Translated and Edited by Daniel Winston
We have merited living in an era of Jewish idealization of intimacy in which a couple’s connection is truly seen as an actual commandment – such that one of our most fundamental drives is seen as completely positive and elevating of our very humanity. This commandment, known as “Onah” obligates us to reach a level of intimate connection with our spouse both from a place of mutual obligation as well as from profound desire and yearning. In sharp contradistinction to an intimate life which springs from and gives shape to a couples holiness and purity, there stands a world which gives thoughtless freedom to basic drives with little to no reference to true connection, dedication, or the place and power of spirituality and modesty.
Opposite a global tendency towards free license for any and all desires, we choose to act differently in two important ways. The first part of our chosen path includes separation from the negative: Maintaining proper and respectful relations between women and men in the workplace, being careful with the sights we choose to see, use of internet filters, and adherence to Halachic (Jewish Law) guidelines for both modesty as well as seclusion with members of the opposite gender. Not only does choosing the above help us to maintain our own integrity, it also enables us to serve as personal examples for the younger generations, and especially for our own children.
The second part of our chosen path departs from the realm of abstaining from the negative and brings us forwards to the realm of embracing the positive. One of the couple’s most basic tasks is to create their own place, indeed their own world. In a larger world which is rife with potential for destroying that intimate place, a couple must wisely establish for themselves a separate world of pleasure and holiness. Indeed, the Hebrew word for Holy, ‘Kedusha’ actually means ‘separate’, or ‘apart’.
A healthy couple will naturally seek to create a warm and nurturing home environment in which each knows they are there for their spouse, and each feels the presence and dedication of the other in the loving and joyous world they choose to create together. Their sexual energy of their marriage stems from a mutual choice to turn towards holiness and pleasure and is not seen as something to be either taken for granted or as lowly in any way.
The Commandment of Onah – Then and Now
“…and her pleasure you shall not diminish” (Exodus 21). Our Rabbis begin with a fundamental assumption that a woman needs and desires daily intimate connection with her husband and therefore sought to delineate the nature and boundaries of a husband’s intimate marital obligations to his wife. In more ancient times there was a practical need to recognize unusual situations in which a husband would be exempt from his daily obligations towards his wife – working as a camel herder or sailor being two particularly colorful examples. Obviously things are quite different today – with the exception of the rare camel drivers or sailors.
The reasons for this generational shift are multifaceted. One primary factor is the fact that couples are marrying at increasingly later ages which necessarily increases the time between sexual maturity and the onset of sexual activity amongst Torah observant couples. Just this aspect alone frequently can be a source of relationship issues and a certain lack of flow or ease within the sexual aspects of these couples’ connection.
Another major factor in this shift are the impacts the modern world has brought to family life by virtue of technological progress, increased participation of women in the world of work outside the home and certain resulting shifts in the nature of the relationships between men and women both at home and outside, and more. The ever increasing rate of technological advancement has enabled women new levels of access to vocational opportunities and leisure pursuits which at times can dim the power of intimate desire simply by virtue of divided attentions, increased physical and mental demands, and perhaps a diminishment of a certain naivete and innocence which may have accompanied a more sheltered, internally oriented lifestyle. Can we truly state today that the Song of Songs’ vision for couples of “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”, is of the same intensity of years and centuries past?
The stress of modern life contributes greatly to the generational shifts we are increasingly seeing in women’s relation to their own bodies and to the areas of physical intimacy. Women are more alienated from their bodies and their natural feminine functions, rhythms, and innate power. Many women are falling under the combined weight of their obligations at home, at work, in the community – and as a result the unique music of their own bodies is ever harder to hear.
In the days of Chazal and the Avos (our ancient Rabbinic sages and our Biblical forefathers), life was tremendously different. Women were involved most of their days with matters of the house and child raising, and awaited the evening-time return of their husbands who were busy in the fields or towns earning their sustenance by the sweat of their brow. Night came early and naturally – and with no electric lights – the men would learn by candle or oil lantern and then retire early with their wives until sunrise. Thus it was night after night.
Yet today, women are often equal or senior partners in the work of generating the family income. They are subject to a daily immersal in a world of power, drive, and the often necessary dulling of senses and sensitivities required to succeed, or even survive, in such a daily pressure cooker. Yet intimate relations require quite the opposite: softness, patience, openness, and giving. From within this world of polarities, a woman is called to establish and maintain her connection to her own femininity, and from that place, her connection to her husband, even while so much of her life stresses conspire against those very connections. Thus the all too frequent modern picture in which a husband comes searching for his intimate partner – only to find she isn’t really home even if they are in the same house. Thus it is that so many women are frustrated by their own inability to express their deepest female identity and desire in the place where they wish the most to do so.
The Modern Fulfilment of the Commandment of Onah – A Natural Return to the Human Nature
Jewish law understands human nature and therefore requires that we do not ignore the subject of intimacy – but rather firmly ensconce it in a central place in the building of our homes. At times we are quite busy building distance with each of us occupied with our respective pursuits, personal development, even going out to consciousness-building workshops! While all those pursuits do have their place, the oft resulting distances can and do generate frustration, alienation, and a weakening of intimate connection. Sometimes it is only one spouse who is negligent around intimacy and their partner is left alone and hurting in a world full of distractions. The Mitzvah of Onah comes to highlight to us that the building of a couple’s intimate world is a life-long mission incumbent upon both spouses – and that Heaven forefend that someone should think they are doing the other a “favor”.
Intimacy is a unique channel of communication which can foster a sense of blessing and security in the home and give children a sense of solidity and faith in the world and in their own abilities to foster a similar connection when their time comes. Children who grow in such an environment often have a very different innate sense of their own spirituality than those who do not merit such a blessing.
The Mitzvah of Onah teaches that the sexual connection between spouses is a path towards greater and deeper closeness, towards living a more sweet and more secure life, towards learning how to truly give. As such, it should never be reduced to petty score-keeping, haggling, or as a means to get something from the other side. It is a gift from the Creator of all things – and only together can we possibly merit to fulfill its profound potential.
It’s a Secret
Intimacy is talked about a lot today. There are workshops, notices, lectures, online classes and books. This is indeed a good thing. But it also indicates how much we are in need of guidance and advice. Something of our natural understanding and familiarity with marital intimacy has been ground down over generations of deep changes – and now we must make conscious and heroic efforts to turn back the tide, to turn back to each other. This demands dedication, investment, and a willingness to pay attention. It demands we look inside and bring out the best we have to offer. Our intimate life is a secret – a secret we share with each other – a secret that can keep getting better with the telling if we choose to take a path from and towards our best and deepest places as we continue to build our home with our beloved.
Editors Note: In the course of translating Dr. Katan’s article I took rather broad editorial liberties in order to make the material as relevant as possible to an Anglo audience. The original Hebrew piece can be found here. – DW