This Too is Torah: A Case for the Inclusion of Jewish Sexual Ethics in Orthodox Education
“It is, rather, a fundamental component in a comprehensive relationship – at once, both itself an aspect of that relationship and a means toward molding its totality. This is our honed perception of ‘cleaving to his wife that they become one flesh’ – partly carnal, in one sense, and yet powerfully existential on the other.”
– Rav Aaron Lichtenstein1 Lichtenstein, Aaron. “On Marriage: Relationship and Relations,” Tradition 39:2, 2005, p.29.
“Judaism does not despise the carnal. It does not urge us to desert the flesh but to control and to counsel it; to please the natural needs of the flesh so that the spirit should not be molested by unnatural frustrations… Judaism teaches us how even the gratification of animal needs can be an act of sanctification.”
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel2 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 263.
“Rabbinic Judaism invested significance in the body which in [Greek-speaking Jewish formations, including much of Christianity] was invested in the soul… Sexuality is accordingly not just a subheading under ethics but situated at the core of alternate individual and collective self-understandings.”
– Professor Daniel Boyarin3 Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 5-6.
“With the lack of guidance in this context, individuals are forced to struggle alone with their sexual decision-making, perhaps wanting to make moral choices, but lacking any moral compass to help them in this difficult endeavor.”
– Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld4 Rosenfeld, J “From Prostitution to Marriage and Back Again,” The Intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg, edited by Shmuel Yanklowitz, (New York: KTAV, 2018 ) 295ff.
The Biblical verb for sexual intercourse is “to know,” as in, “Now Man knew his wife Eve and she conceived a son…” (Genesis 4:1). Knowledge of another person implies intimacy, not merely physical but also emotional. Sex is not just an act performed by body parts but a deeply personal experience that requires closeness, a term which obviously connotes physical proximity but also a meeting of hearts and minds. In fact, in a parenthetical verse in the second chapter of Genesis following the creation of Woman, the text tells us that a man – as in any future man – will “cling to his wife so that they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In the ideal intimate relationship described in the Bible, two people understand themselves as profoundly connected to one another. G-d saw all that was created and “found that it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
As Rav Aaron Lichtenstein notes in the excerpt above, a relationship’s sexual component is essential to it and even enriches the connection between two people. Sexual acts have the potential to grow a relationship. Sexual pleasure is thus a central part of marriage. And, as both Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Professor Daniel Boyarin note, Judaism has throughout history embraced our physical realities and bodily and material needs. Our urges and desires are aspects of our humanity that are not meant to be repressed, overcome, or extinguished; indeed, they are holy and good. Of course, there are parameters and guidelines in the halakha to ensure that we properly harness the different elements within ourselves to reach our full potential. A challenge of our Jewish community is ensuring that we live up to this potential. This is especially difficult, as Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld notes, in the realm of ethics, because many people in traditional Jewish communities have an underdeveloped moral compass when it comes to matters related to sex.
But where would one find a clearly articulated Jewish sexual ethic? In the Mishneh Torah, the “Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations,” Maimonides writes:
And similarly the Sages forbade a man to have sex with his wife while he is thinking of another woman, and he should not have sex when he is drunk, or in the midst of strife, or out of hatred, or against her will when she is afraid of him, and not when one of them is under the ban, and he should not have sex with her if he has decided to divorce her…
5 Maimonides, “Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations,” Mishneh Torah 21:12.
Maimonides teaches that, even within a halakhically sanctioned relationship, there are restrictions on when a couple may engage in acts of intimacy, (even outside of the realm of niddah.)6A woman enters the halakhic status of niddah when she experiences uterine bleeding not due to abrasions, lacerations or other forms of trauma. During this time, and for the seven days following, it is forbidden for her to be sexually intimate with her husband until she immerses in the mikvah, ritual bath. He does not state explicitly why these restrictions exist, as codes of law need not share the meaning behind the statutes. However, the Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits, in his essay “A Jewish Sexual Ethics,” finds a common thread that explains Maimonides’ list of circumstances in which sexual intimacy is forbidden:
All these rules and principles of behavior have one thing in common: They all aim at the elimination of the impersonal from the sexual union and its consecration through personalization. They are equally binding on both sexes. They are directed against using another person as a sex object…Personalization includes relatedness to the Divine purpose. Sex indulged on the impersonal level is not only a degradation of one’s sexual partner, but also a rejection of what God intended sex to be.7 Berkovits, Eliezer, “A Jewish Sexual Ethics,” Essential Essays on Judaism, ed. D. Hazony (Jerusalem: Shalem, 2003), 127.
In all of Maimonides’ examples of forbidden situations for marital sex, according to Berkovits, the sexual act is done purely for self-gratification, and the partner thus becomes a mere object. Judaism values sexual intimacy in the context of relationship building, the emotional bonding between two individuals. It follows that when that is not the case, the act of sex is prohibited. It seems that Maimonides places a premium on the obligation to treat one’s partner with dignity and respect, with the explicit goal of physical intimacy as a tool to forge a stronger connection. Indeed, this ethic is at the heart of what Judaism teaches us about sex: sex is an intimate act that requires a deep knowledge of one’s partner and seeing them as created btzelem elohim, in the Divine image, worthy of dignity and respect. Understanding Jewish sexual ethics is thus a religious necessity.
The idea that as religious Jews we must engage in conversation about physical intimacy is simple, and at the same time our tradition often appears to approach sexual intimacy with a certain amount of spiritual anxiety. In narratives that appear throughout the Talmud, our Sages acknowledge time and again the tremendous struggle that even the greatest among them had in controlling their sexual urges. The halakha may be fixed, but the Talmud does not shy away from exploring the dynamic realities of human nature. It thus invites us to pause and consider how we, in our own contemporary contexts, navigate and integrate the Torah’s demands in this area into our lives.
