Fourth “Joy of Text” Podcast Focusses on Virginity
A few weeks ago, the fourth “Joy of Text” podcast came out, with a focus on virginity. April’s edition of the podcast in which Rabbi Dov Linzer and Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus discuss sexual matters from an Orthodox perspective also featured discussions about husbands hugging wives after a child’s birth and different levels of sexual desire in a couple, as well as a featured speaker. Initially intended to come out four weeks ago, its release was delayed on account of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s passing, and came out later that week.
It was great to have Ramie Smith back on the podcast to hear her moderating and asking questions and helping guide the conversation, as her absence was noticeable on the previous podcast. One new addition to this podcast, which I thought was a clever move, was to break up the main conversation piece from the guest speaker with a plug by JOFA, one of the sponsoring organizations, and then to split up that interview with the guest speaker from the Questions section with another plug by YCT, the other sponsoring organization.
For this post, I am actually go in reverse order of the podcast, discussing the questions first, then the guest speaker, then finishing with the primary discussion. One question raised was “What is supposed to happen between a husband and wife sexually when there are very different levels of desire? Various sources discuss the mitzvah of a man to provide pleasure to her when she desires it, what happens in a marriage where she is quite happy to have relations once a week, once every two weeks, or even less often and he would like to have it more often? Halakhically, does he have to just accept once a week or every two weeks? What are the other options there?” To this question, Dr. Marcus stated that
This is a question I get all the time from couples: there are two people in a marriage and, in a perfect world, everybody’s desire levels would match up with each other. More often than not, there are some discrepancies in desire levels, so the issue becomes how do you make it work within a marriage or within a relationship? The first thing to ask yourself is “How disparate are your needs?” If you have one person in the relationship who really could care less about ever having sex and you have one person who wants to have sex three times a week, obviously that’s going to be more problematic than someone who wants to have sex once or twice a week and somebody else who wants to have sex three times a week. Most commonly – but this is definitely not the case across the board – you find that men have more interest in having sex than the woman, but that is not always the case, but that is more commonly the issue.
Furthermore, pointed out Dr. Marcus, “In my experience, couples’ sex lives start to really go downhill if they’re not having sex at least once a week or, at least, once every two weeks. And if you get into a situation where the person really is not interested in having sex once a week or, even in the more extreme cases, once every other week, then I’d say that’s an issue that should be addressed, whether through a therapist, or through medical, somehow, it should be addressed. Huge disparities really need to have a professional involved with them.” However, “I need to get this caveat because I don’t want to get a bunch of angry phone calls and emails: “We have sex once a month and it’s fine and it’s great” and there are some couples like that, but, for the most part, I’m just talking about the top of the bell curve at the moment. If you feel like you married someone who really has almost no interest in sex, or very little interest in having sex, then that problem might be bigger and needs to be addressed.”
After a woman gives birth, often the hormones just take all kinds of interesting nosedives. and those hormonal shifts can have a huge impact on women’s moods. we’re very much more conscious of the fact that women can face post-partum depression now. That’s an area where, I think, twenty years ago, people didn’t pay attention to at all. And, if they did, they assumed it’s because she had the baby and her status changed. But now, we’re realizing, like many other things, the hormonal shifts are having a very significant medical response in many women and many women have post-partum depression. Some of them are fine, but many women go through a time when they are just feeling really depressed because of the hormonal shifts in their body.
Following her laying out of post-partum depression, Rabbi Linzer discussed the issue from a halakhic perspective: “Halakhah would categorize that as a חולה, as a woman who is sick. Often, there is a lot of halakhic accomodations for people who are sick. On the other hand, halakhah is very strict about a husband and wife engaging in sex and sexual activity and even just touching during the period when the woman is a נידה, when the woman is menstruating or after childbirth, when she has that same status.” After laying out that general foundation, he then dealt with the specific question:
The שלחן ערוך actually rules that a husband is not allowed to attend to his wife’s needs when she is – by physically touching her – even to help her lie down or get up from a bed when she is sick. He is concerned that lust will take over him, he’ll take advantage of her, and they’ll wind up having sex, and he does not see that the need to attend to her would justify any form of contact, even non-intimate contact, even a type of a contact that’s necessary, just to help her out.
רמ”א, who’s the authority for Ashkenazi Jews, actually rules otherwise. He rules that a husband is allowed to attend to his wife and help her get up, lie down, and so on when she is ill. Although there is some ambiguity whether he’s only allowing that only when she is in life-threatening danger or even more general cases.
It is worth pointing out that he writes in his commentary to the טור, the דרכי משה, he quotes a ראשון, an early authority, who says that those that would forbid a husband attending to his wife when she’s ill, and actually touching her in ways that are necessary, he calls this a righteousness of idiocy. You’re being too righteous on somebody else’s account. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the רמ”א does allow it.
The question is “How would that translate here?”
And here I think it’s important to recognize that this is not as simple as a normal case, because here, presumably what we’re talking about is more of a type of not just a casual touch, but a hugging, an intimate touch, it’s a way of giving reassurance or comfort. And that’s something that’s treated more seriously in halakhah. Now, I do think it’s important to distinguish between erotic touch and intimate touch. I think a husband and wife can have intimate, supportive touch which is certainly not erotic. So I would not say that it is what some people would consider a possible biblical violation. But, nevertheless, I assume that if the wife needs comfort and support and being held by the husband, that’s not just checking for her pulse or helping her get out of bed, and maybe one thing could lead to another and they could wind up having sex.
