Jennie is a dear friend and a leader in the community in issues relating to Judaism and sexuality. Her work as a scholar and educator is an immense asset to the Orthodox community and I fully agree and wholeheartedly with her sentiments offered here. I wish only to present an approach to the issue at hand from a slightly different perspective. For almost a decade I have taught what are commonly known as “kallah classes” on a one-on-one basis to a significant number of women in preparation for marriage. These study sessions cover hilkhot niddah and hilkhot tzniut, along with a fairly broad and detailed primer on sex, and I continue to work with couples after marriage in answering questions about niddah and offering guidance regarding issues that come up in their sexual lives. My approach to talking about hilkhot tzniut is therefore very much informed by the ongoing experience of talking to women individually and hearing their responses as we cover the source material that Jenny dealt with in her lecture.
In general I have found that people have an easy time dealing with differing sources in hilkhot niddahitself and have little trouble accepting lenient rulings as wholly legitimate. Yet, when it comes to the halakhic issues regarding sexual conduct I am—perhaps unsurprisingly—pushing up against the assumption that just as halakhah controls when you can and cannot have sexual contact, it surely closely monitors the kind of sexual contact that you can have. The idea that there is a wholly legitimate normative halakhic position that is almost entirely agnostic on that issue can ring hollow, especially considering that the restrictive views are presented forcefully and formulated in particularly extreme ways. Many therefore often draw the conclusion that a permissive view must fall short of the ideal restrictive standard that one should aspire to. The permissive view is after all merely permissive; it gives little if any positive support in promoting such an approach. If we are dealing primarily in texts then what we find is that in the main there are permissive sources presented neutrally and there are negative sources, with neither promoting a positive view that a good measure of sexual liberty within a marriage is important for a healthy and successful marriage. In terms of perception the scale is therefore already tipped.
The conclusion I have drawn is that especially when it comes to sexuality there is a missing living Jewish tradition not necessarily found in texts that conveys an authentic positive view of sexuality (and not just a permissive view, which is surely found in primary rabbinic texts such as the Talmud, Tur and Rambam to name a few). Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Talmud’s somewhat scandalous story of R. Kahana, the close student of Rav, who hid under his master’s bed to learn the “Torah” of sexuality mimetically and was shocked by Rav’s use of amorous language. Rav was understandably perturbed, but the message of the story is that there is in fact no text from which one can learn the “Torah of sexuality,” and perhaps from the Jewish perspective ideally there ought not be one. A restrictive view can easily be committed to writing, and even today often is; the fact that a positive view has not been given a similar treatment in as many texts only reinforces the responsibility of educators who subscribe to it to present it as compellingly as possible.
Given that charge and the fact that my didactic goals are ultimately practical, as much as I review all the major sources to my students, I strive to not let the restrictive opinions have an outsized influence on how my students think about these issues as they enter their marriages. I also recognize this as a necessity given the fact that regrettably many of the women I learn with do not have significant experience learning these texts in depth. Someone who has spent much of her educational life learning Gemara hopefully develops a nuanced appreciation for the fact that the Talmud contains a mixture of Halakhic and non-halakhic material; that extreme positions are often presented even when their normative implications are limited; that stories are told to convey various lessons, often without the intent that they be emulated; and that as women we need to be aware that we are reading texts written by and for men. The latter is especially important to keep in mind in the topic of sexuality. The views of sex that predominated among Jewish women, whatever they might have been, are not in the Talmud.
In sum I feel that however much it is important to actively engage the full breadth of the classical Jewish texts as a vital part of our lives, allowing the rabbinic discourse in its entirety to shape the tenor of our own discussion of what constitutes a healthy and halakhically sanctioned approached to sex can be self-defeating. As educators we need to first and foremost establish firmly and with conviction our view that a halakhically permissive approach is the basic framework within which a healthy, mutually respectful and fulfilling sexual partnership can best flourish. The challenges posed by the many conflicting views can then be explored at a certain remove, without undermining the principled viewpoint that we legitimately seek to promote.
Shana Strauch Schick grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, spent five years studying Talmud full-time at Stern College’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies, and received a BA, MA and a PhD in Talmud from Yeshiva University. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at MMY