Feb 17, 2010: Jewish Ethics in the Bedroom

So...let's just deal with this right off the top.  There is a horrible, stereotype-inducing rumor out there, which imagines Jewish sex as a loveless and pleasure-less act in which the two partners "do it" through a hole in a sheet.  Such rumors are disgusting in general, and do the extra-disservice of being utterly factually wrong about Judaism and its attitudes toward physical intimacy between two loving partners.

So - what does Judaism really think about matters of intimacy?  That's what this session is all about.

The handout for this session can be found here.  The transcript of the online chat for the class can be found here.  An audio recording of the session can be found here:

We'll begin with the quote featured on the title slide, from Ramban (aka Nachmanides, who lived from 1194-1270): "One should know that sexual union is holy and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should be, and with proper intent."

From there, we'll introduce the subject by talking about the ancient conception of sex.  (You'll excuse the pun - but "conception" was really what it was all about!)

Interestingly, our ancestors didn't just use sex for means of procreation, in terms of creating more people (Jews).  Sexuality (and specifically the having of children) provided the basis for ancient Israelite society to function economically.  This is well illustrated by the shocking story found in Genesis 38, which will also give us the chance to touch on the Torah's attitudes toward prostitution and masturbation.  For your enjoyment, here's Marc Chagall's artistic rendition of Judah and Tamar (from Genesis 38):

We'll then turn our attention to more modern Jewish attitudes toward sexuality.  We'll discuss whether the ancient theme of procreation plays a role in contemporary Jewish life.  We'll examine both the "pro" side (because of Jewish population concerns post-Holocaust AND because of demographic concerns related to the shrinking Jewish birthrate).  Re the shrinking Jewish birthrate, see p. 13 of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

From there, we'll discuss the Jewish value of monogamy/exclusivity.

We'll address the Jewish distinction between "having sex" and "making love."  The philosophy of Martin Buber will be especially useful in this regard.

We'll also explore the obligations of Jewish partners, when it comes to both "quality" of our intimacy and "quantity" (i.e. frequency) of our intimacy.

We'll conclude by touching on:

  • the "double mitzvah"

  • the mystical theology of Jewish sexuality

  • (Liberal) Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality

  • Rabbi Elliott Dorff's criteria for non-marital sex

  • the question of whether or not YOU have/practice your own Jewish sex ethic
With regards to this last bullet point, I am a huge fan of Rabbi Arthur Waskow's "Down to Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life."

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