Sexuality and Jewish Tradition

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While traditional Jewish texts include a variety of views toward marital sexuality, they skew heavily, overwhelmingly toward an ascetic minimalism. Yet, with the exclusion of limited ascetics, contemporary Orthodox attitudes lean heavily toward celebration of sanctified, approved relations. This incongruence is striking, even after reviewing the few existing texts that support modern views. In a passage displaying great awareness, R. Aharon Lichtenstein acknowledges this puzzle and settles it, primarily, by relying on recent Torah giants.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Varieties of Jewish Experience, pp. 26, 29-32:

While I have conducted no empirical survey, I believe there is little question regarding the sensibility of the contemporary Torah world, irrespective of camp and orientation… We assert the value of romantic love, its physical manifestation included, without flinching from the prospect of concomitant sensual pleasure; and we do so without harboring guilt or reservations… With regard to the basic phenomenon of sexual experience, however, our instincts and our attitude are clearly positive. We have no qualms…

Assuming these facts to be correct — as regards my own spiritual environs, I can attest directly — we ask ourselves: How and why do we depart from positions articulated by some of our greatest, “from whose mouths we live and from whose waters we drink” and, is this departure legitimate? Are we victims of the Zeitgeist, swept along by general sociohistorical currents? Do we tailor our attitude on this issue to conform to appetitive convenience and erotic desire? Have we, in this case, adopted a self-satisfying posture of facile world-acceptance clothed in culturally correct garb?

To the extent that I am capable of candid self-awareness, I trust these questions can and should be answered in the negative. Our commitment to sexuality, properly sanctified, redeemed and redeeming, does not derive from libidinous passion but is, rather, grounded in profound spiritual instincts — upon our recognition that “God saw all that He created, and behold it was very good” (Bereshit 1:31), on the one hand, and our quest for meaningful interpersonal commingling, on the other. It is, for us, not merely an instrument for parallel intense enjoyment, nor a vehicle for reciprocal consumption. It is, rather, a fundamental component in a comprehensive relationship — at once, both itself an aspect of that relationship and a means toward molding its totality. This is our honed perception of “cleaving to his wife and they become one flesh” (Bereshit 2:24) — partly carnal, in one sense, and yet powerfully existential in another.

As to the basis of our attitude’s legitimacy, within the context of authoritative tradition, several factors may be cited. At one plane, we are buttressed, be it only subliminally, by the conviction that we are siding with Hazal, and they be with us. At another, we are assuaged by the sense that while, at worst, we may be disregarding that attitudinal counsel of some Rishonim, we are not countermanding their pesak; and that, with respect to issues of hashkafah, reliance upon minority views is more of a legitimate option than as regards specific halakhic matters.

Probably most significant, however, is our reliance upon our own mentors. Sensing that modern gedolim, ha-shofet asher be’yamekha — for our purposes, most notably, the Rav, but not he, alone — have examined the issue and the evidence and adopted a positive stance, we, ordinary students of Torah, follow in their footsteps, as we identify with their position. Whether they felt justified in accepting, out of the depths of their own conviction, a minority view; whether they held that our topic was essentially a matter of hashkafic proclivity, not necessarily amenable to the normal procedures of pesak; or whether some other unknown but imagined element — might, for instance, the hospitable climate of Kabbalistic sources, have had some impact — is a matter of conjecture. That the authority of our mentors can inform and sustain our sensibility is not.

I am left, nonetheless, with a lacuna. Even while adhering to the Rav’s position, one may freely concede wishing that he had done for us what we have been challenged and constrained to do here: examine the various tiers of tradition and elucidate the basis for his own judgment and commitment…

[S]elf-examination is, collectively and personally, a religious imperative. Nevertheless, with respect to our specific issue, we remain true to our abiding spiritual intuitions… Consequently, impelled by our spiritual instincts and animated by the faith instilled in us by our Torah mentors, we opt for consecration rather than abstinence. In this most sensitive area, we strive for a life which is energized rather than neutralized — not merely sterilized and sanitized but ennobled and ennobling. We are challenged to sanctify — by integrating sexuality within total sacral existence, characterized by the systole and diastole of divinely ordained denial and realization; and by infusing the relationship itself with human and spiritual content. This is by no means the easier course. May we have the wisdom and the commitement to render it the better.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Speaking for myself, who grew up, more or less in the right-wing world, I disagree with Rav Lichtenstein’s assertion that we all celebrate the “physical manifestation” of love, as he puts it. Like other young Jews (I am not married), what I learned of this matter came from whatever references I saw to it in various sefarim (accidentally or purposesly/”illictly”) over the years.

    When reading these sources (the Kitzur was one of my first), one cannot help but come away with the feeling that Judaism adopts an ascetic view on the issue. When one is young and pure and ready to fight the “corrupt” secular culture, this ascetic attitude actually fits right into one’s general hashkafa.

