Let’s talk about sex: Reviving Modern Orthodoxy
Rabbi Dov Linzer wants to revive Modern Orthodoxy, and he wants to start by talking about sex. As the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, New York, for the past 17 years, Linzer has his finger on the pulse of Modern Orthodox life.
Chovevei Torah is a four-year smicha program, with a graduating class of 10 students per year.
“What’s unique about it is that we believe what prepares someone to be a rabbi is not just growing in Torah knowledge and serving God and Israel, but that it’s also a profession that requires professional training,” Linzer says. “Together with our classic learning of Torah and Halacha, we also have a serious professional component. A major piece of that that’s hugely innovative is our four-year pastoral counseling program, which is a major part of what being a rabbi is in the States and a growing part in Israel. That involves classroom education and fieldwork.”
From Linzer’s perspective, Modern Orthodoxy has been drifting to the Right in recent years. He points out that some people now call it centrist Orthodoxy. “We wanted to revive what we think Modern Orthodoxy is really about, which is engaging with the contemporary challenges of the world and asking difficult questions,” he says.
Linzer strongly believes in inclusion, although he doesn’t like using that word because it implies bringing people from the outside in, and he believes that everyone is already inside the community. He embraces the discussion of women’s issues and people with disabilities. He himself is a father of two children with autism.
“We try to understand what it means to be a diverse, open community and have a Torah that speaks to a broad range of people. A lot of Modern Orthodoxy is about asking if we can benefit from engaging in the outside world. Is it a positive thing for a religious Jew? But what about asking, what is my responsibility to the larger world?” It is this undaunted tackling of the modern age’s most complex issues that makes Linzer uniquely suited to host an event like the one that took place last week in the Katamon neighborhood at the Ramban Synagogue, titled “Between the Ideal and the Real: Challenges in Halacha and Sexuality Before and After the Wedding.”
The panel was led by Rabbi Binyamin Lau, individual and couples therapist and AASECT- certified sex therapist Talli Rosenbaum and moderator Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld. Speaking to a packed crowd of Anglo and Israeli singles and couples, the panel opened the door to an often taboo subject.
“It’s a sensitive issue that’s spoken about privately, but it’s central to people’s lives, whether they’re single or married,” Linzer explains.
“People feel alone and like they’re the only ones dealing with these issues.
They often don’t think that certain things are even possibilities within Halacha, so they don’t ask. I remember somebody who was having issues with marital sex and Halacha and their understanding about what was and wasn’t allowed. It was breaking up their marriage. I told them that they had options, and they had no idea that those were allowed. It saved their marriage.”
Privacy around the topic of sex before and after marriage often leads to shame, which then continues the vicious cycle of locking conversations about sex in a clandestine box.
“This issue is so central to what a marriage is and of bringing a husband and wife together,” Linzer states. “The term the Torah uses is ‘to know.’ It’s the most intimate way of knowing and connecting to another person. If that’s not happening as it needs to, then it is a tragedy.” Yet to know another, one must first know oneself. Those who grow up in the Orthodox world are taught early on that sex is something to be explored after marriage, and until then, it is off limits entirely. The prohibition of male masturbation came up repeatedly during the panel. Lau emphasized that while masturbation is prohibited, so is lashon hara, slanderous speech. They have similar levels of prohibition, but gossip is not treated with the same amount of guilt or conflict.
Rosenbaum spoke about how sexuality and singles tend to be an oxymoron. “The experience of religious singles doesn’t really enter in the discussion,” Rosenbaum shares. “There isn’t a whole lot of open discussion on sexuality, and when there is, it’s geared toward those in a marriage. Singles get left out. They’re considered to be asexual or nonsexual. The language around sexuality from the experience of the single is often around the idea of guarding.
We speak about sexuality before marriage in a prohibitive way; you need to be careful of yihud or of touch. It’s almost inevitable that if and when there are sexual experiences, they may be experienced with conflict and guilt.”
Rosenbaum goes on to say that in her experience counseling couples, she has even heard some amount of dissociation when couples talk about their sexual experiences before marriage. She emphasizes that a healthy conversation about sex discusses pleasure, autonomy and boundaries.
“When your sexual decisions are administrated by whether you’re shomer [negia, not touching the opposite sex before marriage] or not, then these other important variables that go into sexuality don’t get addressed,” Rosenbaum says.
The panel fielded many comments and questions from the audience on the subject of singles who want to have sexual relations.
Questions about whether it’s better to masturbate or have relations with a non-Jewish woman were met with a moderate amount of concern from Rosenbaum in particular.
“I reacted to that and said that this whole discussion of what’s better misses the point of what sexuality is all about,” Rosenbaum continues. “Sexuality is not nonexistent until you get married, and then you have permission for your sexual urges. It’s a beautiful expression of intimacy between two people who want to be able to express mutual and consensual love. By talking about what do we do with this urge and how do we hold onto it until we have a legitimate outlet, which the wife becomes, it’s dangerous. It can potentially objectify the woman and turn her role into a savior from the man to prevent him from sinning.”
Simply having a panel of this nature and opening up the conversation is a big step in the right direction toward demystifying the subject of sex in Modern Orthodoxy. Showing that it’s not only acceptable but necessary to talk about this in the beit midrash setting is extremely significant.
For the past two years, Linzer has been doing a podcast in English called “The Joy of Text” with Orthodox sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus. The monthly podcast delves into issues of sex and Halacha in the Modern Orthodox community, dealing with a wide range of topics.