At some point, the way to control overwhelming sexual desire was early marriage (TB Kiddushin 29b). However, the Talmud teaches us that even married rabbis worked hard not to succumb to illicit temptation (TB Kiddushin 81a). We do not, as a rule, see similar stories told about temptation for other legal violations; for the Sages, sex appears to be unique in that regard. And, unlike the prohibitions of eating meat and milk together or violating Shabbat, where we would consider the elimination of any desire to be a good thing (e.g., if one was extremely hungry and a cheeseburger was readily available, yet one had no urge to take a bite8Maimonides in Shemoneh Perakim chapter 6 states that there are exceptions to this example, but that is not the point being made here.), this is not the case with sexual impulses. We do not praise the elimination of desire; in fact, the Talmud acknowledges the dangers in doing so (TB Yoma 69b). The halakha ultimately demands control or restraint, with the recognition that sexual desire, pleasure, and passion are lifegiving and natural, and also that sexual desire is a pressure valve that needs release and restraint at appropriate times. It can also help us to appreciate the goodness of God’s world, as Judaism teaches us “how even the gratification of animal needs can be an act of sanctification9Heschel, Alone, 263..” Our tradition encourages us to appreciate sexual intimacy as an integral part of what it means to be human.
The significance of sexuality in the Jewish religious framework and its importance in people’s lives necessitate that our educational institutions teach proper practices, ethics, and values. Having a well-developed sexual ethic is crucial if we intend to have a religiously and psychologically healthy community. We owe it to our students, our children, and our fellow community members to help people mold that moral compass in a manner that respects halakha and the values of tzniut, self-worth, and self-respect and which helps them see themselves and others as truly created in the Divine image.
Why Having a Well-Developed Sexual Ethic is Necessary for Marriage:
In the early 1970s, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler Gaon (1899-1985), was informed that some of his students and followers, in an effort to increase their “piety,” were limiting their sexual relations with their wives. When their wives were pregnant (i.e. when procreation obviously could not be the goal of sexual intimacy) they abstained altogether. In response to the growing trend, the Steipler Gaon penned a letter to his community, which he did not want published or widely distributed but utilized in situations when it could be helpful. In this letter he wrote, “Onah10The mitzvah of onah is the commandment of a husband to sexually satisfy his wife based on Exodus 21:10. is a Biblical mitzvah, no less than eating matzah, and one who does not fulfill it when his wife is pregnant, then he is a complete sinner, for this sin is of those sins that are interpersonal, and thus even Yom Kippur and death do not atone for it. And he is like a thief and a bandit, because he steals from his wife what he is obligated to her.” The commandment of “onah,” giving sexual pleasure to one’s wife, according to the Steipler, is a mitzvah bein adam l’chevro with an inherent ethical quality that should take precedence over the development of middat chassidut, ascetic saintliness. Sexual intimacy is not just good for marriage but fundamental to the Torah’s conception of that relationship, and thus ethical considerations must shape what we consider to be pious behavior.11 From the Steipler Rav, author of Khilot Yaakov – Tishrei 5734 (1973).
It is unfortunately not unusual for those observing the laws of niddah to place the behavioral norms demanded by halakha over interpersonal empathy. In fact, in recent years the negative impact of poor sexual ethics education has been on display on social media. In Facebook groups, in which married Orthodox Jews discuss marital communication, sex, contraception, and related topics, many people ask questions about what is “normal,” seek support for anxieties around sexual performance, discuss expectations on mikvah night, and question the typical frequency of sexual intimacy. It is good that these fora exist, but some of the responses from non-experts also reflect deep-seated misunderstandings, misconceptions, and misinformation.
For example, one woman posted anonymously that she has an irregular period and so sometimes she becomes a niddah when she is not expecting it. Her anxiety not knowing when her body is going to menstruate, because of the physical and halakhic implications, is intense. She also mentioned that since she and her husband observe harchakot, the protective distancing practices in which a husband and wife do not even touch when she is in niddah, her husband’s reaction to her status as a niddah is often anger and frustration. When she tries to calm him, his response is sometimes acerbic as he expresses upset at the lack of fulfillment of his own sexual needs. The woman, feeling guilty, came to the Facebook group for advice. This post demonstrates why we need to help people develop ethical sensitivities around sexuality. One can sympathize with this husband’s needs in a marriage. However, his reaction centered on himself, with exclusive focus on his own needs, and caused his partner harm by stigmatizing her body and blaming her for his distress. In so doing, he erased her experience, reducing her to an object of his sexual frustration. One wonders whether he would have reacted in this way if he had developed greater empathy as part of his sexual moral compass. And these experiences are not shared only on social media. Yoatzot Halakha, chatan and kallah teachers, and rabbis often receive questions about issues like this as well.
Many Orthodox Jews do not even countenance questions around the proper sexual ethical posture until immediately before marriage in chatan and kallah classes. Teaching people to develop a sexual moral compass and appreciate the beauty of sexual intimacy only in the few months prior to marriage is dangerous – religiously, ethically, and emotionally. Time and again as an educator and kallah teacher, I have seen that deficient cultivation of sexual literacy and sexual ethics can lead to great interpersonal and spiritual harm among even quite learned and kind-hearted members of our community. And yet hardly any yeshiva day school graduates, past or present, have received a sufficient education in this arena.
An example from my experience teaching young couples prior to marriage may illustrate the point. I will never forget a particular instance when I taught chatan and kallah classes to a recently engaged Modern Orthodox couple with traditional Jewish education. They were very interested in learning the halakhot of niddah in depth with the intent to observe all guidelines to the letter of the law. After teaching them the halakhot of harchakot, the man, in his mid-twenties said, “Can I just say? Periods – gross!” Niddah and its intense restrictions on physical intimacy can be a particularly challenging and emotionally tough area of halakhic observance, but this young person seemed to say it would not be an issue for him since he was disgusted by what his partner’s body was doing.
