One of the most remarkable stories about lust comes from the Talmud, the ancient collection of Jewish commentaries and wisdom:
Rav Kahana lay under the bed of Rav, his illustrious teacher, who was carousing and speaking frivolously with his wife of sexual matters; afterward, the teacher had intercourse with her. Kahana made his presence known and said to his teacher: "You appear to me to be like a hungry man who has never had sex before, for you act with great fervor in your lust."
The teacher said to Kahana: "Are you here? Get out! It is improper for you to lie under my bed!"
Kahana said to him: "This is a matter of Torah and I must study."
Whoa! What a tale! Rav Kahana, a great sage, lies under the marital bed of his master, Rav, in order to learn the holy art of lovemaking. Why? Because he is a pious man who wishes to serve God with all his faculties. And what does he learn? How to love his wife-and not just love her sweetly but passionately, indeed, lustfully.
Lust, per se, is not a sin. What is sinful is focusing our lust on strangers, instead of those to whom we are married. Lust for someone who is not your spouse is a sin, because it degrades your husband or wife. This lust is, indeed, the kind the ancients worried about--lust that demeans and debases, the kind that 32 percent of those responding to the Beliefnet poll say they are guilty of.
But there is no reason people should feel guilty if they focus their lust in the right direction. By restoring lust to the marriage bed, we can avoid adultery and broken marriages.
The idea that lust can and should be indulged, even in the proper context, may sound contradictory. Religious people in particular have been conditioned to believe that in order for sex to be sanctified, it must take place only with the intention of procreation--otherwise, the logic goes, engaging in sex is sinful. That view, unfortunately, snuffs the passion not only for casual sex, but for married sex as well.
So, for instance, I counsel some couples who claim to have lost all attraction to one another to increase the sense of jealousy in their marriage. I told one truly dilapidated pair to try this experiment: Go to a bar (not a sleazy one). Have the wife sit at the bar and the husband sit at a table some distance away--and watch as men start flirting with her. Sure, this is extreme advice, much as a defibrillator is administered to a heart that has stopped beating. But that's what it takes some time to remind husbands that their wives are highly attractive to other men, and should be attractive to them as well.
To be unfaithful in a relationship is terribly wrong, but it is not just a sin of commission, but one of omission: you have failed in what you have done, but also in what you haven't. All of the affection, emotion, and attention lavished on the person you seek to seduce could have been shown to your own spouse.
The Bible relates that when the Jews came out of Egypt and God commanded Moses to build the Tabernacle, the women donated their copper mirrors to be melted down and used as the washbasin for the priests. Jewish tradition teaches that Moses rejected the mirrors at first, since their purpose had been to arouse the lust of their husbands. Their use would contradict the holy purpose of the Tabernacle.
But God overruled Moses, insisting that the mirrors be made an integral part of the Tabernacle. The mirrors were particularly precious to God because they increased love and desire between husband and wife. God decreed that there could be erotic objects in the temple because they were tools for increasing the union between a man and a woman united in marriage. Few things could have been deemed holier.