Leading into marriage: Kalla classes on Israel

With no standardization for teachers leading brides through the discussions of family purity, intimacy and the rules of the mikve – what is the best way to approach a kalla class?

A bride and groom sign a marriage certificate before their wedding in November 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A bride and groom sign a marriage certificate before their wedding in November 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For brides planning on keeping the laws of family purity – and even for those who aren’t – the completion of kalla (bridal) classes before marrying in the State of Israel is mandatory.
With no current option for civil marriage between Jews in Israel, all women must complete at least one kalla class and a dip in the mikve, or ritual bath, in order to be able to marry through the rabbinate.
While some women approach their first kalla class with a nervous excitement, others view it as a necessary hurdle: Fulfilling the requirements of the rabbinate. But for all the experience is individual, depending on a woman’s own level of religious knowledge, observance, openness to personal discussions and her relationship with her teacher.
And herein lies the problem. In an environment where a woman is supposed to be allowed to speak frankly about sex and intimacy, or at the very least complete her mandated courses, the issue of teacher pairing and instruction is in sore need of an overhaul.
“There’s a huge amount of anger and an enormous amount of hate toward the religious establishment for requiring women to take a class and to later immerse in a mikve,” says Dr.
Naomi Marmon-Grumet, founder of the nonprofit The Eden Center. Grumet’s organization offers preparatory classes for kalla instructors, as part of its mission to create a positive mikve experience.
Grumet makes the point that the concept of a kalla teacher is a modern invention. In years past, women interested in following the laws of family purity would learn from their mothers or a community member. However, once the government insisted that women go the mikve and learn the laws of family purity, religious women were required to have formal classes as well.
Within the state-mandated certification for kalla instructors, no standardization of testing of preparedness exists. To create a litmus test for kalla instructors, a new problem arises, that of identifying the population in question.
“Are we talking about the ultra-Orthodox world? The modern- Orthodox world? The secular world? Also, what are the goals of these classes? What are we trying to teach?” Grumet asks. “To have some sort of standardization, first we would need to agree what people know, and in each community this would be slightly different.
“In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is more of a focus on physiology and basic knowledge about the mechanics of sex, because it is assumed that they have no knowledge about physical intimacy. It’s a bit of a catch-22 in the modern-Orthodox world, in which people are expected to be exposed to information about sex through movies and popular culture, where in reality, many feel that they have no real knowledge, having attended schools that did not offer any form of sexual education.”
Dr. Elana Sztokman, who has written widely on feminist issues in Jewish life, says that she’s “not sure if these classes should exist at all.”
“Some kalla instructors are great, trained OB-GYN’s, experienced social workers... but with some instructors, we don’t know what their credentials are, why they’re qualified to give marriage or sex advice. There’s a whole range of possibilities regarding what a kalla instructor may or may not know.”
Kalla instruction in the secular world
Naomi Ansbacher is the director of the kalla instructor program for Tzohar, a movement that works toward preserving the Jewish character of the state.
Nearly 4,000 secular couples utilize services provided by Tzohar each year, some of which include the pairing of kalla instructors with brides. Ansbacher says that many couples who go through the kalla instruction offered through their local rabbinates have negative experiences, because the instructors do not match what they are teaching to their intended audience.
For secular and religious couples, classes should be two very different entities, Ansbacher says.
“The two should not even have the same name. For young women interested in keeping the laws of family purity, such classes usually take place over the course of seven to eight meetings, which is in of itself very different than a one-time meeting with a secular woman or couple.”
Ansbacher says Tzohar has an intense matching process with couples and instructors, and it is the organization’s hope that there will be a “click” between the couple and their instructor. With regard to how sex and intimacy should be dealt with, Ansbacher says that in a one-time meeting, it would be rude for an instructor to bring up the subject if the couple doesn’t do so themselves. Tzohar instructors are trained to answer questions, or refer couples to outside professionals if necessary.
Ansbacher believes that these meetings are individualistic and personal, and that even if a licensing board did exist for instructors, she would not be “too optimistic that the criteria for being licensed would be the right criteria.”
As such licensing would likely entail a test on general knowledge – be it related to Jewish law or knowledge about sexuality and intimacy – such a test would not be able to measure variables such as personality, or willingness to fit information to the couple in question.
Variation within the religious community
Talli Rosenbaum is a certified sex and couples therapist based in Beit Shemesh, and she says that there’s a great deal of variation in kalla instruction, in large part based on sociological background.
“Orthodox society is not monolithic. Instruction is going to differ between communities, and there is going to be some difficulty in providing consistency in approaches.”
Rosenbaum praises instructors and community members who elect to participate in “training courses regarding how to talk about sexuality, make it part of the general discussion, and bring it out of the of the closet.”
With regard to effective preparation, Rosenbaum and her colleagues conducted an empirical study to assess how family purity laws, mikve immersion and messages from kalla instructors affect married life. The study, which was published in 2009 and comprised of self-identified hassidic, modern-Orthodox and Orthodox women, found that many Jewish women felt that they had been ill-prepared for married life.
Rosenbaum stresses that one must keep in mind that sexual fact-based education and sexual value-based education are often very different. While Rosenbaum feels it is obvious that traditional kalla instruction from religious sources will in some way enmesh both Judaism’s conceptualization of sexual behavior and fact-based information, she says the facts should be clearly separated from values when teaching a new bride and groom.
Forty percent of women in Rosenbaum’s study felt they could have been better educated, and 64.5% reported not having known the basics of intercourse before beginning instruction. Rosenbaum says there needs to be a shift in some bride and groom instruction that focuses on “getting through the first time,” without addressing the sensory, emotional and physical side of sex.
“The emphasis should be on the meaning and experience of sexuality, and pleasure and enjoyment of both parties, and less on performance and obligation.”
