Puritan sex stigmas not Jewish, says rabbi-teacher

Rabbi Leslie Alexander has made it her mission to turn Jews on.

She recently taught a course called "Jewish Views on Sexuality" to help spread the word that sex is a "natural, wonderful, holy, delicious" part of Jewish life.

"Judaism is about giving pleasure to one another and having no qualms or inhibitions about it," said Alexander, the chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

"When a Jew goes before God, they are going to have to answer for every pleasure they didn't take."

Alexander's course, which was offered through Lehrhaus Judaica at Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore, showed that the Jewish view of sexuality lacked the Puritanical stigma that has pervaded a Protestant-based American society.

"We, as American Jews, are saddled with a Christian sexual perspective which doesn't at all reflect Jewish ideas. We have all this moral baggage about who we are sexually; none of that is Jewish."

Instead Judaism teaches that sexuality ranks up there with holiness and godliness. Sex, said Alexander, is a beautiful gift from God.

"It's wonderful stuff and most people don't ever get a chance to learn it," said Alexander.

In the Iggeret HaKodesh, or Holy Letter, for example, Nachmanides (1194-1270) wrote an entire section on the ways to improve sexuality.

"It is all about God making our bodies for sexual pleasure," she said, likening it to the Jewish Kama Sutra.

"The Jewish texts are very blunt and very direct," she added. "Teaching it is lots of fun. My students usually say, 'Whoa! They really said that?'

"We spend so much time as a society trying to free ourselves from sexual mores. If we had just learned from our own tradition, we wouldn't have to try."

These kinds of lessons are everywhere among the Jewish texts, including the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Torah, according to Alexander, whose course focused on this spectrum of classical texts to expose the reality of Jewish teachings on sexuality.

As for later Jewish texts that contain messages about sexual inhibition, she said, "They are really just seepages of later Western cultures."

In fact, Alexander remembered once reading a text in which a rabbi was telling a group of other rabbis about the various things he would consider sexual perversions. "And then, at the end of his speech the rest of the rabbis told him he was wrong."

Alexander noted, however, that the life envisioned by the early texts is one in which marriage and procreation prevail. "But, with that being said," she added, "once they were married, and even in cases of premarital relations, sex was much more liberal than we think of it in our society."

Because of the emphasis on marriage and procreation, early texts deal with homosexual relations among males in "a more stringent" fashion than that of females. But this was due to practical, more than moral, reasons, she maintained.

"They were trying to build a societal structure where men would get married and pass on their wealth, and they figured [homosexual men] would have to be prodded into marriage," she said. "They didn't care so much whether women were having sex with other women because they expected they'd eventually fulfill their societal responsibility and get married."

In addition to loving the "racy" nature of the subject, Alexander enjoyed teaching about Jewish sexuality because it's a way to pique people's interest in Judaism.

"I think studying Talmud is great," she said. "If I can get people to start studying the Talmud by showing them this aspect of it, then maybe they'll go on to see something else in there that interests them."