What do Jewish texts have to say about sexual pleasure? A lot, as attendees to a queer-centered text study class discovered recently.
As eight participants and two facilitators talked about consent and sex as a holy act, some discovered that sexuality and religion are not mutually exclusive, and can be queer friendly as well.
The April 17 discussion was part of a series on Jewish learning and sexuality at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center and put on by Jewish LGBTQ group GLOE.
The group began at the beginning with Genesis 1:31 — “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”
The next passage came from a later text, the 13th-century Iggeret ha-Kodesh:
“Neither sexual organs nor sexual intercourse are obscene, for how could God create something that contains an obscenity?” Benoff said the text was frequently given to newly married couples.
One attendee said the two texts show that “God didn’t make mistakes.” Another pointed out that the Iggeret ha-Kodesh text makes a distinction between sexual organs and sexual intercourse.
The issue of consent and the role of women came up several times, along with references to the #MeToo movement. The texts referred to relations between men and women who are married, but facilitators used “partner” and “significant other.”
With a passage from Deuteronomy that said a newly married man should be exempt from the army for a year to “give happiness to the woman he has married,” GLOE Director Josef Palermo pointed out that “it doesn’t say ‘to have children.’” Meaning, he added, that procreation wasn’t the sole objective of sex.
A passage from the Babylonian Talmud inspired reactions that split largely along gender lines:
“A woman once came before Rabbi and said, ‘Rabbi! I set a table before my husband [the text noted this was a euphemism for making love with him], but he overturned it [that is, he wanted to engage in anal intercourse].’ Rabbi replied: ‘My daughter! The Torah has permitted you to him — what then can I do for you?’”
Benoff said the first part of the passage suggested how Jews prepare for sexual relationships and intimacy. Attendee Caleb Robinson, said it showed that Judaism does not forbid sodomy.
“Jewish marriage is not a tennis court,” he said. “Nothing’s out of bounds.”
Other attendees, mainly women, wondered whether the woman had consented to the act or if she had the power to. “Is this reciprocal?” one wondered. Does she have the right to ask for something outside the norm as well?
The last and most contemporary passage the group considered was from “Kosher Sex,” the 1998 book by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. It made the distinction between “great sex” and “kosher sex,” the latter being an act of emotional and spiritual intimacy between partners.
One woman noted she often thinks of kosher as dry and rigid, but this passage made it sound lively and warm.
Robinson considered the meaning of the word kosher. A kosher steak doesn’t necessarily taste better than a nonkosher steak, but you hope kosher steak made it to the table with less suffering to the animal, he said. It’s choosing to do something, he said, with more work but that puts less hurt in the world. He appreciated applying that concept to sex and relationships.
The kosher sex passage was also Mindy Gasthalter’s favorite.
“That to me really resonated, because it showed the difference between mechanical sex and love,” she said. “I was very moved by that.”
Robinson said it was a great reminder of “how specific and earthy Judaism is willing to be.” He said he grew up seeing sex as something not to talk about, that religious people especially don’t talk about.
“It’s only in my 30s that I’ve started realizing that’s very wrong,” he said.
Gasthalter said she’s glad opportunities for queer-centered text study are becoming increasingly available.
“I think it makes people feel included,” she said. “And it gives them a space to explore other interpretations of the text.”
Benoff, who has facilitated other classes in the Torah and Sexuality series, said people are “surprised Judaism has thoughts on this.” More often, she added, they separate their sexual and religious lives. n