The first part of the following answer is adapted from my chapter in JPS’s new book, “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy,” Elliot Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, eds.
Married couples are not just permitted to be intimate with each other, a husband is obligated to have sex with his wife—the mitzvah is called onah. (Based on Exodus 21:10; Hilkhot Ishut 14:7.) And while no biblical verse commands a wife to sleep with her husband, many suggest that it is intuitively part and parcel of the institution of marriage. There are two trends in classical Jewish thinking about sexual behavior. One of them is prudent and restrictive, limiting the frequency with which husbands and wives may be intimate and restricting the nature of sexual activities in which they may engage. (See Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 240.) The other trend is more liberal and permissive, allowing any form of sexual expression shared by husband and wife, so long as both parties consent and ejaculation occurs in the vaginal canal. (Talmud, Nedarim 20b) Nevertheless, the more permissive opinion also emphasizes modesty, respect, and restraint. (Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 25:2).
The defining principles that govern all interpersonal interactions, especially sexual ones, include tzeniu’t (modesty), kedushah (holiness), derekh eretz (decency), kevod ha-beriyot (dignity), respect for tzelem Elohim (the image of God in which all humans are created), hesed (kindness), and ahavat re’im (neighborly love). These values are especially important in matters of love and sex. True love enhances the other’s self-esteem, dignity and feeling of self-worth, and sex is a significant expression of that love. In fact, these values complete the physical pleasures and satisfaction enjoyed through sexual intimacy, not only elevating them, but making them enduring.
Jewish law rules that people should engage in sexual relations willingly; it prohibits a husband to force his wife to have intercourse. “Rami b. Hama citing R. Assi further ruled: ‘A man is forbidden to compel his wife to the [marital] obligation, since it is said in Scripture: “Without consent the soul is not good; and he that hurries with his feet sins” (Proverbs 19:2)’. .( Eruvin 100b).” Ba’ailei ha-Nefesh, Sha’ar ha-Kedushah; Hilkhot De’ot5:4; Hilkhot Ishut 15:17; Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 25:2. See Warren Goldstein, Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society (New York: Feldheim, 2006), 151–220.) And the bar for consent is set high. Even if a wife is not forced to participate in sexual activity, as long as she is not fully agreeable to intercourse, sexual relations are prohibited. (Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut15:17, rules, “[Her husband] should not coerce her [to have relations] when she does not desire to do so. Rather, [they should engage in intercourse only] when there is mutual desire and pleasure.” Masekhet Kallah Rabbati 1:11; Orach Chayyim 240 and Even ha-Ezer 25.) All of this means that if a husband or wife is interested in having sex, it is his or her responsibility to seduce the partner and earn consent. However, if these advances are rebuffed, they must be stopped. No means no.
Nonconsensual sex is rape, and Jewish law recognizes the concept of marital rape; a man may not force his wife to have intercourse. (See Dratch, Mark. "I Do? Consent and Coercion in Sexual Relations." R. Medoff, ed. Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein. Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009. 119-144.) The Talmud even labels some marital intercourse as anusah (rape) and eimah (coerced out of fear). (Nedarim 20b). An important medieval rabbinic authority rules that a wife should not be forced to have sex because “she is not a captive to be sexually ravished at her husband’s whim.” (Teshuvot Maharit I, 5).
Rev. Marie Fortune, Founder and Senior Analyst at the FaithTrust Institute, an international multi-faith organization that addresses issues of abuse in religious communities, observes that, “…acquiescence may pose as ‘consent,’ but it is not the same.” (Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 56.) In other words, a person may engage in “altruistic” sex—sex just to keep a partner satisfied. When agreeing to sex for altruistic motives, we are not coerced, we just have a desire to maintain shalom bayit (an agreeable relationship) or to avoid a fight. This situation is certainly not ideal, but it is real, and as long as it does not reflect the totality of a couple’s sexual relationship, such accommodation may be necessary for the relationship’s long-term health.
