Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Steipler's Letter on Intimacy

A little while back I mentioned that Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff had cited the Steipler's letter on sex in one of his lectures. As I had never heard of the letter before, I was very curious and wanted to find it. I looked for Rabbi Nathan Drazin's Marriage Made in Heaven only to discover that there was no English translation of the letter in that book. I then realized I had to find the Hebrew version, namely, Zivug Min Ha-Shamayim, and not only that, but the newest edition. Gottesman didn't have it, which was saddening, but then, upon searching WorldCat, we realized that only five libraries worldwide have got this book! Of these five, only one had the second edition (published in 1989.) Thus, it is with a sense of great happiness that I hold Harvard University's copy of Zivug Min Ha-Shamayim in my hands.

To offer context and a preface, the Steipler wrote this letter with the request that it not be published. He desired it only to be circulated so that those who needed to know of it would. However, Rabbi Drazin took it upon himself to quote particular excerpts/ paragraphs from the letter in order to clarify matters to those who were honestly searching. You see, the Jewish tradition seems to allow for different understandings of intimacy, ranging from a more ascetic approach to one that permits and states that one ought to find pleasure in this. A basic introduction to some of these points of view and our common understanding nowadays is provided by my article, "The Jewish Perspective on Sexuality."

The updated version of Zivug Min Ha-Shamayim contains a SH'UT section, namely Shailos u'Teshuvos (Questions and Answers.) It is in this section that someone cites the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and inquires as to how Rabbi Drazin can claim one ought to take pleasure in intimacy to the extent he does when the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch reads: בשעת הזווג יש לו להרהר בדברי תורה ובשאר דבר שבקדושה... ואף כשהוא אצלה לא יכוין להנאתו אלא כאדם שהוא פורע חובו שהוא חייב בעונתה, ולקיים מצות בוראו שיהיו לו בנים עוסקים בתורה ומקיימים מצות בישראל (Hilchos Tznius, Kaf-Gimmel, Beis through Tes). In answer to this question Rabbi Drazin cited from a "michtav aroch m'Gaon chasid echad." This, R' Rakeffet explains, is the Steipler's letter. While the excerpts are on page 110 of the book predominantly, I thought it best to scan the question as well, so below please find pages 109-111.

The Steipler's Letter on Intimacy

On the offchance that someone is unable to access Adobe Reader I also scanned the main part of the letter (page 110) in JPG form. However, I would greatly prefer it if you read the entire PDF as that's the way to achieve the best understanding.

The reason I have cited this letter and made it available is for the pursuit of holiness. Many people whom I have spoken to are very confused by the presentation of sexuality in Judaism and I think it is imperative for them to know that the Steipler used very clear language to explain that pleasure in this act is a pure and holy thing. Not only that, but that in our time it is not appropriate to act as ascetes in this matter. It is my desire that this letter only be used to promote holiness and understanding.


Gavi said...

Thank you so much for scanning this - I have been looking for the original for some time!

Anonymous said...

Maybe to save you some time

the full letter is in this book


Chana said...

Anon 4:21,

Thank you so much! You are so wonderful. If only I were the sort who missed nothing, as you miss nothing.

Toviah said...

Wow, That was awesome. By the way,could you scan in the next page also? The next issue that the Steipler adresses seems interesting as well.

Shades of Grey said...

Very interesting indeed, thank you for posting this!

J. said...

Chana, are you aware of the political context of the Steipler's letter, in terms of polemics with certain Chassidic groups?

Anonymous1:45 said...

