I was asked that question this week by the Newsweek.WahsingtonPost.com’s On Faith section. And while there is no way to answer that question in a few hundred words, or even with a single answer, there are certain things that we can say, and that could actually help all people to have happier and healthier sex lives.
Let’s start with the fact that Judaism is fundamentally a sex-positive tradition. To be sure, it mostly imagines that such sexuality is limited to heterosexual, family-contextual sex, but that has been, for better or for worse, the presumption for most people for most of recorded history. On the other hand, nobody makes laws regulating things people don’t do, so we should not imagine that anything we are encountering today is new or shocking.
Bottom line for most of Jewish tradition, sex is good. The Bible acknowledges that Adam’s problem is loneliness, and sees that the absence of not only a friend is his problem, but so is the absence of a sexual partner. And despite what we may presume, the description of that sexual encounter, as well as many subsequent ones recorded by the Hebrew Bible, as people “knowing” each other, is not an expression of the text’s discomfort with sex talk — far from it.
The Bible actually believes that sex is not only pleasurable and necessary for human reproduction, but an important way for people to really understand each other. If anything, the use of knowing is an implicit challenge to all of us. Can we experience sex that is not only physically pleasurable but emotionally satisfying by providing the intimacy which allows us to say that after we are done, we really know our betters more fully? It’s not, according to the Bible, the only way to have sex but it clearly is a statement about the beauty and power of great sex.
Rabbinic tradition is also quite sex-positive.
Perhaps most notable is the rabbis preference that if one is to make love only once a week (the prescribed MINIMUM for sages), the lovemaking be on the Sabbath. While most religious groups in the ancient world were figuring out how to make sure that holy days were NOT for sex, the Rabbis of early Judaism insisted that sex was so sacred, the Sabbath was the optimal time for it. Truthfully, they were simply putting into law what most of us already intuit. After all, how many other things do couples do together which culminate in their screaming, “Oh my God”?
Some Medieval Jewish teachers, like their Christian and Muslim neighbors, did have greater reservation about sex. But even during those dark days for human sexuality, there were plenty of teachers making sure that Jews appreciated that sex is good. Among the most powerful advocates of this sex-positive thinking were sages like Rabbi Yaakov Emden and Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman.
It was Rabbi Emden who wrote, in the commentary to the prayer book which edited that when a husband and wife make love on Friday night, the presence of God is in the bed with them. I guess that gave a new meaning to King-sized bed for Medieval Jews! And it was Nachmanides, though not only him, who wrote about the appropriateness of oral sex and many other ways in which it was acceptable for partners to please each other.
Jews and Judaism like sex. Yes, there are rules and limits. To be sure, traditional Jews still refrain from sexual contact for about 12 days a month. And there always have been and always will be some who invoke the tradition in sex-negative ways. But at the end of the day, from the time of the Bible to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the basic approach to sex has been to celebrate its beauty within the context of what one understood to be a genuine, sincere and appropriate relationship. And while there is not always agreement about what such relationships are, can anyone doubt that the both the sex and the relationship will be better when that is the measure applied to whatever is deemed to fit one’s definition of such a relationship?