Human Sexuality

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

I vividly recall when, a number of years ago, I brought up the positive importance of orgasm on the religious program “Sanctuary” on Chicago television. The other clergy on the panel, as well as the studio audience, seemed shocked when I said that orgasm is enjoyable and a sacred element in human sexuality not only for the husband but for his wife as well. I guess they couldn’t believe such a statement would ever cross the lips of an Orthodox Rabbi replete with beard, black hat and caftan.

I know what you are thinking. I couldn’t be a real Orthodox Rabbi. Surely Orthodox Jews are no less prudish regarding human sexuality than were our Puritan forefathers. Sorry, you are terribly mistaken. As the great American author Herman Wouk (an Orthodox Jew) wrote in his famous book, This Is My God, “What in other cultures has been a deed of shame, or of comedy, or of orgy, or of physical necessity, or of high romance, has been in Judaism one of the main things God wants men to do. If it also turns out to be the keenest pleasure in life, this is no surprise to a People eternally sure that God is good.”

Let us now, briefly consider some statements from traditional Jewish sources to begin to frame out Judaism’s sense of human sexuality.

The Torah decrees, concerning the rights of a wife when her husband takes a second wife, “If he take him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her congual rights, shall not be diminished”, Exodus 21:10. Simply, a woman, according to Jewish law, has legitimate sexual needs and in consequence, rights that her husband is legally bound to respect and fulfill. Could this be the source for the Woman’s Rights movement of the 70s - a rule of Jewish law found in the Mosaic tradition revealed by G‑d at Sinai over three thousand years ago?

Continuing on, the great sage Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides (1194‑1270), wrote an Epistle of Holiness on the subject of marriage. Here are some interesting and perhaps even eye opening excerpts from this special text.

“No one should claim that it is ugly or unseemly G‑d forbid! For intercourse is called “knowing” (Genesis 4:1) and not in vain is it called thus...Understand that if marital intercourse did not include holiness it would not be called “knowing.” Aristotle’s teaching that the sense of touch is wrong and his error precedes from his understanding of the universe. Had he believed that one G‑d created the world he would not have slipped into such error. But we who have the Torah believe that one G‑d created all in his wisdom and not that he created anything inherently wrong or unseemly...Hands can write a Torah and then are honorable and exalted; hands can also perform evil deeds and then are ugly. So to the genitals...Whatever ugliness there is comes from how man uses them.”

“...Therefore engage her first in conversation that puts her heart and mind at ease and gladdens her. Thus your mind and intention will be in harmony with hers...Speak with her some words of love, some of erotic passion, some of piety and reverence. Never may you force her, for in such union the Divine presence cannot abide. Rather win her over with words of graciousness and seductiveness... Hurry not to arouse passion until her mood is ready; begin in love let her semination take place first...”

Summing up, Nachmanides teaches us the following:

  1. Sexual union is the obligation of the husband and the right of the wife.
  2. The wife is ultimately the instigator not the husband.
  3. The man must put his wife’s sexual fulfillment before his own and pace himself accordingly.
  4. Eroticism and holiness are not opposites but compliment each other.
  5. Sexual union, in accordance with the above, delights the partners and delights G‑d as well.

Not bad for a supposed backward, ritualistic and stuffy religion! Indeed Orthodoxy could enlighten the most “modern” of souls in how best to enjoy this wonderful part of the human experience.

Interestingly Tristan Coffin in his book The Sex Kick (1966) states that orgasm “first appeared in medical literature in the late 19th century.” I guess they hadn’t heard of The Epistle of Holiness.