The teaching on sexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community inIsrael has undergone a dramatic shift since the 1990s, writes Orit Avishai (Fordham University) in an article published in the newest issue of Fieldwork in Religion (November 2012).
While not unique to Orthodox Jews, sexual anxieties tend to be exacerbated in a community where modesty is an imperative, girls are not supposed to touch boys and the female body must be concealed. No form of premarital intimacy is allowed and sexuality is not supposed to be discussed in the community.
The wedding makes sex transform overnight from “forbidden” to “permissible.” There is a struggle in reconciling desire and pleasure with ideal images of masculinity and femininity within a community where the body tends to be erased. Obviously, this also depends of the level of exposure to secular Israeli culture.
Avishai has identified three types of strategies by bridal counselors that exist in an attempt to address these issues and facilitate a switch by reconciling carnality/desire with piety/religiosity. A traditionalist approach “sanctifies sexuality by removing it from the realm of the flesh. Marital relations are described as spiritual.
Pure thoughts should remove carnality through rituals. However, this approach does not escape a contradiction: while describing repugnance toward all things sexual as ‘Christian,’ its description of sex as a spiritual commandment associated with prayers and ‘pure thoughts’ can actually engender a negative approach of sexuality,” writes Avishai.
A pragmatic response affirms pleasure and desire while maintaining distance from secular, hedonistic views. It attempts to normalize desire and to make young women familiar with their own bodies. While space is allowed for some erotic self-exploration, sanctioned sexuality remains restricted to marital relationships.
Finally, there is a reformist approach, especially through Kolech, a feminist/progressive Orthodox women’s organization. It is primarily associated with reformist and feminist causes, and its direct impact is limited. But “modern” approaches toward sexuality are also influencing more traditionalist women, according to Avishai’s observations. The Orthodox Jewish community is “negotiating its sensibilities” in a search for answers to problems of the flesh.
Avishai suggests that major shifts are taking place and that such attempts should not be judged by progressive yardsticks, as is often done: the regulation and affirmation of sexuality can also get along with each other.
(Fieldwork in Religion , Equinox Publishing, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, South Yorskshire S3 8AF, UK).