It then struck me: here I am, teaching intense, detailed, and complicated halakhot, and a person could sincerely commit to properly keep them all, and yet the feeling he expressed about a woman’s body and her experience really missed the mark and undermined the spirit of the halakhot. Aside from being immature, it reflected a lack of seeing his fiancée at all times as fully beautiful, worthy of respect, and created in the image of God. It was a cruel thing to say, and his utter lack of awareness about its cruelty was upsetting. I do not believe that he is a bad or a mean-spirited person; he seemed completely ignorant of the unethical nature of his remark and the attitude it reflected. However, after this experience, I began to contemplate how this sort of attitude developed. I worried that our institutions may teach students to be meticulous about obeying technical dinim, laws, but they may not teach that sensitivity and compassion towards one’s wife is of equal weight.
Sadly, the story of this couple is not unique. So, is it possible to faithfully observe halakha and still have an underdeveloped sense of what constitutes ethical behavior? In our community, we want the answer to be a resounding, “No!” But if that is the case, we need to engage this subject properly and help our students develop the ethical tools that Judaism offers to prepare them for healthy relationships.
When Should We Begin This Conversation?
A number of years ago, the 11th grade Beit Midrash curriculum at SAR High School included a brief unit on sexuality. At the conclusion of each unit, the entire grade participated in a “community meeting” where students and teachers shared some reflections on the learning and started a grade-wide conversation about the topic. That year, a mentor and colleague asked me if I would sit with the grade and chat with them about sexuality. I am an adult with an excellent Jewish education, and I am comfortable talking about theodicy and the Holocaust, free will, and how we navigate the conflicting truth claims of multiple religions – all incredibly complex topics – but this task was daunting. I spent hours upon hours struggling with what God wanted and what the halakha demanded from these students as sexual beings. I was ill equipped. And, as I sought guidance, I learned that many educators, parents, leaders in our community also felt ill equipped.
What emerged for me was the conviction that a conversation about sexual ethics must be part of a student’s high school education. Two contributors to the Orthodox Forum conference on gender relationships put it as follows:
The Yeshiva day school community in the United States strives to transmit its religious values to the next generation. Living in the twenty-first century in a society saturated by sexuality and sexual imagery, yeshiva day school youth receive endless messages from the images around them, messages that are inconsistent with their traditional values. This exposure places our youth in the position that their access to information about sexuality and sexual behaviors precedes their possession of knowledge and understanding (Hyde & Delameter, 2003). This phenomenon puts children at high risk for conflict as they struggle to bridge their own traditional value system with that of secular culture. In the absence of a comprehensive sexuality education from within the system, children are left on their own to process the cultural messages they are exposed to, and often by default these messages become the only “education” they receive about this topic. 12Debow, Yocheved and Anna C. Woloski-Wruble, “Life Values and Intimacy Education: Methods and Messages,”The Orthodox Forum: Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau, (New York: KTAV, 2007), 243-244.
For Modern Orthodox individuals to develop a healthy sexual self, education around sex needs to start at a young age. High school is probably too late as a starting point for this conversation, but it is certainly a developmentally appropriate time from a psychological perspective to talk seriously about sexual ethics. We need to raise a generation of students whose response to “what is safe sex?” is not just about preventing STDs. We want our students to think about emotional, social, ethical, spiritual, and religious safety in every relationship. 13 Roffman, Deborah M. “Making Meaning and Finding Morality in a Sexualized World,” Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy, ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg (Philadelphia: JPS, 2010), 57.
The Talmud acknowledges that, without formal education around sexuality, students will seek out information on their own:
R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rav’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s (Rav’s real name) mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. (TB, Berakhot 62a)
The Gemara here presents what we would consider an act of voyeurism as an example of the length to which R. Kahana was willing to go in order to learn. His apparent lack of training in sexual matters not only led him to disrespect the privacy and boundaries of his teacher but also to believe that this was his only recourse. Today, our students have unparalleled access to information, and if we do not inculcate our Jewish values in a way that truly speaks to them and help them develop an internal moral conscience beyond the technical observance of religious precepts, they will be both religiously and psychologically lacking. As high school teachers, we feel the tremendous responsibility and even the burden of addressing such issues because there are rarely opportunities to have the conversation systematically at any point after high school.
At SAR High School, our 11th grade Machshevet Yisrael class begins its unit on morality by asking the students to reflect on the origins of their sense of interpersonal right and wrong; what are the sources from which they learn to navigate an ethically complex universe? The standard answers generally include family, community (school, synagogue, camp), the Torah, and “myself” – some inner voice. Less common answers, but ones that always make the list, are “society and culture,” by which they generally mean American values communicated to them through various media, and their own social networks.
Ideally, we want our students to have strongly developed ethical intuition, informed by moral education. Deborah Roffman, a master teacher and sexuality educator, writes that:
Sexual acts … have the potential to give great pleasure, to express unparalleled emotional and physical intimacy, and to create great suffering. It can be argued that none of these should be taken lightly and that all of them have to do with human relations and therefore with morality. Judaism, again, with its emphasis on ethical decision-making and behavior, can provide us a model for making the transition to a contextual system of moral thought.14 Roffman, p.58.
In some cases, parents and community institutions are daunted by the topic and so shy away from it entirely. However, this approach ignores the many tools at the ready to help forge sexual moral compasses in our young people. Thomas Green, a professor of education at Syracuse University who studies the philosophy of moral development, argues that different voices come into play as a person authors his or her own moral life. Membership in community, obligation, memory, and imagination are all voices that need to be developed so that moral conscience can become reflexive. As educators, we must help students develop their own internal moral compass to help them navigate moments of moral conflict. 15Green, Thomas. Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
If the only message our children and students ever hear about “sex” is to avoid the subject entirely until it becomes halachically relevant in the context of marriage, they will not have developed the virtue ethic or “inner voice” that requires both guidance and conversation. In the absence of Jewish tools with which to exercise moral agency in intimate situations, the vacuum is filled by American social norms and instinct; in a sexual realm, these sources do not always serve individuals or their partners well, let alone foster their Jewish values and aspirations. We are blessed in Judaism with a rich tradition of sources from which to draw meaning and inspiration. We cannot be afraid to do just that.
