Female Sexuality in Hasidic Judaism – Through the example of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox

By Leonie Lamm

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of female sexuality. Especially in Western culture, it is now more widely accepted that female pleasure is just as important as male pleasure. However, there are still communities in which female sexuality is completely disregarded. This is especially common in highly religious communities, such as Hasidic Judaism. Deborah Feldman is one of many Hasidic women whose sexuality was completely suppressed during her upbringing in the Hasidic sect Satmar. In her memoir Unorthodox, she illustrates her life in that sect and gives an insight into the laws that the community lives by and the beliefs that its members share. Amongst these, the most striking are the ones concerning women. Feldman’s memoir makes it clear that none of these laws and beliefs focus on women’s needs or wishes, but rather on their purpose within the community, which is to produce and take care of children. Sexual intercourse is presented to Hasidic women merely as a means of procreation, thus disregarding every other aspect of female sexuality. The Hasidic view of the female body, the sexual education that women receive, and the rules and laws on sex that they have to live by, militate against a normal expression of sexuality.

Hasidic women are taught from a very young age that their life’s purpose is to bear children and rear them. Over and over, Deborah Feldman was told as a child: “[T]here is no greater curse than the curse of childlessness” (Feldman, Unorthodox 50). By teaching young girls that a woman without children must be cursed, women’s freedom of choice is completely taken away from them. This firm belief shows them that it is not even an option to live their lives without bringing children into the world, that there is no decision to be made. Furthermore, it implies that if a woman does not have children it must be because she is unable to procreate due to a higher power, and not because she chose not to. Presenting childlessness as a curse to young girls can be seen as a scare tactic, used to ensure that they would never dare to disobey this rule by deciding not to have children. Hasidic women go through their lives being reminded of the importance of procreation at every possible moment, for instance at their weddings: “[My grandfather] pronounces the blessing for me to be fruitful and multiply” (ibid. 165). This proves that the most important purpose of a married couple is procreation (cf. Feldman, Exodus 3).

  What is more, the act of creating children entirely depends on the woman: “Childlessness is never blamed on the man” (De Balie, 00:26:06 ‑ 00:26:12). Deborah Feldman states that this is the case because Hasidic Jews believe that “only a woman can be infertile” (ibid.). This mindset puts the entire responsibility of procreation onto the woman, making it all that she is supposed to concentrate on. Deborah Feldman also mentions that the inability to procreate is “seen as a punishment” (ibid., 00:26:29 ‑ 00:26:40), and that, if a woman is unable to produce children, it is assumed that she has some sort of spiritual flaw (cf. ibid.). This belief corroborates that a woman’s worth is entirely defined through her ability of bearing children.

The information that women are able to produce children concludes everything positive that they are taught about their bodies and sexualities. Women’s bodies are only considered to be something holy when they are bearing children; in every other aspect they are seen as evil and sinful. In order to make sure that this perspective on the female body does not change, young girls are raised to be scared of their own bodies. This becomes obvious when Deborah Feldman describes one of the daily modesty lectures she received in elementary school. In this specific lecture, the teacher educates the girls on ervah, which “refers to any part of a woman’s body that must be covered” (Feldman, Unorthodox 36), specifically, she says, when men are present. The teacher warns the girls of breaking the rules of ervah, saying that to do so would make them “the worst sinner of all” (ibid.). Her choice of words underlines the danger that the female body allegedly entails. She is not just teaching these little girls a new rule, but she is teaching them to be fearful of their own bodies. 

The teacher takes the indoctrination even further when she starts praising a woman called Rachel, whom she describes to have been “a truly righteous woman” (ibid.) and “an exceptionally modest person” (ibid.), emphasizing all the virtues that have already been ingrained into these young girls’ minds to be of utmost importance. The teacher explains that this woman “stuck pins into her calves to keep her skirt lifting in the breeze and exposing her kneecaps” (ibid.). Praising a person who would go to these extremes, and describing her as someone whom these little girls should admire, emphasizes that hiding a woman’s body and controlling her sexuality is regarded as more important than her well-being, as young girls are being taught that even hurting themselves would be better than accidentally showing any forbidden part of their bodies. 

These types of stories, in which a woman who went to extremes to keep her modesty is praised, seem to be very common in Hasidic girls’ upbringing. In Exodus, Deborah Feldman thinks back to another story she was told again and again as a child, in which a woman is described as so modest that she “never allowed the beams of her own house to see her nakedness” (175). This story adds another layer to the way the female body is seen in the Hasidic culture. The Hasidic idea of modesty not only requires that a woman may not show certain parts of her body in public, but also that she may not even be naked alone in her own house. Thus, Hasidic women are robbed of any agency over their bodies even when there is no actual other person present in order to ensure that women do not get to know their own bodies and sexuality. 

