Jewish Attitudes Towards Sexuality
In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. Sex is not a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation. Like hunger, thirst or other basic instincts, sexual desire must be controlled and channeled, satisfied at the proper time, place and manner. But when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time, out of mutual love and desire, sex is a mitzvah.
Sex is permissible only within the context of a marriage. In Judaism, sex is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure. It is an act of immense significance, which requires commitment and responsibility. The requirement of marriage before sex ensures that sense commitment and responsibility. Jewish law also forbids sexual contact short of intercourse outside of the context of marriage, recognizing that such contact will inevitably lead to intercourse.
The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is companionship, and sexual relations play an important role. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason. Sex between husband and wife is permitted (even recommended) at times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant, after menopause, or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception.
In the Torah, the word used for sex between husband and wife comes from the root Dalet-Ayin-Tav, meaning “to know,” which vividly illustrates that proper Jewish sexuality involves both the heart and mind, not merely the body.
Nevertheless, Judaism does not ignore the physical component of sexuality. The need for physical compatibility between husband and wife is recognized in Jewish law. A Jewish couple must meet at least once before the marriage, and if either prospective spouse finds the other physically repulsive, the marriage is forbidden.
Sex should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partner’s pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex. A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling. Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.·
Sex is the woman’s right, not the man’s. A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it. The woman’s right to sexual intercourse is referred to as onah, and is one of a wife’s three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. The Talmud specifies both the quantity and quality of sex that a man must give his wife. It specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband’s occupation, although this obligation can be modified in the ketubah (marriage contract). A man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations. In addition, a husband’s consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations is grounds for compelling a man to divorce his wife, even if the couple has already fulfilled the halakhic obligation to procreate.
Although sex is the woman’s right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. A woman may not withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment, and if she does, the husband may divorce her without paying the substantial divorce settlement provided for in the ketubah.
Although some sources take a more narrow view, the general view of halakhah is that any sexual act that does not involve sh’chatat zerah (destruction of seed, that is, ejaculation outside the vagina) is permissible. As one passage in the Talmud states, “a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife.” In fact, there are passages in the Talmud that encourage foreplay to arouse the woman.·
The Secret Life of Hasidic Sexuality
Though I am not entirely sure why, people seem just plain fascinated by the (supposedly) cloistered communities of black clad Jews who briskly swarm — entourage and side curls in tow — through the streets of Brooklyn, the Diamond District and Old Jerusalem. For sure, some of it is the sheer “otherness” of their look and their seeming lack of interest as to what is occurring street level, including you and all the other passers-by. But whereas the Amish seem to spark a warmer, folksy response for their dogged embrace of the sartorial choices of their 18th century forbearers, Hasidim are often treated as circus freaks for having made a similar decision. I think it is this same lurid fascination that compels us to respond to the barkers call to gawk at the bearded-lady and the boy with the lobster claw hands that draws our imaginations to contemplate Hasidic intimacy.
I saw two examples of this in action in the popular media this past week. The first was through the lens of Deborah Feldman, a former Satmar Hasid whose rejection of that tradition has recently garnered her a good measure of media exposure — and book sales. The ladies of “The View” tremulously queried her as they might an escapee of the Taliban or some tribe of Cannibals, but the discussion could not conclude until Barbara Walters (prompted by the producer) gave her all of 60 seconds to explain the (apparently primitive) Satmar mating practices. What she did manage to cover, though it ended up sounding like some antiquated misogyny rite, formed the basis of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity), a brilliant and beautiful concept that is practiced by religious Jews of all stripes — from the most Hasidic to the most left-wing modern Orthodox.
To hear a better explanation of the idea, I would direct you to Oprah Winfrey’s generous and open-minded interview with four Lubavitch women in Crown Heights. There too, she wanted to hear about how they had sex, but unlike Ms. Feldman, who seems to have had an unusually negative experience, these women were proud of their tradition and eager to talk about it.
In short, religious men and women physically separate during the days of menstruation and add on an additional “clean week,” making about 12 days out of the month in total. This is not done, as Ms. Feldman suggests, because the women are considered “impure,” which is a common and unfortunate mistranslation. Rather, the women are tameh — a word that indicates a spiritual change as the result of the loss of potential life. When men ejaculate, they also become tameh and also require immersion in a mikvah or ritual bath (though due to the relative frequency rates, most men — Hasidim excluded — do not hold themselves to this standard). In neither case is there any assumption of dirtiness or lack of purity. In that same vein, a human corpse is considered the most tameh object on Earth as it is now the empty shell of a former actualized living force. The mikvah — through its laws, dimensions and construction — is a kabbalistic practice that restores the non-corporeal equilibrium of the practitioner.
For those who don’t accept the spiritual basis for the practice, there is a sociological one as well. As correctly explained by one of the women conversing with Oprah, when there is no physical outlet available for a couple, they are compelled to deal with each other on an intellectual and emotional level. They communicate only through words and body language which engenders another — perhaps deeper — level of intimacy. In addition, many couples describe the conclusion of this period of separation as a monthly honeymoon, and in a time when the majority of marriages fail, sustaining the excitement level can only be a good thing. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it does wonders for other anatomical regions. In truth, to the average observant Jew, sex is not something mundane and titillating, but, rather, holy and sacred. From this perspective, it is the puerile obsessions of the secular world which are bizarre, not the concept of family purity and seeing one’s intimate life as something sanctified — to be guarded and cherished.
