November 13, 2003
Sex Secrets of the Mystical Texts
In the Jewish marriage ceremony, sexual satisfaction is part of the contract. Under the wedding canopy, a groom promises his bride that he will provide her with comfortable standards of food, shelter and sexual gratification. The holiest men are required to marry. Celibacy is not a virtue; orgasms are.
Judaism is intensely sexual. The medieval rabbi Ramban, or Nachmanides, taught in Igeret Hakodesh (The Holy Letter): "When sexual intercourse is done for the sake of heaven, there is nothing so holy and pure. God did not create anything that is ugly or shameful. If the sexual organs are said to be shameful, how can it be said that the Creator fashioned something blemished?"
Adds the Zohar, the main Jewish mystical text: "The Divine presence rests on the marital bed when both male and female are united in love and holiness. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the bedroom in each home was considered as an aspect of the once glorious and sanctified Holy of Holies."
How is a young religious couple to know how to go about having good sex? There's a story in the Talmud about a rabbi (known simply as Rav) who was having sex with his wife on Friday night after a very good Shabbat meal, when he suddenly had a strange feeling that there was a third person in the room. He got up, looked behind the curtain, in the closet, under the bed, and lo and behold, there was his favorite student, Rabbi Kahana, hiding under the bedsprings. Rav said, "Is this proper behavior, for a yeshiva boy to be under the rabbi's bed while the rabbi performs the mitzvah of intercourse?"
The yeshiva boy answered: "Rabbi, what you are doing is a mitzvah from the Torah, and I must learn from you!"
What is interesting here is Judaism's braiding of sexual openness and sexual modesty. The yeshiva boy convinces the rabbi that his audacity is legitimate because knowing how to perform intercourse is a legitimate part of his religious and spiritual education. Nevertheless, the boy understands that he must hide. This dialectic is ongoing, not only within the tradition but within each of us who seeks to balance our need for modesty and privacy with our need for sexual education.
Sex, in and of itself, has never been a sin for Jews, nor has it been something not to discuss. Within Sinai's conventional boundaries, it is a mitzvah, or religious commandment. And what is a mitzvah except a blessing, or a guide on how our lives can be more heavenly?
In the Jewish tradition, sex is very much in the eye of the beholder, in the mind where a healthy approach to sex made good sex possible for Jews in the most trying of circumstances and situations.
As the Talmud teaches us in tractate Sanhedrin: If a man and a woman are truly lovers, they can make their bed on the edge of the sword; if their love goes bad, the best bed in the world is not big enough.
Reprinted from "Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition," by Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and Jonathan Mark, 1995, New York University Press, then reprinted with permission in Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today's Parents and Children (Golden, 1997) by Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman.