Sisterhood Blog

Sexual Dysfunction Is a By-Product of Treating the Body as Treyf

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

There is more to say about sexual health in the religious Jewish community than I could in this earlier post, about a new book designed to help Orthodox parents talk with their children about the topic.

I am certain that there are plenty of sexually happy couples, and I know for sure that there are rabbis out there who make sure the young men about to become husbands know how to please their new wives.

And it’s heartening to know that, as Elana Sztokman wrote in her recent Sisterhood post that “religious women are waking themselves up” in the realm of sexuality.

But I’ve encountered far too many stories of sexual dysfunction among Orthodox married women who experience significant problems because no one ever taught them, in plain English, what the parts of their body are, what intercourse is and all of the other (many!) things a woman should know in order to enjoy sex.

The blogger known as “Jew in the City,” herself a very religious woman who appears on-camera wearing the modest clothing and sheitel says, in this video talking about the longstanding myth that religious Jews have a sex only through a hole in their bedsheet, that Judaism is not a religion “that considers sex a sin” when it happens in the relationships and times permitted by Jewish law.

Yet so often today it seems treated like one anyway.

A friend who is a “kallah teacher” in a very religious community has had young women come to her for classes utterly unaware of how babies are made and even of their own body parts. My friend doesn’t consider it her job to teach these girls the “aleph bet” and sends them back to their mothers for the talk that should have happened years earlier.

A story of sexual dysfunction is mentioned by Orthodox sex therapist Bat Sheva Marcus in this story I wrote for The New York Times two years ago.

She spoke of:

a young Hasidic woman who had been married two years without becoming pregnant. After seeing a fertility specialist, the woman was referred to Ms. Marcus, who discovered that the patient and her husband had no idea that they had never consummated their marriage. “I have variations on that all the time,” Ms. Marcus said. “There’s a complete lack of information about their bodies below their navels.”

That’s an unusual case, no doubt, but still illustrative of a larger phenomenon: regarding the body as a dangerous source of impurity.

What messages does a girl get about her body when the focus is on her keeping it totally covered up from the time she is 3 years old? Sexuality is likely never discussed in the home and even affection between her parents is generally invisible because it’s considered immodest for husbands and wives to be physically demonstrative in front of others.

The focus in Orthodox Judaism today is often a negation of the body as a source of potential ritual contamination. Bodies are treated as a source of fear and anxiety, not comfort and potential pleasure. The bifurcation of the ruchnius (spiritual concerns) and gashmius (physical) has become a gulf so wide that it’s no wonder that parents have a hard time educating their children to have positive relationships with their bodies.

To be sure, there is an extreme in the opposite direction that I also find troubling: girls wearing low-cut, thigh-high dresses to bat mitzvah parties in Reform and Conservative circles, and in less formal environments, cropped tops that show off their hips and bellies.

And there’s no doubt that a person’s view of what is appropriate depends on where they’re standing. I know moms who have no problem with their daughters wearing sweat pants with a brand name that doubles as an invitation “Juicy” across their rear ends, but I think it’s overly sexualizing as well as gauche.

Truth is, with my daughters being 11 and 9, we haven’t hit the big adolescent conflicts over such things yet, but I plan to hold my ground.

I am a big believer in the middle ground, even if it is admittedly subjective, because extremes are dangerous.

There are definitely parts of the Jewish community which finds dangerous letting in any aspect of sexualized American culture, and so goes to great lengths to keep it out. Of course banning secular publications, television, movies and the internet from haredi homes has done nothing to stanch the corrosive effects of sexually dysfunctional behavior of pedophiles in that community.

Sara Diament, author of the book I mentioned above, told The Sisterhood that she thinks that a Christian perspective has influenced the current Jewish religious approach to sex.

She may be right, but I think that it’s more about each generation putting higher fences around the last generation’s fences around the Torah when it comes to anything with the potential for spiritual contamination – and nothing seems to be regarded with more fear of contamination than the sexual self. The secular world has become so crass when it comes to images and references related to sexuality that the frum has come to treat anything related to sexuality as “treyf.”

A powerful example is my mikvah lady’s custom – I’m not sure whether this is a Chabad thing or a wider Hasidic custom or an Orthodox one (commenters please enlighten me) – of having the immersing woman hold her hands out in front of her, crossed at the forearms as if to separate the upper body (which is more pure) from the lower body (which is less so).

I’ve never done it – I find it not only absurd, but disturbing: if we can’t be integrated and whole standing naked before God in the mikvah, the waters of renewal and healing, when can we?

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sara Diament, Orthodox, Mikvah, Bat Sheva Marcus, Sex Education

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.