Orthodox Jews and Sex
The New York Times magazine recently published an article about an Orthodox Jewish sex therapist who helps women in the Orthodox community (they spoke mostly of her Haredi clientele) with intimacy issues. Besides the troubling word choices used by the author, like “tainted” to describe how Orthodox Jews consider a woman who’s in niddah and “semi-quarantine,” to describe the period where a husband and wife are separated, the article also gave the impression that many Orthodox Jews have repressed sex lives. While it was clear from the piece that sex between a husband and wife (in the proper time) is considered something positive, it spoke of the Orthodox approach to sex — across the gamut, from Modern Orthodox to Hasidic — in a way that made it seem as though it was very restrictive, when the basic halacha (Jewish law) on the subject is anything but, as long as we’re talking about a married couple.
Now the truth is that I don’t actually know what goes on in most Orthodox couple’s bedrooms (nor does anyone else)! Of course, there are people with problems and there are also Jewish opinions on sex out there that are more restrictive, but there are so many healthy relationships and sex-positive quotes from the Talmud and books on Jewish law, so for the sake of showing the other side, I decided to compile some of these sources and asked our fans (particularly the Haredi ones) to write in about the way they were taught to view marital intimacy (or how they teach it to others – if they do that sort of thing). Since this is a site that is read not only by adults, I will use euphemisms instead of being completely graphic. There is certainly a time for being explicit, but as this is a sensitive matter in a space we want to be welcoming to a wide audience, we will proceed with sensitivity.
Talmudic and Halachic (Law) Sources:
1) A husband is obligated to satisfy his wife: “Rabbi Yeoshua ben Levi said: Whosoever knows his wife to be a God‑fearing woman and does not duly visit her is called a sinner.” Talmud, Yevamot 62b.
2) A husband must make sure his wife is “ready” before they begin: “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster, who first coaxes and then mates.” Talmud, Eruvin 100b.
3) One should not be overly modest during sex. The ideal is to unite two bodies into one: “There must be close bodily contact during sex. This means that a husband must not treat his wife in the manner of [those] who perform their marital duties in their clothes. This provides support for the ruling of Rav Huna who ruled that a husband who says, ‘I will not perform my marital duties unless she wears her clothes and I mine,’ must divorce her and give her also her ketubah settlement [the monetary settlement agreed to in the marriage contract].” Talmud, Ketubot 48a.
4) Almost anything goes in the bedroom. “Since a man’s wife is permitted to him, he may act with her in any manner whatsoever. He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally [in any manner], provided that he does not expend semen to no purpose. Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Forbidden Relations 21:9.
Anecdotes Submitted to Jew in the City About What Haredi Women and Haredi Rabbis Learned or Teach about Sexuality
1) Those classes explicitly taught that I (as a woman) should expect sex according to the frequency I choose, that sex was holy and good, that it invited G-d and blessing into our marriage, and that if its frequency drops below mikvah night plus both Shabboses during the “on time,” we should talk about it because that could be a sign something is wrong in our marriage, such as grudge-holding, stress-level, or even health problems. We were told that sex is meant to be a naked activity. We were told that if we know there are things we like, we should specifically tell our husbands we like those things, because then we will enjoy ourselves more. We were also told to relax and unwind earlier in the evening if we planned to have relations later, and so we would not worry about housekeeping or work or the kids. For example, we could listen to music, take a hot shower, put on pretty clothes or lingerie. My husband says he was told by his teachers to makes sure my “needs” were taken care of first, and that keeping me happy sexually and emotionally was not only required by ketuba (marriage contract), but a way to make sure our children are holy and happy. He was told to make me laugh and smile and relax before suggesting relations. Our rabbi takes questions about sex — his approach is that as long as it follows the laws of family purity, both partners enjoy it, and it crosses no other halachic boundaries, couples should be able to try things that are new and different.