    As I mentioned, I’m not married, and frankly I’m still very unsure what my proper attitude should be to this matter when I must actually deal with it. Just because I know that some modern rabbis celebrate this “physical manifestation” doesn’t mean I’m convinced they’re correct.

  2. Perhaps our Rabbinic tradition is not quite as portrayed. For example:

    Excerpt translated by Hillel Halkin:

    Yet picturing your fairness —
    The pearl-and-coral of your teeth and lips;
    The sunlight in your face, on which night falls in cloudy tresses;
    Your beauty’s veil, which clothes your eyes
    As you are clothed by silks and embroideries
    (Though none’s the needlework that vies with Nature’s splendor, Nature’s grace) –
    Yes, when I think of all the youths and maidens
    Who, though freeborn, would rather be your slaves,
    And know that even stars and constellations
    Are of your sisters and your brothers envious –
    Then all I ask of Time’s vast hoard is this:
    Your girdled waist, the red thread of those lips
    That were my honeycomb, and your two breasts,
    In which are hidden myrrh and all good scents.

  3. And, of course, the Yehuda ha’Levi love poem is itself reminiscent of Shir ha’Shirim which was written as a boldly erotic text irrespective of its layered allegorical meaning.

  4. R Gil deserves a huge Yasher Koach for posting the excerpt from RAL on the issue of sexuality-Take a look at Igeres HaKodesh and Baalei HaNefesh if you want to see how Raavad and possibly Ramban as well viewed marital relations as opposed to the view of Rambam in Hilocs Isurei Biah. As RYBS in Family Redeemed and as RAL have stated, the Halachic and Hashkafic POV is neither one of excessive prudery nor hedonism.

  5. DanielP — Your comment intrigues me and I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

    Do you think (married) sex is too be avoided? Or that one should not enjoy it beyond what is required for procreation? Or, do you mean something else entirely?

  6. He presumably means what most people would conclude from learning Gemara, Rishonim, mussar, etc. Do the least possible and don’t enjoy it. Ke-ilu kefao sheid, megaleh tefach u-mechaseh tefach, etc. The idea that a poem by R. Yehudah HaLevy can somehow wipe out everything in Chazal to the contrary cannot be taken seriously.

  7. This is another example of rationalist vs. kabbalistic thought, the latter progressively overtaking modern sensibilities via the Hassidic movement that has infiltrated even supposed bastions of Mitnagdic thought. Those in the Maimonidean hashqafic camp, even today, don’t share the perspective of RAL here.

  8. R. Gil: “He presumably means what most people would conclude from learning Gemara, Rishonim, mussar, etc. Do the least possible and don’t enjoy it. Ke-ilu kefao sheid, megaleh tefach u-mechaseh tefach, etc. . . .”

    And yet, contrary to “megaleh tefach u-mechaseh tefach,” the Gemara elsewhere records:

    “R. Yosef 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 ketubah” (Ketubot 48a).

    The tradition thus contains a real diversity of opinion on the importance of sexual pleasure. The Rav and the other gedolim referenced by R. Lichtenstein did not formulate their approach to sex from thin air.

  9. The easiest answer to why today’s Jewish world has overwhelmingly accepted the permissive, passionate, and intimate husband-wife relationship as opposed to the ascetic one is that in general, over time, asceticism has lost the battle. We do not roll in the snow to attain atonement for sins, we do not fast five days a week. We do not have the time to meditate for an hour before prayer. We do not eat only bread and salt. We do not sleep on the ground.

    We have accepted the world-view of being of and in this world, and serving God through it. This view and asceticism both find support and examples throughout Jewish intellectual history, and certainly zeitgeist, cultural, and practical considerations play a large role in determining towards which pole any generation or generations will tend towards.

  10. …and certainly zeitgeist, cultural, and practical considerations play a large role in determining towards which pole any generation or generations will tend.

  11. What is RJM talking about? There is plenty of asceticism in kabbalistic and pre-kabbalistic thought and plenty of eros in rationalistic thought. Just because there are “Maimonideans” today (Chaitnicks?) who call themselves rationalists does not mean that rationalism and asceticism have any necessary connection.

    Also what are the “modern sensibilities” you speak of? Victorian era social mores?

  12. Do the least possible and don’t enjoy it.

    Gil — this is the most shocking thing I have seen you write. Catholic Israel!

  13. This debate reminds me a little bit of the punchline in the joke where the rabbi is asked by the priest about whether he has ever slipped up and tried pork. I am happily on the side of the rabbi on this one (it goes without saying, only within the laws of taharat hamishpacha etc.). But anyone who wants to sign up with the priest (I am talking by analogy here), apparently they should feel great that they have a lot of statements of chazal and rishonim to rely on. V’hamaskil yavin.

