As an aspect of Jewish life, sexuality is considered to be a male religious obligation (concerning ‘onah [sexual relations], procreation, and sexual satisfaction of one’s wife) and source of human intimacy and pleasure; as a metaphor it has even been applied to fulfillment of divine–human relations in mystical thought. In the modern era, the Jewish legal system and society began to compete with the free professions and the state to define terms of sexual legitimacy and deviance.
Marriage was undoubtedly the most important framework for controlling sexuality, promoting procreation, and enforcing laws of family purity (tohorat ha-mishpaḥah), which required sexual abstinence when a woman was ritually impure (i.e., during menstruation). In the medieval and early modern period, the practice of early marriage (16 as the ideal age for girls and 18 for boys) was intended to provide a proper sexual outlet for those who might otherwise succumb to the “sins of youth” such as nocturnal emission, masturbation, or even premarital sex. Jewish communal authorities imposed strict controls over marriage not only to preserve sexual purity but also to maintain the existing social hierarchy. Wealthy families were especially fearful of female domestic servants who might seduce their sons into marriage.
The more common offenders, however, were not youth but individuals with sexual experience who were suddenly forced to be celibate, including widows, widowers, and ‘agunot (women whose husbands denied them divorce or had disappeared), or traveling husbands. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Polish rabbis such as Me’ir ben Gedalyah of Lublin (1558–1616) lamented the rise of sexual scandals, which some scholars have attributed to the more “permissive practices” encouraged by Italian Jewish immigrants. Communities also struggled to combat prostitution and illicit relations with non-Jews. In Prague, for instance, communal authorities issued a decree in 1611 to expel all women who “sell [their bodies]” because their “hidden sins” had allegedly resulted in great misfortunes such as the untimely deaths of adults and children. The decree forbade women to go alone to the homes of non-Jews without a chaperone and young girls to stroll on the streets alone. Although the decree also banned the use of prostitutes as wet nurses, it is unknown whether families actually complied with the ruling.
While the Jewish legal tradition prohibited promiscuity and prostitution, it was not unanimous about the nature of nonmarital sex. In contrast to those who defined licit sex exclusively within the framework of marriage, Mosheh Isserles entertained the possibility of a “steady faithful sexual relationship” with a woman outside of marriage as long as she observed the proper laws (Shulḥan ‘arukh, Even ha-‘ezer 26:1). As was the case with earlier authorities such as Naḥmanides, he viewed such a woman as the “pilegesh [faithful sexual companion] who is mentioned in the Bible.” At the same time, Isserles did not condone nonmarital sex that violated halakhah (i.e., relations with a woman who did not immerse in a mikveh due to embarrassment). Scholars argue that despite discomfort with this view in modern times, it was customary for East European society to accept Isserles’ first interpretation as the normative law. Shelomoh Luria (1510?–1573) also upheld this view although he did not encourage the practice. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, the Gaon of Vilna treated the “faithful sexual companion” as a legitimate “wife,” albeit without the rights associated with a regular marriage.
Sexual conduct was also influenced by the popularization of Kabbalah and the emergence of new religious and sectarian movements starting in the seventeenth century. Kabbalah, which emphasized the impact of human activity on the divine realm, provided one model for sexuality in Eastern Europe. The notion that proper intercourse in the human realm could stimulate intercourse in the cosmic realm was especially prominent in Sabbatian thought. Although the Sabbatians and Frankists based their sexual mores on classic kabbalistic texts, they deviated from Kabbalah in their belief that rituals of transgressive sex (adultery, incest, orgies)—which they viewed as “imitations of unrestrained relations in the divine world”—could lead to cosmic redemption. Antinomian permissiveness often coexisted with strict asceticism in these messianic movements. For instance, Frankists in Offenbach led a disciplined life of sexual separation and abstinence, which they violated from time to time with secret orgies. The shock and dismay of the young people who were chosen to serve as sexual partners or sentries to guard the door during these rituals suggest that such acts were not a part of everyday life as commonly portrayed in the historiography.