So, on a given evening, if one partner wants to have sex and the other does not, does the disinterested partner have an obligation to acquiesce to the sexual needs of the other? I would say yes, as long as this is not a defining issue in their relationship and as long as that partner does not have serious objections to having sex that particular evening. People marry for many reasons; having sex is one of them. They have, according to Jewish law, a commitment to have sex and a reasonable expectation that they and their partner will engage in sexual activity.
As for birth control, this complicated topic is dealt with at length in David Feldman’s “Birth Control in Jewish Law: Marital Relations, Contraception, and Abortion As Set Forth in the Classic Texts of Jewish Law” (Jason Aronson, 1998). The bottom line is that while traditional Jewish law frowns on birth control—there is a mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply—many authorities do permit it when health and economic issues are significant factors. The method of birth control is also a significant issue. Anything that involves abortion (unless the mother’s life is endangered) or hashchatat zera le-vatalah (wasting seed) is prohibited. Therefore, condoms are not permitted; birth control pills, diaphragms, IUDs, and spermicides are. Where there are significant concerns about transmitting infections and disease, condom use may be permitted (or even required). This space does not allow for a full exposition on this matter.
This is a terrific and really big question for which this short answer may not suffice. The first and foremost part of my response, however, is to express as genuinely and fervently as possible that sex is an extremely meaningful part of being a human being. It is not a subject for which we should be embarrassed or from which we should refrain discussing with spouses or significant others, and perhaps, even rabbis.
The next point I must emphasize is that because sex is so meaningful, we should treat it as such. Just like anything we do with regard to important relationships, indeed sacred friendships (a married couple is described as re’im ahuvim or “loving friends”), we should consistently adhere to the values of honesty, responsibility, modesty, respect, and acknowledging the divine spark that exists within yourself and your mate. The expectation is therefore – at the very least – that sex is consensual and between loving, caring partners.
Lastly, your question raises some technical issues and the Conservative Movement usually offers a plurality of technical approaches. The first of which is regarding a menstruating woman. Basically, sex is off limits for a menstruating woman. This comes from an ancient idea that menstruation is itself a profound experience of which should not be directly disturbed. Conservative scholars disagree about exactly how long the menstruation period may last and the terms of the separation, all ranging around a week of abstinence per month.
The second part of your technical question is about birth control. Let me answer this in 3 parts: a) Buy Matters of Life and Death by Elliot Dorff (JPS, 1998) and read chapter 5, and chapter 6 can’t hurt; b) Jews need to have babies and there is no question that having children and a family is one of the most poignant and enriching human and Jewish experiences; and c) Conservative Judaism recognizes that not all sex is for procreation alone because intimacy between spouses is good for its own sake. Also, it is impractical and possibly detrimental for some families to have too many children.For a variety of halakhic reasons (Jewish law), a female diaphragm is considered as the preferable form of birth control (see Dorff’s book).
1. Are there any limitations about having sex during marriage?
First of all, Jewish tradition regards sexual satisfaction within marriage as the right of both parties.Indeed, in the ketubah (marriage contract) one of the obligations the husband takes on is his wife’s sexual gratification.Relations must be consensual, however; unlike some other legal systems, Judaism does not condone marital rape.Jewish law traditionally was written from a male perspective and assumes that the husband will usually take the lead in initiating sexual relations, but rabbinic maxims also remind men that women may also do so, though in a less direct manner.
Second, there are limitations on when a couple may have sex.According to the Torah, contact with a dead body or having certain bodily discharges, including semen and menstrual blood, render the person who has them tamei (m.) or t’mei’ah (f.), “unfit” to come into contact with the sacred precinct of the Temple sanctuary, the offerings, or the kohanim (priests) who officiated in the Temple.Tamei / t’mei’ah is usually translated as “impure” or “unclean,” which has led to the misperception that it is a value judgment on the person or even a moral category.
