The other day I taught a class on Jewish sexuality. In an hour and a half I wanted to touch on some of the myths that are part of the folk stories of Jewish sexuality. It was a brief overview of a tiny slice of what tradition says. In fact I purposely chose quotes to show the sex positive side Jewish tradition and I don't apologize for that. I think too often we ignore some of the real earthiness that is part of our tradition. The frame I chose was to respond to myths that we generated as a class. So I wanted to point to two arenas that I personally have run into in my work.
The first is a common and weird myth that is often used to make Jews seem unusual and foreign. There is a myth that Jewish couples have sex through a hole in a sheet. There is little evidence about where this came from but some think it is due to the fact that laundry hanging in traditional Jewish neighbors would include a Tallit Katan, a four-cornered tunic with a hole for the head that is used to fulfill the mitzvah of tzittzit. Seeing these an ignorant person might see them as sheets with a whole and thus the story. But we are unsure. This myth is persistent and I have heard it several places and even from some non-Orthodox Jews. While public modesty in the Jewish tradition is important, sex between men and women who are married is a very open thing. Sensuality is powerful and desire is seen as a gift of God. In fact we are obligated to enjoy each other.
So this quote makes the sheet seem ridiculous:
“There must be close bodily contact during sex. This means that a husband must not treat his wife in the manner of the Persians, 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)
The slam on the Persians not withstanding, this clearly looks at that power of physical aspect of sex. Modesty is for public, sensuality is for private and that divorce is forced in this case means it is serious.
Now another myth is that sex is suppose to be only about procreation. Indeed the first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply and Judaism has always had a very strong aversion to sexual practices that have no chance of procreation. However sex in the Jewish tradition has never only been about procreation, in fact much is written about the recreational aspect of sex. Sex and the pleasure that comes with it was seen a slice of the world to come and when done in the context of marriage it is called holy. But sex does not have to be simple or in today's vernacular vanilla. Maimonides in the 12th century who was seen as being diverse in his view of sexuality as a whole, including some very restrictive views on masturbation and homosexual behavior wrote:
"A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or un-natural relations,(meaning oral and anal sex) as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain. However, it is a sign of piety not to show too much levity but to sanctify himself at the time of intercourse… A man should not depart from the way of the world and its custom because its ultimate purpose is procreation. (Mishnah Torah Issurei Biah 21:9)
So you can see that Maimonides strives to show that how you have sex is about how you find pleasure but he continues to point out that sex is a holy act and that it should be about procreation. But just because procreation is reason, all the other pleasures of physical contact should not be discounted. It would be like eating is limited only to that which gives us the energy to live, but food as a sensual pleasure is not only permitted but may well be encouraged for many reasons.
But Jewish tradition doesn’t speak in one voice. Sexual play that may in fact include forms of pleasure that do not necessarily result in the possible pregnancy may be allowed if the intent is to pleasure and not to avoid the possible pregnancy. Citing Er and Onan show a clear distinction between “spilling one’s seed” and purposely avoiding familial duty to impregnate your wife for whatever reason.
The issue of un-natural relations (biyah lo kedarkah) is particularly difficult form a Jewish perspective. Un-natural relations refers to any sexual activity in which semination does not occur in the traditional place, (Rassi on Yevamoth 34), such as oral sex, anal sex, or what the rabbis termed "threshing within and without" (premature withdrawal). Talmudic sources talk freely about such activity, permitting it under certain circumstances between husband and wife. Nonetheless there is a concern with the wasteful spilling of seed, which Judaism forbids based on the biblical story of Er and Onan. Tosefot raises this contradiction and cites the position of Rabbi Isaac to resolve it:
"It is not considered like the act of Er and Onan unless it is his intention to destroy the seed and it is his habit to always do so. However, if it is occasional and the desire of his heart is to come upon his wife in an unnatural way, it is permitted. (Tosefot on Yevamoth 34)."
In this conversation over time we see a real discussion that is so common in the Talmud and its commentary over the centuries. Sex is not cut and dried in Judaism but there are two things to keep in mind. Sex is seen as a wonderful gift and expression of love and that sex is as much about pleasure as it is about baby making. Volumes can be written on what the tradition says about sex and who, how, when, where and why. Many have. But the biggest thing to keep in mind is that Judaism does not see sex as something that is a necessary evil or some how wrong. It is a wonderful thing, something holy, and frankly a slice of heaven. An hour and a half wasn’t enough time to explore even a small part of it. Perhaps we need a new volume to be written.