“So, does anyone have any questions about sex and Judaism?” someone asked. “How do Jews feel about masturbation?” asked someone else. “What about gay sex?” someone added. “Or casual hookups?” added another.
I was at an apartment I’d never been to, full of people I’d never met, to attend my first Shabbat dinner. But, I’d been told that this was no ordinary Shabbat. Termed the “Let’s Talk About Sex Shabbat,” it was going to include a conversation about sex and Judaism.
“Our goal was to foster conversation on a hot topic between Jews who might not find their space at Hillel,” College sophomore and Shabbat host Molly Elson told me. “Shabbat dinner is a great weekly Jewish tradition that stretches back millennia, and reflects a lot of our experiences growing up in Jewish homes.”
It’s a great way to connect with other people with similar experiences on campus,” she added.
The dialogue was open, thought-provoking and occasionally snarky.
“The impression I’ve gotten is that relationships of any kind are about more than just sex or reproduction. Jews in general tend to be pretty chill when it comes to the physical side of a relationship as long as there is an emotional foundation,” someone offered.
When it came to actually answering the questions, sometimes someone cited a passage from the Torah or the words of a specific Rabbi, but more often than not, no one had a definite answer to any of the questions. This wasn’t about telling people how Judaism approaches sexuality, but rather, discussing the nature of sex from the perspective of modern, college-aged Jews.
“So the sex-through-a-sheet thing is definitely not true,” someone added, referring to an urban legend that Jews have sex through a sheet with a hole in it.
“Definitely not. The Jews are very supportive of nakedness in general. Both in the physical and metaphorical sense,” clarified someone else.
People shared their past experiences or talked about the approach of the synagogue they attended as a child, but it was clear that they had each created their own, personal definition of what it meant to be Jewish.
The Sex and Shabbat dinners were organized by the Jewish Renaissance Project to foster this type of approach to Judaism. Rabbi Joshua Bolton, head of JRP, said “the event [enables] hundreds of students from across campus to convene intimate, honest dinner/conversations about sex in the 21st century, and in particular on Penn’s campus.”
It was also very much a social event, as Shabbat dinners often are. After dinner, I went home and the rest of the group headed off to Copabanana for an open bar night they were calling “The Matzah Ball.”