Sex and the Texts

First off, an admission: I stole the title for this blog entry from one of the handouts at the sisterhood retreat. Thanks, Rabbi Carey Brown. The title of her lecture also was too juicy not to cite as well: “Sex is Good! … Modesty and Pleasure Both.”

In my 40-plus years on this earth, no rabbi has ever talked about sex in context of the Bible or anything else in my presence.

As far as sex and Judaism was concerned, I figured Jews left such discussions up to individual parties. My ignorance on Jewish scholars’ treatment of sex in the Bible is obviously vast. For centuries, rabbis have talked a lot about sex and how it should be treated between man and woman.

Rabbi Brown’s handout included a 13th century rabbinical quote about how we 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.” Sex was considered fine for pleasure and for procreation. There was then – and there is now – nothing in Judaism that marks sex as a “sin.”

Repeatedly, Jewish scholars have interpreted the Bible as saying that men must treat their wives with respect when it comes to sex. Men should neither compel their wives to have sex or deny them of sexual pleasure. Prompting chuckles from many of us, Rabbi Brown talked about a Talmudic passage that described the times for conjugal duty as laid out in the Torah. Men of independent means were to have sex every day with their wives; laborers were supposed to do it twice a week; donkey drivers, once a week; camel drivers, once in 30 days; sailors, who were not home much, once in six months. Basically, a woman is entitled to a particular amount of sex from her husband.

Jewish teachings even go so far as telling men to not just go for it sexually with a woman. “You should begin with words that will draw her heart to you and will settle her mind and make her happy,” wrote Nahmanides in the 13th century. “Tell her things which will produce in her desire, attachment, love, willingness, and passion…” Perhaps he imparted this morsel of wisdom because he knew sweet talking before sex did not come naturally for many men.

There was no mention of Jewish teachings about premarital sex during our discussion. Nearly every citation referred to a man and his wife. But do rabbis routinely pass these teachings on to Jewish couples before marriage? Is this something we should introduce to our teens along with our personal values regarding premarital sex? At the very least, treating each other with respect is a fine and reasonable idea to pass along to our children.

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