Liberal view written by a Conservative
Jew / Michael Gold
WARNING: This article represents one view of relations. Although many of the components in this article are Orthodox, they should not be taken out of context. Please click here for an Orthodox response to this article.
The Rabbinic requirement of regular relations in a marriage does put some responsibility on the wife. It is considered desirable for her to solicit her husband to the act. (Nevertheless, the laws of modesty suggest that she be a bit less brazen and subtler than her husband.) "R Samuel b. Hahmani, citing R. Johanan, stated: A woman who solicits her husband to the (marital) obligation will have children the like of whom did not exist even in the generation of Moses. (Eruvin 100b)
Jewish Law is concerned not only with the frequency of the act but with the manner in which it is performed. The Talmud recommends nudity:
"R. Joseph taught: ‘Her flesh’ implies close bodily contact, i.e., that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for a ruling of R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, "I will not perform (conjugal duties) unless she wears her clothes and I mine’ must divorce her and give her also her ketubbah" (Kettubot 48a).
The myth that religious Jews are required to make love through a hole in a sheet is nonsense. Pleasure was a concern of the rabbis; they understood that it is enhanced by nudity. In fact, if one of the partners does not wish to have relations in the nude, it is considered grounds for divorce (Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 76-13).
A tension exists in Rabbinic literature between what the Rabbis regard as modest and proper on the one hand and what they know will maximize a couple’s pleasure on the other hand. Modesty requires that scholars of the law not be with their wives too frequently like roosters (Berakhot 22a), yet even a scholar is responsible for maximizing his wife’s pleasure. Rabbinic teachings reflect this tension in their discussions about intercourse by day or night, proper positions, and natural or un-natural relations.
According to tradition, relations should take place at night and in the dark. The Talmud forbids relations during the day or by the light of a lamp (Niddah 17). Maimonides teaches that, although intercourse on the Sabbath is a special mitzwah, if the Sabbath light has not yet gone out and there is no separate room to which they can move, the couple should wait (Mishnah Torah Issurei Biah 21:10). In fact, midnight was considered the ideal time for intercourse.
Behind this law stands the principle "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18). The rabbis were concerned that a man might see his wife’s blemishes and that she would then become undesirable to him. Niddah 17a –. However, there are exceptions.
"Although intercourse was reserved for the night, if because of ones nature one finds himself forced to sleep at night and ought not be aroused or excited, or if the woman’s nature is such that she is overtaken by sleep at night and is not receptive at that time, one is permitted to have intercourse during the day, with due modesty, in order that intercourse be performed with acceptance and love and not by force"—(Meiri Niddah 17a).
Although they set normative guidelines, the ultimate concern of the Talmudic rabbis is maximizing the joy of relations. Traditionally most Jewish couples have made love in the dark out of a sense of modesty, but if a couple finds their relations enhanced when they "relate" the light, they are free to do so.
Similarly, in Rabbinic Judaism a tension exists between mandating a particular position for couples and allowing for variety and experimentation. On the one hand, the Rabbis recommend the missionary position: "She on top and him below—this is the way of brazenness; she below and him on top—this is the way of proper intercourse" (Gittin 70a). According to Rabbi Johanan ben Dahabai, it is forbidden to "overturn the table" (practice unnatural intercourse or unusual positions), but the Rabbis explicitly disagree with him: "A man may do whatever he pleases with his wife (at intercourse). A parable: Meat which comes form the abattoir may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked, or seethed, so with fish from the fishmonger… A woman once came before Rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I set a table before my husband and he overturned it." Rabbi replied, "My daughter, the Torah has permitted you to him. What can I do for you?" (Nedarim 20b)
Maimonides, usually quite conservative on "relations", proves quite liberal on this question:
"A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or un-natural relations , as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain. However, it is a sign of piety not to show too much levity but to sanctify himself at the time of intercourse… A man should not depart from the way of the world and its custom because its ultimate purpose is procreation. (Mishnah Torah Issurei Biah 21:9)
The issue of un-natural relations (biyah lo kedarkah) is particularly difficult form a Jewish perspective. Un-natural relations refers to any sexual activity in which semination does not occur in the traditional place, (Rassi on Yevamoth 34), such as oral sex, anal sex, or what the rabbis termed "threshing within and without" (premature withdrawal). Talmudic sources talk freely about such activity, permitting it under certain circumstances between husband and wife. Nonetheless there is a concern with the wasteful spilling of seed, which Judaism forbids based on the biblical story of Er and Onan. Tosefot raises this contradiction and cites the position of Rabbi Isaac to resolve it:
"It is not considered like the act of Er and Onan unless it is his intention to destroy the seed and it is his habit to always do so. However, if it is occasional and the desire of his heart is to come upon his wife in an unnatural way, it is permitted. (Tosefot on Yevamoth 34)."
In other words, un-natural relations is permissible only if it is occasional and not exclusive, and if the intent is mutual pleasure. Both husband and wife must agree on any unnatural forms of sex, for Jewish law forbids a man from forcing his wife into any sexual act against her will. This includes getting her drunk.
The Rabbis of the Talmud disagree on whether a man is permitted to fantasize about another woman when he has relations with his wife.
Michael Gold / "Does G-D Belong In The Bedroom"
The article is based on a gemarah in nedarim (20:). The gemarah relates that
they asked R' Eliezer ben Horkinus's wife why their children were
exceptionally beautiful. In reply, she describes (in carefully chosen words)
how her husband is with her. (Note that she attributes their beauty to
R.Eliezer's behaviour - not to the fact that she was the sister of Rabaan
Gamliel of Yavneh the nassi...)
Although her description is somewhat ambiguous, two things are clear: 1) R.
Eliezer is extremely modest and not motiviated by physical considerations
that motivate other couples. 2) She is happy with (and maybe even proud of)
The gemarah then continues that the Halakha isn't like R. Yohanan ben
Dahavie and by implication is also not like R. Eliezer but "Kol mah sh'adam
rotzeh l'assot im ishto, oseh", and continues with some anectdotes
supporting this ruling - This is the point that the article focuses on.
The problem is: Sefarim, expect one to behave like R. Eliezer (and don't
dwell on what the gemareh permits). For example, look what RMb"M writes in
more nevuchim III,52 - (the chapter chosen by remah to quote in his mappah
on the first Halakha of maran's shulhan aruch) where RMb"M quotes one of the
behaviours attributed to R. Eliezer. RMb"M is emphatic in other places in
the yad as well, and so are other sefarim - Halakha (shulchan aruch),
mussar, hassisdus right up to modern times. I don't have any quotes on the
tip of my tongue, but see what R. Aryeh Kaplan writes on this topic in his
jewish meditation book for a good example. In other words, Jewish practice
has, I believe, not taken the approach described in the article - which
leaves the impression that modesty, spirituality, holiness ... don't count.
That's why I feel the article's message is one-sided.
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