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Let’s Talk About (Orthodox) Sex

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A husband and wife team up in Lakeview to teach newlyweds the truth about kosher sex 
03/17/2009

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Avi and Rachel Finegold say (almost) all's kosher in sex and Judaism

So here’s something they probably don’t teach you in Hebrew school: According to Judaism, sex (of all shapes, sizes and positions) between a husband and wife is not only kosher, it’s a mitzvah!

Yes, there are some rules and regulations, but not as many as you might think. And although for most religious Jews, talking about sex in a Jewish sense is taboo, especially within the Orthodox community, Rachel Kohl Finegold and her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, are working to demystify sex for young Jewish brides and grooms at their Lakeview synagogue.

For the past year and a half, as educational and ritual director at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel synagogue, a Modern Orthodox shul, Rachel has been counseling new brides about traditional topics taught in Kallah classes, like how to properly use the mikvah, the practices around menstruation and the laws of Niddah (traditionally a woman must be separated from her husband starting the first day of her menstrual cycle through her seventh “clean day”). But she is taking it one step further, bringing her husband and the groom into the sessions and looking to Jewish texts to find the answers to questions about Jewish views on sexuality.

“I’m not a sex expert,” Rachel says, “but we’ve learned the Jewish text and we’re open enough to talk to people about it.”

The Finegolds aren’t the only ones embracing this new idea of sex ed. Rachel’s inspiration came from her experience at the Drisha Institute and a workshop coordinated by DrishaJOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah titled “Demystifying Sex & Teaching Halakha: A Kallah Teacher's Workshop,” which opened her eyes to a whole new approach to talking about sex in the Orthodox community.

“The workshop had a special emphasis on sexuality which framed the way I now teach both men and women,” Rachel said.

The Sex Talk
When meeting with a new bride, Rachel spends the first few sessions on the laws of family purity, always doing a section on Judaism and sexuality.

“These women are not necessarily sexually active and have been learning what not to do and when not to do it,” she says.

Though contraception isn’t part of their main curriculum, many couples are curious about Jewish views on the subject.

“I consider this a very personal decision that a couple makes, about when they are ready to have children, and I don't offer my opinion unless it's asked for,” Rachel says. “If a couple is interested in learning, I will sometimes do an extra session just about the Jewish laws around contraception. There are many views, but ultimately there is definitely room to allow a couple to wait before having kids, if that is what they feel most comfortable with.”

She says most of the couples they meet with tend to wait a bit to have children, so she shows them the texts, explaining how Jewish law approaches contraception, specifically focusing on which modes of contraception are preferred.

For the final session with the bride and the groom, Rachel’s husband Avi joins the session to go through the Jewish sources. They usually schedule one post-wedding check-in to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

“There are important things to be said from the male perspective, from the female perspective and from hearing the two different voices,” Avi says. “By adding more people into the conversation, you end up with a large component of this demystification”

“To infuse (these sessions) with an awareness that sex is something that is beautiful, holy, fun…it normalizes it,” Rachel says. “The Talmud really is not shy, so why should we be?”

Just ask Avi and Rachel and they’ll happily point you to sources and excerpts in the Talmud that say that sex is generally OK by the Rabbis—as long as it is between a man and a women in a committed, loving relationship, of course.

Sex Laws
After examining the sources, it becomes very clear how Judaism views sexual practices. For one, sex is not purely for procreation, it is to be enjoyed. Anything, (really, anything) is allowed, as long as it is something that will bring a married couple closer together. Oh, and by the way, it is a man’s biblical duty to pleasure his wife whenever she asks—this rule does not apply the other way around…

While all of these discussions of the “rules” of sexuality focus on a consensual relationship between a man and his wife, the more liberal denominations of Judaism have also applied these same ideas to unmarried couples in long-term relationships.

In fact, Avi says, the Rabbis themselves were really very open to discussions of sex until they felt the Puritanical influence from the emergence of Christianity during the medieval period. Unfortunately, the effects are still felt today, and a lot of this great, useful information is never communicated to young adults in observant, Orthodox communities.

Religious Jews can be very modest, Rachel says. And with so much emphasis on modest dress and certain taboos, it’s no wonder that people aren’t talking about sex. “Talking about sex is seen as something that ‘they’ (secular Jews) do,” she says, “when really, everybody goes home and does it.

“How many people are walking around with unsatisfied sex lives because they won’t talk about it?”

Couples often come in with misconceptions and urban legends like they can only have sex through a hole in the sheet or they think that Judaism only condones sex in the missionary position. By confronting the texts, couples learn that sex is not deviant if it makes two people feel closer to each other.

On the other hand, Rachel says, “We live in a very sexualized culture, so people feel like their sex life has to be wild and wacky. They make an effort to present that everything is normal.”

Like George Michael Says, Sex Is Natural, Sex Is Fun
So what advice do the Finegold’s have for young newlyweds?

“Don’t feel compelled to do something,” Avi says, “but feel free to go for it. Don’t take it too seriously. Sometimes you can just have fun with it and that’s okay too. Judaism wants you to have fun with it. Don’t expect that everything has to be an event. Sometimes fun sex is great sex too.”

“A lot of people say sex is not Jewish—it’s something neutral,” Rachel says. “I think what we try to say is sex is very Jewish—it’s a mitzvah.  It’s not just about procreation, but there’s something about bringing two people together.”

So what is kosher sex?

“Anything that brings you together as a couple,” Rachel says,—“that’s kosher sex.”

Want to talk with Rachel and Avi Finegold? Email Rachel at  rkfinegold@asbi.org . 

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