Regarding sexual education, Rosenbaum stresses that talking about sex is important in all sectors of the Jewish world.
“One should not assume that instruction regarding physical intimacy would not be useful for couples from different communities.”
Dr. Yocheved Debow, who received her PhD from Bar-Ilan University on the topic of sexuality and intimacy education in the modern-Orthodox community, says that “Judaism has a healthy attitude toward sexuality. Somehow Orthodoxy has lost that comfortable and healthy approach regarding sex education, but if you look at Judaism at its core, the general approach to sexuality is very positive.”
Debow cites the Jewish law requiring that a man give his wife sexual pleasure.
“It’s pretty forward-thinking for a very ancient text.”
“It is sociologically important to conduct classes in a way that is respectful of the couples’ world view,” Ansbacher says, and Debow adds that when forcing couples to attend family purity classes, “it is hard to imagine that it will be a positive experience.”
As a concept, such preparatory classes can be a wonderful opportunity to have an open dialogue regarding issues related to both physical and emotional intimacy, Debow adds.
“It’s beautiful that the Jewish people have a priority to prepare couples for the sexual part of their lives: mind, body and soul. When a teacher is welltrained, it can be a significant preparation. Many sexual myths get debunked.”
It is when opinion and misinformation enter kalla instruction that classes can go terribly wrong.
Grumet of The Eden Center, says that in her own research interviewing couples from across the religious spectrum, she found a majority view that in kalla classes, women have been told they should do everything to please their husbands. Other hurtful and insensitive comments she discovered were teachers saying that women who do not go to the mikve would have deformed children.
Grumet shares a story of a kalla instructor who approached her regarding a specific bride whom she was teaching.
“I’m sure she’s far more sexually experienced than I am,” the instructor told her. “Should I even bring up the topic of sexuality?” Grumet answered that she absolutely should, and the teacher later returned and said, “It’s a good thing that I brought up sex, because when we began to talk, it turned out she had no sexual experience, and that although she and her fiancé had had some physical contact, they had never slept together. She didn’t know very basic information about getting pregnant.”
And here the onus may lie partially on the education system. In her recently published book, Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents, Debow talks about the need to educate about sexuality across the lifetime.
“We need to highlight that both relationships and sexuality are positive things in the right context. Everyone realizes that we are living in a hyper-sexualized world, and we have to give our children tools to interpret the world around them. Slowly but surely, the modern-Orthodox world is opening up to educating in these areas.”
And Debow adds that it goes without saying that this education should be conducted with both genders.
And the men?
This leads to another interesting aspect of the mandating of preparatory classes for brides: The fact that the grooms are not required to attend equivalent classes. While Grumet points out that in the ultraand modern-Orthodox communities it is more common for men to attend “hatan [groom] classes,” the practice is not a requirement and the hatan and kalla typically do not attend classes together.
Religious-feminist author Sztokman feels that “the whole concept that these classes are given separately, and that women have to learn one thing while men learn another, is so sexist. In an intimate relationship, each partner has a different role. This is the most fundamental aspect of intimacy, which is partnership. If we want to prepare couples for marriage, we have to prepare men and women with the same values and expectations.
If anything, these classes should be taught together.”
Ansbacher is of the opinion that secular couples should attend a preparatory class together, which is Tzohar’s modus operandi, and that conceptually religious couples should as well.
“As an ideal, a couple should be teaching a couple, with some of the meetings conducted together and some separately, but it really depends on the bride and groom in question. There might be a couple who needs more separate sessions.”
Getting intimate
While Sztokman says that a couple unable to ask questions about sexual intimacy in front of one another is a problem in and of itself, sociological aspects must also be taken into account.
Grumet, too, says that while she is in favor of having classes together, she is realistic that “not every couple is ready for that. Before entering marriage, particularly if a couple has not been sexually intimate, sometimes learning about sex together can be difficult.”
From her research, Grumet has found that learning together is positive, as it helps the couple achieve common experiences and values regarding the framework and practice of family purity laws.
“In most sectors of the haredi community, for a couple to be sitting together with either a male or female instructor would be deemed inappropriate.”
Rosenbaum echoes Grumet’s statement.
“It would be great for couples to be learning together.
I’m a very big believer in communication about expectations and physical intimacy, and we have to teach couples this language. Often they have no vocabulary to discuss intimacy. However, realistically it would not work in all sectors of religious society.”
Intriguingly, Grumet reports that Gur and Toldot Aharon Hassidim have a couple that serve as mentors both before and after marriage. That being said, Grumet makes the point that general research has shown that in all kinds of education – sex education included – some separation of genders can be beneficial.
“You are going to be intimate in every way, so being able to discuss details related to sex is something that a couple should be able to do. And yet, there are many people who may not feel comfortable asking questions to someone of the opposite sex. Who is going to be teaching a couple? A man? A woman?” Addressing this point, Debow adds that sometimes separate classes can enable more open dialogue.
Elaborating, Talia Katchen, a Nishmat-accredited halachic adviser, adds that sometimes women and men both need to acclimate to talking about their anatomy and sexual desire openly.
“It’s often a process,” says Katchen. “To be able to talk in a one-on-one female (i.e. the bride and her instructor) or male (i.e. the groom and his instructor) context can be an important way to open dialogue.”
Debow, Ansbacher, Rosenbaum and Grumet all stress that if attending classes separately, it’s important for the bride’s and groom’s teachers to be on the same page regarding the laws of family purity and sexual intimacy.
“These laws are equally important for men and women,” says Debow. Ansbacher adds that a man and a woman should be given the same amount of instruction, though “in practice, sometimes women need more details about specific areas of family purity laws.
However, in principle, it’s something in which men and women are equal partners.”