His conclusion for this specific case was to wrap a blanket between the two people and hug: “I could imagine that that could be very embracing and comforting and reassuring and, at the same time, there’s no actual physical contact and there are halakhic authorities that actually speak about touching through something as a way of dealing with these cases and it’s done in such a way that it clearly won’t lead to them having sex and it won’t be that one thing would lead to the next.”
The guest speaker on this podcast was Dr. Joel Hecker, which was great to have the guest speaker actually there with the main hosts of the show (as opposed to the first podcast with a call-in guest). Dr. Hecker is associate professor of Jewish mysticism at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. One highlight he shared was that “Mysticism, across religions, uses erotic imagery to try to talk about the intensity and to talk about the intimacy that the mystic wants to have with God, whether that mystic is male or female, the relationship is often imagined in erotic terms.” In considering how eroticism is found in Jewish mysticism, Dr. Hecker said that
Much of Jewish ritual was imagined as the way in which you would bring together the masculine and feminine aspects of divinity. Very lush sexual language was used to describe what it was that was going to be envisioned by the kabbalist, so that their highest goals were about attaining that aim of bringing those two together. but also themselves as they would fantasize about an idealized feminine, what is often called the שכינה, or indwelling of God. that relationship, too, become eroticized.
In response to Smith’s question of “For those of our listeners who are less familiar with the texts, are there any ways you can suggest bringing this meaning into our everyday lives?”, Dr. Hecker said
To the extent that we all recognize that you can walk into a room, into a meeting, and you can bring in good vibes or bad vibes, if you walk into your bedroom and you are conscious that what you want to be doing is not having intercourse or having sex, but rather making love, and that the love that you’re trying to be making is part of something that is cosmic, that it is part of the love that you, ideally, wish was encompassing everybody in the whole world. And while we’re not inviting everybody into our bedrooms, that there is a way in which that what we’re trying to participate in is something larger.
The main topic of the podcast was virginity. It seems that, in our day, when discussing this topic, there is a difference in how women consider it and how men consider it. It seems as if women generally do not connect with the concept, while it seems as if it resonates with men generally. Perhaps it could be described as more of a masculine concern as to a woman’s virginity. Since women may generally not connect with the concept as much, perhaps we will see its value lessened in society’s eyes. Nevertheless, Rabbi Linzer and Dr. Marcus discussed this gendered topic as the featured discussion in this podcast.
As to be expected, being a woman, Dr. Marcus not only did not connect with the idea, but actually thinks that it is not helpful and advised listeners: “Stop worrying if you’re a virgin or not, just stop it, worry about what you’re doing and whether it’s something you want to be doing, whether it’s something that’s appropriate according to Jewish law, whether it’s something that you would be able to talk about without feeling horribly guilty and shamed.” Their virginity conversation clearly made Dr. Marcus feel uncomfortable, as she was anxious about it and she really did not like having the conversation. “When the topic of virginity came up for this podcast, I hated it,” said Dr. Marcus. “I didn’t want to deal with it. It’s a silly idea, what does it mean?”
While Rabbi Linzer avoided sharing any insights into how men think about [women’s] virginity (which could have been a helpful window for women to peek into how men think), he discussed solely the halakhic issues surrounding virginity. Rabbi Linzer discussed the כתובה, the marriage document, saying that the contemporary practice is to write that a woman is a בתולתא, a virgin, for a first marriage, since “we don’t really pay attention to what the woman’s sexual history has been,” said Rabbi Linzer. “We only will write something different if it’s not a first marriage.”
Smith sharpened her question, asking “My question really stems from the label of virginity,” continuing:
From the כתובה, I think it’s something that is carried with you throughout your life as a young Orthodox woman, you know your כתובה is going to have certain language, so you have to act accordingly, or at least, talk like you’re that way. And I think it’s a struggle that a lot of young women face if you’re somewhat sexually active. Can you still have that title if you’re sexually active in a way that maybe your כתובה didn’t suppose you were going to be sexually active, can you carry the label virgin?
Rabbi Linzer pointed out, in contrast to Dr. Marcus that
I do think that culturally, societally, in the Orthodox community, people want to hold onto that title. And I think that has to do with this history and this background (כתובה) and also because we’re one of the few remaining communities that holds onto the value of not having premarital sex. and one of the ways we communicate that is the importance of remaining a virgin. In a way, I think there’s a power in talking about that, because it reinforces the ethos of not having premarital sex.
In summing up the discussion, Rabbi Linzer stated the metadiscussion in the following way:
How do we raise people that are thoughtful, responsible, in terms of moral issues, in terms of religious issues, and also carry a sense of the weight and the lines and embrace both the idea you’re representing and the idea that I’m representing. The “danger” of your side is “Okay, it’s all relative, I’m thoughtful and then I’m going to go ahead and think about it and do it.” And the “danger” of my side is it frees you from having to be a responsible agent: you just think about those lines and it also allows for rationalization and for saying “I’ll play the system. I won’t step over this line and I’ll do anything but, and, therefore, I won’t be responsible.” I really think our goal as parents, as educators, and as rabbis is to think about how to communicate both of those.
Published by Jewish Public Media, “The Joy of Text” comes out monthly and is made in collaboration with the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. The next episode comes out tomorrow.