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The Talmud tells a story about one Rabbi Kahana who hid under the bed of his master, Rabbi Abba (better known as Rav), as the latter was having sex with his wife. Kahana, shocked at the type of frivolous language used by his mentor, commented that Rav was behaving ravenously. Rav exclaimed, "Kahana, you're here? Get out! It's not proper!" Kahana replied, "It is Torah—and study it I must."

Relevant Links
Rendezvous with Reality  Benjamin Abramowitz, Commentator. Yeshiva University’s student newspapers have published articles far more sexually explicit than the currently controversial one—but they all had educational or journalistic merit.
A Guide for the Orthoplexed  Steven Bayme, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy has generated a lively discussion on a forum for (mostly Orthodox) Jewish educators.

It is not easy to discern who gets the last word in this jarring little aggadah (indeed, it appears in several places in the Babylonian Talmud—sometimes with and sometimes without Kahana's ultimate proclamation). There is a clear tension between propriety and modesty on one hand, and the religious requirement to understand sexuality on the other.

The balance between these two values has varied from community to community and era to era, and there have certainly been Jewish communities far more prudish than the Talmud's. Yet in contemporary society, characterized by unprecedented sexual casualness, shifts within the Jewish community toward greater openness go unnoticed.  Public perception has tended to relate to several controversies that recently erupted within the American Modern Orthodox community—one relating to an Orthodox college student's article about a one-night stand and another pertaining to an Orthodox-style homosexual commitment ceremony in Washington, D.C.—as evidence of cloistering and repression within this community. In truth, however, there has been a subtle but dramatic shift toward greater openness about sexuality in the Modern Orthodox world over the past decade or so.

That the community has shifted toward greater openness while upholding communal modesty norms is strongly attested to by the recent publication of The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This booklet speaks directly to the experience of young Orthodox couples and the attitudes about sex that they have absorbed during their formative years. The authors' thorough knowledge of the Orthodox community and their work experience equips them to walk couples entering a sexual relationship with little or no experience and constrained by a complex set of rules and mores through their first, often awkward sexual encounters. It answers many questions that these young couples have about sex (but are, naturally, afraid to ask). Pasted into the book's back cover is an envelope that contains several detailed sketches of male and female anatomy as well as some basic positions for intercourse. The unprecedented inclusion of sexually graphic material in an Orthodox publication, coupled with its somewhat symbolic placement in a sealed envelope, represents a recalibration of the stated tensions between reticence about sex and the need to properly educate about it—to study the Torah of sex.

This guide did not appear out of nowhere. In 2005, two Orthodox educators developed a comprehensive sex education curriculum for Orthodox elementary and high schools. With the Assistance of Tzelem, a Yeshiva University-sponsored project co-founded by Rosenfeld, the curriculum has been implemented in a number of schools. Additionally, Tzelem and JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) have offered training for "hatan and kallah teachers" (men and women, often rabbis and wives of rabbis, who instruct Orthodox couples who are engaged to be married about the Jewish laws governing marital relations) in counseling geared not only toward helping Orthodox couples develop a healthy sex life but also toward recognizing and seeking professional treatment for sexual dysfunction. Though there is still plenty of room to grow, such initiatives have already contributed greatly to the education of a young generation that is frank and well-informed about sex, but has learned about it in an unabashedly religious context.

Not long ago, sexual abuse and predation were not generally viewed as a significant threat and thus barely discussed within the Orthodox community. The Jewish Week's June 2000 publication of "Stolen Innocence," an exposé of the sexual predations of charismatic rabbi and educator Baruch Lanner, brought these issues into the spotlight. The article implicated some of Modern Orthodoxy's flagship institutions, most notably the Orthodox Union, in (to say the least) failing to properly address and report Lanner's crimes. As a result of the article and subsequent investigations, institutional taboos against addressing these issues are much weaker than they were, if they have not evaporated altogether.

