The Talmud tells a story about one Rabbi Kahana who hid under the bed of his master, Rabbi Abba (better known as Rav), as the latter was having sex with his wife. Kahana, shocked at the type of frivolous language used by his mentor, commented that Rav was behaving ravenously. Rav exclaimed, “Kahana, you’re here? Get out! It’s not proper!” Kahana replied, “It is Torah—and study it I must.”
It is not easy to discern who gets the last word in this jarring little aggadah (indeed, it appears in several places in the Babylonian Talmud—sometimes with and sometimes without Kahana’s ultimate proclamation). There is a clear tension between propriety and modesty on one hand, and the religious requirement to understand sexuality on the other.
The balance between these two values has varied from community to community and era to era, and there have certainly been Jewish communities far more prudish than the Talmud’s.
Yet in contemporary society, characterized by unprecedented sexual casualness, shifts within the Jewish community toward greater openness go unnoticed. Public perception has tended to relate to several controversies that recently erupted within the American Modern Orthodox community—one relating to an Orthodox college student’s article about a one-night stand and another pertaining to an Orthodox-style homosexual commitment ceremony in Washington, D.C.—as evidence of cloistering and repression within this community. In truth, however, there has been a subtle but dramatic shift toward greater openness about sexuality in the Modern Orthodox world over the past decade or so.
That the community has shifted toward greater openness while upholding communal modesty norms is strongly attested to by the recent publication of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This booklet speaks directly to the experience of young Orthodox couples and the attitudes about sex that they have absorbed during their formative years. The authors’ thorough knowledge of the Orthodox community and their work experience equips them to walk couples entering a sexual relationship with little or no experience and constrained by a complex set of rules and mores through their first, often awkward sexual encounters. It answers many questions that these young couples have about sex (but are, naturally, afraid to ask). Pasted into the book’s back cover is an envelope that contains several detailed sketches of male and female anatomy as well as some basic positions for intercourse. The unprecedented inclusion of sexually graphic material in an Orthodox publication, coupled with its somewhat symbolic placement in a sealed envelope, represents a recalibration of the stated tensions between reticence about sex and the need to properly educate about it—to study the Torah of sex.
This guide did not appear out of nowhere. In 2005, two Orthodox educators developed a comprehensive sex education curriculum for Orthodox elementary and high schools. With the Assistance of Tzelem, a Yeshiva University-sponsored project co-founded by Rosenfeld, the curriculum has been implemented in a number of schools. Additionally, Tzelem and JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) have offered training for “hatan and kallah teachers” (men and women, often rabbis and wives of rabbis, who instruct Orthodox couples who are engaged to be married about the Jewish laws governing marital relations) in counseling geared not only toward helping Orthodox couples develop a healthy sex life but also toward recognizing and seeking professional treatment for sexual dysfunction. Though there is still plenty of room to grow, such initiatives have already contributed greatly to the education of a young generation that is frank and well-informed about sex, but has learned about it in an unabashedly religious context.
Not long ago, sexual abuse and predation were not generally viewed as a significant threat and thus barely discussed within the Orthodox community. The Jewish Week‘s June 2000 publication of “Stolen Innocence,” an exposé of the sexual predations of charismatic rabbi and educator Baruch Lanner, brought these issues into the spotlight. The article implicated some of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institutions, most notably the Orthodox Union, in (to say the least) failing to properly address and report Lanner’s crimes. As a result of the article and subsequent investigations, institutional taboos against addressing these issues are much weaker than they were, if they have not evaporated altogether.
In the summer of 2005, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and educator made news when he resigned his position, came out as gay, and provisionally abandoned Orthodoxy. At the time, my ex-Orthodox gay havruta (study partner) noted that he didn’t know of anybody who grew up Orthodox, came out as gay, and remained within the Orthodox community. Although it had been five years since the release of Trembling before God—a documentary film about Orthodox homosexuals that, for many, offered the first inkling that such individuals existed within the community—being openly gay was still perceived to be completely irreconcilable with being part of an Orthodox community.
Yet already then there were signs of a shift. This educator’s students reportedly were most troubled not by the fact that their teacher was gay, but that coming out as gay necessarily meant leaving Orthodoxy; they did not see the two as being completely irreconcilable.
And indeed, the last few years have witnessed the Orthodox community engaging with homosexuals and homosexuality to an unprecedented degree. In late 2009, Yeshiva University hosted a very well-attended panel discussion with rabbinic faculty and four gay alumni of Yeshiva, entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World.” A few months later, a group of Orthodox rabbis drafted a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” that, after reaffirming halakhic strictures on same-sex relations, outlines how homosexuals can and should be accepted as full participants in synagogues and schools. It has thus far been signed by hundreds of rabbis, teachers, and community leaders—all Orthodox. To be sure, each of these events generated opposition that feared that such statements would send the wrong message—namely, that open discussion in public fora crosses the line from sensitivity to tacit approval. Nevertheless, the trend is toward greater awareness and acceptance of gays within the Orthodox community, and an ever-larger number of “open” homosexuals consider themselves part of that community.
This final point was virtually absent from all public discussion of a recent same-sex wedding ceremony held in Washington, D.C. Though not an Orthodox ceremony, it looked enough like an Orthodox wedding that the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America was moved to clarify that “same-sex unions are against both the letter and the spirit of Jewish law,” even while recognizing “the acute and painful challenges faced by homosexual Jews in their quest to remain connected and faithful to God and tradition.” Lost in this controversy was the fact that this couple wished to solemnize their marriage with an Orthodox-style ceremony [Eds. Note: Watch the Ceremony below] in the first place. Not long ago, it would have been virtually unthinkable for a homosexual who had grown up in an Orthodox community to model a same-sex marriage ceremony on an Orthodox wedding.
What happened in the past decade or so that precipitated this shift toward greater openness about sexuality among the Orthodox? After all, change does not come easily to inherently conservative societies. It is possible that the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s have finally, a generation later, begun to filter into the Orthodox community. This may also explain a different but related phenomenon that has developed within ultra-Orthodox communities in America and Israel: as the West has become ever more sexually permissive, these communities have responded by demanding ever greater separation between the sexes.
But it was the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s that eventually brought issues of sexuality into the open. The anonymity afforded by the first generation of internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and listservs gave individuals who had felt completely alone—victims of sexual abuse, couples experiencing sexual dysfunction, homosexuals—a platform to express their feelings, ask questions, and find kindred spirits. It was only a matter of time before their voices joined together, and the broader community realized that the Torah of sex was being neglected.
It is understandable that the broader society would find the Orthodox community overly prudish and behind the times (one wonders if the myth about Orthodox Jews having sex through a hole in the bed sheet persists). After all, the article about the one-night stand that caused Yeshiva’s Beacon to lose university funding pales in comparison with, for example, the Duke PowerPoint scandal.
The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy is not exactly the Bava Kama Sutra—it is certainly a far cry from the graphically explicit Joy of Sex. And yet, articles that admonish “Shh! Don’t Talk about Sex at Yeshiva University” miss a crucial point. Sex was never a taboo subject in the Orthodox community and it is currently being discussed frankly and openly. And just as in Rabbi Kahana’s justification for his presence in his master’s bedroom, the immodesty of talking about sex publicly is justified by the educational merits of the discussion: “It is Torah—so learn it we must.”
Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at adderabbi.blogspot.com.
Filed Under: Sex & Love