Sunday, July 14, 2013

By Men, It Grows

Before our wedding, nearly twenty years ago, my fiance and I decided that we wanted to go to the mikvah in honor of the transition.  It seemed like a reasonable Jewish thing to do.(*)

So, he and I looked into two options, and called both, just in case:  first, the Conservative synagogue mikvah, where we both went in the end.  It was a lovely experience, very clean and interesting.  And totally egalitarian.

But our second option had been the local Chabad house.  One of the reasons that we did not use this option in the end, was that a request for use of the mikvah was met with the gate-keeping requirement for me to meet with the local Rebbetzin to get some sex-ed.  (I acknowledge here that the small gate-keeping I encountered was still very privileged compared to the response that would have been given to a lesbian, or someone marrying a gentile, or basically anyone else.)  So I went to meet with the Rebbetzin.

Nowadays, my sexuality awareness is such that any continuing education is due purely to Dan Savage, and even he can't surprise me on a regular basis.  I knew almost as much in those days, having been weaned on the earliest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, but I had to pretend complete ignorance in my "kallah class".

The Rebbetzin meant well, I'm sure.  But her advice to me consisted of gems such as:

"You might have noticed that sometimes he says you look pretty and it feels like maybe you peed yourself, but that's not pee.

"He will say, 'In.  Now,' and you must let him.

"You have seen baby boys, on the place of the bris, when you change their diapers.  By men, it grows."


I had not thought about my kallah class for a very long time, until our program at shul yesterday.  I go to a fairly progressive "Partnership" Minyan - a quick description could be that it is separate and less-unequal-than-most-Orthodox-synagogues.  The "Plessy vs. Ferguson" of prayer experiences.

Yesterday, there was a free shul lunch.  Of course, TANSTAAFL, so it was part of a "Lunch and Learn" program featuring a very learned and engaging speaker.  She is a "Maharat," i.e. the closest option that an Orthodox woman has if she would like to be a rabbi.  Our speaker spoke about Jewish sexual ethics.

Her perspective seemed to be that (a) the Rabbis support and require men to please their wives sexually, and (b) although some other sources seem to conflate 'modesty' with ignoring women's needs, on the whole, (c) isn't that nice about Judaism being progressive.

For me, it's not enough that Judaism was progressive compared to the Babylonians.  I would have much rather had a shul program about how we can continue to be a "light until the nations" via increasingly progressive sexual mores relative to our surrounding cultures.  How we could perhaps prevent the ultra-Orthodox from co-opting even those who call themselves "modern," on the path to matching world-views with the Taliban and the Texas State Legislature.

At any rate, our speaker did a great job bringing a mix of sources and trying to bring positive feelings to her audience on the topic of Judaism and sex.  She is clearly very educated, and very personable, and has a sweet and loving relationship with her own husband and children.

I think the Maharat serves an important and valuable function to the Orthodox community who may not have the benefit of regular education from Mr. Savage.  It is crucial, for instance, that educators like her are publicizing in a religious Orthodox community, as she did yesterday, the facts that fewer than 30% of women orgasm from penile-vaginal intercourse, but that female orgasm is essential to well-being.  I can even forgive the use of stereotypes about "complicated women" and "simple male desire" in this context.

Now, the Maharat brought several sources that bear more comment.  Some of the earliest Talmudic sources imply strongly that it is a wife's right to receive conjugal satisfaction, interpreted as female orgasm, on a regular basis from her husband.

There is then a set of unfortunate medieval and other sources, likely influenced by surrounding Christian culture.  These rabbis' opinions chip away at women's conjugal rights by marginalizing any sexual activity that is actually likely to bring women sexual pleasure, and even maligning those wives who "brazenly" ask for sexual pleasure from their husbands.  These sources have a very strong misogynistic bent: "it is a sin to look at the vulva, let alone touch or kiss it".  Oh wait, they didn't actually say "vulva" - they used the obnoxious euphemism, "that place".

I don't even have energy to analyze the obvious sexist assumptions as to who is reading, writing, interpreting, or following the texts (not women!).

There was one refreshing polemic of a 19th-century rabbi who insisted that a man who tries to be an ascetic with wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am sex is nothing of the sort, but rather a sinner who will have satisfied his own lust but left his wife the unhappy, unsatisfied victim of marital rape.  You can just sense that he had a great relationship with his own wife, and was watching his colleagues or students behave abominably in contrast.

Fundamentally, all humans, in all times and places, are profoundly influenced by personal experience.  A benign example of this is how my colleagues and I become more empathetic teachers as we become parents to our own children, and are thus able to see the adorable newborn face in the most truculent adolescent.

It seems that throughout our tradition, there have been rabbis who had admirable relationships with their wives.  These men loved their wives and appreciated them - and enjoyed their mutual sexuality.  These rabbis had their say, and women like the Maharat are trying to amplify their voices even today.

And then there is an enormous cadre of men in Jewish history who, whether because they were closeted, frustrated gay men, or perhaps just selfish misanthropes, seem to have been completely disgusted with women and ignorant and uncaring about women's sexuality.

Without even getting into the phallo-centrism of Talmudic sex definition ("if there's no penile penetration, it's not sex"), there are men who seem to see women as an annoying, frivolous accessory at best, if not "a leather bag full of excrement, her orifice full of blood" [Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 629 Bialik ed.].

In such a context, we modern women are expected to feel reassured by the Talmudic proof-text for permitting alternative forms and positions for sex:

"A man may do whatever he pleases with his wife (at intercourse). A parable: Meat which comes form the abattoir may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked, or seethed, so with fish from the fishmonger..."

Oh those clever Talmudists!  Who doesn't like to be objectified as a piece of meat?  And even the fish joke for cunnilingus, ha ha!  Just as funny nowadays as it was back in the frat-house environment of the early Rabbinate.  It's not even an apt analogy.  These rabbis would not let you choose to cook the meat with milk, surely!

Ok, so not everyone reads Our Bodies, Ourselves.  I understand that some women, and many men, especially married people in the Orthodox community, would likely benefit from any sex-ed that they can get.  I'm just sad that this is what gets classified as "progressive".  For the next Lunch-and-Learn, can we invite Dan Savage?

(*)(For the record, I think the typical Orthodox Jewish use of a mikvah nowadays is atavistic bordering on barbarian, though I respect its hygienic ancient origins before it became a tool of the misogynistic reactionary menstrual taboo.  But that's for another blog post.)


  1. I enjoyed this tremendously and await your post on Mikveh in general.

  2. Thank you!! I have now posted my mikvah writing, and I would love your feedback. :)