity.

  5. Michael B. said

    Thanks, Ron, for the words of wisdom. We watched Mary Tyler Moore (and Bob Newhart, of course) every Saturday night, and I’m sure I must have seen that episode when I was a kid. I wish I’d internalized the lesson the way you did.

    Like Murray, I failed to guard my thoughts and my tongue, and it ultimately led to the destruction of what had been a wonderful friendship. It was worse than the Mary-Murray situation because my feelings were requited, but she came to her senses before I did. I’ll never commit that folly again, but it’s too late for that friendship, and there’s no hope of forgiveness or reconciliation.

    I lost a professional ally and mentor as well. She’s someone who delights in sharing her experience and promoting the work of her friends. Even though years have passed, nearly every month I’m made aware of some door that has been closed, some connection that I’ll never make because of my foolishness. Recently I considered applying for a professional course that seemed ideal for equipping me for a future career move. When I learned that she was one of the instructors, I knew it would cause trouble if I applied, and I abandoned the idea.

    As Solomon wrote, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) I failed to heed that lesson and will likely never stop paying the price.

  6. Wow, Michael, I am sorry to hear that. You’re in very good company, though. Solomon, after all, learned just about all the lessons in Proverbs the hard way — despite his great wisdom.

  7. zach. said

    Ron,

    is it really so cut-and-dried? Certainly Murray could be considered to be crossing a social line in terms of cheating on his wife. But on the lone score of keeping ones feelings to oneself, it’s not such a clear argument for me. If Murray hadn’t said anything maybe he’d spend the rest of his life freaking out over how hot Mary is, wondering if she’d ever thought about the two of them together the way he did. At least this way it’s all out of the way. Whatever awkwardness is inserted into his and Mary’s relationship may be outweighed by the fact that now at least he knows. He can move on with his life, or attempt to.

    All in all, though, probably too much analysis for a couple of fictional characters.

  8. But he wasn’t going to get together with her, Zach. He says, and he should say, he was committed to his wife. Plus his dreams were never realistic; he’s not in Mary’s league. All he did was actually warp the friendly relationship with Mary, with no real up side.

    That doesn’t mean a lot of people wouldn’t do the same thing. Sometimes emotions are hard to contain.

    All in all, we can learn a lot of things from well-drawn fictional characters, don’t you think? I mean, heck, Zach, you found something to say.

  9. zach. said

    Well, in this isolated case, maybe he was wrong. I guess I mean more generally. As you say, feelings are hard to contain.

    My comment at the end was added more because as I was writing it I was imagining someone likening our analysis to Quayle’s comments re: Murphy Brown, if anyone remembers back that far. I also have a tendency to over-empathize with fictional characters and fictional situations, so I have to fight that impulse to keep from going off the deep end :p

  10. warren said

    What’s the difference between “tzeniuth”, and “shomer negiah”? I guess they go together and both together make something equivalent to a christian precept of “chastity”, although “shomer negiah” forbids all physical contact, right?

    But do you really think it’s better to suck it all in? I’ve spent my life getting over that tendency, when it really counted, I think sometimes it’s better to put your heart out there, and speak the truth. I mean, can you really consider yourself alive, if you don’t? Surely Judaism, like other faiths, has some counterpoints or opposing principles that moderate “k’rivath hadaath”?

    Warren
    [Catholic guy who digs Jewish terminology]

  11. Warren, “shomer negiah” means “observant of the rules restricting forbidden contact.” People who are “tzenuah” — observant of the rules of “tzeniuth” — are more likely to remain “shomer negiah”!

    What we are supposed to do in terms of “sucking it all in” is channel the expression of strong emotions into permissible, not forbidden, relationships. It’s a problem if a person gets himself into a situation where there has been “k’rivath hadaath” where there should not be. Big topic, Warren! But by and large that’s why among orthodox Jews there is a lot separation of the sexes even when not strictly mandated — it’s just “good practice.”

  12. Michael B. said

    So, Zach, what if Mary had confessed that she fancied Murray? What then? A broken marriage and an abandoned family, or just a painful parting of the ways? Nothing good could have come of his confession.

    Whatever relief I had in confessing my feelings for my erstwhile friend, whatever thrill there was in hearing that she had feelings for me — those were sweet moments at the time, but subsequent events have drained all the sweetness away. I’d gladly relinquish those memories if it were possible to regain the status quo ante and once again be nothing more than friendly acquaintances.

    Life isn’t about feelings. It’s about duty, responsibility, and obligation. Your emotions are helpful to the extent they help you devote yourself to your duties. To the extent that they lead you away from your obligations, they ought to be suppressed or, as Ron says, channeled in a constructive direction.

  13. warren said

    Thanks Ron. It’s interesting to me that both Judaism and Catholicism have this sense in which “nothing Good is ever wasted”. I think it’s actually an intense and good idea to avoid dissipating all your energy, spending all your life in effect, in the pursuit of things from which nothing good can actually come. In the original Mary Tyler Moore context, in particular, it now makes perfect sense to me.

    Warren

  14. Ooh, Warren, you have really hit a great point here. I have never quite seen it put that way in our literature, but it is well known that the greatest sages and the Patriarchs themselves indeed accounted for every second and every perutah (small coin) in their lives. Wasting time or resources is not consistent with living a life full of meaning. As you suggest, wasting, so to speak, emotion is probably even worse.

  15. […] Posted by Ron Coleman on May 31st, 2007 Dawn Eden gives props, as they say, to a somewhat (for her) unusual source, on her favorite topic — chastity. […]

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