In four installments I’m going to discus:
1 – Orthodox Judaism and Sexuality – below
2 – Orthodox Judaism and the Two Sexes – later
3 – Orthodox Judaism and Transgender – later
4 – Orthodox Judaism and Homosexuality – later
What makes this short series special is probably that it is not written from an academic, anthropological, humanistic or liberal-Jewish perspective but rather comes from an Orthodox-Jewish author. I can only tell you, that when tackling sex and Judaism:
Academic writings are often completely off on Judaism and Orthodox Jews, confusing them with Christian ideas and practices (there is no Judeo-Christian tradition!);
Humanistic pieces deal with crucial fields as science, human rights and sensitivity, while Orthodox Judaism also demands adherence to reality and empathy but this is still an ill-fit, because often the latter is Duty-oriented, and the former Rights-based. (When everyone does their duties, everyone gets their rights, so there seems little difference. Yet, a lot of emphasis on duties makes one aware of the power of giving, while too much weight on rights pushes one into a disgruntled taker.);
Anthropological articles are regularly full of misunderstandings and crude stereotypes by outsiders trying but failing correctly to typify Orthodox Judaism and Jews; and
Liberal-Jewish discussions mostly show that sex and gender have become non-issues for them because everyone should just do as they see fit, and if that follows great Jewish principles like “love your fellow like yourself” and “all people are created in G-d’s image,” then it is Jewish, it seems to me.
These texts all have their place and function, and I’m distracting absolutely nothing from their value or importance for their fields.
However, even a beginning of comprehensive treatment in English by an informed Orthodox Jew about sex, I find lacking. Well, a beginning I’m willing to try to write.
Here comes part one.
1 – Orthodox Judaism and Sexuality
Disclaimer / guarantee: this text has no “juicy” words or pictures, Heaven forbid.
The way Orthodox Judaism in general rules about sexuality is nothing less than spectacular. (I write “in general” because we will see below that there are sections that are troublesome.) This is especially true if the Rabbis’ writings are seen as advice, rather than just Divine demands and precondition to earn a predicate “proper.” I’m not just writing that, only as an introduction. It might be the most important thing I want to say here:
One may see Jewish Law as recommendations, rather than just Heavenly Commandments to may make us deserve to be called “good.”
After this main point, let me add the observation that Judaism on sexuality, as in so many other areas of life, walks the middle road between two extremes it rejects. Being an extremist may be tough or laborious but it also is typically emotionally often the easiest option. Both the extremes are the simplest to describe because they are popular and well-known.
One extreme sees sex as a right to do whatever one wants – except when that would violate someone else’s rights. “What’s wrong with two consenting adults doing with each other as they please?”
The other extreme sees sex as sub-human, animalistic, unholy, sinful or an unfortunately weakness of the flesh and sadly unavoidable for procreation.
So, either the more the better or the least the better; either anything goes or nothing doing at all.
The Traditional Jewish way is neither. Sexuality in Judaism is, like all pleasures in life, a gift from On High to humanity, to enjoy life, but within limits.
Totally rejecting the Divine gift is a grave affront, a chutzpah. G-d gives us a present and we just reject it? How arrogant! On the other hand, indulging the gift without limit, is silly at best and abusive most of the time – like over-eating – abusive of this ability and abusive to ourselves. Besides, total abstinence generally leads to hidden obsession, and a complete lack of restraint to addiction – how similar the two!
As a bonus, freely foregoing total short-term pleasure, adherence to rules not made by ourselves, is a challenge. Adherence may build a character and track record of high morality.
Guidelines that the Rabbis stipulate for sexuality give some clear insight into the value of sex and what it is nor for. Yet, let’s not reinvent the wheel. Already 12th-century Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières sees sexuality as: a husband’s obligation to his wife, a wife’s right, promotion of physical and emotional wellbeing, a way to fulfill the commitment to be fruitful and multiply, and a fine way for the partners to relate, even when it cannot lead to procreation (during pregnancy or menopause, or in sexuality without vaginal intercourse). And it is too: a wife’s favor to help her husband not to get sidetracked by sexual desire.