A Very Brief Discussion of the Relationship between Jewish Ethics and Jewish Law:
In the second part of Halakhic Man, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator… The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.”16 Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Halakhic Man, (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1983) 101 & 109. R. Soloveitchik is arguing for the necessity of ethical self-creation. We must teach our students to cultivate an ethical core and to practice those ethics. And he is emphasizing that it must be done with the same rigor we use when we teach them the intricacies of the law. Striving for “religious ethical perfection,” including in the area of sexuality, then, is an essential goal.
In his celebrated essay “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah?” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, a man whose legacy encompassed genius in Torah scholarship as well as enormous interpersonal piety, argues that “the demand or, if you will, the impetus for transcending the din is itself part of the halakhic corpus17 Lichtenstein, Aaron. “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah,” Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living Volume 2, (Brooklyn: Ktav Publishing House, 2017), 40.
.” Indeed, the broad sweeping halakha contains within it the idea that we should go beyond the strictly legal. In fact, he states, “supra-legal conduct is the cement of human society” and thus an essential component for the survival of Judaism. By his own admission, Rav Lichtenstein is therein defining halakha broadly such that it encompasses both din, the letter of the law, and lifnim me-shurat ha-din, going above the letter of the law specifically as it relates to ethics.18 It must be noted that many people within our community do not define or conceive of halakha as encompassing the entirety of their religious life.
For Rav Lichtenstein, the supererogatory is defined by both the context and the judgment of the agent engaged in assessing a moral situation. He writes, “Guided by his polestar(s), the contextualist employs his moral sense to evaluate and intuit the best way of eliciting maximal good from the existential predicament confronting him.”19 Lichtenstein, 48. It seems clear, then, that a person must have developed “polestars,” or a strong “moral compass,” in order to make ethically sound and religiously expected moral decisions. According to this approach, there exists nothing less than a halakhic imperative to educate the members of our community in the realm of ethics on all matters, including sexuality. Although certain major Jewish thinkers would disagree with R. Lichtenstein’s position and insist on delineating a clearer distinction between law and ethics, it is important to at least consider that a frank conversation about Jewish sexual ethics may, in fact, be a religious imperative.
A Model of Jewish Sexual Ethics Education
At SAR High School, we have a designated 10th-grade class to talk about sexual intimacy in a year-long course designed to best meet the needs of this age group. During the first semester, our students study Jewish sources – Biblical, Talmudic, rabbinic, medieval and modern – on a variety of topics related to sex. We have a rich tradition of beautiful sources from which to draw and that offer so much depth and richness to their halakhic practices, self-understanding, relationships, and, ultimately, marriages. These sources spark discussions and self-reflection. We use them as a jumping-off point to learn halakha and to consider what Judaism is asking of us in developing an ethical sensibility. We talk about values and how they can apply to the variety of situations in which students or their friends might find themselves. The class is a safe space, and all questions are encouraged, even as we try to ensure that the class environment is one of tzniut and is separated by gender. Below is the table of contents:
I. Starting a Conversation about Healthy Relationships and Jewish Sexuality
II. The Ethics of Sex
III. Sex Positive: Sexual Intimacy as an Essential Component of Marriage
IV. Sexual Restraint within Marriage: Hilkhot Niddah
V. Sexual Restraint outside of Marriage: Shomer Negiah and Premarital Sex
VI. Objectification and Personalization: A Jewish Perspective on Casual Sex
VII. Basic, Enthusiastic, Meaningful: Consent in Halakha and Jewish Values
VIII. Protective Space: The Prohibition of Yichud
IX. Cultivating Mindfulness: The Prohibitions of Histaklut and Hirhur
X. Solitary Sexual Behavior: Masturbation
XI. Sexual Consumption: Pornography
XII. Finding Meaning and Connection: Acceptance and Aspiration
Many of the units also contain sources from outside the Jewish tradition that allow us to put Jewish teachings in conversation with modern secular discourse. Judaism often has an interesting counter-cultural voice to offer, a perspective that may only recently be gaining traction but which we hope our students will be able to articulate with confidence. The hope is that students will deeply engage with the many sources and conversations and that they will take the following values with them:
– Sexual intimacy and gratification within a marriage are essential and fundamentally positive components of that relationship, and are sanctified in Jewish law.
– The key to Jewish sexual ethics is to treat all people with the dignity befitting one created in the image of God; one may therefore never objectify another human being or use them purely for one’s own sexual gratification.
– Sexual intimacy should not be casual; it must reflect a shared commitment.
– Good communication is a key component of any sexual relationship.
– Sexual intimacy is a shared decision between the people involved. A violation of another’s consent is a violation of their bodily autonomy and of their essential humanity.
– Judaism has a lot to contribute to the current cultural conversation on meaningful sexual intimacy. As a result, students are called to be part of the change.
– It is normal to find many of the halakhot and even the values around sexuality difficult. Embrace the struggle and aspire towards growth.
– Know yourself. Think about who you want to be. Revisit and reassess throughout your life.
– Tzniut and Kedushah – Modesty and Holiness – are values that are part and parcel of Jewish sexuality.
– There is a difference between secrecy and privacy. Privacy can be positive.
– We all sin, and we are all susceptible to experience guilt and shame. Let’s try to reduce the shame.
– Even one who sins can have a positive relationship with God.
It is a bold and optimistic undertaking.