  14. “Catholic Israel”
    Before continuing the calumny that Catholocism is opposed to sex and/or physical pleasure within sex you should familiarize yourself with Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”. It has created a revolution in philosophy and Catholic theology.
    You cannot, on one hand, believe its forbidden to study other religious faiths and at the same time make comments on their beliefs and values.

  15. IH: Seriously, that is what emerges from the sources. Have you ever learned hilchos dei’os or hilchos tzenius? The onah for a talmid chakham is once a week (appr. two weeks per month). And that is precisely the dilemma Rav Lichtenstein addresses.

  16. Gil — I have never seen it expressed by someone purporting to be Modern Orthodox as bluntly as you wrote. Your words “do the least possible and don’t enjoy it” leaves no room for integration RAL addresses. In your statement, you have reduced marital sex to the vulgar phrase Steve introduced in recent discussions: “two legged animal husbandry”. I do find that shocking.

  17. I didn’t say I endorse it or follow it. That is what emerges from the clear majority of sources — including Rambam and Shulchan Arukh — and is the source of Rav Lichtenstein’s dilemma.

  18. Ok, so we’re back to my question to DanielP that you intercepted.

  19. IH: I’m sympathetic with Rav Lichtenstein’s questions and answers.

  20. Should have put a big note on this post: For married person only. If you are single, none of this applies, as all here know.

  21. nice to see Gil backing off of siding with the priest.

  22. carlos: No backing off. Just someone misreading what I wrote.

    The truth is that Judaism does not speak unanimously on this issue, like on most issues. If anything, the weight of Jewish authorities follow what is being called here the Catholic attitude. That is neither good nor bad. The entirety of Jewish thought agrees with Catholicism on a number of things, such as the existence of God.

    I’m surprised that no one has picked up on the most interesting part of this post — Rav Lichtenstein deferring to Gedolim as the most important (but not sole) source for this subject.

  23. The one inaccuracy in Rav Lichtenstein’s words is that he neglects to mention that there are differences of ‘camp and orientation’ in these matters. Take Gerrer chassidim for example (and it is not only them).

  24. The halacha is a code that is constantly,being developed,and modified.
    As new ideas are coming to light,and old ones fall fall by the wayside,it is natural,to accept changes,in morality,and behavior.
    This goes back,to the Gaonim,who realized that the medical remedies,in the Talmud,are not to be used.
    To Rabeinu Gershom,forbidding polygamy.
    To Baalei Tosfos,permitting to drink water that was left Uncovered.
    To rendering kosher the extra organ,on the lung of an animal,”ununisa d’varda”.
    To the Ramba”m ignoring anything that has to do with ghosts,i.e.Zugos,and his explanation,of Babuah,babuah d’babuah.
    The Rashb”a ruling to abolish Kapporros.
    The explanation of Ramba”m,that Korbonos,were from the influence,of Mitzrayim,teaches us that halacha,is influenced,by the accepted mores,and morality,from the enviroment.
    The Ramba”m,refers to Arista,as a source to downgrade,sexuality.
    The Ramba”n builds on that,but modifies it with his Kabbalistic understanding,but it is till based on the basis of Arista,Doik.
    The ascetic teachings,are all influenced,by the general thinking,of all the learned people,not necessarily Jewish,it is not biblical,even tough the Kedoshim Tihyu,is commonly accepted,as a source.Rashi,does not accept this peshat,as he explains,that it refers,to adultery,and other aroyois.
    We therefore adjust,to the culture that is prevalent,and build on it.That goes to all of us,in varying degrees.

  25. Shalom Rosenfeld

    The OU Marriage Retreat is proud to point out there are some Sephardic Jews attending, as well as some dressed in Hassidic garb. I’m all for “big tent” (in that sense), but I’m sure some of the Hassidic folks must be grappling with whether the standard attitude towards um, physicality in marriage promoted by an OU marriage counselor, is the one that follows their tradition. Or do some Hassidim change deeply personal attitudes like this over time, while maintaining the cultural trappings of clothing and the like?

  26. Shalom Rosenfeld

    (By the way, this piece from RAL is similar to one he did in Tradition a few years ago — I think it was something like “Relations & Relationships .”)

    When R’ Moshe Feinstein writes that a town needs to have a mikva available any given night, because of מיעוט פריה ורביה — okay what if I knew that every woman in this town is not ovulating tonight? I strongly suspect R’ Moshe was using classical language out of respect, when he meant more than that.

  27. Shalom Rosenfeld

    What also really, really disturbs me about the ascetic tradition is how much it’s addressed to men in their own little spiritual world and totally ignores that the woman is a human being of her own. It could be material self-centeredness or spiritual self-centeredness, you call that religion?

