Sanctified Sex


Sanctified Sex

The Two-Thousand-Year Jewish Debate on Marital Intimacy

Noam Sachs Zion

656 pages


August 2021


$36.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
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August 2021


$36.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
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August 2021


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About the Book

Sanctified Sex draws on two thousand years of rabbinic debates addressing competing aspirations for loving intimacy, passionate sexual union, and sanctity in marriage. What can Judaism contribute to our struggles to nurture love relationships? What halakhic precedents are relevant, and how are rulings changing?

The rabbis, of course, seldom agree. Underlying their arguments are perennial debates: What kind of marital sex qualifies as ideal—sacred self-control of sexual desire or the holiness found in emotional and erotic intimacy? Is intercourse degrading in its physicality or the highest act of spiritual/mystical union? And should women or men (or both) wield ultimate say about what transpires in bed?

Noam Sachs Zion guides us chronologically and steadily through fraught terrain: seminal biblical texts and their Talmudic interpretations; Talmud tales of three unusual rabbis and their marital bedrooms; medieval codifiers and mystical commentators; ultra-Orthodox rabbis clashing with one another over radically divergent ideals; and, finally, contemporary rabbis of varied denominations wrestling with modern transformations in erotic lifestyles and values.

Invited into these sanctified and often sexually explicit discussions with our ancestors and contemporaries, we encounter innovative Jewish teachings on marital intimacy, ardent lovemaking techniques, and the art of couple communication vital for matrimonial success.

Author Bio

Noam Sachs Zion has been a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem since 1978 and taught on the faculty of the Rabbinic Enrichment Center. His popular publications include the best seller A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah.


"An encyclopedic review of Jewish attitudes toward marital intimacy . . . valuable as a reference work for anyone interested in the topic. . . . [and] an important reminder that even the most private and intimate of acts can become a cultural marker and the focus of leaders who wish to shape their communities."—CCAR Journal

"Few writers can command the vast array of genres of Jewish literature and synthesize them the way Zion does. Earlier works have addressed Jewish attitudes to sexuality . . . but . . . these are written for academic audiences. Zion has the gift of being able to popularize even when analyzing difficult texts, using a comprehensible and engaging style appropriate for a general audience."—Martin Lockshin, Jerusalem Post

"This book is highly recommended for any reader, novice and expert alike, wishing to familiarize themselves with the Jewish tradition's polyphonic views and positions on matters of sexuality and marital intimacy."—David Tesler, AJL News and Reviews

“Noam Zion has written another classic. This treasure trove of sources and insights from the full spectrum of a four-thousand-year-old tradition, uncensored, from the Bible and Talmud down to modern liberal rabbis and feminists, might be called The Art of Halachic Loving because it is not just a static anthology; it is shaped to guide and enhance the pleasure of sex and the depth of development of intimacy, communication and relationship. This is a book to be read, savored, reflected on, discussed, and applied to life.”—Blu Greenberg and Yitz Greenberg, authors, respectively, of On Women and Judaism and The Jewish Way

“Combining exacting, serious textual analysis with entertaining, often comical stories of rabbis and their sexual habits, Noam Zion takes us for a ride through the highways and byways of the Jewish erotic imagination. He deserves high praise for his erudition, creativity, and courage.”—Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College, and author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society

“Noam Zion masterfully illuminates how two thousand years of commentary and debate have amplified the subject of sex in Jewish tradition and enriched it with nuance. Engage your mind, open your heart, and take this book to your bed!”—Rachel Biale, author of Women and Jewish Law and Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood

“Who knew that there was so much marital drama in rabbinic literature? Noam Zion has provided the definitive anthology and comparative commentary on this subject.”—David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History, University of California, Davis, and author of Eros and the Jews and Hasidism: A New History

“Moving effortlessly between traditional Jewish sources produced throughout history, Noam Zion makes us reflect, as Jews and simply as humans, on what’s actually at stake in conjugal relationships. I strongly recommend this erudite, accessible, sensitive, and witty guide to all.”—Michael Satlow, professor, religious and Judaic studies, Brown University, and author of Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality

Sanctified Sex is a learned, insightful, and engaging treatment of Jewish teachings concerning love and sex. For the rabbi who thinks s/he already knows it all or the graduate student who wants to know it all, there is no better resource. Noam Zion is a scholar who writes with a clear, accessible voice, and readers who are willing to dive deep into this subject will find themselves immensely rewarded by his masterful treatment.”—David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, Jewish Theological Seminary, and author of A History of the Talmud