Ms. Feldman also intimated that the purpose of Hasidic (aka Jewish) marital intimacy was solely to procreate. This is obviously not the case as couples continue to perform the mitzvah(right action) of intercourse during pregnancy, after menopause and when there is a biological inability to conceive. Actually, the main purpose of sex — as explained by Jewish law — is to create something called devek, best translated as an intense spiritual/emotional cleaving between the couple. The stringencies associated with this practice — general separation of the genders, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex and the modesty laws — are all designed to promote the ardent primacy and exclusivity of the marital relationship. Nothing is meant to stand in the way of its fullest development.
Are there times when devotees, or entire communities, fall short of these lofty goals? Yes. Does that mean that their underlying principles are weird or beyond the contemplation of the average person? No. In fact, the world at large would do well to consider the adoption of a version of them. I’ve heard it said that divorce is the second most traumatic experience that a family can go through next to the death of a close relative. Wouldn’t it be in be in everyone’s interest to gird marriage to the greatest extent possible thus sparing couples, families and nations from voluminous anguish?
Their style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in this regard, the Hasids have it right.
The Sex Lives of Hasidic Jews
Have you heard the one about the Hasidic Jews who are so modest they only have sex through a hole in the sheet? I certainly have, and for some reason accepted this unquestioningly as fact. Cause, I dunno, religions often seem strange to non-practitioners. Why wouldn’t they have sex through a sheet?
Well, apparently this is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I feel a little foolish for ever believing it to be true.
An essay posted today on XOJane clears things up:
I don’t know who made up the dumb story about having sex through a sheet, but let’s bury that old chestnut now. Having sex through a sheet is actually prohibited by Torah and we are commanded explicitly by G-d to get totally naked to shag. Just in case you’re wondering.
Ah, right, yes, no, I mean, I figured it wasn’t true, just… curious.
But one sexual practice that is true is that Hassidic women refrain from having sex while menstruating.
All you need to know is that the practice of not touching your husband when you’re on your period and then immersing in a mikveh is awesome. Most women’s mikvehs are like spas. Picture the most beautiful spa you’ve ever been to, in a quiet all-girls safe space, and that’s mikveh.
Incidentally, Orthodox Jewish women have one of the lowest rates of cervical and other reproductive cancers because of… wait for it… these customs. We do not have sex at times that our vaginas are vulnerable to infection (such as right after birth). Because we do internal checks for menstrual blood the week after we finish menstruating, the rate of early detection of (G-d forbid) tumors and cysts in the vagina is very high.
Also, this was cool:
Fun fact: Jewish law prohibits marrying someone who you’re not attracted to. Another fun fact: In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife. If my husband would deny “conjugal rights” to me, that’s grounds for divorce. Pretty effing progressive if you ask me.
Just goes to show that you should never assume things about someone else’s sexual practice, as long as all parties involved are consensual and, well, happy with their sex lives. It seems like Hasidic women certainly are!
Thoughts during Intimacy
The Hasidim believe that the purpose and mission of the human being on earth is to sanctify the physical reality, beginning with one’s body, by revealing the presence of God in all aspects of creation thereby imbuing all of existence with holiness and meaning. To this end, they believe the Creator has given us commandments, which address every aspect of life. Through engaging a particular aspect of life guided by His will, we sanctify and elevate that encounter. They believe God has granted us commandments that address our sexuality so that our sexuality be sanctified and elevated. The primary hallmark of sanctity is — selflessness. God is revealed where the ego and self are set aside. So what are holy thoughts during intimacy? Thinking about and being focused on the other and their pleasure!
Nonetheless, the Hasidim believe that there is a subtle but profound distinction between men and women, which, in turn, is a consequence of their differing make-up. Men do. Women are. Men tend to define themselves by performance and achievement. Women by their very being. The female identity is essential and intrinsic. The male identity is projectory and defined by prowess. Men relate to God’s projected, descriptive manifestations. Women relate to His beyond-description essence. Thus the male role in intimacy is primarily to perform by focusing on her — serving and arousing her. Her experience, by contrast, is essential and within. Her deeper sexuality, when revealed, lifts the male experience to heights otherwise beyond him.
The kabbalah states that in the event that intimacy may result in conception, in order that the embryo be “wrapped” in the “garb” of holiness, the male, consistent with his role to serve, is encouraged to conjure at the moment of the sperm’s release the image of a sacred letter of the Hebrew alphabet or the image of a righteous and saintly person. This is not a thought but a fleeting image. It is to be invoked only at the point of ‘no-return’ when fertilization might occur.
The Jewish, Torah view on sexual identity is that all people are multi-sexual. In as much as each human being is a microcosm of the universe at large. We are all “everything” — male, female, animal, plant and all that exists. What differentiates us is the preponderance of one or many of these “components”. So no one is exclusively heterosexual or bisexual or homosexual. We are all capable of all sexual expressions, regardless of how latent a particular aspect of our sexuality may be. Thus, in a fully realized sexual relationship between a male and female, the couple relates to and connects to each other beyond the narrow heterosexual model — they connect to and express the full gamut of sexual identity and experience.
The Hasidim believe that the Creator has ordained that sexual intimacy occur between men and women who’s union has been sanctified by marriage. No matter how much one might crave intimacy with another person, male or female, this is the only “kosher” union. Clearly though, there are many who’s homosexual component is so overwhelming that it is well-nigh impossible to see or experience that “sameness” in the “opposite” sex. Hasidim believe that such an individual has been created by God this way and is destined to deal with the kind of tests and temptations that most people do not. What must be emphasized is, that no one may sit in judgment over another’s choices or actions. All people are to be seen equally as creations of God, formed in the Divine image and related to with respect, love and compassion.