Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I walked up to the podium and faced the crowd – a group of about fifty men in business suits who wanted nothing more than to finish the conference and head straight to the bar for Happy Hour.

This group is going to be tough to please, I thought as I noticed them pecking away on their BlackBerrys. The talk I had prepared on Jewish business ethics called “Putting God in your Briefcase” didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. So, like a ship heading into the wind, I quickly changed tack and set sail into new waters.

“I’d like to talk about something we’re all interested in,” I opened boldly. A few heads tipped back, eyes curious and waiting.

“Something that my mother told me you never bring up in mixed company,” I continued blushing. I could see I had captured their interest.

“SEX!” I blurted into the microphone, amidst laughter and a few hoots.

“And Judaism,” I added, causing more laughter. I was beginning to feel like I was writing a Woody Allen script.

“How many of you think that Judaism thinks that sex is bad?” I asked. More than half the hands in the room went up, and a wise guy retorted “Depends upon the girl.”

“No, actually, it depends upon the man,” I responded and watched as the audience collectively leaned forward to hear what I would say next.

In Judaism, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. It is a natural, physical desire born of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Despite its name, the evil inclination is not all bad, because without it, we would not have the drive to promote our own well-being or strive for personal achievement and success. In fact, the Talmud teaches that without the evil inclination, we would not build a house, marry, have children or conduct a business. To emphasize this point, the rabbis concluded that “the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination.”

Jewish tradition teaches that sex is permissible only within the context of marriage. It is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure but is an act of immense significance, requiring commitment, responsibility and spiritual awareness. Sex unifies a couple, joining body and soul together, and brings them into a covenantal relationship mirroring the relationship between God and Israel.

In the Torah, the Hebrew word for sex is da’at, which means “to know.” Jewish sexuality is defined as more than physical pleasure; it is an intimacy and spiritual awareness that encompasses both the heart and mind. But Judaism does not ignore the physical nature of sexuality. The need for physical compatibility between husband and wife is so important that Jewish law requires the couple to meet at least once before the wedding. If either finds the other physically objectionable, the marriage is not to take place.

Sex in a marriage is deemed a mitzvah when it is done to reinforce the bond between husband and wife. But in no event is sex ever to be performed out of spite or revenge, and any type of forced sexual relations are strictly prohibited under Jewish law.

What may come as a tremendous surprise to Jews who perceive Judaism as patriarchal and chauvinistic is that Jewish law has always treated sex as the woman’s right, not the man’s. A husband has a duty to sexually gratify his wife regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it. These concepts are quite revolutionary considering that they evolved over two thousand years ago in the ancient Near East where women were treated as property and subservient to men.

Taking this liberated concept one step further, the Talmud prescribes the amount of sex that couples should have based on the man’s occupation.

For a man of leisure (unemployed) – every day
For regular laborers – twice a week
For donkey drivers (who travel to nearby towns) – once a week
For camel drivers (who travel to distant places) – once a month For Sailors- once every six months
For Torah scholars — Sabbath eve

Lest you think Judaism is only sensitized toward women, a wife does not have discretion to withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment. If she does, he may divorce her without paying the divorce settlement provided for in the marriage contract (Ketubah).

I concluded my talk to a room filled with men who now knew more about the Jewish view of sex than Dr. Ruth and Dr. Laura combined. As I left the podium I overheard one man say to a friend: “Well that clinches it for me. My career as a camel driver is over!”