Sanctified Sex is both timeless and timely. For the mainstream Jewish community, which tends to default to saying that Judaism is sex-positive (in contrast with Christianity), this deeper examination is warranted. For the academic community, the different eras the book encompasses guarantee a broad range of applicability. For the general community, Noam Zion is asking a key human question: what tools can I find to strengthen a long-term marriage?”—Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, senior rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal, and editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality

Table of Contents

The Two-Thousand-Year Debate    
Functions of Halakhah in Guiding Marital Relationships    
This Volume: Inclusions and Exclusions    

Part One. Marital Duties and Scheduled Sex: Torah and Mishnah
1. Legislating Marital Sexuality: Biblical and Rabbinic Mandates    
Torah’s Two Foundational Narratives of Human Sexuality     
Talmudic Interpretations of Adam and Eve’s Relationship    
Marital Duties in Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud    
The Revolutionary Rabbinic Marriage Contract    
Rules for Onah’s Frequency    
Romantic and Liberal Critiques of the Mishnah’s Obligatory Sex    
Two Ultra-Orthodox Rejoinders to the Romantic Critique of Onah    
Modern Applications: Perel’s Scheduling of Intimacy and the Youngs’ Sexperiment    

Part Two. Talmudic Disputes: Kama Sutra versus Ascetic Modesty in Three Rabbis’ Bedrooms
2. Talmudic Proprieties of Pillow Talk: Invading the Privacy of Rav’s Bedroom    
Kahana’s Espionage in Rav’s Bedroom     
Rabbinic Views on Privacy    
Akiba: Torah over Privacy    
Kahana’s True Character?     
Halakhic Debate on Pillow Talk    
Rav’s Worldview: Love and Pleasure    
Maimonides, Elazar Hasid, and Hirsch     
Conclusion: Takeaways for a Modern Marriage    
3. Modesty or License in the Marital Bed: Talmudic Debates about Imma Shalom and Rabbi Eliezer’s Midnight Sex     
Eliezer’s Bedroom Etiquette    
The Angelic Code of Modesty    
Contesting Ascetic Traditions    
Birth Defects and Emotionally Defective Relationships    
The Medieval Legal Debate    
Modern Applications: Ben-Shimon, Soloveitchik, and Calderon    
4. Talmudic Techniques of Arousal: Rav Hisda’s Sex Education Tutorial for His Daughters    
Hisda’s Erotic Pedagogy    
Modern Applications for Orthodox Couples: Aviner and Shuchatowitz’s Marital Guidelines and Sigala’s Sensual Portraiture    

Part Three. Medieval Mysticism and Law: Sacred Love and Legal Limits
5. A Mirror of the Divine Union: Kabbalists’ Sacred Eros of Marriage    
Midrash on the Cherubs’ Erotic Embrace    
Ra’avad’s Kabbalist Manual for Sexual Union    
Aristotelian Jewish Philosophers versus Kabbalist Platonists    
Zohar: Reconceiving Erotic Pleasure    
Marital Intimacy: Zohar versus Lurianic Kabbalah    
Marital Intimacy: Talmud versus Zohar    
New Age Applications: Kabbalah Centre, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and Dennis on Spiritualized Sexuality    
6. Freestyle Eroticism? Permissive versus Ascetic Medieval Codes of Law    
Permissive School: Maimonides and Isaac the Tosafist    
Ascetic School: Karo on Sanctity against Desire    
Permissive School: Reply to Karo    
Dissemination of Karo’s Ideology    
Conclusion: Medieval Legacies and Modern Predicaments    
Addendum: Maimonides’ Prescriptions for Medieval Viagra    