  28. There was no misreading (on my part). Although one must say that RAL’s prose is, umm, dense.

    It is interesting how we keep circling on issues of source texts in regard to the role of women. I would be more sympathetic to Gil’s perspective if there were more consistency. I.e. if we’re going to rely on Rambam and the SA on point C in relation to women, then we should also rely on them on for points X, Y and Z in relation to women. We don’t — and there are enough cases where there is no textual support for our not following them that this cannot be attributed to the vaunted RWMO view of the Halachic Process.

    At a more practical level, that we have Modern Orthodox young adults expressing DanielP’s doubts about RAL’s integration is worrying, which is why I’d like to understand it better from the source.

  29. Hirhurim on November 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm
    .. The idea that a poem by R. Yehudah HaLevy can somehow wipe out everything in Chazal to the contrary cannot be taken seriously.

    Everything in Chazal? i think not. You need to read more Boyarin, (one of whose works is suggestively titled “Carnal Israel”)

  30. My wife once picked up a copy of the KSA to look something up and flicked over to the hilchos niddah pages. Her attitude to, ahem, that sort of thing, was heavily determined by he kallah classes and various apologetics (including pretty haredi stuff) that she read at one time or another. She was shocked. I had tried telling her before that things weren’t as simple as she had been led to believe, but to no avail, since I’m not a kallah teacher.

  31. An interesting test case is heterim given for not sleeping in the Sukkah. The different responses pre and post Gra are very illuminating, not so much for what the earlier Acharonim and Rishonim say, but for what they don’t even seem to have considered to be a big deal.

  32. Menachem, what did the gra not seem to consider a big deal.

  33. Menachem, Actually maybe I misunderstood your point. Are u saying the gra understood things to be considered a big deal that other acharonim did not. Or the other way around.whhat were one of his purported wishes again. Which concept did he allegedly want to bring back. (I will not state it as a factual statement until its been properly authenticated and conforms to the federal rules of evidence particularly the hearsay rule) cuz its beyond me.

  34. When I said pre and post Gra, I’m including the Gra in with ‘post Gra’. I just mention of it because I queried why a friend of mine in an upper floor flat in a frum district wasn’t bothering to a locate a sukkah to sleep in, when he would certainly never dream of having a meal outside it, nor even shehacol except where he really had to (and he isn’t Chabad either). Since I’m a simple chap only learned the halachos out of Mechaber, SA, Rema and KSA (and, let’s be honest, the back on Artscroll machzor) I had literally no idea whasoever about the heterim that are in normal use among the yeshivish community. It was a bit embarassing actually. (And yes I know when the KSA was written, he appears to have been more old fashioned in his views).

  35. Scratch that, or at least part of it. I just checked it up SA 639:2 and the Rema does give heter based on one sleeping with one’s wife as one does all year (though the MB observes from his lashon that it is just a limmud zechus and the first heter he gives is simply that it’s very cold). If I remember correctly the Gra rules somewhat similarly, but says the reason is specifically because you won’t be able to fulfill Onah (don’t have it to hand). The sense I get is that earlier authorities basically thought … it’s Sukkos, wait till next week.

    In my head I relate this to the famous story about the Gra where he told his wife that whatever s’char she was getting for her fast was outweighed by her not being mekayem the mitzcah of melaveh malkah as part of a general shift away from asceticism in what has become known as the Haredi world, proceeding in parallel in both the yeshvish and chasiddic world, even while they were at dagger’s drawn.

    But it’s quite likely someone will very quickly find a source that demonstrates I’m talking rubbish and, to be honest, I wish I hadn’t commented at all.

  36. Not sure what u mean by yeshivish, but see here for a reference to the gra and his opinion concerning sleeping in the sukkah on the night of shemini atzeres (I would assume one could apply the al achas kama vkama idiom to the rest of the sleepin in the succah nights). Also see the comments on that post for additional commentary on that gra reference. Also That other gra /wife story sounds interesting !

  37. I think, again without a text to hold, that the Gra’s view, in contradistiction to the Rema, is that if your wife is not mutar to you, you absolutely have to sleep in the sukkah. The stuff about sleeping even in the cold totally goes against my ascetisicm point, which I think, on reflection, is probably rubbish.

  38. I see no reason not to assume that modern gedolim’s attitudes were influenced by the times in which we live. If R’ Aharon can’t live with it, then let him reject that position. He doesn’t shrink from controversial positions in other areas, so to hind behind other gedolim is disingenuous. Personally, I think that Judaism views sex not as an intrinsic good or evil but in light of its effects (such as Rambam’s view that it takes one away from serving God). If so, there is absolutely no reason why attitudes shouldn’t change as the nature of society changes.

