This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and appears here with permission.
The Talmud tells a story about one Rabbi Kahana who hid under the bed of his
master, Rabbi Abba (better known as Rav), as the latter was having sex with his
wife. Kahana, shocked at the type of frivolous language used by his mentor,
commented that Rav was behaving ravenously. Rav exclaimed, “Kahana, you’re here?
Get out! It’s not proper!” Kahana replied, “It is Torah – and study it I
It is not easy to discern who gets the last word in this jarring
little aggadah (indeed, it appears in several places in the Babylonian Talmud –
sometimes with and sometimes without Kahana’s ultimate
proclamation). There is a clear tension between propriety and modesty on
one hand, and the religious requirement to understand sexuality on the
The balance between these two values has varied from community to
community and era to era, and there have certainly been Jewish communities far
more prudish than the Talmud’s. Yet in contemporary society, characterized by
unprecedented sexual casualness, shifts within the Jewish community toward
greater openness go unnoticed.
Public perception has tended to relate to
several controversies that recently erupted within the American Modern Orthodox
community – one relating to an Orthodox college student’s article about a
one-night stand and another pertaining to an Orthodox-style homosexual
commitment ceremony in Washington, DC – as evidence of cloistering and
repression within this community. In truth, however, there has been a
subtle but dramatic shift toward greater openness about sexuality in the Modern
Orthodox world over the past decade or so.
That the community has shifted
toward greater openness while upholding communal modesty norms is strongly
attested to by the recent publication of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical
by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This booklet speaks directly
to the experience of young Orthodox couples and the attitudes about sex that
they have absorbed during their formative years.
The authors’ thorough
knowledge of the Orthodox community and their work experience equips them to
walk couples entering a sexual relationship with little or no experience and
constrained by a complex set of rules and mores through their first, often
awkward sexual encounters. It answers many questions that these young
couples have about sex (but are, naturally, afraid to ask). Pasted into
the book’s back cover is an envelope that contains several detailed sketches of
male and female anatomy as well as some basic positions for
THE UNPRECEDENTED inclusion of sexually graphic material in
an Orthodox publication, coupled with its somewhat symbolic placement in a
sealed envelope, represents a recalibration of the stated tensions between
reticence about sex and the need to properly educate about it – to study the
Torah of sex.
This guide did not appear out of nowhere. In 2005, two
Orthodox educators developed a comprehensive sex education curriculum for
Orthodox elementary and high schools. With the Assistance of Tzelem, a Yeshiva
University-sponsored project co-founded by Rosenfeld, the curriculum has been
implemented in a number of schools.
Additionally, Tzelem and JOFA (the
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) have offered training for “hatan and kallah
teachers” (men and women, often rabbis and wives of rabbis, who instruct
Orthodox couples who are engaged to be married about the Jewish laws governing
marital relations) in counseling geared not only toward helping Orthodox couples
develop a healthy sex life but also toward recognizing and seeking professional
treatment for sexual dysfunction.
Though there is still plenty of room to
grow, such initiatives have already contributed greatly to the education of a
young generation that is frank and well-informed about sex, but has learned
about it in an unabashedly religious context.
Not long ago, sexual abuse
and predation were not generally viewed as a significant threat and thus barely
discussed within the Orthodox community. The Jewish Week
’s June 2000 publication
of “Stolen Innocence,” an exposé of the sexual predations of charismatic rabbi
and educator Baruch Lanner, brought these issues into the spotlight.
article implicated some of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institutions, most
notably the Orthodox Union, in (to say the least) failing to properly address
and report Lanner’s crimes. As a result of the article and subsequent
investigations, institutional taboos against addressing these issues are much
weaker than they were, if they have not evaporated altogether.
summer of 2005, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and educator made news when he
resigned his position, came out as gay, and provisionally abandoned Orthodoxy.
At the time, my ex-Orthodox gay havruta
(study partner) noted that he didn’t
know of anybody who grew up Orthodox, came out as gay, and remained within the
Although it had been five years since the release of
Trembling before God
– a documentary film about Orthodox homosexuals that, for
many, offered the first inkling that such individuals existed within the
community – being openly gay was still perceived to be completely irreconcilable
with being part of an Orthodox community.
YET ALREADY then there were
signs of a shift. This educator’s students reportedly were most troubled not by
the fact that their teacher was gay, but that coming out as gay necessarily
meant leaving Orthodoxy; they did not see the two as being completely
And indeed, the past few years have witnessed the
Orthodox community engaging with homosexuals and homosexuality to an
unprecedented degree. In late 2009, Yeshiva University hosted a very
well-attended panel discussion with rabbinic faculty and four gay alumni of YU,
entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World.”
A few months later, a group
of Orthodox rabbis drafted a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with
a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” that, after reaffirming halachic
strictures on samesex relations, outlines how homosexuals can and should be
accepted as full participants in synagogues and schools. It has thus far been
signed by hundreds of rabbis, teachers, and community leaders – all
To be sure, each of these events generated opposition that
feared that such statements would send the wrong message – namely, that open
discussion in public fora crosses the line from sensitivity to tacit approval.
Nevertheless, the trend is toward greater awareness and acceptance of gays
within the Orthodox community, and an ever-larger number of “open” homosexuals
consider themselves part of that community.
This final point was
virtually absent from all public discussion of a recent same-sex wedding
ceremony held in Washington, DC. Though not an Orthodox ceremony, it looked
enough like an Orthodox wedding that the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America
was moved to clarify that “same-sex unions are against both the letter and the
spirit of Jewish law,” even while recognizing “the acute and painful challenges
faced by homosexual Jews in their quest to remain connected and faithful to God
Lost in this controversy was the fact that this couple
wished to solemnize their marriage with an Orthodox-style ceremony in the first
place. Not long ago, it would have been virtually unthinkable for a homosexual
who had grown up in an Orthodox community to model a same-sex marriage ceremony
on an Orthodox wedding.
What happened during the past decade or so that
precipitated this shift toward greater openness about sexuality among the
Orthodox? After all, change does not come easily to inherently conservative
societies. It is possible that the effects of the sexual revolution of
the 1960s have finally, a generation later, begun to filter into the Orthodox
community. This may also explain a different but related phenomenon that has
developed within ultra- Orthodox communities in America and Israel: as the West
has become ever more sexually permissive, these communities have responded by
demanding ever greater separation between the sexes.
But it was the
emergence of the Internet in the 1990s that eventually brought issues of
sexuality into the open. The anonymity afforded by the first generation of
Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and listservs gave individuals who had
felt completely alone - victims of sexual abuse, couples experiencing sexual
dysfunction, homosexuals – a platform to express their feelings, ask questions
and find kindred spirits. It was only a matter of time before their voices
joined together, and the broader community realized that the Torah of sex was
It is understandable that the broader society would find
the Orthodox community overly prudish and behind the times (one wonders if the
myth about Orthodox Jews having sex through a hole in the bed sheet persists).
After all, the article about the one-night stand that caused Yeshiva’s Beacon
lose university funding pales in comparison with, for example, the Duke
PowerPoint scandal. The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy
is not exactly the
“Bava Kama Sutra” – it is certainly a far cry from the graphically explicit Joy
And yet, articles that admonish “Shh! Don't Talk about Sex at
Yeshiva University” miss a crucial point.
Sex was never a taboo subject
in the Orthodox community and it is currently being discussed frankly and
openly. And just as in Rabbi Kahana’s justification for his presence in his
master’s bedroom, the immodesty of talking about sex publicly is justified by
the educational merits of the discussion: “It is Torah – so learn it we
The writer is a writer and translator. He blogs at