Modern Judaism’s Approach To Sex Is Still Creepy And Medieval
I had sex for the first time at a Jewish youth program. It was a positive experience for me, like having an elective surgery performed by a newly licensed family friend and waking up afterward to find that all your limbs still work.
I am sure there are as many people who give up their virginity at Jewish programming every year as there are clay Kiddush cups and papier-mâché Seder plates brought home from Hebrew school. I was a legal adult, which I think is less common. My experience was completely consensual, which I know is less common.
I think I’m not supposed to tell you about my first-time sex experience, or the fact that it happened at a program run by the Union for Reform Judaism, or that I’ve ever had sex at all. Or that after I had sex that first time, my partner, seeking to tailor the experience to my taste, mopped up my blood while playing “One Short Day” from the musical “Wicked” on his iPhone.
That sex is generally bad, shameful and dirty is one of our society’s cruelest and most damaging calumnies, up there with the idea that an airplane ride is a good time to drink tomato juice. The notion — that sex is not fit to be written or spoken about plainly; that too much sex makes you a sinful dirtbag; that I, an adult airing the vaguest of details of a sexual encounter, could forfeit respect or a future job — has deep roots in Greek philosophy and, of course, Christianity.
But modern interpretations of traditional Jewish thought participate in this idea, too.
And while in modernity, all major Jewish movements have, to some degree, moved away from the most primeval Torah ideas — that homosexuality is an abomination, that women don’t have equal rights to a divorce, that slavery and polygamy are acceptable — all denominations have held fast to some ancient sexual mores when it comes to sex, especially sex outside marriage. In fact, from black hats to bat mitzvah tutors, when it comes to sexual ethics, Jews in modern times have created a noxious blend — the vagaries of rabbinic thought with the sex-hating Calvinism innate in Western culture.
The idea that indulging in sexual desires is bad or unhealthy is not a morally grounded belief; it is a superstition. It is not based in science, it is based in hysteria. The notion that “sexual ethics” comprise not just respect for other people’s bodies and wants, but also having as little sex as possible before marriage really is dangerous — it bizarrely places rape on the same ethical plane as a consensual hookup. And the refusal to teach people that enjoying sex is normal is an affront to the sanctity of the human body. Yes, the sanctity of the frickin’ human body! For rabbis and Jewish communities to gatekeep holiness through these nonsense beliefs is, itself, unethical. And subconsciously incorporating Christian values is bizarre. Jesus Christ shouldn’t be getting involved with Jewish education at all. He’s done enough.
Yet Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements all teach that sex is most desirable within marriage and frequently shameful otherwise.
Oh sure, Judaism is “sex positive.” A chilled-out rabbi might hand you a CBD gummy and tell you that the Kabbalists “saw the origins of the universe as a never-ceasing process of arousal, coupling, gestation and birth within the life of a God who is both male and female,” as Rabbi Arthur Green, a founding dean of Hebrew College, puts it.
And yes, Haredi rabbis and rabbi-doulas adopt identical expressions of smugness when announcing that, actually, Jewish law encourages sex on Shabbat and requires a husband to help his wife achieve an orgasm.
But generally, there is no generally. There is no one prevailing view on sex put forth by the Torah or Talmud. Rather, Torah, Talmud and subsequent major Jewish writings treat sex the way they treat every other topic: as a glorious opportunity to list hundreds of rules. No incest, no bestiality, no adultery, no gay sex, no “uncovering a woman’s fountain.” Most of Genesis is a primer on sex acts to avoid — you with your dad, your wife with a pharaoh, etc. Also, cool sex acts to try out — you with your concubine, you with your slave girl while your wife plots her death, etc. But never, in the Torah or Talmud, is sex before marriage or sex for its own sake outlawed.
The talmudic rabbis tried to curb the sluttish ways of Torah folk. They wrote frequently about the importance of controlling the yetzer hara — the evil inclination, which is often used interchangeably with the sexual inclination. Control over sexual desire, some rabbis agreed, sets apart Jews from others. Sex in marriage is holy. Sex with a person on her period is basically sex with a gonorrhea-afflicted witch goblin. But sometimes in the Talmud, the rabbis crawl under each other’s beds and listen to their teachers bang their wives, or they bop to nearby towns, getting temporarily married so that they can have one-night stands. Even when the Talmud and Torah are concerned with sexual self-control, it often seems like an attempt to control assault, and impurity (that is, menstruation) or confusion about bastard children. Not an attempt to control people enjoying sex.
But across denominations these writings have been interpreted strictly and similarly.
“I think it’s because once upon a time, Christian society was not that liberal, and we took on their mores, at least in the stringencies. And the fact that they’ve let loose in those stringencies has not kicked in,” said an Orthodox rabbi whom I spoke to for this piece and who asked not to be named. “We love stringencies.” He went on: “The fact that we don’t allow one-night stands — or polygamy, for that matter — is not a reflection of strict halacha, it’s because we’ve taken on a certain non-Jewish concept of tznius [modesty] that doesn’t necessarily reflect where Judaism comes from.”
Jenn Queen, a sex educator and senior rabbinical student at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, agrees. “I don’t believe the puritanical approach to sex is native to Judaism,” she said. “But it is native to the cultural water we as Americans swim in.”
