On Teaching Talmud and Sex Toys
Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld is equally at home teaching a page of Talmud and showing women how to use a vibrator. Dr. Rosenfeld, 31, who co-authored the book “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” which the Sisterhood weighed in on here, is also an Orthodox Jew, and her expertise in sex education is aimed at an Orthodox audience. The book, which the Jerusalem resident wrote with sex therapist David Ribner of Bar-Ilan University, explores the most intimate topics with no restraint, topics such as female orgasm, masturbation, and varieties of sexual positions. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.
Elana: Sztokman: Why did you decide to write this book?
Jennie Rosenfeld: My work at The Tzelem Project, which I cofounded in 2005 with Koby Frances in order to address sexual education in the Orthodox community, convinced me of the need for such a book. … Running training conferences for chatan and kallah [grooms- and brides-to-be] teachers and rabbis, hearing the questions that were asked, I saw the need first-hand: Seeing the outpouring of people that came to our conferences, wanting to learn from medical and mental health professionals so that they could do a better job at preparing their students, seeing the way that often the teachers don’t know anything about sex beyond their own experiences, and speaking to young couples who simply weren’t given enough information or accurate information about how to begin their sexual relationship. This was the real tragedy for me.
What were the greatest challenges in writing about sex for the Orthodox community?
We didn’t want to write something that would alienate those to the “right” but we also didn’t want it to sound inane to those on the “left.” That created a major challenge for us both in terms of content and how to word things — not to mention drawings.
What has been the response so far?
We’ve had lots of people telling us, “I wish this would have been around when I got married,” and how much easier it would have made their first months/years of marriage. But there have certainly been people who felt that the book was too explicit. When I spoke in England there were a few women who said that though everything we wrote was true, but they wouldn’t want their daughters reading it before their wedding. Having seen the fallout of what happens when things aren’t stated explicitly, and having seen the tragedies, such as unconsummated marriages, which could be prevented by speaking more frankly.
I think that the fact that the girl chose to write about it and felt the need to share her experience so much that she was willing to even publish it anonymously was powerful. It’s as if she couldn’t bear being alone with her story and needed someone to just listen. It should serve as a wake-up call to provide some form of support for students like her, or even just a cathartic outlet to share their feelings.
Do you think premarital sex is common in Orthodoxy?
That I really don’t know. But I definitely think that violation of “shomer negiyah” [the prohibition against touching] is common in Orthodoxy — but whether people are having premarital sex or are engaging in other forms of sexual expression, such as mutual masturbation and oral sex, in order to preserve the woman’s virginity, of that I’m not sure. Either way, many singles feel isolated and alienated from the mainstream Orthodox community because of issues of sexuality and halachic violations in the sexual realm.
What is the main message that you want to send to the Orthodox community?
That it’s vital to talk about sexuality, at the very least between spouses, but also more broadly as a community: parents educating their kids, day schools educating their students, and people feeling that it’s legitimate to ask questions about whatever sexual issue they are facing throughout the lifespan.