Last month, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was interviewed by New York Magazine about his new book “Kosher Lust.” He drops a bombshell right off the bat:
Among us religious Jews, sex is a big deal. It’s a religious obligation. In Jewish law, a man has to make his wife orgasm before he does.
The interviewer is skeptical. Really?
The Rabbi insists. It’s in the Talmud.
This week, Rabbi Shmuley cited the interview in an article that weirdly places the blame for Rabbi Freundel’s voyeurism on his wife. Or something like that. Here’s how he restated his position:
The rule applies even more to women. I was amazed last week that an orthodox Jewish sex counselor attacked me for an interview I gave on my new book “Kosher Lust” to New York Magazine, reprinted in Britain’s Daily Mail, that said that Jewish law encourages a man to make his wife climax first. This is Judaism’s tacit acknowledgment of a fact that modern science has finally caught up with – that women are much more sexual than men, having more deeply-rooted sexual needs.
This passage presents a softer version of the New York Magazine bombshell. It’s no longer a religious obligation for the man to make his wife orgasm before he does – now it’s encouragement – but there is a more fundamental problem with the entire premise. It’s not in the Talmud.
Undoubtably, the rabbi is referring to a selection from Tractate Niddah 31A. “R. Isaac citing R. Ammi stated: If the woman emits her semen first she bears a male child; if the man emits his semen first she bears a female child; for it is said, If a woman emits semen and bear a man-child.” (Translation: Soncino)
The Soncino translation is confusing to the modern reader because women don’t emit semen. In the original Hebrew, “emit semen” is “mazra’at,” which is more literally translated as “she seeds.” What does mazra’at mean in practical terms? And why would it affect the gender of the baby?
We find two general paths of interpretation in the commentaries. One is that when the female climaxes first, the child will be a boy. Thus, mazra’at is indeed orgasm. The other possibility is that women actually do emit a substance during intercourse and if the woman’s emission arrives first, the child will be a boy. In this version, mazra’at follows a more literal translation and refers to a female version of sperm.
It sounds completely unscientific to believe that gender is determined this way. In fact, we can demonstrate that both of the translations are absolutely false, but the Talmud and its commentators got these ideas from the science of their day. The two paths of interpretation may reflect a dispute between the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, who all held that female orgasm was essential to conception in some way. Aristotle believed that the woman had no seed, but the womb was inhospitable to semen before she climaxed. Hippocrates and Galen believed that friction would “heat” the woman, and a seed would be released inside her body when she climaxed. (Source)
Either way, the Talmud holds that in order to bear a male child, the female must climax first. The background to all of this is purely medical and obviously obsolete.
Most importantly though, the Talmud does not say what Rabbi Shmuley claims it says. Not even close. Rabbi Shmuley is trying to teach a lesson about sexual pleasure within a marriage based on a Talmudic statement, but nowhere in this statement is there an indication of preference regarding which person climaxes first. Armed with the background information, his attempt seems laughable. The Talmud is not giving sex advice. The Talmud is giving information about sex selection. It simply informs the reader that, scientifically speaking, the order of orgasm determines the gender of the child. That’s all. No obligations. No encouragement. None of that. Since the information is based on a false premise, it follows that any directive would be obsolete as well.
There is one last twist of irony that undermines the rabbi’s broader point and betrays a troubling bias. Rabbi Shmuley paints the obligation to pleasure one’s wife before oneself as an example of Judaism’s sensitivity towards women. However, the only way one could make that inference from the text is with the assumption that male offspring are better than females. Were males truly more desirable, one could argue that when the Talmud reports how to conceive a male child, it is actually instructing the reader to do so. To me, it seems totally incongruous to make a feminist point from a Talmudic statement that is instructing couples in the fine art of producing male children.
In Rabbi Shmuley’s defense, it’s possible that he borrowed this teaching from a 55 year old article written by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman in Tradition. He mentions this idea, citing the Talmud in Niddah 31A as part of his broader thesis in the article. His version is softer than Rabbi Shmuley’s version, saying that the Talmud is specifically referring to practices that are not laws. Rather, they are natural consequences of principles that are part of the fabric of Jewish life and tradition.
In summary: Rabbi Shmuley waffles on whether it is an obligation or an encouragement. It’s almost certain that the entire purpose of the talmudic statement is to educate couples in gender selection techniques, and not in the secret to happy marriage. The Talmud is agnostic about whether he or she should climax first. That is, unless you are so patriarchal that you deduce the importance of pleasuring one’s wife first in order to have male children.
It’s wrong to advance one’s agenda by misquoting and misunderstanding sections from the Talmud. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on mangled proof-texts to make Rabbi Shmuly’s point. In any good relationship, both partners are seeking ways to pleasure their counterparts. Whether it’s through intimacy, general kindness and consideration, support, helping significant others achieve personal success, or raising children together, putting the other ahead of the self is a fundamental of Judaism.
The Talmud (and this is actually true) says that a man has an obligation to make his wife happy (Kiddushin 34b). After all, the Torah commands us “Love your neighbor like yourself.” We are commanded to treat others the way we want to be treated. Seems to me, that’s reason enough to take Rabbi Shmuley’s advice. We don’t need advice that locks us into a specific formula; we use our discretion and follow the love in our hearts. A good husband already knows to put his wife first, as a good wife wishes to put her husband first.
Above all, a good relationship needs honesty and trust. Doling out advice based on an untruth – even decent advice – is a terrible way to teach people about relationships.
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) October 22, 2014