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Marriage, sex and desire in Judaism

Anastassia Boutsko
June 17, 2024

No masturbation, sex twice a week, unique sex toys: An exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin sheds light on the sex lives of Jews.

A woman looks at a picture of a smiling young orthodox Jewish couple, who are holding hands.
Newly married: A young Orthodox Jewish coupleImage: DW

One would think that Judaism, with its more than 3,000 years of history, also has something to say about one's love life, especially as Judaism has produced formative love experts like King Solomon and Sigmund Freud.

An exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin now explores the question and how the social perception of sexuality has evolved in the community. Featuring more than 100 exhibits, the show has a tongue-in-cheek title: "Sex: Jewish Positions."

How the incompatible come together

Two pictures hung next to each other form a kind of visual declaration of intent in the exhibition: "A Jewish Wedding" by the Dutch-Jewish painter Jozef Israëls from 1903 and "A Jewish Wedding" by the contemporary photo artist Yitzchak Woolf. The latter shows a homosexual couple having their marriage solemnized — initially only in the picture, as no synagogue could be found that was willing to do so.

A picture showing two men holding hands in candlelight. Both their heads are covered by a cloth and they look solemn as they are surrounded by other people in the background.
Orthodox Jews do not approve of religious ceremonies for same-sex weddings: Yitzchak Woolf's 'A Jewish Wedding'Image: Yitzchak Woolf

"This exhibition is about the relationship of Judaism and Jewish tradition to changing ideas of sexuality, gender and lust," explains Berlin-based German-Russian publicist and filmmaker Anna Narinsky ("Find the Jew," 2020) to DW.

"For sexuality, as for every other topic in Jewish tradition, the religious laws are not rigid but are adapted to current life realities and changing social structures through interpretations, discussions and impulses," museum director Hetty Berg told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

Condemnation of celibacy and 'no is no'

Let's start with the "duty." Unlike Christianity and many other religions, Judaism strictly condemns celibacy. No one is allowed to evade the commandment "Be fruitful and multiply."

The Torah states that a man has three duties towards his wife: to feed her, to clothe her and to grant her marital intimacy. And preferably at least twice a week. Lack of sex is considered sufficient grounds for divorce in some Talmudic treatises, with all payments due to the wife after just one week without action in bed.

A painting titled "Adam and Eve with their firstborn" by Lesser Ury (1861-1931), which is currently being exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
'Adam and Eve with their firstborn' by Lesser Ury (1861-1931)Image: Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Foto: Jens Ziehe

At the same time, religious books emphasize the importance of a woman's consent to sexual intercourse: "When you are finally ready for sexual union, make sure that your wife's intentions match yours," states the Iggeret Ha-Kodesh, for example, a Kabbalistic text from the 13th century.

However, the Torah not only prohibits premarital sex but also other activities "without the intention of procreation" like masturbation. This would be a "waste of semen."

Women must also refrain from intimacy during and after menstruation; they may — and must — only return to the marriage bed seven days after the last bleeding and after cleansing in the mikvah, the ritual immersion bath.

Works by LGBTQ artists — a protest against traditional norms

Being different in a traditional value system: This is also a major and often difficult issue in Judaism. "In the Torah, men do not marry men. And women don't marry women," writes David Sperber, researcher of contemporary Jewish art, in his article "The Art of Breaking Taboos," written especially for the exhibition.

Picture of a sculpture called "Tumtum" by Gil Yefman is being exhibited at the Glass Courtyard of the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Gil Yefman's sculpture is called 'Tumtum': a word ancient rabbis used for those now known as 'non-binary'Image: Jens Ziehe

Behind every work by Jewish LGBTQ artists is a difficult story of struggle against the conservative establishment.

Visitors linger for a long time in the room with moving video documentaries of men from traditional Jewish families talking about the often hard-won acceptance of their homosexuality.

"I just pray that you don't forget the way to God," says a mother wrapped in a black scarf lovingly to her son, a young bearded man with a kippah. "And whoever you are, no one can ever tell you that this is not your home."

This is an excerpt from the film "The Holy Closet" by Israeli director Moran Nakar.

Between prohibitions and sex toys

In a glass case lies the "Shulchan Aruch," a summary of the basic rules that Jewish believers must follow in their daily lives. The book is opened to a page that deals with permitted and forbidden sexual practices, particularly the prohibition of masturbation.

"Beware of physical arousal, so do not sleep on your back or stomach with your face down. You should sleep on your side to avoid physical arousal," the book recommends. It is also not advisable to sleep two to a bed. You should not watch animals, whether wild or domestic, when males and females are mating, and you should not ride bareback, the book adds.

In a separate display case, there is a small object that makes many visitors smile: a solid metal ring that is placed over several phalanges of the fingers to prevent them from bending. This device should be worn by men at night to prevent them from inadvertently satisfying themselves in their sleep.

But the exhibition also provides a counterpoint: "Water Slyde" was developed in 2014 by the Orthodox Jew Maureen Pollack for the sexual health of women. The highly unorthodox device fulfills a dual function: as a female stimulator and vaginal douche. It was developed with the blessing of a rabbi — as a means of promoting sexual intimacy between spouses.

Picture of an instrument called "Water Slyde" that was designed by Maureen Pollack.
'Water Slyde' by Maureen Pollack serves the sexual health of womenImage: DW

Open discussion on intimate topics

The millennia-old culture of Judaism is full of prohibitions and restrictions. But it also has another tradition: being open with oneself. "And it is precisely in this tradition that the Berlin exhibition stands," says Berlin intellectual Anna Narinsky. Without fear or false pathos, the makers present the central intimate topics of Jewish culture for discussion.

"I really liked the fact that both sex and religion are portrayed with the same respect, but also with the same degree of humor," Narinsky told DW. "This is the central idea that is very close to my heart: Traditions and beliefs do not demand that we deny our own identity. On the contrary, they encourage us not to betray ourselves under any circumstances — neither ourselves nor our neighbors."

This article was originally written in German.