In a discussion with colleagues it was noted that there was not enough focus in the religious community on the normal developmental and sexual needs of women. One might draw a conclusion that there was no legitimate focus on female sexual empowerment within traditional Jewish thought. While the standards of modesty, as well as concepts of female roles were quite different in the times of the Talmud, it is important to note that there are some fascinating sources that portray women as active and effective persons, who behave far from powerless in regard to their sexual needs and destiny. Standards of modesty today are different, and with many people being exposed to graphic and demeaning portrayals of women on line, as well as websites that are critical of traditional Jewish values and thinking, I feel it necessary to discuss various sources within rabbinic literature that paint a more varied picture.
In general, there is not much positive mention of female sexual expression in terms of their own gratification, or even in playing a role of empowered initiators of sex. This may well be due to the strongly ingrained culture of modesty. Though the rabbis, in a legal sense, require a husband to be responsive to his wife’s sexual needs (see Pesachim 72b, and Tur EH 25:1), little is said about her role and voice and destiny. Nevertheless, we do find traditional sources, that in their very telling of the story, endorse female sexual expression.
In the narratives of the Bible, we have no shortage of women who were sexually powerful. For example: (1) Yael, the Kenizite woman, who seduced the enemy general Sisera (Judges 4:18-24) in order to murder him in his sleep; (2) Abigael, who sought out David specifically in reaction to her husband’s dangerous and mutinous behavior (Samuel I:25); and (3) Tamar, who posed as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law to perform a version of levirate marriage to carry on her husband’s name, and then bravely faced down her father-in-law’s accusation of adultery with incredible poise and grace (Genesis ch. 38). In Midrashic literature, we find an embellishment to the story of Rahav, the prostitute who ran an inn by the gates of Jericho. The Midrash transforms her from an opportunistic mercenary to a devout and clever woman who merits marrying Joshua (Megillah 14b,), while at the same time taking great care to point out her incredible sexual prowess (Zevahim 116ab), such that the mere mention of her name by those who had been with her can bring about a climax (Taanit 5b); Jesse’s wife with the valorous assistance of her maidservant, who cleverly plot to outwit Jesse, and she ultimately becomes the progenitoress of King David. This fascinating story involves Jesse’s wife who was sexually neglected by Jesse for three years. After which he takes a fancy toward his maidservant and requests that she join him in intimate relations. The maidservant clandestinely alerts her mistress, and asks her to intervene and save her and Jesse from committing a sin, to which Jesse’s wife replies, “What can I do? My husband has ignored me for three years?” The maidservant suggests a cunning maneuver: At the last minute, when the lights are already out, the maidservant will sneak out of the bedchamber and the wife will sneak in, adorned with the same clothes and perfumes as the maidservant. The plan was executed perfectly, and on that night King David was conceived (Yalkut Makiri Psalms 118:22:28, a midrash from approximately 14th Century)
Additionally, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) tells of the heroic efforts of the Jewish wives to maintain family stability, sexual intimacy, and procreation during the cruel enslavement in Egypt:
“Rav Avira taught: In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. He tells of their righteous actions: At the time when these women would go to the river to draw water, the Holy One, Blessed be He, would materialize for them small fish that would enter into their pitchers, and they would therefore draw pitchers that were half filled with water and half filled with fish. And they would then come and place two pots on the fire, one pot of hot water for washing their husbands and one pot of fish with which to feed them. And they would then take what they prepared to their husbands, to the field, and would bathe their husbands and anoint them with oil and feed them the fish and give them to drink and bond with them in sexual intercourse between the sheepfolds, i.e., between the borders and fences of the fields, as it is stated: “When you lie among the sheepfolds, the wings of the dove are covered with silver, and her pinions with the shimmer of gold” (Psalms 68:14), which is interpreted to mean that as a reward for “when you lie among the sheepfolds,” the Jewish people merited to receive the plunder of Egypt, as it is stated in the continuation of the verse, as a reference to the Jewish people: “The wings of the dove are covered with silver, and her pinions with the shimmer of gold” (Psalms 68:14). And when these women would become pregnant, they would come back to their homes, and when the time for them to give birth would arrive they would go and give birth in the field under the apple tree, as it is stated: “Under the apple tree I awakened you; there your mother was in travail with you; there was she in travail and brought you forth” (Song of Songs 8:5).
There is romantic and moving love story in the Talmud about a heroic woman, who was a highly sought after prostitute, whom ultimately redirects her sexual prowess, sexual aggression and demand for self-fulfillment toward a deserving partner comes from Menachot (44a):
“Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of zizith, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold [denars] for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold [denars] and appointed a day with her. When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her maid came and told her, ‘That man who sent you four hundred gold [denars] is here and waiting at the door’; to which she replied ‘Let him come in’. When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes [of his garment] struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off and sat upon the ground. She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and said, ‘By the Roman Capitol, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.’ He replied, ‘By the Temple’, ‘Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one precept which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called zizith, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is twice written, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now [the zizith] appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me]’. She said, ‘I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah’. He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash of R. Hiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions about me that they make me a proselyte’. He replied: ‘My daughter, perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?’ She thereupon took out the script and handed it to him. He said: ‘Go, and enjoy your acquisition’. Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.”
And, finally, we find a cryptic statement in the Talmud (Sabbath 140b, and Rashi ad loc), whereby the Amora Rav Chisda advises his daughters:
“In order to demonstrate the value of modesty to his daughters, Rav Ḥisda held a pearl in one hand and a clod of earth in the other. The pearl he showed them immediately, and the clod of earth, he did not show them until they were upset due to their curiosity, and then he showed it to them.”
Rashi explains this in details as follows: “When your husband caresses your breasts out of desire, do not allow him to immediately go further to your lower region so that his sexual tension will build and he will desire you more.”
While there always are other voices that indicate other attitudes, the importance of this study is to show that there indeed can be role models and persons within Jewish tradition and lore that offers female sexual empowerment. In addition empowerment is not a contradiction to modesty any more than self-confidence is a violation of the value of humility.