  39. Menachem, So ure sayin u think the gra would (most likely )have ruled that yakov had to absolutely (retroactively) sleep in the succah only if rochel , leah, bilah and zilpah were not “muttar” to him. And on shemini atzeres as well. I guess I misunderstood ure test case case heterim.

  40. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Anyone know of R’ Hutner’s views on the matter?

  41. Only if Yaakov didn’t have his own Succah (chas v’shalom). I think it hinges on how often you hold z’man onah comes up, if the answer is not very frequently, it’s not really a very effective heter. But I agree it’s actually not a very good test case at all and I’m sure most people here could come up with a better one after 5 minutes thought. I wish there was a sort of reserve internet where people could demonstrate why your ideas aren’t very good before you post them on the real one.

  42. Basically, halevai that I had the wisdom to understand all the premises and complexities of a pesak of the Gra and be able to condense that understanding down into a pithy paragraph. Patently, I don’t. Please consider my point retracted (though from my limited perspective I certainly agree with the general point that the opinion of late authorities is, on balance, markedly more positive and un-suspicious of the marital act than earlier ones).

  43. “Sexuality and Jewish Tradition”

    Shouldn’t this post have been called “Relationality and Jewish Tradition”?

  44. For those interested, I reviewed RAL’s new book today on my blog:

  45. Menachem, I’m jus a simple gra lover 😉 (with one exception of an alleged opinion). I think you could sharpen your points by using a different scholar for before and after comparison purposes.on a different note Gra case law is always so much fun to analyze …… Also as IH pointed out there’s that yehudah halevi love poem and then Shir Hashirim to consider.

  46. This discussion illustrates how attitutes change with time as the result of the influence of the general culture. Nor does this change merely characterize modern times, it was also true in the past. The general ascetic viewpoint relating to sex was particularly evident in the medieval and post-medieval period when the Christian church still dominated the general culture. The earlier influence of philosophic trends which appeared to regard the sex act as undignified and unbecoming a man of intellect also affected some in the rationalist camp.

    What is curious is the citation by R’ Gil of one talmudic statement about how to conduct oneself during intercourse. That statement is said to reflect the behavior of Rabbe Eliezer. However, the gemara in T.B. Soferim concludes that the halacha is otherwise, “a man can do as he wishes..”. Even the citation of the time of onah is misleading. That refers to how often a married talmid chacham is required to engage in intercourse, not how often he should. The latter is a personal matter not dictated by halacha. At most, there is advice that he shouldn’t act like a rooster, i.e., always engaged in such activity.

  47. While traditional Jewish texts include a variety of views toward marital sexuality, they skew heavily, overwhelmingly toward an ascetic minimalism.

    I thought that RAL made clear, earlier in (IIRC) the same article, that only the Rishonim skewed heavily towards asceticism, while Chazal on the balance leaned in the opposite direction (within marriage of course). Alongside the contrast between the rishonim and RAL’s thinking, RAL also felt he had to deal with the ontrast between Chazal and rishonim.

    As new ideas are coming to light,and old ones fall fall by the wayside,it is natural,to accept changes,in morality,and behavior.

    I take it norms of punctuation have been changing too 🙂

    What also really, really disturbs me about the ascetic tradition is how much it’s addressed to men in their own little spiritual world and totally ignores that the woman is a human being of her own.

    Are you referring to the fact that these male spiritual practices might have negative side effects for women? Or by the fact that the discussion of spiritual practices for women is much more limited?

    I am worried about the first, particularly as the mitzvah of onah relates to the woman’s satisfaction. Perhaps less so by the second – I assume women were able to transmit their spiritual world mimetically from one generation to the next without it making it into halachic texts. Most commenters on this blog are male, why should we expect commenters on the SA to be any different 🙂

    [RAL] doesn’t shrink from controversial positions in other areas, so to hind behind other gedolim is disingenuous.

    On the contrary, I think it is worthy of respect to admit that one’s opinion is not sufficient to be relied on in certain matters, even if it is in others.

    Shouldn’t this post have been called “Relationality and Jewish Tradition”?

    Google “relationality” and you’ll see why not.

  48. “Google “relationality” and you’ll see why not.”

    Google “a joke” and you’ll see why I said it.

  49. Would anyone know if R Yehuda Halevi says anything on sexuality in the kuzari. If yes, a link perhaps? It might reflect his views on this whole business a bit more clearly. Marc Shapiro has a post on the literalness of Shir Hashirim. Somwhere on seforim blog. I think he mentions an extremely erotic poem from Ibn Ezra somewhere else there.

  50. Shlomo, are there traditional ascetic values and pure/unadulterated oriented traditions that incorporate both the husband and the wife.

  51. I assume women were able to transmit their spiritual world mimetically from one generation to the next without it making it into halachic texts.
    For that matter, what of the possibility that the trend towards asceticism was readily expressed textually, but that of ennobled physicality, always the mainstream, was transmitted only mimetically?

