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What Your Jewish Mother Never Told You About Sex

by Helen Leff, LCSW

Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus is a New York based sex therapist and the clinical director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health. She has special expertise with the observant Jewish community, and has produced a Class introducing the topic of Judaism and Sexuality for the Rosy app.

At first blush, it sounds like a pretty simple and straightforward topic. In actuality, it is very broad-based and wide ranging which could easily require many hours of classes to even begin to do justice to such a serious, yet often misunderstood topic.

Some of the matters to be discussed as they pertain to ritually observant, Jewish orthodox women include issues such as positive and negative messaging, shame, and holy sex. Additionally, she will tackle the touchy question of: sex and intercourse, are they the same thing?

There are many Scriptural references to various subjects associated with sex; not only in the Bible, known as the Written law, but also in the various commentaries and explanatory texts known as the Oral law. People of faith who live their lives in accordance with the precepts of the Written and Oral law, do so from a belief that these are the words of G-d and they choose to faithfully observe the divine precepts. This is true not only for issues of sex, but for all facets of their lives. Throughout the sacred Jewish texts, there are numerous narratives concerning gender-based roles, sexuality, and spirituality which illuminate the function that sexuality plays in Judaism.

Okay then, sexuality within Jewish culture, tradition, and religion; are the imperatives from ancient times still relevant for today’s woman? Oh my! This is where things get complicated. Separating fact from fiction, reality from folklore, is a critically important element in the discussion and understanding of such a charged topic.

At its ideal, sex is not a performance, it is an experience of connection; of emotional bonding through physical binding. Jewish marriage is known as “kiddushin” which means both separate and holy. Sex within the context of marriage is considered holy. What does that really mean? Both procreation as well as pleasure are basic tenets of Judaism. Yet, somehow the details can get lost in translation somewhere down the line.

"A man shall… cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh. " Genesis 2–24

Such a “clinging” is a transformative minimization of the self, reorienting our thoughts from selfish to self-less, from about the “I” to about the “you” – to ideally then form the “we.” It is noteworthy that in Hebrew the word for love, AHAVA, has at its root the word HAV, which in Aramaic means to give. In fulfillment of an ever higher ideal, the more you give, the more you love. The loving flows from the giving.

Messaging is a powerful factor in how we view sex, our bodies, guilt, as well as pleasure. Negative messaging can wield an insidious effect as it is often unseen, unspoken, or unintentionally conveyed, and unconsciously absorbed. I see many observant Jewish women who have a minimal background and foundation concerning matters of sexuality. Some women have absorbed negative messaging which has led to emotional and physical inhibition.

The issue of shame is specifically discussed in the Bible. “They were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” Genesis 2:25.

Does the Bible explicitly call attention to their lack of shame because we would otherwise have expected man and woman to be ashamed of their original pristine state? Or is it a message - a positive message, that our bodies are holy instruments and that cleaving together in the sexual act is a profoundly holy and positive experience?

The Rosy Class on Judaism and sexuality will inform, and hopefully clarify many of these issues which have impacted the nature of sexual relations since the beginning of time. Additionally, Dr. Bat Sheva will offer actual suggestions, recommendations, ideas, as well as practical solutions to many of the issues faced by observant Jewish women.


Helen Leff, LCSW is a Sexuality Counselor and Psychotherapist at Maze women's Health