In the second semester, we study health, and while this curriculum also focuses on mental health and substance use, a major focus is sexual health. We talk about contraception and sexually transmitted infections and diseases. We talk about human anatomy, biology, the sexual responses of the body, and so on. Many of these topics are not covered in the first semester of the course, but there is certainly much that does overlap.
One challenge that we, and undoubtedly anyone who embarks on such an educational project, faces is that not all halakhot governing intimate relationships reflect modern ethical values. This may make it difficult for students to relate to them (a problem not limited, of course, to the present subject). The halakhic system makes broad assumptions about male and female sexual drives, women’s status in society, and the heteronormative nature of all relationships, all of which may not be palatable to those seeking a comprehensive ethical outlook. No doubt the assumed ethics around equality and gender identity are different today than they were when our Sages codified the law. Furthermore, best practices recommended by psychologists and sexual health experts often contradict some halakhot. It is in these moments where meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations happen.
We are always updating these curricula with new information, with reflections on modern realities, and in response to emergent technologies. We have considered teaching a blended version of the two curricula – traditional Jewish approaches and secular public health approaches – and we regularly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of keeping them separate. It is not always easy to find the right teachers who have sufficient expertise and who can create an environment where it feels safe to ask questions, engage in group conversations and do so in a way that preserves tzniut. Teachers must undergo training and have frequent meetings with mentors and guides throughout the year.
In 12th grade, we revisit these topics in more explicit ways. Students hear from a gynecologist and sexual health expert as part of a healthy living curriculum. We also have a more in-depth conversation about Taharat HaMishpacha and the mitzvah of onah20 The topic serves as a great jumping-off point for discussion about the importance of the woman’s voice in a sexual relationship, ensuring that the woman never becomes an object and that she and her partner are aware of what she enjoys sexually.. In truth, no year of school should pass without some discussion of this topic in a developmentally and religiously appropriate way. Of course, there is no “one size fits all” approach and anyone engaging in this field is learning and refining their method. Nevertheless, each school must develop an approach that works for them.
After Formal Jewish Education Ends – Now What?
A number of years ago, a woman from an Orthodox community in New York City approached me because she wanted to talk about sex. This woman came to me because she had participated in a small discussion group that I led for single women on behalf of Mount Sinai Jewish Center, a local synagogue. The goal of these groups was to give women a chance to discuss relationships, intimacy, and sexuality in an open and honest way within a committed Orthodox setting. Since that time, as I mentioned, I also trained as a kallah teacher and have served my community in that role for the past couple of years working with several dozen couples to prepare for marriage. I was not surprised that someone wanted to talk about intimacy, as I had counseled women about sex and relationships over the years, but it was the first time I was confronted with the following scenario.
The young woman, who will be referred to as Sarah (not her real name), self-identifies as a “right of center” Modern-Orthodox Jew. She is strict in her observance of Shabbat, kashrut, tzniut, tefillah, etc. Sarah is a self-aware person with an excellent career and many friends, and she communicated to me that she feels she has a strong, personal connection to God. Now in her late 30s, she has been on dates with hundreds of men (not an exaggeration) and even experienced a few very serious and long-term relationships. On that particular morning, she informed me that, based on intense reflection on her life experiences, she had become increasingly convinced that she would never get married. With tears in her eyes, she expressed deep sadness over how her life has played itself out and how her relationship with Judaism had become strained as a result. For her, it was a matter that required some kind of theodicy, a theological justification of her suffering. But that is not why she came to see me that morning. A healthy woman, she felt that although the home life she had dreamed of – and had been conditioned to expect since she was a little girl – no longer seemed a realistic possibility, she did not want to be deprived of the experience of intercourse and an intimate sexual relationship. And, as someone committed to the halakhic system, she wanted to keep hilkhot niddah to the best of her ability, even if she decided to engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage (and hence outside the confines of Jewish law).
I am not her rabbi, and I was not being asked to weigh in on the nuances of her decision from a halakhic perspective. There has been much debate about whether or not unmarried women who are planning to engage in premarital sex should immerse in the mikvah, but very few rabbinic authorities have put their opinions in writing. While immersion would seem to remove the Biblical prohibition of having intercourse with a woman who is in the state of niddah and thus avoid the punishment of karet 21 From the root “cut off” or excision, it is a punishment for a number of major biblical transgressions, including eating leavened bread on Passover and not circumcising baby boys. The perimeters or exact meaning of this punishment beyond “being cut off” is not defined in the Bible. , the question is much more fraught from a sociological and ideological perspective in a community that believes that sexual intimacy should only be reserved for marriage. This woman came to me for pastoral guidance because she wanted someone to understand her pain and because she had some practical questions about the various ritual laws involved in preparing for immersion in the mikvah. Though not a posek, I am committed to halakha and to ethical practice in my pastoral roles. I could not simply dismiss her and tell her that what she wants to do is halakhically improper (which she already knows) and that therefore there is nothing left to talk about. There had to be a way to respect her feelings, try to help heal her broken heart, and let her know that, despite this impending breach, she would not be “written out” of the Orthodox world or, more importantly, barred from a relationship with God. Yet I struggled intensely with what to say and do.
Sarah’s situation is not unique. In my conversations with single adults in their late 20’s and early 30’s, I have found that there are many factors, in addition to halakhic considerations, that make it difficult to navigate what it means to have a “healthy” sexual experience as a non-married Modern-Orthodox Jew. As Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld points out, we are bombarded by values (and myths) around sexuality that challenge Orthodox Jewish assumptions.
The conflict between living as an Orthodox Jew and simultaneously living in the modern world is acute in the areas of sexuality and relationships. Jewish law, Halakhah, is our ‘way of life’ and goes in the opposite direction from the traffic around us. Ranging from adolescents who confront the media’s portrayal of sexuality but lack a Jewish response from their schools and parents, to singles who try to find a balance between their desires and halakhic restrictions as they remain single for longer, to the newly married who are trying to reconcile their expectations with reality and want to find a healthy way to incorporate this new dimension into their relationship, individuals at all stages of life are struggling.22Rosenfeld, Jennie. “Introduction: The Past and the Future of the Forum on ‘Gender Relations’,” The Orthodox Forum: Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau, (New York: KTAV, 2007), xvi.
Individuals who are not married often experience acute conflict between a secular culture that emphasizes freedom and autonomy in the realm of sexuality and the traditional Jewish focus on abstinence before marriage. The halakhic expectation of early marriage or a very short dating period does not reflect our cultural or communal reality and norms, which expect people to fall in love and value the process to personally explore compatibility, chemistry, and partnership. As people within our community remain single for longer into adulthood, and with our desire to have emotionally intimate relationships prior to marriage, the notion that there will be a complete lack of physical intimacy with one’s partner can place stress on and be a source of stress within the relationship. Emotional intimacy and physical intimacy are both important components of a romantic relationship, and Modern Orthodox Judaism seems to expect that people grow one and restrict the other.
The central question that emerged from the various group discussions I facilitated for Mount Sinai Jewish Center was: what does it mean to be Orthodox in the context of modern dating and love? And the consensus of the groups was that halakhic responses to this question have not been fully developed and do not adequately address modern situations and realities. Sarah is not alone.
What is at Stake – Ethical and Psychological Distress:
I have already explained some of the ways in which a poor sexual ethics education could manifest within marriage. I would like now to mention some examples of the ensuing tension that arose in conversations I have had with Modern Orthodox individuals, primarily in “singles” communities. It is worth spending time understanding what is at stake if we do not figure out how to rectify our educational approach in high school and beyond.
One issue that came up among several women I have counseled is how often they felt confounded that the men they dated (“a good guy,” “very involved in the shul,” “goes to visit the nursing home on Shabbat afternoons”) pushed them to engage in sexual acts with which they were uncomfortable. There is a general lack of vocabulary and understanding around issues of consent, and many of the women mentioned being with men whom they found to be sexually “aggressive” in unpleasant ways. Anecdotally, some of the men I have spoken to after they got married reported that they think about themselves from their “single days” as “bad” guys based on actions that resemble those which the women described.
Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld reflects upon a similar phenomenon in her conversations with single women as part of her dissertation work:
Shame and guilt were themes and words that consistently appeared over the course of my conversations with singles. Complex feelings, they often further complicated and overshadowed people’s sexual relationships or lack thereof. Often individuals became so self-absorbed in their shame over transgression, that they externalized and objectified the other as an embodiment of the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) and were therefore unable to treat him or her as a human being endowed with the tzelem Elokim, or image of G-d. The feelings of shame ran so deep and were by their nature so self-absorbed and self-centered, that at a certain point those feelings inhibited any sense of empathy for the other or other-directed concern. 23 Rosenfeld, Jennie. Talmud Rereadings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic. 2008. City University of New York, PhD dissertation. pp.303-304
Rosenfeld is noting that when people become focused solely on sin and thus feelings of guilt and shame, not only is their own identity overshadowed, but they lose their ability to have compassion for (or, for that matter, confrontation with) the “other” in the relationship. To treat another person with the highest standard of ethics becomes incredibly difficult when one does not view him or her as a full person.
Furthermore, many Modern Orthodox Jews who are not married struggle with how the decisions they make in the realm of sexuality impact their identity as both religious and ethical people. In the last number of years, Dr. Koby Frances, a New York psychologist, has focused on how single men in the Orthodox Jewish community manage their sexual and religious identities. His research followed 15 men whom he interviewed on a regular basis about their experiences; his study shows
how some religious struggles are significantly colored by deficits in owning and accepting sexual desire and in constructing a sexual self-representation that can safely exist side by side with other self representations. The findings of this study clearly show how adults who struggle with these more primary difficulties can split their sexuality off from other parts of themselves and experience intense feelings of despair and shame…24 Frances, Koby. “The Tightrope of Desire: A Qualitative Study of Sexual Conflict in Single Heterosexual Orthodox Jewish Men,” Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication (2017).
Based on his clinical experience, Frances has argued that a lot of men and some women, “have trouble owning their sexuality…it is something they believe is an evil thing about them no matter what they are doing in their behaviors.” Single adult men and women in the Orthodox Jewish community often compartmentalize their sexual selves to the point of disowning this entire part of their identity, something he associates with a term he calls the “disembodiment position.”
To summarize, in the Disembodiment Position, sexual conflicts have little to do with identity and moral failure. But rather, since sexual desires have not yet had the opportunity to coalesce into an organized and named part of the self, they feel senseless, dirty and abnormal and are thought of as external to their otherwise logical and sequential self. When juxtaposed with the purpose-driven ways in which they can own, plan, and regulate other drives and interests, the person is struck with a perplexing discrepancy that is resolved by splitting. However, when this splitting breaks down and their disorganized Self intrudes upon their controlled Self for a prolonged period of time, the person becomes overwhelmed with feelings of failure and depression or anger and resentment. This latter set of feelings led some participants to reject their religion and distance themselves from the Orthodox community.
Frances argues that the dangers of not confronting one’s sexuality and sexual decision making can be psychological and mental unrest on the one hand and often a broader rejection of religion on the other. Compartmentalization of the sort that Frances describes is both religiously corrosive and sexually disruptive. The disembodiment that Frances names, the inability to own one’s ethical choices in the realm of sexual activity, is quite troubling. The inability of some people to see their partner as worthy of dignity that Rosenfeld describes must give us pause. We need to consider how we can reframe a conversation around sexuality so it does not lead to these terrible consequences.
Another reason that we must prioritize Jewish sexual ethical education is to protect people from crossing others’ physical boundaries without their consent and without fully being aware that they are doing so. There is often anxiety caused by a recognition of one’s own sin, which can lead to people making unhealthy decisions to mitigate “sinning.” From a young age, many Modern Orthodox Jews are trained to think of sinning in the halakhic categories of shogeg, accidental sin, and <em<meizid, deliberate sin. This can have a detrimental impact on how one ultimately “chooses” to engage in sexual relationships. If individuals engage in spontaneous sexual activity, then they can tell themselves that “they were overcome by momentary desire” or it “just happened” – it was a mistake, an accident. If, however, the pair communicated about desires, expectations, boundaries, etc., prior to having sex, the act was clearly done with deliberate intention. This means that both parties made an active decision to violate the halakha. While psychologists might agree that intentional action leads to a far more healthy experience of sex, for individuals committed to the halakhic system, it can present them with unhealthy emotional angst. Open communication in advance of a physical encounter – difficult even for people who are not considering halakhic norms – is made even more challenging by the guilt of sin. Thus, many individuals will prefer not to engage in that conversation and simply “see what happens.” Unfortunately, letting things “just happen” can have a decidedly negative result, as individuals may feel ashamed of their actions, disrespected, or even sexually violated. The lack of any even basic communication and consent in these situations further complicates the issue.
Third, there is often shame related to both having and not having a sexual relationship prior to marriage. Many young people, from high schoolers through individuals in their early thirties, feel as if everyone else is having a sexual relationship and that no one above a certain age is actually “shomer negiah,” refraining from any kind of sexual touch.25 Careful about refraining from any physical contact with a person of the opposite sex.They believe that those who claim that they are keeping those norms must either be lying or have never been presented with an opportunity. This conviction often nurtures a fear among women who, due to their ongoing commitment to the halakha, have not had sexual relationships: they worry that they must have low libido, a “frigid” persona, or are just not “normal.” As a result, many individuals feel pressure to engage in sexual relationships to counter these self-perceptions. Furthermore, some women who have not engaged in physical intimacy are skeptical when they date a man who says he has also not violated the halakha: they fear he must be homosexual, asexual, or lying. There is thus often anxiety and, at times, hypocrisy in analyzing the prior sexual history of potential partners.
On the flip side, women have shared with me the extreme shame they often feel if they have indeed engaged in physical intimacy prior to marriage. For some, in their relatively limited education around the subject of shomer negiah, the recurring metaphor used by authority figures to convey the “deplorable” nature of pre-marital intimacy was that of the “used tissue:” everyone prefers to use a clean one and only a desperate person will reach for a “used” or “dirty” one. In other words, you are a ruined woman and not preferred by anyone if you have been “used.” 26 Much of this language and symbolism has been borrowed from Christian purity culture
The dirty tissue metaphor is not unique to the Jewish community, but a uniquely Jewish metaphor that one young woman shared with me was that of “yachatz,” the breaking of a matzah at the Passover seder. This woman related that her high school teacher said that when you are born, you and your bashert (Divinely intended spouse) are comparable to a single piece of matzah that is broken in half. When you get married, the two broken halves fit perfectly back together – every crevice and jagged edge meeting perfectly with its match. If however, you engage in any sexual acts with someone who is not your partner, little pieces get chipped off your side of the matzah. Sure, you will still fit together with your bashert, but it will not be a perfect fit. The used tissue and cracked matzah metaphors both convey an idea that many young Orthodox Jewish women learned somewhere along the way.
In short, women describe both pressure to have sexual relationships prior to marriage and tremendous shame (beyond the guilt associated with the technical halakhic violation) if they did engage in sexual relationships. They also described the fear of being judged or that they actually felt others were looking down on them for the choices they were making, leading to a fraying of the social fabric of communities.
In conclusion, psychologically damaged people often make bad ethical choices. Poor communication, lack of giving or receiving consent, selfishness, self-loathing, suspicion, tension, anxiety, and shame are just some of the effects that poor education in the area of sexuality can generate. We must, as a community, think about ways of engaging Modern Orthodox single adults on the topic of sexuality, whether through shuls or other institutions. There is both a desire and a need for continued conversation.
Challenges and Opportunities:
The greatest challenge to advocating for better Jewish sexual ethics education is the fear that it might appear to condone, at least tacitly, premarital sexual activity. We should certainly be concerned that engaging the conversation may be interpreted by our students as somehow giving permission to ignore halakhic norms with abandon, which is of course not at all our intention. Any curriculum must find a way to be completely clear about the halakhic norms and expectations without apology. But we cannot shy away from the issues simply because they are messy and uncomfortable.
The Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Illa the Elder said, “If a person sees that his [sexual] inclination is overcoming him, he should go to a place where he is unknown, and wear black, and wrap himself in black, and do there what his heart desires” (TB, Hagigah 16a). The Talmud goes on to say that with most commandments we should be able to struggle and overcome our desires, but this passage indicates that sometimes we have desires that cannot be controlled. Sexual desire is here described as an unstoppable force. Now, while one may find the suggestion of Rabbi Illa the Elder problematic, this great rabbi does seem to acknowledge that if one “must” violate halakha, that there are better and worse ways to do so.
We are aware of the reality that some of our students, and many single adults in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, engage in physically intimate behavior despite being at least generally aware of the fact that it is countermanded by halakha. If we do not give them the proper tools with which to make good decisions, both halakhically and ethically, then when they enter these sexual situations ill-equipped to deal with them, we bear some responsibility for the consequences. This is a matter of physical, spiritual, and psychological safety. Furthermore, we have seen the negative consequences of not addressing this important issue. When we create a dichotomy of 100% obedience versus 100% disobedience, we create an all-or-nothing, zero sum game. When the discussion always revolves around the negative discourse of violation, of halakhic red lines, and of shame, we deprive people of the possibility of developing as moral sexual agents in an ongoing and thoughtful way. By placing the obedience/violation dichotomy in the background, we may be able to educate students to maintain loyalty to the Jewish values around sexual ethics even when in violation of the law. We want our students to engage with Jewish values and halakhic discourse even when they make personal decisions that do not align with every expectation and norm.
Ultimately, it is essential that we emphasize the imperative to “do good” and not only “refrain from evil” and help our students develop a positive sexual ethic. Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld points out a wise insight on the verse in Psalms (34:15), “Turn away from evil and do good; seek out peace and pursue it:”
In placing a tremendous emphasis on the sexual restrictions which are part of Halakhah, the Modern Orthodox community tends to overvalue the first half of this verse; the fight to avoid evil is conducted with more vehemence than the effort to actively do good deeds. One of the realms in which this problem manifests itself is in the sexual realm, where the emphasis is placed almost solely on the avoidance of sexual sin, to the exclusion of a focus on developing an aseh tov, in the form of a positive sexual ethic.27 Rosenfeld, Rereadings, 19.
The primary goal of any curriculum on this topic should be greater ethical commitments. We certainly have no fear that our students and community could be “too” ethical. Helping people, whatever their level of observance, attain greater moral heights is an achievement we should always strive for.
Bringing the conversation into the open will also lessen the secrecy and shame around sexual behavior that departs from halakha and allow people to view what is positive – what good values they were maintaining – even as they departed from halakhic parameters. They can then learn from their failures and successes and continue to grow as Jews rather than put their Jewish values in quarantine with regard to physical intimacy. Allowing halakha in as a voice that helps them navigate challenging circumstances empowers people towards greater fidelity to the legal norms, even if only partial and occasional. Furthermore, even for people who are 100% committed to keeping halakha, without grounding a sexual education in ethics, we are doing a huge disservice to our halakhic community. For while it may be full of halakhic practitioners, it could be lacking in ethical practitioners. If we believe, as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l did, that the halakhic system is meant to take ethics into account, then harm reduction as an ethical imperative and fealty to halakha must be in constant dialogue and should reinforce one another. We hope that meaningful conversation around sexual ethics will help bolster a strong psychological framework, allowing our students to take ownership of their sexual selves as they become Jewish adults, and even as religious, halakhically committed people. We hope it will also increase marital happiness, sexual satisfaction, and open communication when issues arise. We want our practices to match our ethical commitments, and we need to educate students so this can be done.
Alongside this powerful essay, we are also excited to share a preview of the first three chapters of our new 10th grade Beit Midrash curriculum on Jewish Sexuality. Over the past two years, Ms. Taubes has brought her expertise to bear in rewriting the curriculum and preparing it for publication to be used as a resource for our students, faculty, parents, and the broader Modern Orthodox community of educators.
This Too is Torah Excerpt – Chapters 1-3
- 1Lichtenstein, Aaron. “On Marriage: Relationship and Relations,” Tradition 39:2, 2005, p.29.
- 2Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 263.
- 3Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 5-6.
- 4Rosenfeld, J “From Prostitution to Marriage and Back Again,” The Intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg, edited by Shmuel Yanklowitz, (New York: KTAV, 2018 ) 295ff.
- 5Maimonides, “Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations,” Mishneh Torah 21:12.
- 6A woman enters the halakhic status of niddah when she experiences uterine bleeding not due to abrasions, lacerations or other forms of trauma. During this time, and for the seven days following, it is forbidden for her to be sexually intimate with her husband until she immerses in the mikvah, ritual bath.
- 7Berkovits, Eliezer, “A Jewish Sexual Ethics,” Essential Essays on Judaism, ed. D. Hazony (Jerusalem: Shalem, 2003), 127.
- 8Maimonides in Shemoneh Perakim chapter 6 states that there are exceptions to this example, but that is not the point being made here.
- 9Heschel, Alone, 263.
- 10The mitzvah of onah is the commandment of a husband to sexually satisfy his wife based on Exodus 21:10.
- 11From the Steipler Rav, author of Khilot Yaakov – Tishrei 5734 (1973).
- 12Debow, Yocheved and Anna C. Woloski-Wruble, “Life Values and Intimacy Education: Methods and Messages,”The Orthodox Forum: Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau, (New York: KTAV, 2007), 243-244.
- 13Roffman, Deborah M. “Making Meaning and Finding Morality in a Sexualized World,” Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy, ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg (Philadelphia: JPS, 2010), 57.
- 14Roffman, p.58.
- 15Green, Thomas. Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
- 16Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Halakhic Man, (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1983) 101 & 109.
- 17Lichtenstein, Aaron. “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah,” Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living Volume 2, (Brooklyn: Ktav Publishing House, 2017), 40.
- 18It must be noted that many people within our community do not define or conceive of halakha as encompassing the entirety of their religious life.
- 19Lichtenstein, 48.
- 20The topic serves as a great jumping-off point for discussion about the importance of the woman’s voice in a sexual relationship, ensuring that the woman never becomes an object and that she and her partner are aware of what she enjoys sexually.
- 21From the root “cut off” or excision, it is a punishment for a number of major biblical transgressions, including eating leavened bread on Passover and not circumcising baby boys. The perimeters or exact meaning of this punishment beyond “being cut off” is not defined in the Bible.
- 22Rosenfeld, Jennie. “Introduction: The Past and the Future of the Forum on ‘Gender Relations’,” The Orthodox Forum: Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Blau, (New York: KTAV, 2007), xvi.
- 23Rosenfeld, Jennie. Talmud Rereadings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic. 2008. City University of New York, PhD dissertation. pp.303-304
- 24Frances, Koby. “The Tightrope of Desire: A Qualitative Study of Sexual Conflict in Single Heterosexual Orthodox Jewish Men,” Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication (2017).
- 25Careful about refraining from any physical contact with a person of the opposite sex.
- 26Much of this language and symbolism has been borrowed from Christian purity culture
- 27Rosenfeld, Rereadings, 19.