In the summer of 2005, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and educator made news when he resigned his position, came out as gay, and provisionally abandoned Orthodoxy. At the time, my ex-Orthodox gay havruta (study partner) noted that he didn't know of anybody who grew up Orthodox, came out as gay, and remained within the Orthodox community. Although it had been five years since the release of Trembling before God—a documentary film about Orthodox homosexuals that, for many, offered the first inkling that such individuals existed within the community—being openly gay was still perceived to be completely irreconcilable with being part of an Orthodox community.

Yet already then there were signs of a shift. This educator's students reportedly were most troubled not by the fact that their teacher was gay, but that coming out as gay necessarily meant leaving Orthodoxy; they did not see the two as being completely irreconcilable. And indeed, the last few years have witnessed the Orthodox community engaging with homosexuals and homosexuality to an unprecedented degree. In late 2009, Yeshiva University hosted a very well-attended panel discussion with rabbinic faculty and four gay alumni of Yeshiva, entitled "Being Gay in the Orthodox World." A few months later, a group of Orthodox rabbis drafted a "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community" that, after reaffirming halakhic strictures on same-sex relations, outlines how homosexuals can and should be accepted as full participants in synagogues and schools. It has thus far been signed by hundreds of rabbis, teachers, and community leaders—all Orthodox. To be sure, each of these events generated opposition that feared that such statements would send the wrong message—namely, that open discussion in public fora crosses the line from sensitivity to tacit approval. Nevertheless, the trend is toward greater awareness and acceptance of gays within the Orthodox community, and an ever-larger number of "open" homosexuals consider themselves part of that community.

This final point was virtually absent from all public discussion of a recent same-sex wedding ceremony held in Washington, D.C. Though not an Orthodox ceremony, it looked enough like an Orthodox wedding that the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America was moved to clarify that "same-sex unions are against both the letter and the spirit of Jewish law," even while recognizing "the acute and painful challenges faced by homosexual Jews in their quest to remain connected and faithful to God and tradition." Lost in this controversy was the fact that this couple wished to solemnize their marriage with an Orthodox-style ceremony in the first place. Not long ago, it would have been virtually unthinkable for a homosexual who had grown up in an Orthodox community to model a same-sex marriage ceremony on an Orthodox wedding.

What happened in the past decade or so that precipitated this shift toward greater openness about sexuality among the Orthodox? After all, change does not come easily to inherently conservative societies. It is possible that the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s have finally, a generation later, begun to filter into the Orthodox community. This may also explain a different but related phenomenon that has developed within ultra-Orthodox communities in America and Israel: as the West has become ever more sexually permissive, these communities have responded by demanding ever greater separation between the sexes.

But it was the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s that eventually brought issues of sexuality into the open. The anonymity afforded by the first generation of internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and listservs gave individuals who had felt completely alone—victims of sexual abuse, couples experiencing sexual dysfunction, homosexuals—a platform to express their feelings, ask questions, and find kindred spirits. It was only a matter of time before their voices joined together, and the broader community realized that the Torah of sex was being neglected.

It is understandable that the broader society would find the Orthodox community overly prudish and behind the times (one wonders if the myth about Orthodox Jews having sex through a hole in the bed sheet persists). After all, the article about the one-night stand that caused Yeshiva's Beacon to lose university funding [Editors' Note: please see Yeshiva University's official statement in comments section below] pales in comparison with, for example, the Duke PowerPoint scandal. The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy is not exactly the Bava Kama Sutra—it is certainly a far cry from the graphically explicit Joy of Sex. And yet, articles that admonish "Shh! Don't Talk about Sex at Yeshiva University" miss a crucial point. Sex was never a taboo subject in the Orthodox community and it is currently being discussed frankly and openly. And just as in Rabbi Kahana's justification for his presence in his master's bedroom, the immodesty of talking about sex publicly is justified by the educational merits of the discussion: "It is Torah—so learn it we must."

