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The Joy of [Orthodox] Sex

Between desire and abstinence

The proceedings of a volatile 2005 conference on sex, sexuality and Modern Orthodoxy are collected in Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out, edited by Rivkah Blau (Yeshiva University Press). Jennie Rosenfeld explains the impetus for the volume in her introduction: “The conflict between living as an Orthodox Jew and simultaneously living in the modern world is acute in the areas of sexuality and relationships… Individuals at all stages of life are struggling.”

Certainly there are problems out there in Jewish coupling: young singles pining to find their bashert — the mate they were meant for. People struggling with sexual inclinations that don’t match traditional prescriptions. Married couples whose wish to live according to Jewish law is confounded by its demands for prolonged periods of sexual abstinence. Others face “halakhic infertility” (caused when a woman’s fertile period coincides with her post-menstrual days of “ritual impurity”).

The most broad-ranging treatment here comes from Israeli “Internet rabbi” Yuval Cherlow, drawing upon some 80,000 questions put to “Ask the Rabbi” forums. On issues like premarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality and infidelity of both the “virtual” (online) and the actual kind, his approach is rigorously halakhic; nevertheless, the public nature of the forum forces him to confront these as realities. For example, he relates that when a prominent yeshiva head reproached him over his involvement with people of “alternative sexual orientation,” Cherlow pointed out to him (after first obtaining their permission) four young men in his own yeshiva who had approached him via the Internet in this regard. The rosh yeshiva was shocked, and, as Cherlow says, “his criticism changed to support and encouragement.”

On the other hand, Cherlow stands by the preconception that the family structure of “a father, a mother and children” was “extremely stable” throughout Jewish history. Was he listening when historian Shaul Stampfer declared that “traditional Jewish society in Eastern Europe was characterized by a high level of divorce”?

Three essays deal with the proliferation of young Orthodox singles in American cities. Sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman is adamant that neither feminist attitudes nor high educational levels are responsible for late marriage; she points, rather, to ever-more-exacting criteria imposed upon the marital “merchandise” by members of both sexes — such as body builds defined by the “media-created construction of beauty,” or “perfect” levels of religious observance. This extended singleness raises unprecedented tensions: if, starved for human touch, individuals violate their own standards of forbidden physical contact, can they carry on religiously as though nothing has happened? Meanwhile, community leaders ask: Does mainstreaming singles risk legitimizing a way of life alien to Jewish mores?

The realities of Jewish married life are addressed sensitively by several essays discussing education for “family purity” observance. Does the period of enforced abstinence following the menstrual period really make a wife “as dear to [her husband] as on their wedding day”? Not always, admits Deena R. Zimmerman. However, halakhic arguments in favor notwithstanding, shortening the period of abstinence will have to wait, according to Zimmerman, for “the rebuilding of the Temple.” Though trained as a female halakhic advisor (a new institution on the Orthodox scene), she urges those in need of leniencies to pop their stained underwear into the mailbox of a male posek (rabbinic decisor). Was she there for Stampfer’s remark that “questions of taharat hamishpahah were [traditionally] in the purview of women”?

The book concludes with an excellent presentation of a comprehensive sample curriculum on “Life Values and Intimacy Education” for yeshiva day schools, by Yocheved Debow and Anna C. Woloski- Wruble. In the crucial area of sexual values and ethics, why aren’t these compelling ideas addressed not only to the Modern Orthodox, but to Jews everywhere?

Deborah Greniman is Managing Editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues and Senior Editor at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem.