Judaism has long had a complex relationship with sex and physical intimacy. As many will know, the Bible’s first commandment is sexually related, and according to many sources, like the Ramban, the perfect state of the world should be one of complete openness about nakedness and sexuality. It is only after the first sin that shame and the physical coverings of one’s sexual organs entered the human consciousness.
Nevertheless, historically sex has been an issue of supreme importance for the sages and those that transmitted our laws and traditions throughout the millennia. According to many of these sages, the Torah ordained the mitzvah of Onah, conjugal relations that are positively required, separate and distinct from the need for procreation.
One of the first codifications of religious practice, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah goes into great detail not only about what is not allowed but also what is desired in a consensual and loving relationship.
“A man may do whatever he desires with his wife. He may engage in relations whenever he desires, kiss any organ he desires, engage in vaginal or other intercourse or engage in physical intimacy without relations,” the Rambam writes in language which many would find shocking and even irreligious if written by any contemporary rabbi.
Furthermore, some of the greatest Rishonim, the leading decisors of Jewish law between 1050 and 1500, like Moses Ibn Ezra, the composer of over 200 sacred compositions, and Judah HaLevi, the author of the Kuzari, wrote extremely erotic and sexual poetry alongside their more traditional contributions to Jewish lore.
In fact, due to Judaism’s openness to discussing and addressing sexuality, during the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were considered a highly sexualized people by their more puritanical Christian neighbors.
Over the years, however, Jews gradually adopted large parts of the majority population’s prudish and fastidious attitudes towards sexuality. This is demonstrated by the attitudes towards sex in more contemporary sources which barely related to physical intimacy beyond its constraints.
For many, while sex in Judaism is portrayed as secretive and mysterious and even referred to as mystical and heavenly, there is very little reference to the substance of physical intimacy and an intimate description of this complex issue, both physically and emotionally. There are also many misunderstandings, where a man or woman will read and interpret a verse from our sources and decide that this is the ‘right way to be a sexually active Jew’ and more often than not it is a distortion of the original meaning.
For most young men and women in the Orthodox or traditional community about to be married, very little is taught about a sex life other than the scriptural sources for what is allowed and not allowed.
Thus sex becomes for many just another act governed by rules and regulations, rather than the loving, passionate and essential part of a relationship that it is meant to be.
This is also true to some extent outside of religious communities, as parents only advice about sex might be the “birds and the bees” talk or tips on safety in sex education classes. However, it is far exacerbated in a community where the night of the marriage may frequently be the first time they have ever physically touched a person of the opposite sex, much less seen them in a state of undress.
Many of the cases I have seen as a sex therapist dealing with the observant community can be traced back to those first few attempts at intimacy. Like many parts of marriage, what happens at the beginning can set the tone for future conduct.
People frequently underestimate the importance of a good sex life in a marriage. It can habitually affect many other aspects of the relationship between husband and wife, and even the family home and surroundings.
Sex should be a meeting of body and minds and about better communication. Two disparate partners are sometimes left to navigate the challenges of a sex life without guidance or having the tools to please and satisfy one’s partner.
These tools can be found both within our religious texts and outside. As our sages taught us, Shem (the Jewish People) can also learn from Japheth (secular sources).
Sex is in great part about knowledge and the ability to communicate and satisfy one’s own and one’s partner’s needs. This obviously cannot be learnt in a book or from a text. However, by returning the subject of sex to the respected but open place it historically had in Judaism we can make it easier for those about to enter the world of physical intimacy for the first time.
It is time to return sex to Judaism.