Envisioning a Healthy Jewish Sex Ethic

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

Elul is not only the season of teshuvah.  It’s also the season of love! Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.  I am my beloved and my beloved is for me ( אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי).    It is the season of weddings.  I spend quite some time each summer preparing couples, the chattan and the kallah for the wedding day.  The focus, of course is on the laws of niddah—the code of laws of  “separation” between husband and wife while she is menstruating, and for seven days following.

But, over the years, I have come to realize that focusing solely on the 2 weeks where a couple are restricted, sends a negative message about Judaism’s view on marriage and sexuality.  And so, after carefully going through the halakha, (Jewish law) with each couple, I spend one session on “envisioning a healthy Jewish sex ethic.”

Let me begin with 2 images of a marital relationship in the Torah: Adam and Eve, and Moses and Tzipporah.

The Torah in Genesis 1:24 says:

על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh.

“basar echad—one flesh,” according to Ramban means that a couple becomes one flesh, in both a physical and emotional realm.  This places sex at the center of the marital relationship.

The other image, of course, is Moses and Tzipporah.  After starting a family, Moses chose to separate from his wife to achieve greater spiritual heights. As the only person who would see God face to face, he could not imagine remaining married.

So which model prevails?

Both mentalities—the Adam and Eve model on one hand, and the Moses and Tzippora model on the other hand, found their way into Jewish practice.  There is a strand of rabbinic literature that teaches that sexuality is central to a healthy, committed relationship, and a strand that teaches that sex should not be the focal point of ones relationship.

The Talmud (Nedarim 20a) teaches that Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahabai, preached that married couples should limit their sexual practices, and value asceticism. Marital relations should not be for the enjoyment of the couple, but rather solely for procreative purposes.

But, the Talmud in Nedarim (20b) continues.  After quoting the lone ascetic opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai, the gemara quotes the majority, common held position that places no sexual restrictions on a couple in a committed loving relationship.

And yet, not all communities could embrace this open view on sexuality.  The Ger Chassidic community, for example, believed that being meticulous in the keeping the laws of nidadah as well as limiting ones sexual practices would usher in the messiah.  So, the community became entirely insular, creating schools, yeshivot, and social opportunities, so that their community members would not have to step into the real world. But, women had no interest in marrying Ger men, for their marriages tended to be void of love and compassion.

In response to this crises, in 1973, Rav Yosef Kanievsky (the Steipler) wrote quite a lengthy and explicit letter as a polemic response to the Ger Chassidic community’s ascetic sexual practices.  He writes:

If as a result of this (ascetic approach) he does not fulfill (lit. nullifies) the tiniest bit of his Biblical obligation, then his actions go to the Other Side, God forbid, and he will not achieve the paths of life.  Although he might think that he is rising to great heights, but in truth deep inside of him is buried a desire to consider himself a person of spiritual heights, while in fact he damages others and is himself damaged, and frequently his actions lead him to shame….”, but God forbid for one to act in an ascetic manner when it pains his wife, who is dependant on him and who has not given a remission with a full heart on what is her due.

He goes on, on the other hand,

One who engages in physical intimacy and touching and the like for the sake of heaven, because he is compassionate and does not want her to be in pain and miserable, this does not bring him in any way to a weakening of his fear of heaven or to a descent into pleasures (hedonism).  To the contrary! It brings him to holiness, and he fulfils a Biblical mitzvah of “You shall walk in His paths” – just as He is compassionate, you too must be compassionate.

Rav Kanievsky is merely emphasizing that sexual fulfillment when consensual, is central to a healthy and happy marriage.

Now, you may be wondering how I can so freely write about such a sensitive and intimate topic. The truth is, I speak to many women and couples who are struggling in this realm. And very often there is so much pain and embarrassment revolving around their marriage, that I realized how important and central talking about the importance of sex within marriage is.  I began dedicating a session to teaching couples about sex as part of the curriculum for preparing them for marriage. And the Modern Orthodox community in general is beginning to see the importance of teaching and helping couples deal with very intimate aspects of their lives.

