I recently sat across from a well-mannered and intelligent woman who had questions about sexuality and (what she perceived as) sexism in the religious community. When asked what she believed the purpose of sexuality in Judaism was, she instinctively answered “procreation.” When I asked her why it was then that the Torah permitted sex during pregnancy, post-menopause and in other cases where conception was a biological impossibility her interest seemed piqued – and she was stumped.
So where did she get this idea? Unfortunately, for various cultural and sociological reasons, too large a segment of (some quarters) of the observant community have come to believe that Judaism should be practiced in a puritanical and often stultifying manner, with an over-abundance of novel rules and restrictions that can suck the life out of the human experience. These erroneous beliefs and their enactment is tragic a) because they’re wrong and b) because they rob practitioners of the true, joyous and satisfying, experiences that the Torah wants for us and c) because of the negative effect it has on less affiliated Jews like my aforementioned friend.
The truth is that the encouragement to enjoy the permitted pleasures of the world is so acute that the Jerusalem Talmud goes as far as to say that “on the day of judgment, a person will be required to give an accounting for all [permissible enjoyments] that his eyes beheld and he did not partake of.” This includes sexuality. Nowhere in the Torah is sex described as base or impure. Quite the opposite. The sages were remarkably open, descriptive and encouraging of the deriving of maximum enjoyment from sexual union. The Talmudic sage Rav Chisda did not consider it untoward to give his daughters sex tips including the coded “offer him the pearl at first but not the kiln…” Also consider the following:
“There is great spiritual elevation in sexual union when it is done as it should be. (Ramban)
“When it is good, there is nothing as good.” (R Yaakov Emden)
“Know my children, that there is no holiness of all the types of holiness comparable to the holiness of marital intimacy if a person sanctifies himself in intercourse in accordance with the instructions of our sages.” (The Shlah)
Like all physical pleasures in the Jewish way of thinking, sex is meant to serve as a vehicle to connect with the Divine. Physicality as a goal in and of itself is considered gluttonous and profane. Judaism conceives of a human being as a composite of an angel and a beast (a body and a soul). These two forces create opposing drives within us that are locked in perpetual battle. This is the reason why we can take a stroll down the street contemplating one moment how we would like to end world hunger and the next how we would like to slap the person who is walking to slowly in front of us.
When we side with and act in accordance with our material selves, we drag down our spiritual side along with the body. When we side with our transcendent drive, our physical selves are elevated along with our souls. In a sense, the entire Torah enterprise is to bring about this latter result – to harness the physical as a means to ultimately transcend it as the Maharal said regarding sex that it “is a [mere] coarsely physical act when it is devoid of sanctity; but if one sanctifies himself with modesty, then it is not considered physical.”
So if procreation is only a bi-product of the true goal of sexual intimacy in Judaism, what, specifically, is the main goal? The Talmudic sage Rebbe Meir commenting on the goal of the week of marital separation during menstruation said that the purpose is “so that she will be as beloved to her husband as she was when she entered the chupah.” The goal here is to create a monthly honeymoon – to increase intimacy and pleasure – and the more of each, the better, as the greater the pleasure the greater the bond. The term given for this intimate state is called “devek” – derived from the Hebrew word signifying bonding and attachment and it is the true goal of human sexual activity.
“It is only the active effort of devek between husband and wife that brings them closer together such that they become one.” (The Netziv)
“If she does not derive pleasure from the sexual intimacy, she does not cleave to him.” (Rashi)
All of Judaism’s modesty and intimacy laws are geared towards the promotion of devek and as such, anything that interferes with it is problematic – which brings us to the nine rules.
Jewish law, prohibits cohabitation that will not engender devek. It enumerates categories of sexual inauthenticity that will only lead to base physical self-gratification. Note that each of these categories could easily end in conception, once again underscoring how that is not the primary goal. A couple should not be intimate if any of the following are taking place:
- Rape. Obviously there is no devek that can come from such a horrible act. This applies even if she is not physically forced but is simply not “in the mood.” It’s forbidden for a husband to coerce his wife in any way.
- Hate. If one partner hates the other then the purpose of the intimacy can’t be fulfilled and again devolves into a selfish and base act.
- Mourning. Outside of being a tad tasteless as presumably the one experiencing the loss should be dismayed enough to not want to be intimate it’s considered a slight to the departed.
- (Almost) Adultery. This is where a man or woman intended to be with someone else but accidentally ended up with their own spouse. Yes, it’s a bit hard to imagine (Listen to the lyrics of “If You Like Pina Coladas” for help) but still makes its point.
- Anger. Judaism doesn’t believe in “anger sex” as a means to work though issues the couple is having. It’s much better to work through the problem and only be intimate in a state of love and joy.
- Drunkenness. Makes it a lot less likely that any real focus is going in to it.
7. Divorce. Clearly, when one or both members of the couple have already resolved to divorce there can be no promotion of the marriage through intimacy (or anything else).
8. Fantasy. Thinking about someone else while with your spouse is obviously indicative of a breakdown in genuine intimacy.
9. Shameless. When the intimacy becomes a “50 Shades” (or worse) reenactment and stops being about the closeness the couple is trying to create.
In a time when the institution of marriage is as strained and on the ropes as it is, it behooves us all to clearly identify its true purpose and to diligently work on maximizing the tremendous enjoyment, meaning and pleasure that we can and should get from (and give to) it.
For a more extensive exploration of these ideas please read “Marital Intimacy” by Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman from which most of these ideas were derived.