Since the destruction of the Temple, these laws lost their practical import, though some are still observed in a way that is essentially symbolic.For example, kohanim (men who have priestly descent) are traditionally barred from entering a Jewish cemetery, where they would be walking on ground in which bodies are buried, for other than the funeral of an immediate relative, even though there is no Temple service from which these men would then be disqualified from performing.
However, in addition to including menstrual blood among the bodily discharges that render a person tamei/t’mei’ah (Lev. 15:19-33), the Torah also explicitly forbids a man to have sexual relations with a menstruating woman (Lev. 18:19, 20:18).According to the latter source, the penalty for violation of this law is karet, “extirpation,” usually translated as “cutting off:”…both of them shall be cut off from among their people.”(Karet is punishment at the hand of God for certain deliberately committed transgressions such as idolatry, desecrating Shabbat, eating leaven on Pesach, eating on Yom Kippur, incest, and adultery.Its exact meaning is unclear, but most authorities have shared the view of the early rabbis that it meant premature death [Sifra, Emor 14:4].)Because of these two additional verses, the prohibition of sexual relations with a menstruating woman retained its force even after the destruction of the Temple, even though the reason for it – that the man should not become tamei – no longer applied.
Without a doubt the fact that the laws of niddah (“the menstruant”) were the most stringently applied laws of tum’ah (“unfitness”) that were retained in the centuries since the Temple’s destruction, and the fact that they affected every adult Jew, contributed to and strengthened misogynistic strands of thought within Judaism; but it is important to recognize that in their original context they were not uniquely directed at women, but were part of a larger religious legal structure that encompassed relationships between both men and women and God.
According to the Torah, a woman is a niddah, “menstruant,” for seven days from the time she first sees menstrual blood, during which period she is t’mei’ah; on the eighth day, if her bleeding has ceased, she is tehorah (again, misleadingly translated as “clean” or “pure”).However, over time the rabbinic interpretation of the law became more stringent, with the result that a woman is considered niddah for the presumed five days of her actual menstrual flow, or longer if necessary, plus an additional seven days, after which she must immerse in the mikveh before she and her husband can resume relations.
Although nineteenth century Reformers did not discuss niddah, they explicitly rejected the observance of all laws having to do with the Temple, on the grounds that these could have no spiritual meaning for modern people.Over the course of the twentieth century, however, and now in the twenty-first, Reform Jews have rediscovered meaning in many practices they once rejected.While very few couples choose to observe niddah, particularly in the stringent way it evolved in the halakha, some have chosen to observe it in the biblical fashion.
What meaning do they find?It attunes them more closely to their bodies and the rhythms of life, sensitizing them to the wondrousness of life and reverence for its Creator.Also, they find that a monthly enforced break from sexual relations leads them to deepen the emotional aspects of their relationship, and gives them a renewed sexual appreciation for each other.
Third, there are some disagreements regarding types of sexual activity.Rabbinic law regards seminal emission by masturbation as a very serious offense, despite the absence of an explicit prohibition in the Torah.For some authorities, any emission of semen outside the vagina also constituted hash’hatat zera, “wasting seed,” and they therefore prohibited, or at least discouraged, fellatio and anal intercourse.These tend to be restrictive also with regard to cunnilingus.Other authorities held that all forms of sexual activity were legitimate between a married couple.
2. Is it ok to use birth control?
Here’s an excerpt from Mark Washofsky’s book Jewish Living:a Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY:UAHC, 2001), p. 242:
“According to Jewish tradition, it is a mitzvah, a religious duty, to have children.Yet tradition recognizes that there are times when a couple might justifiably not be prepared to have children or to increase the size of their family, and it acknowledges that sexual intercourse within marriage carries a value of its own even when it does not and cannot lead to procreation.For these reasons, Jewish law permits the use of birth control methods, including artificial contraceptives, under these circumstances.
“Reform Judaism respects the right of parents to determine how many children they shall have, although we emphasize that bringing Jewish children into the world remains a special mitzvah and encourage couples to consider the matter of family size carefully and with due regard to the problem of Jewish survival.We discourage such permanent methods of birth control as sterilization and vasectomy.”
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