The possibility of both celibacy and sexual licentiousness empowered women by expanding their roles and status in cultic life. On the one hand, female Sabbatian prophets such as the two daughters of Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shotin of Mattersdorf (Hungary) could remain unmarried and devote themselves to Torah study and prophecy—an option limited only to elite Jewish men for a specified time within marriage. On the other hand, women could participate and even play a central role in cultic rituals. Witnesses against the Frankists who testified before the Jewish court in Satanów, for instance, accused Ḥayah Shor of Rohatyń (Galicia) of committing adultery with various men with her husband’s knowledge and permission, acts that her husband defined as commandments, mitsvot. In the case of Ewa Frank, she remained single and retained the title “Holy Maiden” in spite of her incestuous union with her father Jakub Frank during antinomian rituals.
Another kabbalistic model that influenced sexual behavior, especially among the Hasidim, was the notion of transforming a mundane human impulse into an elevated spiritual one. Hence, the Ba‘al Shem Tov is portrayed as having encouraged sexual desire (such as contemplating the beauty of a woman) as an instrument to achieve a closer union with God. In contrast, some of his followers viewed sexual desire and pleasure as destructive forces to be suppressed or even annihilated into nothingness (bitul ha-yesh). Naḥman of Bratslav formulated an even more radical view that a true tsadik had to experience pain during the sexual act. A mystical theology that emphasized asceticism within marriages, some scholars argue, demanded sexual displacement from the human female to the divine. For instance, Hasidic sources (as well as anti-Hasidic polemics) likened the movement of swaying during prayer to the act of intercourse with the shekhinah (divine presence). In contrast, other scholars maintain that the cult of the shekhinah did not necessarily lead Hasidic men to displace marital intercourse completely; in fact, they still upheld the halakhic obligation to fulfill the sexual needs of an ‘onah. In reality, however, long absences from home to make pilgrimages to the rebbe or to commune with other Hasidim inevitably affected sexual and emotional relations between Hasidic couples, as critics such as Yekhezkl Kotik and other maskilim were quick to observe.
The opponents of Hasidism, the Misnagdim, were quick to seize upon the extended absences of Hasidic men from their wives. Their anti-Hasidic polemics contained innuendos that during their pilgrimages to the rebbe, Hasidic men engaged in homosexual activities. In Shever posh‘im, for example, one author accused the Hasidim of abandoning all sexual propriety (sleeping together, singing love songs) during the Ninth of Av in Amdur. However, David Biale suggests that perhaps the Misnagdim were only too aware that the same problem of sexual renunciation existed in their society as well. Students who traveled to distant yeshivas to study Torah also separated from their wives for long periods of time.
The pervasive influence of Kabbalah and magic also generated an intense preoccupation with the sin of keri (nocturnal emission) in Polish Jewish society in the eighteenth century. In contrast to rabbinic literature, which was more concerned about the ritual pollution of accidental seminal emissions, the Zohar and other kabbalistic works emphasized the destructive consequences for the human soul and the divine shekhinah. Men resorted to ba‘ale shem (miracle workers) for amulets, chants, and inscriptions that could ward off female demons from the “other side” (sitra’ aḥra’) who could remove a man’s soul by seducing him at night to cause a nocturnal emission. One historian suggests that the demographic increase of young men who had to delay marriage due to economic constraints in the eighteenth century may also have contributed to these sexual anxieties.
"Venereal Diseases: Gonorrhea and Syphilis. Disgraces the Individual! Destroys the Family! Ruins the Health of the Nation!" Yiddish poster. Printed in Berlin and distributed in Eastern Europe by OZE (Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jews). The poster warns against promiscuity and other risky behaviors ("drunkenness leads to promiscuity"), dispels myths about how one can and cannot contract venereal diseases, and urges infected persons to seek treatment: "Don't be embarrassed, go to the doctor." (Moldovan Family Collection)
In the modern period, Jewish sexuality became a topic of intense interest and scrutiny as European nations began to establish a modern social order. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers and medical practitioners pronounced a harsh indictment of the physical condition of the Jews and their consequent lack of productivity. They argued that the “degenerate” state of the Jews—indicated by their poor biological development (low birth weight, infection, and weakness) and “unproductive” nature—could be attributed in part to the traditional practice of early marriage. The Polish maskil Abraham Hirszowicz echoed these sentiments when he castigated the destructive cycle of economic dependence that developed in juvenile marriages when parents failed to teach their children a trade or profession. Proposals to abolish early marriage occupied center stage in the Haskalah’s vision of a modern bourgeois Jewish family in tsarist Russia. Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg, whose own wedding night had ended in failure, argued that premature marriages not only traumatized children who had not reached sexual maturity, but also contributed to a flawed gender system in which “feminine males” studied at home and “masculine females” conducted business in the marketplace, corrupting their morals.
Naomi Seidman argues that the trope of the feminized Jewish man whose life was shaped by a “homosocial structure” (i.e., synagogue, yeshiva, and bathhouse) became a staple in Yiddish literature. For instance, in the novella Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Travels of Benjamin the Third; 1878), by S. Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) the protagonists, Senderl di Yidene (a derogatory term for a Jewish woman) and Benjamin, elope in a “quasi-marriage” to flee from their dominant wives in search of the 10 lost tribes.
For maskilim, only the constraints of bourgeois domesticity could “normalize” gender relations, restore a sense of Jewish “masculinity,” and replace unrestrained sexual activity in traditional families with decorum and modesty. Victorian ideals of sexual respectability, however, had little influence on a society that lacked a strict division between public and private spheres upon which to delineate sexual identity and roles. In fact, until the early twentieth century, sexuality was still defined by laws of halakhah and traditional customs even as actual practices began to change due to socioeconomic challenges. The Jewish population in the Russian Empire boasted one of the lowest rates of illegitimate birth in 1897—0.3 percent compared with the national rate of 2.4 percent. To prevent future humiliation, unmarried girls who accidentally lost their virginity requested communal leaders to inscribe the event in a communal minute book. By the late nineteenth century, however, these norms began to lose their force with premarital sex, especially after a promise of marriage, becoming somewhat more common, though by no means widespread. This was in part due to the sharp rise in the age of first marriage as couples postponed nuptials due to economic constraints, military service, and higher education. Moreover, the experience of living away from home for domestic service, education, revolutionary activities, and so forth, led to greater social interaction between the sexes. As in most societies, women bore the brunt of social stigma for premarital pregnancies and found little sympathy either within the Jewish community or in secular Russian courts.
Changed modes of sexuality in Western Europe also meant a transfer of regulatory power in this realm from the absolutist state to the medical, legal, and pedagogical professions. New constructions of Jews as hypersexual, degenerate, and prone to disease permeated antisemitic literature, which selectively utilized “science” to popularize a racist ideology. Although Jewish intellectuals in the Russian Empire and Galicia were aware of these developments, they were much less inclined to internalize the critiques. To be sure, antisemitic images of Jews as rapacious sex traders and brothel owners were popularized by the press and by philosophers such as Vasilii Rozanov; nonetheless, the sexualized identity of the Jews based on “science” failed to take hold in Eastern Europe as it did in the West. Indeed, the close nexus between antisemitism and biological determinism never went far beyond the small circles of intellectuals in Eastern Europe. Moreover, medical practitioners in tsarist Russia rejected links between disease and moral disarray (for example, in their discussion of syphilis), which were used by doctors in the West to justify their role as “moral arbiters.”
Jewish physicians and psychologists also employed Western medical discourse selectively, often in combination with more traditional views of sexuality. For instance, Mosheh Shtudenzki (Studenzki) of Warsaw, in his advice manual Rofe ha-yeladim (The Pediatrician; 1847), warned parents about masturbation, which he defined both as a “sin” caused by the evil impulse (yetser ha-ra‘) and a pathological disease that caused excessive weakness, paleness, and deterioration of memory. The psychiatric reports of the Jewish Hospital in Vilna in the early twentieth century routinely included a woman’s reproductive history (dates and experiences of menstruation, birth, and sex) alongside questions about her religious and family life to diagnose mental illness.
