Sexuality and Orthodoxy

by Brian on October 13, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Sex sells. And in Jerusalem, with its large religious population, a session on if Orthodoxy can come to terms with sexual activity – both in and out of marriage – drew an overflow crowd at the recent Gateways Festival of Jewish Learning and Culture.

The festival is a remarkable event: two days of pluralistic learning throughout the city, with sessions ranging from “The Mystery of the Mikveh” to analyzing how Israelis relate to God through pop music.

The session on “Sexuality and Orthodoxy” was led by two women – Beverley Damelin, a secular sex educator, and Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, a religious woman who wrote her doctorate or sexuality in the Orthodox world and was named one of the “36 under 36” by the Jewish Week in 2008. They were remarkably open, pulling no punches and eschewing the kind of uncomfortable euphemisms one might expect from such an explosive topic.

The talk was divided into four sections: thoughts and feelings about sexuality; premarital sex as a response to the lengthy period of abstinence mandated for modern religious singles who often don’t get married until their 30s, 40s or later; masturbation; and sexual practices within marriage.

The two worked like a tag team: Damelin would describe sexuality from a health education perspective, then Rosenfeld would relate it back to halacha (Jewish law).

The bottom line: there’s a lot more permissible along the fringes of Orthodoxy than you might imagine…if you’re willing to think beyond that boxed set of Talmud on the shelf.

For example, when speaking about masturbation (probably the touchiest subject covered in the hour and a half seminar), Rosenfeld referenced the Rambam who describes it as “worse than murder.” The Shulchan Aruch calls it the “gravest sin possible.”

But in the 12th century Sefer Hasidim, author Judah ben Shmuel of Regensburg Germany writes that if a man is given the unenviable choice of having to commit adultery, have sex with his wife while she is menstruating, or to masturbate, the latter is the best choice. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s at least an acknowledgment that it’s not 100% taboo.

Jewish texts are filled with these sorts of contradictions. The Shulchan Aruch includes a section that lays out exactly what is (or isn’t) permissible sexually within a marriage. No sex during the day or at night with the lights on; do it as fast as you can; missionary position only; try not to enjoy yourself too much.

But it turns out that this is actually a minority opinion in the Talmud; the majority ruling is that everything is permissible within the framework of marriage. Even modern poskim like Rav Soleveitchik agreed, calling such asceticsim only for a few “very righteous.”

The problem, Rosenfeld said, is that more extreme “all or nothing” readings are being increasingly adopted by young people coming out of religious schools and yeshivas (both in Israel and overseas) where aspiring towards seemingly righteous behavior is becoming normative.

This “all or nothing” analysis reinforces an oft-heard truism in the Orthodox world of the “slippery slope.” In the case of touching, for example, which according to the laws of “shomer negiah” is completely off limits for the unmarried, the thinking goes that something as innocuous as holding hands will necessarily and without question lead to sex.

That’s simply not true, Damelin said and Rosenfeld agreed. Why can’t couples find a middle ground? Discuss how far they’re willing to go…or not, in an open exchange of values. After all, houghts and actions are very different in nature and don’t carry the same degree of halachic punishment, Rosenfeld pointed out.

The answer seems to be that Orthodox couples don’t talk about their feelings regarding sex a whole lot – even if they’re in a non-sexual relationship. And that’s not healthy, Damelin said. “Exterminating such feelings gives rise to problems later on” when sexual desire becomes not just acceptable but necessary. Newly married couples can’t be expected to turn it on overnight, so to speak.

Much of the literature around sexual practices revolves around “sin,” Rosenfeld said. But ironically, the very rabbis in the Talmud who codified the more extreme laws were themselves flawed, and the Talmud doesn’t try to hide their dalliances with prostitutes and other illicit activities. Why then should Orthodox Jews today feel like they need to be on a higher level than the gedolim (the great scholars) 2,000 years ago, Rosenfeld asked?

Rosenfeld went one step further. If a religious couple is sexually active before marriage, that doesn’t mean they have to leave their Judaism at the door. There are many ethical teachings from Jewish tradition that can be applied, such as how to treat the other with dignity and respect.

And for Orthodox singles who find that abstinence is just not an option, there are loopholes. The main Torah prohibition against sex before marriage is that relations are forbidden when a woman is in nidah – that is, the time frame after her period until she goes to a mikveh, the ritual bath where she is symbolically purified.

If an unmarried woman goes to the mikveh, however, it would presumably lessen the severity of the sin. And, Rosenfeld added, no one is checking whether a woman comes with her hair covered or is wearing a wedding ring.

While Rosenfeld understood – and even accepted (while not entirely sanctioning)– this mikveh workaround, she cautioned against it being codified as mainstream behavior, lest it undermine the overall sanctity of marriage.

Sin can even be seen as a positive. Rosenfeld cited Rav Tzadok HaCohen, a 19th century rabbinical authority, who re-interpreted the mystical Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, as saying that sin can be good in that it helps improve the depth of one’s repentance.

On the other hand, when writing about masturbation, the Sefer Hasid says that the best repentance is to fast for 40 days in the height of summer…or to sit in a bucket of ice at the height of winter.

There is also the story in the Gemara of a man overcome with sexual desire. The rabbis tell him to dress all in black, get as far away out of town as he can where no one knows him, and only then he can let out his sexual “compulsion.”

If we were to sum up the issue in a single sentence it would be that while Orthodoxy doesn’t officially permit many sexual behaviors, if you read the texts creatively and take into account what’s actually happening in the religious world, there are ways to, if not exactly reconcile tradition and modernity, then at least to feel a little less guilty about it.

You can see more of Jennie Rosenfeld in action on Google Video.

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