Don't scream 'Oh my God,' but sex is a mitzva

Kfar Etzion chief rabbi writes on marital relations from Torah perspective.

Wedding 248.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Wedding 248.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
We discussed foreplay techniques, positions, even the proper use of lubricants. For a man with a long beard and a paternal countenance, Kfar Etzion Chief Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl was surprisingly frank in his talk about sex. However, it is not prurience, but a desire to help fellow Jews better serve God, that has motivated Knohl to plumb the depths of human sexuality. After all, as he explains in A Guide to Marital Relations From a Torah Perspective - a slim booklet recently translated into English - having conjugal relations is a mitzva. "Judaism obligates the husband to provide his wife with sexual pleasure," Knohl said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week. "This obligation emanates from the biblical commandment to 'love thy neighbor like thyself.' Rabbis have written quite a bit about what is the best way to perform this commandment." Religion is often portrayed as sexually stifling. Many people think the husband and the wife must subdue any trace of sexual longings and view the sexual act as an unavoidable concession to man's basically sinful nature. In Judaism, as in other religious, there are many restrictions on sexual intercourse, even within the marital framework. Sexual intimacy is prohibited while the woman is menstruating, neither partner should be thinking about anyone else during the act, and Jews are not even allowed to scream "Oh my God!" because the mention of His name while naked is forbidden. But Judaism is surprisingly open about discussing the most intimate aspects of sex, explained Knohl. The husband is actually obligated to pleasure his wife to the point where she reaches satisfaction before he does. Based on this assumption, rabbis throughout the ages, including in periods when talk about sex was strictly taboo, have devoted much literature to explaining precisely how a husband goes about performing his holy duty. And with the translation of Knohl's booklet into English from the Hebrew original, the euphemisms of the holy tongue have been replaced by a more direct terminology that pulls no punches. Judging from their fertility rates, Orthodox Jews are no puritans. With the average number of children in religious families well above the national average of 2.6 per mother - and in some haredi towns such as Betar Illit, as high as seven - religious men and women take the biblical verse "Be fruitful and multiply" seriously. Knohl himself is no pushover when it comes to fertility. He is a happy father of 11, keyn ayn hara. And Knohl reckons he has a few things to teach a young couple. "As a husband with over 30 years of experience, I'm sure I have an advantage over younger guys, no matter how sexually active they are," he confided. Knohl's booklet, which is accompanied by a more traditional book of Halacha on issues of family purity called The Marriage Covenant - a Guide to Jewish Marriage, is not the first time a rabbi has revealed the racier side of Orthodoxy. A decade ago, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published Kosher Sex, which revealed to a general readership - both Jewish and gentile - that the ancient rabbis had a relevant message for modernity, even in issues connected with the bedroom. There have also been a few works written specifically for the religious crowd. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, put out Leil Klulot Rabba, and Rabbi Yehosua Faust wrote Eit Dodim, both pamphlets educating young couples on the intricacies of enjoying sex. Faust's booklet was originally released in a semi-clandestine manner and provided to young yeshiva men before their wedding. However, in recent years the booklet has been published and distributed via religious book stores. According to Knohl, these books have been released in recent years as a result of an increasing openness in the Orthodox Zionist world to diverse ideas. "This is a generation that wants to know. They do not want to be told what to do. They want to read sources on their own," he said. Although there is more intellectual independence among today's young religious Zionists, there is also a rising level of religious stringency. More religious youths are learning and playing in gender-segregated frameworks. If Bnei Akiva was a totally coed environment in the past, in recent years more and more branches have been separating boys and girls. Religious men who enlist in the army via Hesder yeshivot serve in men-only environments at the request of their rabbis. Even after mandatory army service is over and young men and women ready themselves for an academic degree, gender-separate classes are offered in preparation for the psychometric exams. There are even colleges such as the Jerusalem College of Technology and Kiryat Ono that offer men-only and women-only campuses. Sheltered from contact with the opposite sex, young religious men and women tend to be in need of counseling. They are also more likely to be tenser in the bedroom. Therefore, a special section titled "The First Time" - usually the wedding night - is included in Knohl's book, which he wrote in consultation with Dr. Anna C. Woloski-Wruble from the Henrietta Szold Hadassah Hebrew University School of Nursing. Knohl said that he had been criticized by some rabbis for writing in the book that on the wedding night the couple need not feel pressured to consummate their relationship, since normative Halacha encourages consummating the marriage via the sexual act as quickly as possible. "One or both partners may prefer to remain fully or partially clothed during their initial physical contact," Knohl wrote, "and only later, or the following night, completely undress. Thus it is possible that a few nights will pass before they feel ready to complete the act of intercourse. This is quite acceptable; each couple should advance toward greater intimacy at their own pace." Knohl's booklet and others like it serve a real need. These hands-on, practical guides to the achievement of mutual sexual pleasure minimize embarrassing situations that could result from having to sit down with a rabbi, a sexologist or anyone else. The booklet provides the perplexed, inexperienced seeker with all the knowledge of a thoughtful lover while sidestepping the uncomfortable silence, the struggle to overcome inhibitions that would inevitably accompany any face-to-face rabbinic pep talk about suggested sexual techniques.