While debates about sexuality remained largely theoretical, the intrusion of medicine into the legal sphere did have an impact on Jewish women’s lives in the Russian Empire. State courts relied upon the collaboration of medical experts to expose women who violated the norms of sexual propriety or were victims of a sexual crime (such as rape). Perhaps the most intrusive, modern mechanism of control was the gynecological exam that a suspect was forced to undergo to determine her guilt or innocence. The meditsinskii akt (medical report) included in all the court files reveals that state practitioners carefully probed the female body for evidence of chastity, sexual activity, and birth with the use of the modern speculum (matochnoe zerkalo). Registered prostitutes, who possessed yellow identification tickets, were also forced to submit to regular medical inspections to prevent the spread of venereal diseases.
Educated society’s desire to rehabilitate “fallen women” and to prevent further involvement in prostitution led to various philanthropic projects. Perhaps best known in the struggle against white slavery was Bertha Pappenheim, a German Jewish feminist activist who traveled to Eastern Europe to confront the issue directly. In Saint Petersburg, a group of Jewish philanthropists under the leadership of Baron Goratsii (Horace) Gintsburg created the Department for the Care of Jewish Girls in Saint Petersburg within the larger Russian Society for the Protection of Women in 1900. It provided medical care, employment assistance, leisure activities, and other services to young working Jewish women to protect them from “harmful influences” and “to support their moral development.” In addition, Jewish members of the society participated actively in the drafting of antiprostitution statutes, which the State Duma passed in 1909, and in the congress on prostitution in Saint Petersburg in 1910.
Social fascination with sexology increased dramatically during the interwar years. In Poland, educated Jewish society avidly read the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld, Ben Lindsey, and other sexologists. In Warsaw, the Polish-language Jewish women’s weekly newspaper Ewa: Tygodnik (Eva: A Weekly) routinely published frank articles about female sexual issues. Birth control as a woman’s legal right became a galvanizing issue among Jewish feminists. Pauline Appenszlakowa (d. 1976), the editor of Ewa, openly criticized Orthodox attempts to promote greater fertility with the construction of a luxurious mikveh (ritual bathhouse) in 1932 during a period of widespread economic depression. Instead, her newspaper advocated voluntary motherhood, rational family planning, and the legality of abortions. While these demands met with criticism and ultimately failed when new Polish legislation banned abortions (except in the case of a mother’s health or a pregnancy that resulted from rape) in 1932, Appenszlokowa and her supporters had introduced a different conceptualization of sexuality and gender power relations into Jewish society.
Although the exploration of the history of Jewish sexuality in Eastern Europe is still in its infancy, existing studies have shown not only a belated trajectory of “sexual modernization” but also unique developments that reflected the diverse religious, social, and cultural experiences in Eastern Europe.
Laurie Bernstein, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 1995); David Biale, Eros and the Jews (New York, 1992), pp. 101–175; Michael J. Broyde, “Jewish Law and the Abandonment of Marriage: Diverse Models of Sexuality and Reproduction in the Jewish View, and the Return to Monogamy in the Modern Era,” in Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism, pp. 88–115 (Lanham, Md., 2005); Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992); Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley, 2004), pp. 119–159; Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, 2005), pp. 153–250; Jacob Katz, “Nisuyim ve-ḥaye ishut be-motsa’e yeme ha-benayim,” Tsiyon 10.1–2 (1945): 21–54; Eva Plach, “Feminism and Nationalism on the Pages of Ewa: Tygodnik, 1928–1933,” Polin 18 (2005): 241–262; Ada Rapoport-Albert, “‘Al ma‘amad ha-nashim ba-shabta’ut,” in Ha-Ḥalom ve-shivro: Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shabta’it u-sheluḥoteha; Meshiḥiyut, shabta’ut u-frankizm, ed. Rachel Elior, vol. 1, pp. 143–327 (Jerusalem, 2001); Naomi Seidman, “Theorizing Jewish Patriarchy in Extremis,” in Judaism since Gender, ed. Miriam Peskowitz and Laura Levitt, pp. 40–48 (New York, 1997).