When it Comes to Jewish Sexual Laws, It’s 3 Jews, 0 Opinions

Laws of family purity and sex should be private, but can they be too private?

Some of this post contains adult material. 

I learned about the broad spectrum of opinions regarding the laws of marriage during my rabbinic training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. But after graduating from rabbinical school, I was surprised that few observant married couples were aware of the variety of opinions and practices. When it comes to other Jewish practices, we know there is diversity. Some people eat kitniotlegumes, during Passover others don’t. Some won’t mix their matzah with any liquids (a practice called gebrochts), some eat  it out of a plastic bag. Some people dip their apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, some people eat a piece of a sheep’s head. Some grooms wear a special white robe while others rub ash on their forehead under the wedding canopy. And we are all fairly open about those practices, but I have never heard anyone talk about their observance of laws regarding hilkhot niddah, laws of menstruation — how many beds they have or whether they drive to and from the mikveh, ritual bath, right before Shabbat.

And of course sex is private, and it is actually nice to have a mitzvah that no one watches, no one knows about. It may be the one thing we don’t have to share. Everyone can see how you cover your hair, everyone knows where you send your kids to school, everyone knows how you make tea on Shabbat and whether or not you go to pray at synagogue. No one, besides your spouse and the mikveh attendant, knows when you go to the mikveh.

Recently, my wife and I were asked to teach engaged couples about these laws through the partnership of JOFA, YCT, and Yeshivat Maharat. It’s a fairly rare kind of class, as we taught it to multiple couples at the same time, with both partners in the same room for nearly all the subjects. We covered all the basic rules relating to a woman’s menstruation in addition to sex, marital communication, and the planning of a Jewish wedding. After completing teaching our first series of classes, I joined a cohort of 20 other teachers for the Chatan v’Kallah Teacher Training Workshop, under the direction of Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rabbi Dov Linzer, and Dr. Batsheva Marcus, with support again from JOFA, YCT, and Yeshivat Maharat.

My takeaway from these classes and subsequent training is a surprising diversity of background knowledge of both the students we taught and teachers with whom I trained. Almost everyone had different chatan/kallah (groom/bride) teachers, and therefore learned different conclusions from their various teachers.(Orthodox couples traditionally take chatan/kallah classes shortly before marriage to learn Jewish laws concerning sexuality.) Some of these include the necessity of using an invasive cloth inserted into the vagina (to determine whether or not the woman is still menstruating), the amount of checks needed after menstruation, and whether or not finding spotting (blood) on toilet paper would change a woman’s status to a niddah.  All of these topics have a broad spectrum of opinions.

But it doesn’t stop at niddah; it also includes a big diversity on permitted sexual positions, whether the lights need to be off, whether orgasm without intercourse is allowed. For example, some people said they were taught that only the missionary position is allowed and that any male ejaculation outside the vagina is prohibited. However, I have since learned that nearly any sexual position is acceptable with consent of both spouses and that it is quite acceptable to ejaculate outside the vagina as long as it’s not the couple’s consistent behavior.

During the workshop, I spent four days discussing these laws with 20 peers, and no one revealed their personal practice, they just shared what they had learned in various settings. That makes sense. Our actual sexual behavior is private, and sharing the details may be “too much information,” but unfortunately, this type of limited disclosure often leads to not talking about sex at all. 

The laws around niddah bring holiness to a marriage. Holiness is how we bring God into our everyday activities. How we nurture our spiritual self in the midst of feeding our physical self. But, keeping niddah can be difficult. Sexually available for 18 days, off for 12 days, a few days of spotting here and there, and a couple can feel very stressed and isolated from each other. Let’s also add to this the challenges of a couple that has been having difficulty conceiving.

But observing these laws can be easier. Each of us can and should develop a way of keeping niddah, and for that matter having sex, that makes sense to us. Similar to our observance of many other practices, we need external validation. We may need validation from our religious leaders and/or from our close friends. We should feel the freedom to discuss our personal practices, in the way that feels comfortable to each person. I’m not saying we should necessarily talk about these topics at the Shabbat table after the Beach Boys version of D’ror Yikra (a Shabbat song). But we should make the time to talk about our sexuality with at least one close friend, and one close rabbi, poseket halakha or maharat. We should talk about it while we are first learning the sources, and we should exchange notes. We should also get in the habit of revisiting the sources periodically — after the first month of marriage, first year, fifth anniversary, fifth kid, and after menopause.

Sex should be enjoyable, and keeping niddah shouldn’t prevent people from having children, nor should it extinguish the sexual flame in their marriage. Each wife, husband, and couple should be honest about their frustrations and seek out ways to try and solve their problems through a conversation with a close friend or two, and a Torah mentor.

For more information, and to register for the Fall 2015 series of chatan/kallah classes with Daniel and Hannah, email office@yctorah.org. 

Click here for a list of chatan and kallah teachers in your area. 

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