  52. To Hirhurim 9:13 am
    My understanding of the gemoro is different.
    A woman when she gets married is entitled to expect from her husband the most he ‘can’ give her.
    ‘tayalim’ is daily. Others have different times. Talmidai chachomim because of their intense learning cannot ‘give’ more. We are not talking about talmidai chachomim of today who are most likely not even ‘tayalim.

  53. R Gil-WADR, I don’t think that the term “ascetic minimalism” can be squared either with a reading of the excerpted quote from RAL or an objective reading of either Baalei HaNefesh or Igeres HaKodesh.

  54. Re Yehudah Halevi’s erotic poetry. I heard Hillel Halkin speak about his book on YH. He mentioned that he showed R. Riskin one of Halevi’s erotic poems and after RR read it he said he was amazed by it since he never knew Halevi wrote erotic poetry. Halkin then commented to us that he was amazed that RR did not know that.

  55. Steve: RAL discusses Iggeres HaKodesh and dismisses it as marginal because it was probably not written by Ramban. He wishes he could assign more importance to it.

    Have you looked at what Hilkhos Dei’os has to say on the subject?

  56. Are you referencing Deot 5:4?

    ד] אף על פי שאשתו של אדם מותרת לו תמיד, ראוי לו לתלמיד חכמים שינהיג עצמו בקדושה: ולא יהא מצוי אצל אשתו כתרנגול, אלא מלילי שבת ללילי שבת, אם יש בו כוח. וכשהוא מספר עימה, לא יספר לא בתחילת הלילה כשהוא שבע ובטנו מלאה, ולא בסוף הלילה כשהוא רעב–אלא באמצע הלילה, כשיתאכל המזון שבמעיו.

    ולא יקל ראשו ביותר, ולא ינבל את פיו בדברי הבאי, ואפילו בינו לבינה; הרי הוא אומר בקבלה, “מגיד לאדם מה שיחו” (עמוס ד,יג)–אמרו חכמים, אפילו שיחה קלה שבין איש לאשתו, עתיד ליתן עליה את הדין.

    ולא יהיו שניהם לא שיכורים, ולא עצלנין, ולא עצבנין; ולא אחד מהן. ולא תהיה ישנה; ולא יאנוס אותה, והיא אינה רוצה–אלא ברצון שניהם, ובשמחתן. יספר מעט וישחק עימה מעט, כדי שתתיישב נפשו; ויבעול בבושה ולא בעזות, ויפרוש מיד.

  57. And in English, for those who prefer:

    Halacha 4

    Although a man’s wife is permitted to him at all times, it is fitting that a wise man behave with holiness. He should not frequent his wife like a rooster. Rather, [he should limit his relations to once a week] from Sabbath evening to Sabbath evening, if he has the physical stamina.

    When he speaks with her, he should not do so at the beginning of the night, when he is sated and his belly [is] full, nor at the end of the night, when he is hungry; rather, in the middle of the night, when his food has been digested.

    He should not be excessively lightheaded, nor should he talk obscene nonsense even in intimate conversation with his wife. Behold, the prophet has stated (Amos 4:13): “And He repeats to a man what he has spoken.” [On this verse,] our Sages commented: A person will have to account for even the light conversation that he has with his wife.

    [At the time of relations,] they should not be drunk, nor lackadaisical, nor tense – [neither both of them,] or [even] one of them. She should not be asleep, nor should the man take her by force, against her will. Rather, [the relations should take place] amidst their mutual consent and joy. He should converse and dally with her somewhat, so that she be relaxed. He should be intimate [with her] modestly and not boldly, and withdraw [from her] immediately.

  58. When read in its totality, speaks to the issue I addressed earlier (10:09am) regarding selective quotation and application of the MT and SA (by people who complain about others doing the same).

  59. הא רב כי איקלע לדרדשיר, [מכריז] ואמר: מאן הויא ליומא? ורב נחמן כי איקלע לשכנציב, [מכריז] ואמר: מאן הויא ליומא

  60. IH: On Dei’os 3:2, Rav Lichtenstein writes: “Rambam evidently found no place for either love or companionship as the raison d’etre of marital sexuality”

  61. R Gil-I think that one can posit that Rambam’s approach in Hilcos Deos and Hilcos Isurei Biah is vastly different than Baalei HaNefesh , which was authored by none less than the Raavad. I have seen R Chavel’s intro to Igeres HaKodesh, which also notes that the same was authored by the Raavad. Why the authorship of Igeres HaKodesh by Raavad thus renders the same of “marginal” importance escapes me.