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at

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Hillel on December 19, 2011 at 10:52 am (Reply)
Nice piece, Elli. To what extent do you see sexuality as a point of friction, and further differentiation, between modern and haredi orthodoxy? Do you think some modern orthodox folks want sexuality (among other issues) to put more distance between them and the haredi, or is this merely a byproduct of what you refer to as a gradual sexual revolution filtering into modern orthodoxy?
Dan Friedman on December 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm (Reply)
If you look at the birth rates for Orthodox couples vis a vis other segments of the Jewish population, it's obvious that the Orthodox already know all they need to know about sex.
    yoni the yogi on December 5, 2012 at 8:32 am (Reply)
    They know how to make babies, it doesn't mean that they have a healthy joyful sexual life. My wife follows a website called Imamother, only for religious women (from modern orthodox to ultra orthodox). She told me how women suffer (maybe men too) from their sexual life amd unable to communicate to their partner. So yes they make babies but not in the most joyful way..
Rabbi Sarah Leah on December 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm (Reply)
Thank you for writing about this. Having attended Bais Yakov High School in the 1970's, I never heard the word sex mentioned. Only later, in yeshivah in Israel, did a charismatic Rabbi (later excommunicated) talk to us about halachic ways to have pre-marital sex. Later I discovered that many friends were already having pre-marital sex (going to mikvah first). I don't think anything has changed, except that now we are talking about it. Mazel Tov.
    chavrusamatch on April 3, 2013 at 11:39 pm (Reply)
    Were they excommunicated over there halachic shiurim about pre marital sex?
David Aharon Lindzon on December 20, 2011 at 6:44 am (Reply)
The writer here is not presenting the opinions of the entire frum Orthodox world. While there is a certain derech eretz involved in speaking about sex, it is very important to recognize that premarital sex is not accepted per se (even with the lady who tells us about that loophole). Perhaps this is why her Rabbi got excommunicated--for daring to expose this tacky way of doing it. It is important to understand that sex is one of the three ways to acquire a wife; the other two are ketubah and chupah kiddushin--yichud. So the general consensus in the frum community to to get married.

Suppose a couple wish to live together at common law. Are they considered married to each other by means of sex? What if they split up? Would the woman require a religious divorce? Already we see the complexities of a Jewish couple's living together in a common law relationship. I have spoken with a Rav here in Toronto about whether there is way to get married by ketubah kiddushin without a civil marriage license. His reply was if he did that, he would lose his license to perform marriages. This is only because of din demalchuta din. The law of the land is the law. Those who cross red lights on shabbos can be given a ticket from by police officer for jaywalking. No matter how much you argue it's din demalchuta din.
David Aharon Lindzon on December 20, 2011 at 6:54 am (Reply)
I have not dealt with the issue of same-sex relationships or any of the forbidden categories mentioned in parshat acharei mot and kedoshim, for they are subjects of explicit prohibition. Those of us who have seen the effects of Tay-Sacks syndrome know it came from marriages between cousins, which is permitted according to the Torah.
Maggie Anton on December 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm (Reply)
The first volume in my "Rashi's Daughters" trilogy has an explicit, yet halachic, wedding night scene between Joheved and Meir. I have heard that this novel, while banned in Borough Park, passes hand to hand among the women there. I have also heard that it is being used in kallah/bride class as well. So, clearly, some in the Orthodox world want to become more knowledgeable on sexual matters.
David Aharon Lindzon on December 21, 2011 at 4:38 am (Reply)
The Talmud has a whole section, Nashim, that deals with marriage, divorce, yibum, niddah, and sota, among other tractates. The Rambam has a book called Nashim, which lists in Hebrew the majority of the laws of marriage and divorce. Yet these rules were not discused in public, as in the gentile world, until perhaps the late 1950s. When was the first time you heard of unwed mothers or abortion or STDs?
David Aharon Lindzon on December 21, 2011 at 6:32 am (Reply)
it's a shame that that the "Orthodox" establishment cannot accept the gay community, but I understand why. If a member becomes a non-observant Jew, do they treat him or her as an outcast? In doing so, they violate the second-most important teaching, v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha. Individuals within the community are all sinners in one way or another, but they hold as ideals the teachings given by G-d at Sinai. It is this idea--not rejecting the individual with whom we may not agree--that could bind us together. In forcing out the individual, we lose him or her forever. Every Yom Kippur, we declare that we are permitted to pray with sinners. Let's take this a bit further, to reach out with love to all Jews, regardless of their personal struggles, and welcome them into our homes for a shabbat seudah. Perhaps they will again feel that they are leaves of a tree of 3500 years. This is the biggest challenge of this generation.
Yeshiva University's official statement on December 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm (Reply)
Yeshiva University’s student newspapers are student-run activities. The administration's hands-off approach to such activities was maintained in this case, as evidenced by the fact that the article in question appeared online. Once the essay was published, it was the president of the Stern College Student Council who led the effort—at the overwhelming behest of her constituents, many of whom were deeply offended—to have the essay removed from The Beacon's website.