Two years ago, I helped organize a conference, sponsored by Drisha, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and JOFA, where we brought together 15 kallah teachers from around the country and Isreal.  We spent four days teaching these women how to strike a balance between teaching halakha, teaching the laws of niddah, as well as emphasizing the importance of enhancing their marital relationships.  The women were floored by the frankness and openness with which the topic was dealt with, and I think we helped break down some of the taboo associated with talking about, in the appropriate context, the centrality of sexuality within marriage.

In recent years Tzelem, has been formed; created by YU alumni Jennie Rosenfeld and Koby Frances, who identified a need for an honest examination of sexuality and gender relationships in the Orthodox community.

And, I hope in my own small way, with the help of specialists in the field, I have give couples permission to explore and ensure that their marriage is not void of physical and emotional fulfillment.

5 Responses to Envisioning a Healthy Jewish Sex Ethic

  1. Moish says:

    What are your thoughts on the rambam’s comments below
    יב [יא] אין דעת חכמים נוחה ממי שהוא מרבה בתשמיש המיטה, ויהיה מצוי אצל אשתו תמיד כתרנגול; ופגום הוא עד מאוד, ומעשה בורים. אלא כל הממעט בתשמיש, משובח: והוא, שלא יבטל עונה אלא מדעת אשתו. ולא תיקנו בראשונה לבעלי קראין שלא יקראו בתורה עד שיטבולו, אלא כדי למעט בתשמיש המיטה.

    ו [ד] אף על פי שאשתו של אדם מותרת לו תמיד, ראוי לו לתלמיד חכמים שינהיג עצמו בקדושה: ולא יהא מצוי אצל אשתו כתרנגול, אלא מלילי שבת ללילי שבת, אם יש בו כוח. וכשהוא מספר עימה, לא יספר לא בתחילת הלילה כשהוא שבע ובטנו מלאה, ולא בסוף הלילה כשהוא רעב–אלא באמצע הלילה, כשיתאכל המזון שבמעיו.

  2. Sara Hurwitz says:

    Rambam is complex. In addition to the sources that you cited, he also cites an alternative more sex-positive perspective.(see below) The rema, (quoted below) also has a give and take approach. He cites a huge heter, but then limits himself slightly at the end.
    Rambam Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:9
    אשתו של אדם מותרת היא לו, לפיכך כל מה שאדם רוצה לעשות באשתו עושה, בועל בכל עת שירצה ומנשק בכל אבר ואבר שירצה, [ובא עליה כדרכה ושלא כדרכה] ובלבד שלא יוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה
    A man’s own wife is permitted to him and, therefore whatever a man wants to do with his wife he may do. He can have sex with her whenever he pleases, kiss any part of her body that he wants, and have sex with her in the normal way and in the non-normal way, or sex by “way of her limbs,” [i.e. oral sex]. (some manuscripts add: as long as he does not “spill his seed to waste.”

    8. Rema Even Ha’ezer 25:2:
    הגה: ויכול לעשות עם אשתו מה שירצה, בועל בכל עת שירצה א ומנשק בכל אבר שירצה, ובא עליה בין כדרכה בין שלא כדרכה, או דרך אברים ובלבד שלא יוציא זרע לבטלה (טור). ויש מקילין ואומרים שמותר שלא כדרכה ב (ב) אפילו אם הוציא זרע, אם עושה באקראי ג ואינו רגיל בכך (גם זה טור בשם ר”י). ואע”פ שמותר בכל אלה, כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו (דברי הרב).
    And he may do with his wife what he wants – he may have sex at any time that he wants, he may kiss any body part that he wants, and he may have sex with her whether in the natural way or in the non-natural way, or whether by way of limbs so long as there is no wasting of seed. And there are some who rule leniently regarding this, and say that unnatural positions are permitted even if it does result in the wasting of seed [extravaginal ejaculation], as long as it occurs incidentally [in the course of sex] and not with any regularity. Nevertheless, even though all of this is permissible, one who sanctifies oneself even in that which is permitted to them, shall be called Holy .

  3. Aabye Felderstein says:

    Thanks for another insightful post.

  4. Skeptic says:

    It seems the Aruch HaShulchan disagrees with the Ramo’s heter. How do contemporary poskim deal with it?

  5. Moish says:

    It still seems that according to the rambam the ideal is to limit sex. How would you put these sources together?

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