Part Four. Contemporary Haredim: Hasidim versus Litvaks on Marital Intimacy
7. Ascetic Bedrooms: Hasidic Sects Set Stringent Boundaries on Marital Intimacy    
The Besht versus the Maggid on “Worship through Physicality”     
Historic Origins: Sanctity through Stringency    
Gur’s Ordinances Police the Bedroom    
Slonimer Rebbe’s Pep Talk    
Arranged Marriages and the Women of Gur    
A Disenchanted Disciple of Skver Hasidism    
Conclusion: Takeaways for a Modern Marriage    
8. “Break Their Evil Nature”: Litvak Yeshivot and Salanter’s Mussar Suppress Desire and Familial Affection    
Litvak Beginnings and the First Modern Yeshiva    
The Legacy of Premodern Ascetic Piety    
Salanter’s Mussar Movement: Yeshiva Education Curbs Natural Inclinations    
Salanter’s Legacy: The Kelm, Navaredok, and Slabodka Schools    
Mussar’s Apathy to Wife and Family    
Shifting Sands of Mussar: Wolbe’s Yoke of Marriage and North America’s Revival of Mussar    
Conclusion: Paradigm Shift from Mussar’s Apathy to Litvak Intimacy    
9. Devotion and Desire: Litvak Revolution Equates Marital Intimacy with True Piety    
Hazon Ish’s Holy Letter: Championing Marital Conversation    
Kanievsky’s Holy Letter: Marital Passion and Compassion    
Sher’s Letter, The Holiness of Israel: Reviving Haredi Desire    
10. Higher Purposes of Marriage: Education for Love, Peace, and Sanctity    
Shuchatowitz: The Grave Sin of Rushed Sexual Performance    
The Scholar’s Onah: Shuchatowitz versus Aviner    
Marital Sexuality as the Synthesis of Nature and Spirituality    
Covenantal Marriage    
Loveless Sex Desecrates Sacred Matrimony    
The Higher Purposes of Onah: Love and Unity, Humanity and Sanctity    
11. Couple Communication as a Mitzvah: New Litvak Marriage Manuals Teach the Art of Loving Conversation    
Flashback to Talmudic Pillow Talk    
Permitted Spousal Communication: Removing Acrimony and Arousing Desire    
Aviner’s Advice: Making a Study of One’s New Spouse    
Shuchatowitz’s Advice: Acknowledging Gender Differences in Marriage    
Haredi Educators Combine Sanctity and Intimacy    
Litvak Revolution or Haredi Crisis Management?    

Part Five. Modern North American Rabbis: Confronting the Sexual Revolution
12. Redeeming Sexuality through Halakhah: Modern Orthodox Philosophers of Jewish Law Sanctify Pleasure within Marriage    
Introduction: Comparing Haredim and North American Liberal Rabbis    
Toward a Modern Orthodox Philosophy and Practice of Sanctified Sex    
Greenberg’s Proposal to Modernize American Orthodoxy’s Sexual Ethics    
Linzer and Marcus’s Podcast, The Joy of Text     
Berkovits: Humanizing Sexual Relationships    
Soloveitchik: Redeeming Natural Sexuality    
Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage     
Lichtenstein’s “Of Marriage” and Ostroff’s To Know How to Love    
Orthodox Women’s Internet Responsa    
13. Struggling with Sexual Liberation: Liberal Judaism’s Rabbis Tackle Ominous and Liberating Dimensions of the Sexual Revolution    
Problems Raised by Sexual Liberation    
Formulating Liberal Rabbinic Responses    
Borowitz: Covenantal Sexual Ethics    
Green: New Halakhah and New Kabbalah    
Strassfeld: Sexual Togetherness as Tikkun Olam    
Waskow: A Life-Cycle Approach to Sex Ethics    
14. Sliding-Scale Sex Ethics: Liberal Halakhah Balances Marital Sanctity and the Realities of Nonmarital Sex    
Sexual Ethics through Jewish Values Clarification    
Conservative and Reform Responsa    
Three Tiers of Liberal Sexual Ethics    
Traditional Halakhah and Contemporary Conservative Jews    
Realistic Halakhah Condones Lesser Sins to Avoid Greater Sins    
Test Case 1: Adultery Revisited    
Test Case 2: Open Marriage and Polyamory    
15. Legalizing Living Together? Competing Rabbinic Policies    
Historical Background: The Pilegesh    
Emden’s Pathbreaking Halakhah: Enhancing Marital Lovemaking and Legalizing a Paramour    
On Living Together: Contemporary Halakhic Debate    
Test Case 3: Caring for the Caretaker Whose Spouse Is Incapacitated    
16. A Feminist Alternative to Halakhic Marriage: Jewish Theologians Rethink the Marriage Contract and Gender Biases    
Radical Jewish Feminism versus Liberal Judaism: Revolution or Reform?    
Radical Jewish Feminism versus Secular Feminism: Sacred or Private Relationships?    
Plaskow’s Approach: Women Returning to Sinai    
Adler’s Approach: Redeeming Tradition for Egalitarian Holiness    
A New and Renewed Aggadah for Covenantal Love    
A New Halakhah: B’rit Ahuvim    
Multiform Sexuality, Gender Fluidity, and Hybridity as Divinely Blessed    
Conclusion: Aggadah and Halakhah of Marriage    
Aggadah of Gender Justice versus Gender Equality    
Aggadah of Sexual Playfulness versus Spiritualized Sanctity    
Aggadah of Negative versus Positive Sanctity in the Institution of Marriage 
Aggadah of Negative versus Positive Sanctity in Sexual Relations    
Halakhah of Onah: Male Prerogative versus Female Right    
Halakhah of Caring Communication    
Halakhah’s Labors of Love    


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