Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sex As A Married Wife's Right and A Husband's Duty ("The Jewish Way")

Comparing patriocentricity to the practice of Orthodox Judaism according to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage

When I opened this series of posts considering the writings of Rabbi Lamm, I mentioned how an elder's wife borrowed the book and never returned it. I believe that she did so because the information Lamm communicated about a woman's sexual rights within marriage strongly contradicted the male hegemony that is promoted by the submission teachings of men like Bill Gothard which were relied upon quite heavily in our church.

Two of the women with whom I shared Lamm's book had husbands with obsessive and pathological appetites for sex to such a degree that the women expressed great shame and embarrassment, to put it mildly. One husband's obsessions were so great, his means of “physiologically medicating” unpleasant emotional states, that the couple eventually sought counseling for sex addition for the husband and healing for the wife who felt much like a prostitute.

I found the advice shared by that church's leadership deeply disturbing on many levels, as a Christian, a wife and as a nurse. I don't have knowledge of any disciplinary actions taken against any man in sexual sin or those who subjected their wives to physical abuse, however I am well aware of the counsel given to the wives of some of the men. Because of the unbalanced teachings about submission and the denial of rights to subordinate parties viewed unjust suffering as a powerful means of glorifying God, women were encouraged to submit to their husbands (professing Evangelical Christians) and their sexual sins. Men were not denied opportunities to minister in the church and were allowed to serve as deacons and elders while their authorities bore full knowledge of their sinful behavior. Wives received more counseling than the husbands did because submission to this unwise counsel proved so difficult.

Years later, I am still deeply saddened by the memories of these situations. How grateful I am for the knowledge that I had through reading “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” long before my introduction to my knowledge of these teachings. The question that I asked those wives and the question that I advance here remains the same. If those who support a return to Biblical concepts of family and Scripture through a conservative interpretation of those Scriptures, why can Lamm cite so many examples, including the writings of antiquity from experts on all things traditionally and conservatively Jewish (Maimonides) – the legalists and those who are sanctified through the works of the law – that completely oppose so many of their views about marriage and specifically about women?

How can the writings of the legalism under the Old Covenant as interpreted by the legalists of antiquity who follow the Old Covenant grant far more rights, privilege and autonomy to women within marriage than the New Covenant which sets us free from the law under grace through faith alone? According to Lamm, sexual gratification is a right of the wife and not the right of the husband. The husband's duty includes fulfillment of the wife's desires under Jewish law, not the other way around. (Did I miss a chapter in the New Testament wherein a wife's rights were removed under marriage in Christ?)

Pg 136 -139
The Bible conceives of sex within marriage as the woman’s right and the man’s duty. (Until quite recently, the western concept of marital duty was that it is man’s right and a woman’s duty.) The woman’s right is assured by the Bible; she may not waive it, and her husband may not preclude it as a condition of the marriage contract.

Woman’s duty to man is specifically described in the Talmud, though it is not recorded in the Bible. The basic idea of the woman’s right does not originate in an act of kindness, but it is an essential component of marriage. No man may marry a woman and then simply ignore her or her sexual needs. It is remarkable that it has taken western thought so long to come to the conclusion that was evident in ancient biblical times, namely, that women have sexual needs just like men. The Victorian idea that a “lady” has no such feelings is a piece of prudery that never appeared in the long Jewish tradition.
Jewish law goes so far as to state that if either partner to the marriage refuses to participate in conjugal relations, (under certain conditions) that person is considered rebellious (mored) and the other spouse can sue for divorce. The Bible records three fundamental, unqualified rights of the woman in marriage – food clothing and conjugal rights – but only a refusal of the the last dubs the husband a mored. That surely is because onah is the essence of the marriage. Food and clothing can be handled in court, but withdrawal from onah is a functional termination from married life...

Rights and duties must be defined, or they will be ignored as merely sentimental platitudes. While it does seem paradoxical to divine love by law, it is an effective, minimal safeguard that enables love to continue to function satisfactorily in society. Of course, in regard to the frequency of copulation, the law cannot deal in absolute numbers. Raavad says “The onah frequency ordained by the Sages refers to the satisfaction of the individual woman’s desires.” According to Maimonides, it is also relative to the man’s potency and to the nature of his work.

In addition to the normal onah, the husband is expected to respond to his wife’s needs whenever that may be (outside of the menstrual period) and even anticipate her desire (e.g., before leaving on an extended trip)...

The onah experience may not be mere mechanical fulfillment, for as such it does not conform to the biblical requirement to rejoice one’s wife. Rejoicing means satisfying needs, and it signifies a sensitive and caring involvement of the whole person and a genuine sense of intimacy, (kiruv). Therefore, Mainonides teaches that one may not have intercourse without being mindful, sensitive, and alert. “One may not have intercourse while either intoxicated or sluggish or in mourning; nor when [one’s wife] is asleep, nor by overpowering her; but only with her consent and if both are in a happy mood.” The act must be capable of expressing devotion. Thus one may not have intercourse if husband and wife are not committed to one another are thinking of divorce, nor if they quarreled during the daytime and have not resolved it by nightfall. Raavad refers to this as exploitation, using one’s partner as a harlot. One should not perform the conjugal act while imagining some other partner. The physical onah must be expressive of love; otherwise, it is simply animalistic...

Great sensitivity is a basic requirement in the Jewish attitude toward sex. No excuse of superior religiosity on one hand, or of rough-and-tumble masculinity on the other, may justify a less than delicate approach. The Midrash asserts, “The groom may not enter the bridal chamber without the specific permission of the bride” ...
Ramban added a nuance to these requirements. In these obligations of marriage, the husband’s duty is to provide food, clothing and conjugal relations... The reasoning of Ramban is also significant: “A wife is not to be treated as a concubine... The bedroom atmosphere must have honor.”

In the next post:

The importance of joy, intimacy, loving compassion and dignity in the sexual union of husband and wife. According to Jewish law, it is animalistic to engage with disinterest, disdain or obligatory duty under duress.

Copyrighted material quoted here
under fair use for educational purposes from
by Maurice Lamm. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1980.