When Orthodox Jews Talk About Sex

By Anya van Wagtendonk

Shortly before her wedding four years ago, Aliza got a piece of advice from a married friend: “Just know that it gets better with time.”

“It” meant sex – an experience that Aliza, an Orthodox Jew, was saving for marriage. Then 21, Aliza knew the basics of what to expect on her wedding night. At her private Jewish high school, and again in college, she learned the Jewish laws of intimacy, like the rules of niddah, or family purity: the idea that spouses don’t touch in the time surrounding a woman’s menstruation. And she was taking a kallah, or bridal, class, learning more about those laws, as well as more general health education and relationship advice.

Aliza was grateful for her friend’s counsel: It helped her maintain realistic expectations, she said, for a moment that she and her partner were excitedly building up to. But it was unusual for even a close friend to give such intimate advice, she said.

“There’s this concept that it’s immodest to talk about…your own sex life with other people,” she said. (That’s why Aliza requested not to share her husband’s name, or their last name, for this article.)

Nearly half a million Orthodox Jews live in New York City. United by fealty to Jewish law, they divide on matters of interpretation, leading to a diversity of philosophies and practices across the five boroughs. Although there is no singular approach to talking about sex, shared values of modesty and intimacy can provide both guideposts and challenges for engaging with the complexities of sexuality.

Many of the patients that Bat Sheva Marcus sees in her capacity as clinical director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health are working through those challenges. Marcus, who is Orthodox herself, estimates that nearly 20 percent of her patients come from observant Jewish backgrounds. Many, she said, arrive far less informed than someone like Aliza.

“They don’t say, ‘How do you have sex?’ or ‘Why does it hurt?’ or ‘Why don’t I get turned on?’ or ‘Why do people think this is fun, this isn’t fun for me,'” said Marcus. “They come in without enough information. You have to have information to ask the questions.”

Most patients come to her because they experience pain during sex; throughout her work with them, she often uncovers other barriers to pleasurable or fulfilling sexual experiences. One barrier is often shame, said Marcus, stemming from a belief that the things they enjoy or struggle with in the bedroom must be unique to them. Marcus works with these women to normalize their practices and desires.

“Everybody thinks they’re not normal about [sex],” said Marcus. “Shame is something that lives in darkness. You don’t talk about it, you don’t share it. And then when the first time you share it, it seems like it’s not a big deal, that in and of itself can have a huge impact.”

A pilot program currently in its third year at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (YUHSG) in Queens could offer one approach to standardizing Orthodox sexual education during high school.

Bracha Rutner, YUHSG’s assistant principal, does not seek to tell her students, “This is the Jewish response to sex.” Rather, she wants to expose them to a range of rabbinical teachings about sexuality while emphasizing certain core values, such as preserving intimacy within the confines of a marriage and maintaining a healthy body image.

“One of the beauties of Judaism and one of the frustrations of Judaism is a lot of the times the answer is, ‘It depends,'” she said.

I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.”

Song of Songs, 5:2

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening….If a man has sexual relations with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean.

Leviticus, 15:19-24

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.

Leviticus 18:22

It is forbidden for a man [to] intentionally make himself have an erection or to cause himself to think about sex. Rather if he thinks about sex he should remove himself from vain things and go to the words of Torah which is like a beloved doe and a graceful deer.

Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, 23:3

…[T]he sages forbade a man to have marital relations while thinking of another woman. Nor may he initiate sex while drunk, nor out of spite or hatred, nor may he rape her or initiate sex while she is afraid.

Mishneh Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 21:12

Primarily developed by Dr. Yocheved Debow, a leading Orthodox sex educator, the curriculum covers both specific Jewish rituals around sexuality and Jewish approaches to standard health class issues, like personal hygiene and wellness, self-esteem, and open communication with one’s partner. Each lesson is grounded in Jewish texts, like the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

“Having the [rabbinic sources] in front of you, you see, ‘Whoa, the rabbis were interested in this, they took it really seriously,'” Rutner said. “It lends gravitas to the topic.”

As Marcus, the clinician, works with her patients to learn more about their bodies and sexual pleasure, she avoids this classroom approach.

“I’m very careful not – not, never – to give an opinion about a ruling about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” Marcus said. “Because 30 women will have 30 different rabbis who say 30 different things. And everybody believes in their rabbi.”

Instead, Marcus works with each patient to find solutions to sexual problems that correspond with her particular approach to Judaism. For example, if a woman is struggling to achieve orgasm, Marcus may encourage masturbation. Sometimes she must first call the patient’s rabbi to verify that self-pleasure is permitted.

It can be especially difficult to find room for an LGBTQ identity within the bounds of Jewish law and tradition, said Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY). His organization has found that teens who feel rejected by their communities are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior or to experience severe depression.

The curriculum at YUHSG does address homosexuality during the 11th grade, and Rutner said that educators are working to make this topic more reflective of the scope of LGBTQ experiences.

“I think the community is also trying to figure out…how to be supportive and accepting of a lifestyle that has always been not accepted and not supported by the Orthodox world,” said Rutner. “It is a reality that we have homosexuals and lesbians in our community.”

The solution, said Levovitz, is to grapple with the Jewish rules of sexual behavior – “and it’s not only LGBTQ sexual behavior that’s prohibited, there are lots of rules in Orthodoxy,” he added – while supporting a queer person’s identity.

“We make that distinction with parents,” said Levovitz. “You can affirm the tradition and the rules, certainly the sexual rules, of whatever tradition you come from, but that is different than annihilating or shaming a person’s self-worth.”

In the early days of their marriage, Aliza and her husband sometimes had questions. Unlike some Orthodox couples, they’d dated for a year before their wedding, so they felt comfortable with one another. But like any young couple, they sometimes failed to communicate needs or desires. Aliza still sometimes feels embarrassed to outright ask for what she wants, or to use specific sexual language. But she can go to her mom – or, more often, the Internet – with her questions.

Aliza thinks that Orthodox kids should learn about sex early on, so that they don’t get too curious and try to find the information on their own, without any guidance. But she said she understands why her community might struggle with this idea.

“They don’t want to teach you about it and expose you too much about it that you’ll become too interested and do it before marriage,” she said. “Sex is amazing and beautiful, and such an important part of a marriage. But until then, no sex.”