It's very thoughtful of you to adress this issue. The feeling that there is something sinful or untoward about sex in marriage is, in fact, not a jewish belief, but a christian concept that has unfortunately, over the centuries, wormed it's way into some (not all) of the jewish community. In terms of the letter stating the appropriate ways a husband should treat his wife as opposed to the inappropriate; this can be seen in the torah (without expounding too much), in the different words used to describe the act of coitus in different situations i.e. 'vayeda' in the case of Adam and Chava (who are originally a single being-as a husband and wife are neshama achat) signifying knowing-a connection-meaning knowing the person and thus love for the person. Compare this to 'vaye'aneha' (the rape by chamor-the ass). 'Metzachek ota' - her the connotation is good (we can assume that Avinu was not acting innapropriately as there is no reprimand by God)- making her happy/showing affection....other terms and meanings... Here are some rules of thumb for marriage told to me by Rabbi Amnon Haramati 1. a person should marry with someone who has the same nature as them; example: If you are a good person then marry a good person. My frien then asked him "And what if a person is a bad person- and if you are an evil person then don't think you should marry a good person, rather marry an evil person and the two of you will live happily ever after doing evil things to people together.(not that there's only two kinds of natures out there, but you get the point). 2. Never speak in anger to your spouse. Never talk when you're angry. Wait until you an/or your partner relax and then talk. Speaking of himself and his wife, Dinah Haramati, "we never fight" 3. (since I'm a male) When you get married then ther is no need to look at another woman again ('to look"-meaning in a desirous way). 4-5. A husband and wife are like two parts of one whole unit; each must always think of the other. 6. His wife Dinah added "like good friends". Not that this is the only advice, just that which I recieved from my most trusted source- My Rabbi. It is baffeling to me as to why the incredible amount of advice in our torah (and chachamim, of how a husband and wife shall relate to one another, is not taught and explained and expounded upon to all yeshivah students. I consider myself quite ignorant and even I have learned these things. This is akin to secular schools teaching things like the pythagorean theorem (which most students will never again use in their life), while not having a single class on finanaces, balancing a checkbook, dealing with credit cards, how to invest properly... The point being, teaching things which one will rarely encounter, and yet not teaching the things which every single person will actually need to know in their lives. In the beginning Adam and Chavah were a single being.

Shadesof said...

"The feeling that there is something sinful or untoward about sex in marriage is, in fact, not a jewish belief, but a christian concept that has unfortunately, over the centuries, wormed it's way into some (not all) of the jewish community."

I would like to raise a similar issue, and that is how to deal with this in raising children. As I see it, the issue is to separate a natrual feeling of discomfort, from appropriate attitude of tzniyus and to communicate this to children and adolescents.

Dr. David Ribner has written in an article,

"All too often we have justified our reluctance to actively help our children cope with their emerging sexuality by raising the banner of tziniut. With this convenient shield, we have protected ourselves from our own discomfort."

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feurman wrote in article in the Jewish Press:

"When teaching children about sexual matters, it is important to be direct and clear because it is so easy for them to misunderstand. In addition, the usage of euphemisms and other indirect methods of discussing sexuality can possibly reinforce an unhealthy degree of shame. Such shame, if excessive, could be one causative factor (among many) that could lead a child into an emotional state where he is not able to be comfortable enough with sexuality, thus impeding his functioning and causing confusion and distress later on in life when he must become actively sexual as a newly married adult."

Everyone is different, but perhaps understanding this difference between " natrual discomfort" versus "tzniyus" would increase fulfillment in children and adults even in ruchaniyus , since they would relate to themselves better and be happier.

To broaden my point, the issue is one of refining one's attitude("lishmah") and it applies to situations beyond this example.

For example, years ago, a chavrusah of mine would object to my innocent mentions of "Hilchos Avelius", in the context of other limudim. I checked the preface to Nitei Gavriel on Hilchos Aveilus, a modern-day work on the subject, and although it's a subject in of itself, my innocent reference doesn't seem to be an issue. While, I didn't think it was my place to say anything, I thought that my friend needs to be refine his attitude, so that it should be "lishmah", based on genuine halacha and hashkfa and not on anxiety or superstition.

I would be interested if anyone has any comments regarding my own comments.

Shlomo said...

R' A Lichtenstein has a comprehensive article on this subject, published in Orthodox Forum and Tradition. He looks at the sources and concludes that MOST of chazal saw sex as "holy", while MOST of the rishonim saw it as "dirty". For more details: http://media.www.yuobserver.com/media/storage/paper989/news/2008/12/30/Features/The-Jewish.Perspective.On.Sexuality-3581373.shtml

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Warren Burstein said...

That doesn't seem to be the letter that R Rakefet mentioned, where "he goes into rashei prakim simple, sexual knowledge, how to treat a woman". It's an interview with the Steipler that says that onah is important but it's missing those practical tips.

Nor is the letter posted on Bechadrei Chareidim that someone linked to in a different post of yours (http://curiousjew.blogspot.co.il/2009/10/now-i-am-frustrated.html). That is a letter by the Steipler about marital life, but it's not the letter with the practical advice.

I haven't seen the book that an anonymous commenter linked to at the YU library so I don't know if it's there.

Shmeichel said...

I'm really confused, CuriousJew. All that the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch says is that the MAN shouldn't intend it for the sake of pleasure. No mention is made of the woman, and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch surely didn't mean to contradict the unequivocal obligation of foreplay in the Gemara. Anyway, the whole idea of foreplay is bringing THE WIFE pleasure so she'll be fully willing to engage in relations. Where's the contradiction here in the first place?