If [a man] marries another [a second wife], he must not withhold from this one sh’eirah (her food), k’sutah (her clothing), and ona’ta (her conjugal rights) (Exodus 21:10).
I’ve tipped my hand by translating ona’ta as conjugal rights. Etz Hayyim, reflecting on the literal meaning of onah, which is “ointment,” points out that understanding the term to mean conjugal rights is already found in ancient translations of Torah and certainly the Rabbis understood it this way, as well.
But perhaps that’s not what Torah had in mind? Perhaps it means that women are entitled to the basics of food and clothing, but also a little extra, ointment being a luxury? It has been pointed out by scholars too numerous to count that for the Bible, marital sex is for the purpose of procreation. This hyperbolic teaching from the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) lacks all subtlety:
R. Eliezer stated: One who does not engage in propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood, for it is said, Whoever sheds man's blood by man shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6), and this is immediately followed by the text, And you, be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7). R. Yaakov said: [it is] as though he has diminished the Divine Image, since it is said, For in the image of God made humanity (Genesis 9:6), and this is immediately followed by, And you, be fruitful [and multiply] (Genesis 9:7). Ben Azzai said: [it is] as though he sheds blood and diminishes the Divine Image, since it is said, And you, be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:6) [after both Whoever sheds man’s blood… and For in the image of God…). (b.Ketubot 63b)
Moreover, scholars tell us, permitting a woman only to her husband ensured that a man knew for certain that he was the biological father of the child he was raising. This has provoked many to criticize the institution of marriage as being created for men to control the sexuality and procreativity of women.
There’s no doubt that the Rabbis were concerned with propagation. If the verse from Mishpatim with which we began had had that in mind, it would have been the man whose rights were stipulated. The verse would say that even if a man took a new wife whom he preferred, his first wife would still owe him intimacy.
But it doesn’t say that. It says that if a man takes a new wife, he still owes his first wife intimacy. Women have conjugal rights, but men do not. In a world that has consistently said “men have needs” but never that women do, as well, this is most surprising — and refreshing. The Sages become quite specific in discussing the matter in the Mishnah:
If a man forbade himself by vow to have intercourse with his wife: Bet Shammai ruled that [she must consent to the deprivation for] two weeks. Bet Hillel ruled one week. Students may go away to study the Torah, without the permission [of their wives for a maximum of] 30 days. Laborers: one week. The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are [as follows]: For men of leisure: every day. For laborers: twice a week. For donkey-drivers: once a week. For camel-drivers: once in 30 days. For sailors: once in six months. These are the words of R. Eliezer. (b.Ketubot 5:6, daf 61b)
In short, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree about how long a man may withhold sexual intimacy from his wife. Their assumption, however, is that she has a right to it, and he may not utterly deny her. R. Eliezer puts teeth on the matter, specifying times. Apparently R. Eliezer was a keen advocate of early retirement. But the very variance between Hillel and Shammai, and between men of different vocations, makes it clear that we are talking about sex for pleasure and fulfillment here, not just procreation. Women are entitled to intimacy because it gives them pleasure and happiness. Accordingly, the Gemara goes on to chronicle in detail, the dangers of leaving one’s wife for long periods of time, even to study Torah, and the disasters that ensue.
Although intimacy in marriage is not only sanctioned, but also mandated, in Jewish tradition, our experience in the broader world has had a tremendous affect on the arc of Jewish religious attitudes toward sex and sexuality. The Talmud already speaks of the yetzer ra, often translation “evil inclination” but probably better translated “aggressive life force.” The yetzer included the sex drive, which unchecked, could wreak havoc.
In Christian Europe, the firmly entrenched Hellenistic notion of a split between body and soul crept into Jewish views. Christianity taught that the body was seen as a dangerous source of sin that must always be kept under tight control, sex top on the list of behaviors that threaten the soul. Certainly rabbinic authorities never condoned severe forms of asceticism, but they did absorb a general sense of distrust of the body and strong preference for spiritual endeavors over carnal pleasures.
Maimonides, whose life spanned both the Christian and Muslim worlds, made clear in Moreh Nevuchim 2:36 (Guide for the Perplexed) his opinion on sex. Not only is it shameful and depraved, but he also went so far as to deny that marriage and procreation are obligatory at all. Rambam is not alone in harboring a fundamental distrust of sexual activity. The widely circulated Iggeret ha-Kodesh (a book on marriage, sexual relations, and holiness) objects to Maimonides’ narrow view, arguing that God created sexuality and the sex drive as part of the human body, and therefore they cannot be disgraceful. Nonetheless, many authorities, including Iggeret ha-Kodesh, counseled fulfilling one’s duties, but no more and none that I know of applauded sexual pleasure.
That is, until mysticism crept into the Jewish consciousness, and Lurianic Kabbalah put sexual pleasure front and center because sexual coupling mirrors Yichud, the union of Male and Female aspects of the godhead. The physical pleasure of sexual intimacy was understood to have a spiritual dimension; indeed, the spiritual aspect was the ultimate goal. Mysticism took off like wildfire, spreading far and wide through the Jewish world, reintroducing the notion of pleasurable sexual intimacy, but alas, the dominant culture’s mistrust of sex and premium on “spiritual” pursuit over “carnal” behavior held strong.
It is time — indeed past due — to consciously examine our attitudes toward sex and sexuality and consider their source. Are they consonant with Jewish values? Jewish tradition has held, as early as the Torah, and continuing through the rabbinic period, that properly channeled sexuality, for both procreation and pleasure, is a divine blessing. A simple verse — Exodus 21:10 — opens up a world of conversation; it’s a great place to start.