Another piece of information which Feldman was given several times during her childhood is that if her skirt was too short, someone, somewhere in the world would suffer (cf. Koerber‑Stiftung, 00:37:56 – 00:38:10). She sums up these stories by saying that her whole life in the Hasidic community, “nakedness, in all its forms, had always been made to seem offensive and shameful to [her].” (Exodus175). The teachers and adults who are telling these stories to young girls are making sure that they are so scared of their own bodies that breaking the rules of modesty does not even become an option. Moreover, this code ensures that any curiosity that young girls might have about their own bodies is completely shut down, making sure that their knowledge about their bodies is completely limited to what they are told, rather than what they could find out themselves. 

However, the alleged evilness that a woman entails does not end with her body. She also has to cover up her hair, because “uncovered hair is considered too provocative for everyday interactions” (Olitzky and Judson 46). Even a woman’s voice can lead to sinning, which is why women and men are often separated at religious events, as “a woman’s voice is a (sexual) distraction for men during prayer.” (ibid. 72). Due to this, women are also not allowed to sing in the presence of men (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox 140). Starting at age three, a girl’s body is deemed potentially sinful and thus in need of modest covering (cf. Auslander 22). Although girls might not explicitly grasp this sense of sin at a young age, they will pick up on these facts sooner or later, feeling more and more ashamed of what their mere presence can cause.

Not only do women get nothing but negative information about their own bodies, they also receive no form of sexual education that would ever lead them to believe that sex can be more than just procreation. There is not just a lack of sexual education; any possible curiosity is also highly discouraged. Deborah Feldman states that the Yiddish that was spoken within her community was highly censored and did not contain words like love,much less any words that have anything to do with sex (cf. De Balie, 00:17:20 ‑ 00:17:40), making it impossible to ever talk about either of these feelings. She also mentions that, since there was never any talk about sexual feelings, girls remained completely unaware of their existence altogether (cf. Stewart). As a result, she says that “[she] can look back at [her] 17-year-old self and [she] can say with absolute clarity that [she] had absolutely no sexuality. That it’s completely stamped out of you.” (De Balie, 00:34:50 ‑ 00:35:01). Another former Hasidic Jew agrees, saying that they were never curious about anything concerning sex because of the complete lack of sexual education and biology classes (cf. Rock Center, 00:06:35 ‑ 00:17:01). 

If any curiosity on the topic does somehow ever come up, it is completely shut down right away. Deborah Feldman makes this obvious when she describes a moment in her childhood in which she reads the word virgin on a bottle of olive oil and asks her grandmother what it means, having no clue that the word is related to something concerning sex. Her grandmother reacts with shock, and immediately tells Deborah that “it’s not a word for little girls to know” (Feldman, Unorthodox24). Her grandmother’s reaction makes Deborah feel anxious and ashamed, knowing that she said something bad but not knowing why (cf. ibid.). Moments like this completely discourage young girls from acting out their natural curiosity, which, again, ensures that they will not gain more information about their bodies and sexualities than what is allowed and wanted.

The complete ignorance about the existence of sexuality suddenly changes right before a woman gets married. This is when women go to marriage classes and are taught about sexual intercourse by their kallahteacher. However, the knowledge that they receive there is entirely limited to the part of sex that leads to procreation; topics that regard female pleasure, like foreplay, are completely disregarded. This becomes obvious when looking at the marriage class in which Deborah Feldman gets educated on sexual intercourse. Her kallah teacher never directly mentions any of the female’s private parts; instead, she talks about them using euphemisms and metaphors (“I hear her describe a hallway with walls, leading to a little door, which opens to a womb” Feldman, Unorthodox152). Through this kind of partial and misinformation, women’s bodies and the act of sex are turned into something completely abstract, making it hard for the woman to connect to them. The teacher describes the uterus as “a holy place inside each woman” (ibid.), turning it into something that is related to god rather than to the woman herself. The way in which she describes the reproductive tract and sexual organs, making it sound like a house rather than something inside of a woman, is so entirely vague and abstract that it does not tell the woman anything about her actual body. Furthermore, all that this description entails are the few details that actually lead to making a baby, but not once does the teacher mention how a woman might feel during this process, or what she can do to make it comfortable for her. On top of this, she never teaches the woman that sexual intercourse could be something enjoyable for her, something that could lead to more than just babies. Deborah underlines this when she states that sexual intercourse is merely seen as “a holy act that you do with the goal of producing children” (De Balie, 00:46:14 ‑ 00:46:20.). Hence, this lesson on sexual education just turns sexual intercourse into yet another rule that women have to obey, yet another thing that they have to do, and they get taught just enough to make sure that it stays that way. 

