When I used to teach in the day school world I would frequently be called upon to offer a unit called “Jewish Sexual Education” to our 4th-8th graders as part of their human sexuality units. My role was to offer up a sex-positive, safety-positive lesson about the way we look at our bodies and how we treat our partners in intimate relationships. This spanned the spectrum from strictly emotional relationships (and emotional abuse) to the very nature of our physical beings and anatomy. It never failed; each year I’d walk into the classroom to have kids shade their eyes and hide their faces because it was too much for them to hear the rabbi use medical terminology for genitalia.
I started each year with the same speech about how “this too is Torah” and reminded them that the Torah is chock-full of examples of boundaries being violated and rules about what constitutes an appropriate physically intimate relationship. This is acknowledged in multiple ways throughout the Torah, but specifically in our current Torah portion.
This week we read Parshat Mishpatim, the middle section of text in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim focuses on interpersonal laws in regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.
In the list of responsibilities towards other humans, the text talks about indentured servants and other types of “ownership” relationships. It may sound strange to modern ears, but this includes marriage. The Torah is explicit that the rights of two people in a committed relationship are food, clothing, and conjugal love. Jewish law values the rights of both partners to sexual satisfaction within their partnership. Moreover, withholding pleasure from a partner is seen as breaking a commandment.
We often think of biblical Judaism as being ancient and antiquated. We often have to dig deep into laws about sacrifice to figure out how those laws are relevant to us today. For this law, there’s no need to dig. The Torah values responsible and committed physical bonding and recognizes that withholding that physical need is a form of enslavement. It’s a pretty progressive take for these ancient words.