  62. IH: On Dei’os 3:2, Rav Lichtenstein writes: “Rambam evidently found no place for either love or companionship as the raison d’etre of marital sexuality”

    Let’s, again, look at the full context:

    ב] צריך האדם שיכוון כל מעשיו, כולם, כדי לידע את השם ברוך הוא, בלבד; ויהיה שבתו וקומו ודיבורו, הכול לעומת זה הדבר. כיצד–כשיישא וייתן או יעשה מלאכה ליטול שכר, לא יהיה בליבו קיבוץ ממון בלבד, אלא יעשה דברים הללו כדי שימצא דברים שהגוף צריך להן, מאכילה ושתייה וישיבת בית ונשיאת אישה.

    וכן כשיאכל וישתה ויבעול, לא ישים על ליבו לעשות דברים הללו, כדי ליהנות בלבד, עד שנמצא שאינו אוכל ושותה אלא המתוק לחיך ויבעול כדי ליהנות; אלא ישים על ליבו שיאכל וישתה, כדי להברות גופו ואבריו בלבד. לפיכך לא יאכל כל שהחיך מתאווה, כמו הכלב והחמור, אלא יאכל דברים המועילים לו, אם מרים אם מתוקים. ולא יאכל דברים הרעים לגוף, אף על פי שהן מתוקים לחיך.

    כיצד: מי שהיה בשרו חם–לא יאכל בשר ולא דבש ולא ישתה יין, כעניין שאמר שלמה דרך משל “אכול דבש הרבות לא טוב” (משלי כה,כז), ושותה מי העולשין, אף על פי שהוא מר: שנמצא שהוא אוכל ושותה דרך רפואה בלבד כדי שיבריא ויעמוד שלם, הואיל ואי אפשר לאדם לחיות אלא באכילה ושתייה.

    וכן כשיבעול, לא יבעול אלא כדי להברות גופו וכדי לקיים את הזרע; לפיכך אינו בועל כל זמן שיתאווה, אלא בכל עת שיידע שהוא צריך להוציא שכבת זרע כמו דרך הרפאות, או לקיים את הזרע.

    Halacha 2

    A person should direct his heart and the totality of his behavior to one goal, becoming aware of God, blessed be He. The [way] he rests, rises, and speaks should all be directed to this end.

    For example: when involved in business dealings or while working for a wage, he should not think solely of gathering money. Rather, he should do these things, so that he will be able to obtain that which the body needs – food, drink, a home and a wife.

    Similarly, when he eats, drinks and engages in intimate relations, he should not intend to do these things solely for pleasure to the point where he will eat and drink only that which is sweet to the palate and engage in intercourse for pleasure. Rather, he should take care to eat and drink only in order to be healthy in body and limb.

    Therefore, he should not eat all that the palate desires like a dog or a donkey. Rather, he should eat what is beneficial for the body, be it bitter or sweet. Conversely, he should not eat what is harmful to the body, even though it is sweet to the palate. For example: a person with a warm constitution should not eat meat or honey, nor drink wine as Solomon has stated in a parable: The eating of much honey is not good (Proverbs 25:27). One should drink endive juice, even though it it bitter, for then, he will be eating and drinking for medical reasons only, in order to become healthy and be whole – for a man cannot exist without eating and drinking.

    Similarly, he should not have intercourse except to keep his body healthy and to preserve the [human] race. Therefore, he should not engage in intercourse whenever he feels desire, but when he knows that he requires a seminal emission for medical reasons or in order to preserve the [human] race.

  63. In other words, Rambam’s ascetic minimalism is not primarily about sex, but about the minimal set of quotidian requirements to fulfill the singular goal of becoming aware of God, blessed be He. In De’ot 3:2, sex is no different than food.

  64. I don’t see what you’ve added to the discussion, except for those without access to a Rambam.

  65. That sex is no different than food in the Rambam to which you refer; and it has nothing to do with “love or companionship as the raison d’etre of marital sexuality”.

  66. Which Rav Lichtenstein already said.

  67. Huh. You responded to me at 6::02pm that “On Dei’os 3:2, Rav Lichtenstein writes: “Rambam evidently found no place for either love or companionship as the raison d’etre of marital sexuality”.

    But, the raison d’etre of marital sexuality is not mentioned one way or the other there. What is mentioned is moderating food, drink and sex to achieve the singular goal of becoming aware of God.

  68. One could just as easily say “Rambam evidently found no place for either taste or appeitite as the raison d’etre of eating”.

    Neither statement is enlightening, nor do I see how one can fuss about Rambam’s halacha of moderating sex here without also fussing about Rambam’s halacha of moderating eating here.

  69. Maybe you need to read Rav Lichtenstein’s article because you seem confused.

  70. Gil — with respect, it’s your post and if you can’t coherently articulate what you find so compelling, it ain’t my problem.