The lack of sexual education is also seen inorganizations like Footsteps, which aim to help acclimate former members of ultraorthodox communities to the secular world. This organization has several programs designed to help its members with different aspects of every-day life, one of which is called “Dating, Relationship and Sexuality Group” (cf. Footsteps). The fact that there is a need for programs like that shows just how little Hasidic Jews get taught about this topic, and how important it is that they can extend their knowledge.

At this point, one might wonder how keeping women from knowing anything about their sexualities contributes to their producing more children. At first glance, it might make more sense to teach women to enjoy sex, as this would ensure frequent sexual intercourse with their partners, which would then result in more pregnancies. However, this is not the case, as more sexual education could actually lead to the exact opposite. Sex therapist Ann-Marlen Henning claims that, if women would be raised knowing more about their own sexualities, it would be easier and much more likely for them to actually break out of these structures and start disobeying the rules that are imposed on them (cf. X Verleih AG, 00:42:55  – 00:43:40). Hence, it is safer to ensure that couples are having enough sex to produce babies by making sure that women know little enough so that they will follow all the rules that they are taught, than by teaching them to enjoy the act of sex itself. 

In Hasidic communities, there are many laws and rules concerning sex, all of which seem to be in place only to ensure that married couples are having enough sex, and at the right time, in order to make babies. One of these is the concept of niddah which refers to the time in which women are menstruating, and are thus “considered impure according to Judaic law” (Feldman, Unorthodox139). During the time of menstruation, and for seven days afterwards, in which women have to assure that they are, in fact, clean and not bleeding anymore, a woman and a husband are not allowed any physical contact (cf. ibid.140). This process usually lasts about 14 days and is completed by the immersion in the mikvah. Deborah Feldman’s marriage teacher claims that this whole process is important for the bond between the married couple, as it serves as “a renewal of the bond between a husband and a wife” (ibid.). She also suggests that it is something that serves the woman, as every immersion in the mikvahwould make her feel “like a bride all over again” (ibid.). Nowadays, many mikvahsalso resemble spas, making the ritual something very appealing for the woman (cf. Klein). However, the entire purpose of the mikvah as a ritual cleansing just seems to be something to make sure that women do not break these rules. Instead, the laws of niddahare yet another way to guarantee that a woman will get pregnant: “Since it islinked to a woman’s monthly cycle, mikvahis strongly tied to fertility and sexuality.” (Olitzky and Judson 98). This is because, right when this whole process is over and the couple is expected to have sex again, is the time when the woman starts ovulating. The abstinence in the two weeks before this serves to ensure that the couple will definitely have sex at that specific time. The sexual intercourse is only allowed when there is a chance that it might lead to pregnancy. Furthermore, the process of going to the mikvahevery month seems to serve another purpose: Deborah Feldman describes it as a way to “keep tabs on every woman’s reproductive life” (De Balie, 00:37:51 – 00:38:03), making sure that they are getting pregnant often enough. It is clear that the mikvahonly masquerades as a pleasant religious experience while actually establishing tight control over women and their bodies.

The rules that are in place for the time in which the couple is allowed physical intimacy only focus on procreation as well. Deborah Feldman states that there are laws in the Talmud which say when exactly each person has to have sex: “In the Talmud it says a traveling merchant must have intercourse with his wife once every six months, a laborer three times a week, but a Torah scholar has intercourse on Friday nights” (Feldman, Unorthodox 226). According to these laws, the frequency of sexual intercourse is established by the male exclusively, depending on his occupation. Deborah Feldman explains that these rules are in place to assure that everyone fulfills their duty of having children. The reason why Torah scholars have to have sex on Friday nights is because those are the holiest nights, which would thus produce holy children (cf. De Balie, 00:46:14 – 00:46:55). 

Another rule that indirectly tells women when to have sex is the one that forbids Hasidic men from masturbating (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox194). Male desires and sexual needs, unlike those of women, seem to be accepted. Thus, whenever a man wants to have sex, it is the woman’s responsibility to satisfy him, since, otherwise, she would be “forcing him to sin” (ibid.), i.e. to masturbate. This makes women obligated to have sex with their husbands whether they want to or not, because otherwise, they would have to “carry the burden of [their] wrongdoing” (ibid.). Even this rule leads back to the producing of children. Since Hasidic Jews believe that the sins of the father are transmitted to his son (cf. Feldman, Exodus 231), they want to keep the father from sinning in order to have holy babies. Again, the responsibility for producing said holy babies rests almost entirely with the woman. Having all these rules in place keep women from thinking about sex as something enjoyable; on the contrary, it turns sexual intercourse into a duty, rather than a pleasure. Deborah Feldman underlines said state of affairs when she states that she herself never thought of sex as anything other than an obligation (cf. De Balie, 00:46:49 – 00:46:52). 