2) I took a class with a Haredi instructor. That teacher — who is very popular with brides from traditional through Haredi — specifically told us to take a few minutes to look at ourselves naked in the mirror and to stop judging our bodies because if we don’t love ourselves and think we’re beautiful, we will be reticent about sex, and that’s not good for either us our our husbands. We should feel happy and unfettered when with our husbands. The entire message she gives is very sex-positive, that this is important in marriage, and that it should be a source of closeness and fun for both partners. She identified signs of abuse by the way and told us how to find help if necessary.
3) My husband learned from his ultra-Orthodox chasan (groom) teacher that taking the time to make sure I was “ready” beforehand was a mitzvah d’oraysa (a Torah proscribed commandment). My kallah teacher told something she once heard during a Shabbos before her friend got married and some of the (Orthodox) women in the community came over to give advice to the new bride. The advice was “It’s important to be a lady everywhere you go, except in the bedroom. In the bedroom, you should be completely uninhibited.”
4) My Haredi kallah teacher was not the most descriptive as far as what to do, but she did tell me that sex is incredibly pleasurable. She showed a diagram of the female anatomy and pointed out and named every part. She said, “The man’s sexual organ serves as a reproductive organ and it provides him with pleasure.” She noted, though, how a certain part of a woman exist for no purpose other than to provide her pleasure.
5) I am a yeshivish (ultra-Orthodox) kallah teacher. When I teach kallahs, I do a full session on the importance of sex in a relationship, the best ways to provide and receive pleasure and the Torah philosophy on the holiness of sex in a marriage. I talk to the girls at length about their feeling of discomfort and I tell them that if they are not having significant pleasure by their 6 month anniversary, we need to talk. I set up a six month appointment anyway, just to check on them, because they are so completely clueless before the fact, I feel its important for them to have someone to talk to once they know what they are talking about. Also, I spoke with a big chosen (groom) teacher in (the ultra-Orthodox) Lakewood about one of the couples we were both teaching. He said that he repeatedly tells his guys that the Torah philosophy in the bedroom is “lady’s first.” He stresses the importance of making sure the wife is ready and noticing specific signs of enjoyment she might exhibit (he is explicit with them about what these signs are) in order to know what she enjoys and when she is ready for more.
6) I not only discuss anatomy in my kallah classes but also talk about asserting oneself in all areas- not taking anything for granted- not with a doctor, rabbi, husband etc. I do this in a positive way, but my point is to make sure the girl knows she should trust her instincts and believe in herself. When we discuss intimacy, I spend so much time and go through rabbinic sources focusing on pleasure – specifically sexual pleasure – not just ideas for what to wear or how to set the mood but I describe possible actions/behavior for both husband and wife to excite and enhance the whole experience. I am specific about the areas of both bodies, use diagrams/pictures from a medical book when necessary. I go thru scenarios of things that are normal vs. red flags. I tell her that I will be in touch a few days after the wedding, 1 month after the wedding, 6 months after, a year, and after a baby. I say that these are my set times to see how everything is going. Outside of this they are encouraged to call/text/etc with any questions, even if they are “dumb” questions. It’s not immodest to ASK when something is bothering you. I say that she has to change her view on “tzniyus” (modesty): yes, it’s protecting what is most precious, the reason you’re being tzniyus is because you think this is what Hashem wants. What Hashem wants is for the woman to follow the law and have a good, mutually satisfying sexual relationship with her husband. The “last” class I speak about biology, including his and hers, usually with diagrams and horror stories, details/tips for the first time and first few times, that he may like things that seem strange but if she is comfortable to go with it, etc.. I differentiate between law and stringency. The overall feeling by the last class is that she and i have a relationship, and that i am there for her at any and all times. i remind her that i will be calling during my set times, but that she should be in touch any time she needs anything!!! leaving the door open and establishing the connection is almost more important than just giving over the halachos (the laws).
If you were not taught about Jewish martial intimacy in a positive way, some of these experts who wrote in are happy for you to reach out to them. Please email us for more info.