University administrators played the role of mediator in this matter, seeking an amicable solution to a difference between two groups of students—the student journalists of The Beacon and the Student Council of Stern College. In the end, the editors of The Beacon made the decision to forego the funding that had been provided by the Student Council and to become an independent entity.

Yeshiva University is proud of our students, the diversity of thought and opinion present on our campuses, and students' commitment to embracing life through the prism of Torah values.
maryland alum on December 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm (Reply)
"It is possible that the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s have finally, a generation later, begun to filter into the Orthodox community." Argue, as you please, that orthodoxy is becoming a little less puritanical about sex. It might even be true, in places. But the 1960s took place a full 50 years ago--not one generation but more than two. Slow clap for orthodox leaders, who are just barely starting to catch up to the social standards of half a century ago.
Talli Rosenbaum on January 3, 2012 at 7:55 am (Reply)
Excellent article. As someone dealing with the treatment of sexual problems in the Orthodox community, I can tell you we still have a way to go in promoting basic education.
However, let׳s not ignore the fact that the Hebrew- speaking community in Israel is also improving. In two weeks I will give a second lecture (frank and detailed) on the topic of sexuality and intimacy, thanks to the combined efforts of Eden, Tal Torah and Matan. The first lecture was attended by over 100 women.
JDE on January 17, 2012 at 6:56 am (Reply)
Re Yeshiva University's official statement: "Yeshiva University is proud of our students" and "the diversity of thought and opinion present on our campuses:" Really? If a student were to state publicly that she or he didn't believe in Torah m'Sinai, would that be tolerated?
Elliot S on January 17, 2012 at 8:50 pm (Reply)
"Sex was never a taboo subject in the Orthodox community?" This is complete nonsense. How are sex ed programs doing in Orthodox day schools? How many parents talk to their kids about sex? Quoting the Talmud proves nothing. Sex is a taboo subject in the Orthodox world; there would be no need for this article if that were not the case.
Jankel on December 11, 2012 at 7:34 am (Reply)
Is there anyone able to explain what is homosexuality caused by?
All the remaining questions don't interest me as a Medic....and human.
Julian Tepper on December 19, 2012 at 11:02 am (Reply)

Homosexuality is caused by the same thing that causes heterosexuality.

Think the latter through, and you will have your answer to the former.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM
Jankel on December 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm (Reply)
Tepper, you are a Tepp....(er) ?????.(in German/West Yiddish it is difficult to differentiate D from T at the beginning of a word.) Your "smart" answer is a nonsense. We know (as MD and Psychiatrist) how Freud did try to explain it and to give some way to understand it, and sometimes to cure it ...only in the cases of the rare exceptions of "Neurotic form of Homoeroticism"......
You avoid the Question, and it is not even a Jewish way to answer a question : A Talmid Haham answers by a Question....!
Herbert Kaine on January 31, 2013 at 8:42 pm (Reply)
Gays have many options rather than having to follow Jewish law. They can get married, listen to Judith Butler lectures urging boycotts of Israel, demand an end to circumcision like they did in San Francisco, and participate in flotillas that protect Hamas's right to execute Palestinian gays.

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