The MIT Hillel Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) is a 10-week experiential, conversational seminar for MIT students looking to deepen their understanding of Judaism on their own terms. We’re interested in asking big questions. You know, the big stuff, like who am I? What communities am I a part of? What is worth committing myself to, and why? And we don’t purport to have any of the big answers…certainly not for anyone else.
I’m kind of prudish. The last time I talked about sex or intimacy in mixed-gender company was with my husband and rabbi during our pre-wedding counseling sessions. Before that, the last time I was engaged in learning about Judaism’s views on sex in the presence of men was during a late-night Shavuot lesson at Harvard Hillel about five years ago. From that evening I remembered that a man of independent means is supposed to have sex with his wife every day while sailors are only required to have sex with their wives once every six months (Talmud, Ketubot 61b). Wow, what a difference a job makes! I jest, but I understand. To me, this is one of Judaism’s many examples of valuing equity over equality.
Traditional ketubot, marriage contracts, prescribe that a man is to please his wife sexually and provide for her materially. It is consequential that a sailor cannot both be home every evening to have sexual relations with his wife and perform the duties that allow him to care for his family in other ways. Yet he can shirk neither responsibility; he has two contracts he must fulfill: to his employer and to his beloved. Three, actually, as man and woman are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Halachically, to have a child would also require a suitable marriage. To both marry and become a parent are acts of creation that necessitate physical intimacy and can open pathways for spiritual intimacy as well.
To me, that men are obligated to procreate can be interpreted as a requirement for men to make themselves vulnerable and to offer them a kind of safety that such an intimacy offers as a reward. Throughout time and place, for reasons positive and negative, women have often been compelled into intimate relationships as a matter of security and bonding. And what is a more intimate experience than to have a child form in your own womb and to feed them from your own breast? It is also quite intimate to observe niddah (laws of ritual purity), which brings menstruating married women together for a monthly ritual of spiritual purity that requires the assistance of another to view your nakedness and declare you kosher. What a blessing to hear the repeated proclamation with each dip in the mikveh.
With so many rules that reinforce intimacy, it begs the question: What is the value of intimacy at all? Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” While I used to interpret this as something akin to a blessing on our souls, some interpret our godliness as the legacy of lineage of Adam following the words of the Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5: “Adam was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours.’” In either case, this suggests our birthright includes an intimate relationship with God; God is directly in us and when we combine ourselves into one to create another we amplify and continue God’s presence in the world.
By recognizing and honoring the presence of the divine in each of us, we can all come closer to oneness, as a people, as part of humanity. Oxford defines intimacy as “close familiarity or friendship; closeness.” What could be more intimate than sharing divine kinship?
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