The concept of arranged marriages is yet another rule that takes women’s freedom of choice away from them. Because of these marriages, women are not only unable to choose when to have sex, but they are also unable to choose with whom to have it. It appears to be a matter of luck whether or not the woman is actually attracted to the person with whom she is forced into marriage. The partner is picked out by the family, and they do not choose according to the daughter’s personal preferences but according to the social and financial needs of the entire family (cf. Feldman, Unorthodox120). When Deborah Feldman’s family starts talking to a matchmaker in order to find a husband for her, she already knows that she has no say in the process: “I understand that knowledge cannot possibly matter (…). What is meant to happen will happen regardless; what my family wants will come to pass” (ibid. 120). This set of customs demonstrates how powerless a woman is in this situation and how little she can influence it. When Deborah Feldman meets her husband for the first time, her family gives her a moment in which she has to give her confirmation. However, it is obvious that the only choice a woman has in this situation is to say yes: “It is a nod and a smile that I must give, and I do it” (ibid. 132). 

In her memoir Exodus, Deborah Feldman describes the repercussions of the suppression of her sexuality through all these rules and laws. After leaving the Hasidic community, she has to deal with physical and psychological health issues concerning her vagina, and seeks out several gynecologists in hope that they can help her. None of them can pinpoint where those issues came from, nor do they know how to help her (cf. 210). Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that the reason might be rooted in her upbringing, and that she has to “establish friendlier communications with [her] nether regions” (ibid. 211). Even after having left the community and after having learned more about sex and her body, even after she had “really enjoyed sex for its own sake” (ibid. 198) for the first time, over a year after having left the community, she still has to deal with the consequences of the way she was raised concerning her sexuality. Her experience of almost total lack of erotic feelings typifies that of many if not most Hasidic women and shows the extent of the suppression of female sexuality in Hasidic Judaism.

Deborah Feldman is one in many, and her experience may differ entirely from that of other Hasidic women. Of course, there are also many women that live with the same laws and rules and claim to be completely happy with them (cf. OWN).  What is noticeable about these women’s claims is that their wording sounds exactly like the things that Deborah Feldman has been taught her entire life. That is, they appear not to select their own words to describe feelings and opinions, but to parrot back what they have been told all their lives. This makes it questionable if these women actually believe what they say or if they have been brainwashed into thinking that way. For example, one Hasidic woman uses a vague phrase to describes the time of niddah as “just coming together through our minds and our souls” (OWN, 00:01:34 – 00:01:36), and yet another one illustrates it as “two halves of the soul (…) coming together in an absolute godly union” (ibid. 00:00:43 ‑ 00:00:50). This type of wording strongly resembles what Deborah Feldman has been told by her teachers and other adults throughout her whole life. Hence, the Hasidic women who like living by the laws mentioned above seem to have completely internalized what they were told when getting to know about these laws, rather than developed an own opinion on them.  

To conclude, all laws concerning sex in Hasidic communities only serve to guarantee procreation, without paying any attention to women’s needs. Therefore, it can be said that female sexual feelings do not have any importance in Hasidic Judaism. By looking at Deborah Feldman’s experience, it becomes obvious how little women actually get to know about their own bodies and sexualities, and how difficult it would be for them to change their perception of themselves. However, since all these rules are presented either in an appealing way, or in a way that makes the women afraid to break them, it is more than likely that they obey them without questioning any of it. On top of that, it seems that the complete disregard of female sexuality is not only a consequence that comes from the women’s responsibility to produce children, but is also used as a way to ensure that women will do just that. Keeping women from finding out more about their sexualities assures that they stay completely unaware of its existence, thus ensuring that women will stay part of their communities and fulfill their purpose of producing many children.  

Works Cited

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Feldman, Deborah. Exodus.New York: Plume, 2014. Print.

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Klein, Amy. “The Secret Mikvah Society.” Narratively, 29 October 2012,https://narratively.com/the-secret-mikvah-society/. Accessed 16 March 2019.

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Olitzky, Kerry M., and Daniel Judson. Jewish Ritual: A Brief Introduction for Christians.          Vermont: Jewish Lights Pub, 2005. Print.

Oprah Winfrey Network. “Hasidic Women Open Up About Their Sex Lives | Oprah’s Next       Chapter | Oprah Winfrey Network”. Youtube, uploaded 13 February 2012,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vh3S88ksnJ8.

Rock Center with Brian Williams. “Former Hasidic Jew reveal hidden world.” Youtube,  uploaded by Duudeabides2, 22 June 2013,            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQWLJhsl-t4

Stewart, Sarah. “I was a Hasidic Jew – but I broke free.” New York Post, 7 February 2012,        https://nypost.com/2012/02/07/i-was-a-hasidic-jew-but-i-broke-free/. Accessed 15          March2019.

X Verleih AG. “Podiumsgespräch #FEMALE PLEASURE | Thema: Wer hat Angst vorweiblicher Lust?“ Youtube, uploaded on 8 November 2018,            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GaBao2ns08.