Conservative and Reform Jewish traditions share this model of sexual ethics with Orthodoxy — extracting a vague, though stringent, sexual ethic from ancient text and blending it, perhaps unconsciously, with a Christian ethos that holds that desire should be strictly controlled, because using your body for too much sexual pleasure disrespects God. The Conservative Rabbi Michael Gold, an expert on Judaism and sex within his movement; Green, and the late Reform theologian Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz use almost identical models to talk about Jewish sexual ethics as a spectrum, with rape on one end, marriage on the other and casual sex in the middle.
This model informs the sexual ethics curriculum the URJ introduced for preteens and teenagers in 2007, which is still in use today. It introduces an identical system, running from rape to marriage, though in this case it’s not just a ladder of ethics but also “a continuum of holiness.” Middle schoolers are asked to rank sexual scenarios as more or less “holy” based on Borowitz’s system, and to talk about where they themselves hope to land on the scale in their lives. In another class, the students make skits based on the Mishnah quote “Who is mighty? One who controls one’s urges.”
For Reform Jews, who have bucked Torah teachings about everything from shellfish to homosexuality, cleaving to arcane ideas about sex and passing off those ideas as “ethic” and “holy” is hypocrisy. Putting sex between willing but unmarried partners on the same scale as rape is unbecoming of the good folks who realized that God doesn’t care if you eat cheeseburgers. It’s hard to imagine that any Rabbis of any denomination actually believe rape and casual sex are on the same scale. But the comparison is implied in the model used to educate children.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, who developed the Reform sexual ethics curriculum, wrote that it was needed to address the fact that “teen pop culture, music, reality TV, movies, fashion, video games and the internet [were] quite permissive about sexual activity, representing sex as cool, fun and ‘the thing to do.’”
As someone who has had sex, like, multiple times, I feel obligated to report that sex is cool and fun. There can really be no pretending otherwise. The Reform movement has been active in advocating against abstinence-only sex ed. curricula, but is claiming that sex isn’t “cool and fun” any less of a losing proposition? Is conflating controlling your desire to attack people with controlling your desire to have consensual sex really the best that this major, modern Jewish movement can do?
I got the best sex education and ethics lessons the Reform movement and a Seattle private school can offer, and it never occurred to me that sex was supposed to be something I enjoyed. I had no reason to think sex was anything other than something that might give me a lifelong disease, something men would try to obtain from me at any cost, and something that I should trade for only serious commitment, including, possibly, the commitment to raise a baby with me.
I called Winer.
“In the broader world of sexuality education there are different kinds of approaches,” Winer said. “There’s the abstinence approach, and then there’s the postponement approach, which is to say that it’s not that we don’t want you to have sex, it’s that we want you to wait until you’re really ready. That you’re in a long-term, committed mutual relationship that’s consensual, all of that.” It’s the second approach that informs the “Sacred Choices” curriculum.
The curriculum is more beautiful than I understood. It strives to build scaffolding for healthy communication, for choosing boundaries, for avoiding peer pressure, for expressing a queer identity, even for having an ethical breakup. “The world has changed in 15 years,” Winer said, explaining that if she could ever update the curriculum, she would include a section on transgender identity.
Avoiding peer pressure — good. Understanding consent — great. But a long-term, committed relationship isn’t more ethical. It’s a preference. Teaching the possible consequences of sex can save and change lives. But teaching kids that sex isn’t much fun, or that waiting for sex makes a person more holy and ethical, merely makes teachers into unreliable authorities. And teaching that casual sex, rape and unwanted pregnancies are a barely distinguishable pile of sexual consequences is a dirty lie. It’s a lie that Jewish leaders and communities should stop telling.
In writing this article I read dozens of contemporary rabbis’ “on-one-foot” explanations of the “Jewish” approach to sex and sexual ethics. To a person, they wrote that Jewish textual relationships to sex are complicated, but a unifying message is that the body God gave you is sacred and must be respected. And, to a person, they added that the way to honor the sanctity of the body is by withholding or waiting or curbing or denying.
No one wrote that because your body is sacred and holy you should honor it with pleasure. No one wrote that because your body is sacred and holy you should explore it. No one wrote that because your body is sacred and holy you should do with it one and only one thing: Whatever you want to do.
One day, our society’s negative relationship with sex will be remembered the way we remember bloodletting as a form of medical treatment — an arcane practice that people baselessly insisted was backed by science and morality.
“We have inherited a deep tradition of learning and understand knowledge to be power, and the more knowledge we have about our bodies and our sexualities, the more power and agency we claim for ourselves,” said Jenn Queen, who will be ordained as a Reform rabbi later this year.
The willingness to read between the lines on issues like carrying on Shabbat but not on issues like humans having choices about their own bodies has to go. Having a lot of sex, sex with various partners, sex before marriage or sex without commitment doesn’t mean disrespecting your body or disrespecting God. More likely, it might mean getting a urinary tract infection.
There’s so much for us all to be ashamed of. We can be ashamed that, most days, most of us do next to nothing to prevent needless suffering and death. We can be ashamed about the days we spend more than $6 on a latte. But Jews — especially millennials — engage in casual sex. To shame them for that is as unethical as it is pointless. We can’t be ashamed of belly buttons and bra straps and the strength of our own desires for one another. We’re the people of the book, and that sort of silliness is beneath us.
Jenny Singer is the Forward’s life/features deputy editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org