It has never been the Jewish way to avoid talking about sexuality. Even the Torah abounds with narratives of sex and desire. Sometimes the eroticism is subtle, as with Jael beckoning Sisera into her tent and covering him with a blanket before driving a stake into his head. Other times it is so blatant that even the least modest must blush. Song of Songs, anyone? “Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes?” And the Talmudic rabbis engaged in vigorous discourse about everything from how to conduct oneself if a woman begins to menstruate during intercourse to whether or not the Yeshiva boy hiding under his teacher’s bed during lovemaking acted inappropriately. But like most good Talmudic discussions, the ones pertaining to sex often remain open-ended.
Today, discussions of Jewish sexuality take many forms. In 1999, Melvin Jules Bukiet published “Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex,” which reprints the fiction of superstars such as Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, I. B. Singer, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. Later, Danya Ruttenberg edited “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism,” exploring Judaism’s approach to all things carnal. She points out that the Talmud warns against having sex in moments of anger, drunkenness or when one person is thinking about someone else, which reflects the mindfulness with which Judaism approaches sex.
But there is a darker side to Judaism’s respect for sexuality that does not coincide with contemporary sensibilities. In some rabbinic texts, for example, righteous men never gaze on their wives’ bodies and refuse to peer at their own genitals. The question addressed by Ruttenberg’s collection is whether Jewish attitudes regarding sexuality are enlightened or problematic. The answer is that they are both and neither.
This query is addressed again through the recent launch of Jewrotica.org, an online forum that aims to fill a void in Jewish writing — erotica — and to provide a voice for multi-faceted Jewish sexual expression. The site’s founder, Ayo Oppenheimer, who grew up in an Orthodox community, recalls occasionally turning on the television — just to see what was there — and turning it off because she could not relate to the teens on late-1990s shows like “Beverly Hills 90212” and “Seventh Heaven.” For Oppenheimer, sexuality was something that people in her community didn’t talk about. Most people lost their virginity on their wedding night and many entered marriage with a lack of sexual knowledge and a sense of sex as taboo.
While separation between unmarried men and women is supposed to ultimately elevate the sexual act, these restrictions led Oppenheimer to view sex negatively. After studying at a midrasha in Israel, she attended a secular college and experienced culture shock. She recalls being baffled by an orientation event called “condom bingo” because observant Jews have no use for methods of birth control that “waste seed.” Later that year she met someone and, before marrying him two years later, Oppenheimer took lessons on family purity and mikvah immersion from a kallah (bridal) teacher, who surprisingly introduced her to artificial lubricant and explained that it is sometimes necessary. But Oppenheimer recalls being scandalized by the frankness of this advice, which felt dirty to her.
Oppenheimer realized that a lack of sexual awareness was an issue in her community. Many of her peers expressed difficulty in transitioning to married life in a community that felt sexually repressive. As if in response to this need, she left her Orthodox community in an RV, traveling the country and lecturing in Jewish communities. This journey brought her into contact with the sex-positive community, which understands sexual activity between two consenting adults to be positive. It was this understanding of sexuality that Oppenheimer wanted to bring “home” to all Jews.
When I interviewed Oppenheimer a few weeks ago, I was most interested in her claim that many Jews have absorbed the Christian message of sexuality. Sexual intimacy is important within the framework of Judaism (it’s a mitzvah to have sex with one’s spouse on Shabbat!) and rabbinic texts confirm this importance. But unlike within Christianity, its significance does not translate into spending vast amounts of money on purity campaigns and abstinence parades. I remember feeling extremely disturbed in the 1990s when I heard about the True Love Waits project that sponsored purity balls where fathers would dance the night away with their daughters before presenting them with purity rings and promising to guard their virginity. Sex, in this context, became the great evil against which women must be protected — and not just the act of sex, but also impure thoughts or pursuit of sexual knowledge.
Sexuality is much more nuanced in Jewish sacred texts, where the focus is modesty, moderation, and mindfulness when it comes to intimacy. But Jews have lived dispersed among Christians for centuries. Perhaps, as Oppenheimer believes, the seeming Christian fear and loathing of sexuality has rubbed off on Judaism. It is such discussions that Oppenheimer wants to address through the Jewrotica community.
She says that sex can still be private and modest, but that we can also have a unique Jewish conversation about it without transgressing boundaries. Sometimes this conversation takes the form of anonymous confessions submitted by users and given a rating of PG, PG-13, R, or XXX so that users can choose their level of exposure. The site is narrative based, graphic photographs are not allowed, and it hosts a resident sex educator columnist who recently wrote about the importance of values-based sexual education for children. The purpose of the site is not to titillate or to encourage people to behave in ways they find sexually immodest. Rather, it exists as a platform to start a conversation that educates and empowers people who have questions. For the most part, Jewrotica has garnered an overwhelmingly positive response, and as for Oppenheimer, she feels a sense of coming home.