  71. Whatever

  72. J at 9;43amh You are correct but the section I excerpted is based on the assumption that we can harmonize Chazal with the positions of the Rishonim.

  73. Shades of Gray

    “With regard to the basic phenomenon of sexual experience, however, our instincts and our attitude are clearly positive. We have no qualms…”

    Without resolving RAL’s lacuna, this is how Dr. David Ribner put it in The Observer(“Interview on Sexuality in the Orthodox Jewish Community”, 12/30/08):

    “…A couple years ago there was an article published by R’ Aharon Lichtenstein in Tradition which I think is an excellent survey of halakhic literature over the past centuries. My understanding of contemporary poskim is that couples should be able to experience sexual pleasure and enjoy themselves in this realm. Many people who refer to me are Chassidish Rabbeim, Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgichim – people whom you might be surprised to hear talking about sexual dysfunctions but who realize that unless a couple is able to resolve these issues, it can be problematic or destructive.”

  74. David Ribner has co-authored a wonderful book called “Et Le’ehov: The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy.” Unfortunately, for reasons that are all too obvious, and sad, from some of the ideas expressed in this post and comments, it has been extremely difficult to get Jewish bookstores to carry it. He will be speaking in Teaneck in February and his book will be available at his talk. And despite its title, it a worthwhile book for those who are not yet married as well as for those who are, but no longer newlyweds.

  75. IH,

    Sorry, I’ve been away from the computer for a while. I meant more or less what R. Gil said I meant.

    Incidentally, I think there may be a middle ground between “as if a demon is forcing you” and “anything goes.” It’s defining that middle ground that I sometimes have a problem doing in my own mind (both halachically and hashkafically).

  76. DanielP — thanks for closing it out. Best of luck with working through it.

  77. For that matter, what of the possibility that the trend towards asceticism was readily expressed textually, but that of ennobled physicality, always the mainstream, was transmitted only mimetically?

    It’s always easier to rely on a presumed mimetic tradition in the absence of relevant sources, than when it contradicts relevant sources.

  78. Rabbi Y.H. Henkin

    On the absence of mimetic tradition in sexual matters, see Bnei Banim 4:16.

  79. The only reference I can think of as to a mimetic transmission of practices regarding sexual matters comes from the story of R. Kahana hiding under Rav’s bed. Rav reportedly did not approve.

    However, the essence of the story appears to be that without observing Rav speaking affectionately to his wife, R. Kahana would have come to an erroneous conclusion based on textual sources alone.

  80. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Rabbi Henkin, תנוח דעתך שהנחת דעתינו.

    4:16 should be required reading for any chatan/kallah teacher. Not that my two cents are worth anything, but I applaud your wisdom and courage (and hope you haven’t received negative feedback since its publication.)

    For everyone else out there: Bnei Banim is available on as well.

  81. IIRC, the Mikveh of Baltimore has a superb tape from R TH Weinreb on Shalom Bayis in which R Weinreb discusses Baalei HaNefesh at length. I recall seeing the sefer in a seforim store in the Catskills one summer with an admonition that only chasanim and/or married men should read the sefer on top of the sefer.

  82. I applaud your wisdom and courage (and hope you haven’t received negative feedback since its publication.)

    I appreciate R. Henkin’s approach as well, but I’m curious as to why someone would suspect that it would generate negative feedback. I think it’s understood, even among those who take a more hard line approach, that there are less restrictive valid opinions (although post Slifkin, relying on the Rambam isn’t what it used to be).

    Certainly it is worth asking why many chatan/kallah teachers take a hard line approach instead of acknowledging the range of opinions. If the answer is that no one has thoroughly articulated an alternative approach then presenting them with R. Henkin’s responsum might be useful, but I think that there are often deeper ideological issues at work.

    If I may digress a bit: After reading R. Henkin’s teshuvot I am curious as to his employment of nishtane hatevah. Does he take it that nature has changed such that 1500 years ago certain sexual practices did, in fact, produce disfigured children, or is “nature has changed” a polite way of saying that Chazal’s understanding of reproductive biology was incorrect?

  83. Shalom Rosenfeld

    @MJ: Read on in the essay. In the first page of the essay he just says “nishtaneh hateva” … but later he addresses your question directly (including a third possibility: if you say such-and-such is prohibited, then “it’s such a bad sin that you deserve to get this horrible disease.” But if we rule it’s permitted, then you’re fine. Such dialogue happens in Arvei Psachim with regards to drinking water before havdalah.) I will respect his judgment and leave it at that. (R’ Henkin, I ask mechila if I’ve said too much — R’ Gil please delete this if R’ Henkin asks you to.)

  84. I did read all three, it just seemed that there was a bit of equivocation regarding why, on the sakana interpretation, it should no longer apply.

  85. Everyone loves what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and coverage! Keep up the awesome works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to our blogroll.

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