August 2016

Topic of the Week: Research Profile

August 19, 2016

Sex and the Orthodox Jew in the Mid-20th Century

By Nora Smolonsky

What do American Orthodox Judaism and the sexologist Alfred Kinsey have to do with each other? Both had something to say about the importance of sex, in the mid-twentieth century.  Kinsey shocked the world when he published the Kinsey Reports, which documented the previously secret sexual lives of Americans in the mid-twentieth century. Despite Kinsey’s discussion of religion, there has been little research done on religious reactions to the Kinsey Reports -- and much less about the Jewish reaction. As part of Rachel Gordan’s research for her forthcoming book on post-World War II American Judaism, she researched how Alfred Kinsey’s reports reverberated in the Orthodox world.

Gordan, a former HBI scholar-in-residence, discovered the need for research on the relationship between the Kinsey Reports and American Orthodoxy while researching the Orthodox novelist Herman Wouk for her dissertation. When Gordan began thinking about Wouk in relation to post-WWII American Judaism, she realized Wouk’s unusually large impact on how Americans thought about Jews because of his bestselling novels (that also became Broadway plays and movies). Very few other Jewish novelists writing about American Jews and Judaism had that level of popular success. Gordan felt that Wouk deserved to be brought into the conversation about Jews and American religion. Gordan’s reading of  historian R. Marie Griffith’s work on clergy’s responses to Kinsey made her “think about what the Orthodox response might have been to Kinsey’s finding. I remembered that [Wouk] had written about Kinsey in his 1959 book This Is My God,” she said. Gordan’s archival research about Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar also revealed that he was interested in changing social norms surrounding sexuality at the time, “and was trying to capture that tension between the way older and younger generations thought about courtship, in his novel,” said Gordan.

In the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey normalized the notion that sex and sexuality were healthy for married heterosexual men. Orthodox Jews used the Kinsey Reports as a platform to popularize their conception of a Jewish sexuailty. Gordan has found “that writing about Orthodox rabbis’ responses to Kinsey has also led into my writing about Jews and the Cold War, and the ways that Jews tried to promote the idea that Jewish men were red-blooded, healthy American men, and that they fit Cold War expectations of American citizens.” 

When asked about the role of female sexuality in this conversation, