I recently spent an entertaining weekend in Los Angeles with my close friends, Michael and Sharon, observant (orthodox) Jews living in the predominantly Jewish area of West Los Angeles known as Beverlywood. The occasion was a pre-nuptial celebration of their daughter Shaina’s upcoming wedding. I was thrilled to be a part of the excitement, and jitters, in anticipation of the big day.
Sharon was generous with her hospitality, sharing the myriad wedding details so meticulously scripted - among them the attire that Shaina would don on her wedding night.
I think of myself as an unabashed gal under most circumstances, but when Sharon gleefully pulled me into her daughter’s bedroom to revel in their recent purchases, I was momentarily stunned. OMG! Was this marital bliss orthodox style?
Fashionably displayed across Shaina’s bed was an array of erotic and provocative nighties, the likes of which made me all at once blush from awkwardness and smile with envy.
Silks, satins and lace… reds, blacks and whites…corsets, garters, babydolls, thongs, basques and chemises! Wait…is this even kosher???
“You bet it is!” laughed my friend who winked at her giggling, though somewhat trepidacious, daughter.
Shaina is 20 years old. Her groom-to-be, 23. Their wedding night would be a consummating moment for both as sexual relations outside of marriage are frowned upon in orthodox Judaism. Shaina’s excitement, coupled with apprehension, was understandable.
What happened to sex through a hole in the sheet anyway? Evidently an urban legend. This eye-opening encounter enticed my curiosity to explore the art of lovemaking…kosher style.
Jewish law – as written in the Torah (Old Testament) and before rabbinic interpretation - looks favorably upon sexuality. Sex is not considered sinful, lewd or disgraceful. Satisfied in its proper time, place and manner, sex is encouraged, required and even deemed a mitzvah (a good deed through religious duty).
The Torah does not forbid fornication, apart from adultery and incest, but the rabbis of the Talmudic period banned it to prevent the unwanted consequences of an uncontrolled sexual appetite, such as pregnancy out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases, or rape .
The Talmud (the central text of ancient religious authority in Orthodox Judaism) states that procreation is only one of the many purposes of sex; the primary purpose being the reinforcement of the loving marital bonds as exclusive between a husband and a wife.
In his book, This is my God, The Jewish Way of Life, Pulitzer-Prize winning Jewish-American author Herman Wouk writes, “Judaism regards sex as the cord that secures the union of two lovers for life: for shared strength, pleasure, and ease, and for the rearing of children.”
Wouk adds that sex enjoyed by two people within a marriage, “…turns out to be one of the keenest pleasures in life.”
Renowned 11th century Jewish sage Maimonides explains that sex is a women’s right, and a man’s obligation is to please his wife regularly. He refers to Nashim (women) – one of the six sections of the Talmud – which provides a detailed schedule for a man’s conjugal obligations, organized by profession while taking his circumstances into account.
For instance, a man of independent means is obliged to engage in sexual pleasure with his wife every day. Meanwhile, the wife is permitted to reject her husband’s sexual advances and the husband is forbidden to pressure her.
Maimonides continues, saying that, “since a man’s wife is permitted to him, he may act with her in any manner whatsoever [given her full consent]. He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes; and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally [traditionally this refers to anal and oral sex], provided that he does not expend semen to no purpose.”
The Talmud even condones sexual relations between husband and wife when a woman is pregnant, using an accepted form of birth control, as well as after menopause.
Opinions on the subject of sex vary among rabbis, but the prevailing view of Jewish law governing sexual expression between a husband and a wife is that any sexual act that does not involve destruction of seed (ejaculation outside of the vagina) is permissible.
No wonder the excitement over the titillating dainties. That first night of pleasure would stand as the foundation Shaina and her husband would always return to as a reminder of the bond of love they forged. The much-anticipated wedding night held the immeasurable promise of sexual fulfillment and adventure with a partner, someone to share all of life’s responsibilities and pleasures.
New York City Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the outspoken guru of no-holds-barred sex within the boundaries of marriage. He is the author of Kosher Sex and, most recently, Kosher Lust, and has a sex counseling reality TV show on TLC. Oprah Winfrey is a fan and gave him a show on her XM station.
He argues that great sex is the glue that strengthens a marriage.
“Sex is a big deal in Judaism. It’s all in the Talmud. It’s a religious obligation. In Jewish law a man has to make his wife orgasm before he does.”
Rabbi Boteach believes that within the boundaries of marriage and Torah law, anything goes sexually.
“In orthodox Jewish marriage, there’s a part every single month when sex is forbidden. You’re not even allowed to touch. It’s 12 days out of every month: five days of menstruation, and seven days after. It’s not easy to keep, but it leads to lust,” he said.
Lust, according to the Rabbi, along with sexual novelty is an important ingredient in marriages.
“Anything that makes you more hooked is permitted. Oral sex is fine. Anal? Yeah, why not? She wants S and M? Sure. There’s nothing un-kosher about it. Sex toys are great. Anything that increases the passion of husband and wife, great,” he exclaims.
Where novelty is concerned, Rabbi Boteach explains that it’s not the novelty of a new partner that’s required, but the novelty of going deeper into the erotic mind of the same partner - understanding their fantasies.
“Have an affair with your wife,” he says. “You don’t have to have a sanitary marriage. We tend to make the single years into the wild years. Marriage should be about swinging from the chandeliers.”
For the secular among us, how we choose to have sex, and sexual partners, has become muddied in the modern era.
Modern day freedoms and mobility have paved the way for increased personal choice, exposure and thus increased options to entertain and pursue desires that were once off limits.
February is the month for the secular celebration of Valentine’s Day – a moment out of the year for the romantic expression of love through flowers, candy, jewelry, candle lit dinners and, yes, sex. But love and sex reduced to a moment can be a fleeting experience at best.
The pursuit of sex through romantic notions has become confused with sex through commitment to love. This foists upon society the illusion that a singular mate can provide a life of continuous ecstasy. When the illusion fails to deliver, so does the relationship.
Passion lived in a vacuum tends to expire quickly. Romantic love alone raises unrealistic expectations. Oscar Wilde cynically noted, “One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.”
The words “I love you” expressed outside of commitment are often confused with “I want to have sex with you”.
Early American poet John Ciardi believed that, “Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old.”
I know orthodox Jews haven’t cornered the market on integrating sexual bliss, love and commitment within the bonds of fidelity and marriage. But as I stood there in Shaina’s room, the three of us together – blushing, laughing and holding the sexy items against ourselves and trying to figure out how to even put them on - I was grateful to be part of a tradition that values the sensuality of the human body, the numerous and creative expressions of love encouraged between two people, and the Torah’s prescribed homage paid to both.