However, the rabbis stress that sex outside a committed relationship [of mature aware people] has no blessing or happiness to it, neither spouse can force the other, and neither one should participate in something that he or she finds disgusting. Last but not least, besides pointing out a few basic prohibitions (sex while being angry or drunk or thinking about others), the rabbis say that Jewish Law should not prescribe what the partner should do during intimacy. It’s up mostly to them.
Halachic Sex is only for during marriage and when the woman is in the prime of her life, even mere touching and even more so cuddling and sex are strictly forbidden half of the time, unless she’s pregnant (or not menstruating for other reasons). This trains the partners to put the brains and not the “hormones” in charge, and put the emphasis in the relationship on listening to each other – not just rushing towards sex.
I think that the Rabbis’ rules point to another possible function for sexuality. The Second Chapter of Genesis tells us that men should leave their parents and bond with a wife because it is not good to be alone. But it does not say how that should happen. I think that we can safely say that that happens through sex.
Sex connects. When we have sex on our own, we connect to no one and get even lonelier. When we have sex with strangers or people we’ll never see again, we get lonelier too. Loneliness enlarges our longing for sex – a vicious circle. But when we are in a steady relationship, where there is mutual friendship, commitment, giving, listening and cuddling, sex bonds the partners. (In one case it doesn’t: when one has sexual intimacy with someone with a sex not of one’s sexual preference – see part 4.)
Sexuality, and Jewish Law about it, seems to be here to help us have the best life, connected and not consumed by loneliness, united and not plagued by selfishness, mutual givers and receivers who build a Jewish Home saturated with generosity without a trace of stinginess where the partners balance each other and help the other flourish, instead of use each other.
Another point in Jewish Law is that sexual restrictions only apply to vaginal intercourse, ejaculation and anything that easily may lead to those. The rest is not sex for Halachah. That does not mean that cuddling is not important.
Cuddling is an essential way to show affection (when done in ways that the other appreciates). No great sex without prior cuddling. But not all cuddling should be just foreplay. No great cuddling without prior listening to each other. But not all emotional connection should lead to cuddling. No great cuddling without agreeing on compatible life choices and a joint life.
Celibacy, the endless abstinence from sex, is impossible for normal grownups. It produces a sex obsession and often leads to complete licentiousness. Still, Jewish Law demands from men to refrain from sex until one is married. What are teenagers supposed to do?
An endless sexual self-restraint is impossible but a temporary postponement can be done. Just stay away from pornography and other provoking things and for most teenagers sexual urges disappear into the background. This is only possible if one delays being sexual active. Sex goes better when it’s practiced, but the best way to practice it is with one’s spouse. Other ways will interfere with sexual union with one’s partner later, so just stop thinking about it until the appropriate time.
Sex cements a connection. That’s why sexual violence (rape, indecent assault, statutory rape, etc.) are forms of violence, not of sex. Without two adult people choosing to connect, there is no sex.
All this halachic beauty goes wrong in several scenarios:
- The ill-fit, abusive, love-less or fake marriage. We do have divorce, but it is unpopular. Sometimes people decide to split up too easily, without ever having tried counseling. But most of the time, when it’s hopelessly wrong, people who cut their losses should not be regarded failures. Often one of them is a bad cookie – don’t forget then that the other most probably was just naive – that’s not a qualification to push someone out.
- The spinster and bachelor. The rules that I believe are meant to glue people together in love sometimes result in people staying single. Ten years of dating and finally a happy marriage were still ten years of misery. Thirty years of dating and no end in sight is bitterness. This is Jewish Law backfiring. Happens to amazing people. Especially smart ones. No doubt, this is not what Halachah or G-d could want.
- The homosexual. We’ll deal with this in installment 4.
- The overly prudish. There are Jewish individuals, communities and sects that are obsessed with anything that could remind them of sex. As a result, they often look more oversexed and obsessed than the Modernity that they try to ovoid. This is so emotionally unhealthy that it can be called an aberration. Over time, some of them self-correct. Victims of them should be embraced and police should prevent further victimization. This oddness has nothing to do with the middle road, that I mentioned above.
Much more could be said about all of this, but I only agreed to blog about sex and Jews on condition that it could be just the beginning of a complete overview. People who want to hear more or have questions are invited to my event the Thursday of the Intermediate Days of this Pesach. You can send family or friends if you can’t make it.