When it comes to sex and sexuality, circumcision isn’t the only thing that makes things kosher.
For more observant Jews, foregoing foreskin is just one of many rules and customs that govern how and when a couple can canoodle. But before we get that dreidel rolling, it’s important to note that Orthodox Judaism covers a wide spectrum of sects; from the ultra-conservative (Hasidism) to the more secular (Modern Orthodoxy). And while the Torah (Part I of the Bible for all you goyem) does make certain prescriptions for how and when you get to know each other biblically, certain cultural customs vary between -- and often within -- sects.
Here’s how to make a mitzvah out of making love.
I do, before you do (it)
No matter where they may (or may not) stand on Christ, fans of the the Old Testament and New join ranks with just about every religious sect by disapproving of premarital sex. Orthodoxy, like Christians, Muslims, and other Judaic sects, dictates abstinence before the covenant of marriage... even if it's not always practiced.
“This was a lot easier to do when people got married at 18,” acknowledged one of the Modern Orthodox women I spoke to. And while premarital sex is not condoned, “the sexual relationship between a married couple is very important in Judaism and is considered a mitzvah,” or good deed, she said; and that sex should enable “a couple to relate better and have a full loving experience.”
Cover up, buttercup
Many of the practices around sex relate back to the principle of modesty, which is big in Orthodoxy. If you’ve ever walked by a Yeshiva, you’ll notice the female students wearing long skirts and sleeves, and possibly tights. But how and to what you degree you cover up is largely cultural and not so much a matter of scripture.
Hair is the perfect example. While the tradition of covering one’s hair is vaguely alluded to in scripture, how this rule is interpreted and practiced is very much cultural. In stricter sects, married women are expected to cover their hair with some sort of covering and/or a wig. Some extremely Orthodox women even go as far as to shave their natural hair once they’re married.
On the flip side, many Modern Orthodox women let their Jewish locks flow in all their glory. “Hair is not inherently promiscuous or private,” explained one of my Orthodox sources, “but it becomes something that is a symbol of privacy.” Basically, covering your hair is a way to let people know you’re off the market.
And it’s not just women who are expected to cover up. “You wouldn’t find a strict Orthodox man wearing a tank top or shorts,” said one of my sources. “It’s not about denying physical beauties, but about being able to de-emphasize [them] so that we can focus on what’s really important in life and in another person.” Preach, my fellow chosen sister. Preach.
Look but don’t touch... but maybe don’t look, either
Not too long ago, my very waspy boyfriend (sorry, Mom) and I landed at JFK at the same time as a flight from Israel. There was an Orthodox man who needed some assistance in passport control, and he asked for help. Being the yenta I am, I tried to offer assistance, to which he responded (without making eye contact), “Not you.”
This might sound really weird and kind of sexist to some, as it did to my boyfriend. But what I explained to him was that it’s not uncommon for stricter Orthodox men and women not to touch, sit next to, or even look directly at members of the opposite sex who are not his or her spouse or family.
It might seem like an inconvenience, but ultimately these prohibitions serve to protect marital relations and discourage other ones.
Aunt flow means no-go
Orthodox are prohibited from having sex or touching when the woman is on her period. I can already hear a collective sigh of frustration from secular women everywhere, but hear me out. When a woman is on her period and for at least seven days after, she is said to be “in niddah,” and considered to be unclean. I know, I know, to the shiksa ear this sounds incredibly misogynistic. But there is a silver lining.
After this period (!), the woman visits a ritual purification bath called a mikvah, where she is to bathe totally naked (no jewelry, no nail polish) and cleanse herself in what must be a natural water source. One of my Modern Orthodox friends frequents a particularly ritzy mikvah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Let’s be honest," she said. "You walk in, and it’s a spa. They have Sabon diffusers.”
When I was interviewing her, she was in fact in niddah, so when she asked her husband for a glass of water, he went as far as to place it on the table beside her as opposed to handing it to her directly. “You see that?” she said, with the faintest eye roll. My friend is very much Orthodox, but is of her own admission someone who “likes to dance around the lines of what [Jews] are supposed to do.”
Despite her casual attitude, my friend believes in tradition and the ways it can benefit a relationship. “During this period," she said, "you have to engage in talking to your spouse, and it’s more or a spiritual connection. At least, that’s how I’ve come to understand it."
What’s on the menu?
Let’s say you married to a nice Jewish boy or girl. You’ve got the green light to get down, but can you go down, around, and through the back? Kind of.
"What is agreed upon is that regular is best,” explained one of my sources. “Face-to-face intercourse is a preferable means because it makes it an intimate act, as you literally and metaphorically face each other."
Ultimately, how you have sex depends on your community and varies from couple to couple, just as it does in the secular world. Any questions you might have about sex and your marriage could be directed to your rabbi, but would most probably be answered in your kallah class, which are classes both men and women take in preparation for marriage. Hey, they’re probably a hell of a lot more useful than my liberal arts education. Oy vey.
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