April 28, 2010
Everything you always wanted to know about JEWISH SEX but were afraid to ask your rabbi
I recently read “Rashi’s Daughters, Book III: Rachel,” Maggie Anton’s final novel in her trilogy about the life and times of 11th century talmudic scholar Salomon ben Isaac and his extended family. Most of the members of my book club felt the novel was an interesting glimpse into Jewish European life, containing many thought-provoking talmudic commentaries. But because I tend to dwell on the superficial, I disagreed.
The entire plot could be summed up like this: analyze Torah, shtup a little, discuss Torah some more, shtup some more, don’t shtup during niddah but think about shtupping the entire time, discuss the Jewish laws governing shtupping with your father, get upset that your randy husband is shtupping someone else during his lengthy business trips, read a little more Torah just for fun, get over your husband’s “indiscretion” and shtup like it never happened. I was also surprised to learn that Jews who lived in Troyes, France, nearly 1,000 years ago were doing certain things in bed (or, more accurately, “in mattress”) that are still illegal in a couple of states.
But the book got me thinking: If sex is a central tenet of Jewish life, why isn’t that fact on the cover of the Judaism brochure? With our numbers hovering just around 0.2 percent worldwide, isn’t marketing our God-commanded sexuality to potential converts a no-brainer? Let’s face it; the no-cheeseburger rule doesn’t exactly have people knocking down our door.
The benefits of marketing the Jewish rules governing sex would extend beyond increasing our numbers. In fact, I see it as a great way to increase synagogue attendance among indifferent Jews. Wouldn’t we all pay a little more attention in synagogue if “Adon Olam” were preceded by a sermon on a husband’s obligation to pleasure his wife? And if a few explanatory drawings on various ways to be fruitful and multiply were added to the prayer book, the rabbi would no longer have to spend precious bimah time instructing the congregation to turn to the next page. (Rabbi: “Congregation, please turn to the drawing on page 145.” Congregant: “Hey, Reb, I’m way ahead of you ... turned to that page 20 minutes ago.”)
And to really bring the crowds in, why not work Jewish sexuality into every sermon? “So Moses received the Ten Commandments, and later that night Moses and Zipporah went back to their tent and ...” A typical Shabbat would suddenly resemble a standing-room-only Rosh Hashanah service.
I realized that if I were going to devote an entire column to Jewish mores concerning sexuality, I should expand my knowledge beyond what I learned in “Rashi’s Daughters.” So, as I typically do when I am unfamiliar with an issue of Jewish law, I consulted my rabbi brother-in-law. He did a nice job of summarizing the basics — something about a mitzvah and an important part of marriage — but I had to cut him off when he started to offer personal examples.
Fortunately, I found another great resource. I stumbled upon a short video titled “Sexuality and Judaism” featuring Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg at 5Min.com. The video looked promising. Before viewing it, I had to attest that I was over 18 as it had been flagged as “suitable for mature audiences only.” I also loved the fact that a rabbi had to give what amounted to a sermon in less than five minutes — proof that miracles still do occur.
Ginsburg explains: “In terms of marriage, the basic principles are these: It is not just for procreation ... it is for the pleasure of the couple, and both people have to work hard to be sensitive and try to pleasure the other. The Torah even obligates the man, especially, to please his wife, and gives minimums [daily for a man of independent means, once a month for camel drivers] of how often you should have intercourse. ...
“And Maimonides, who was quite conservative on most sexual matters, is very explicitly liberal here about the kind of sexual relations the couple can enjoy.”
(Curious, I looked up Maimonides’ view. But because his commentary reads like a medieval letter to The Playboy Advisor, I can’t re-print it here.)
Ginsburg adds: “The reason for the idea of having [only] ‘nighttime’ [sex] is that you shouldn’t be repulsed by your spouse’s blemishes. But, really, if that is not a concern, then whatever the couple enjoys is permissible.”
Is this prohibition on Jewish daytime sex an urban legend, similar to the one that says Orthodox Jews are required to have intercourse through a hole in a sheet? Unfortunately, it is not.
Rabbi Paul Yedwab at MyJewishLearning writes: “Rav Hisda ruled: A man is forbidden to perform his marital duty in the daytime, for it is said, ‘And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ [Leviticus 19:18]. But what is the proof? Abaye replied: He might observe something repulsive in her, and she would thereby become loathsome to him” (Talmud, Niddah 17a).
Clearly, this isn’t a major issue for Jews in Los Angeles, many of whom go to great lengths to be blemish-free. But what about Jews in other cities who aren’t blessed with a plastic surgeon’s office in every mini-mall?
After a great deal of thought, I concluded that the daytime prohibition isn’t a modern day predicament for two reasons. First, the vast majority of people who are having daytime sex are young and childless — therefore inherently “blemish-free.” Second, for the tiny minority of Jews who do have children, don’t have a plastic surgeon on retainer and still insist on having daytime sex, they have access to black-out curtains and The Clapper which, when combined, create a wonderful nighttime effect on even the brightest of Southern California days. I’m certain if anti-daytime sex scholar Rav Hisda could have predicted the advent of liposuction, dimmers, drapes and master bedroom locks to keep wandering children out, he would have been OK with 9-to-5 sex.
I could write more, but I can tell my male readers are already attempting to figure out whether their job is more akin to a camel driver or a man of independent means. And I know my female readers are already drafting e-mails to their husbands pointing out that the Torah says they have an obligation to please their wife sexually. Me? I’m going to get a start on my marketing campaign. I already have a slogan: “Judaism: Just One God, But a Whole Lotta Sex.”
Wendy Jaffe welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.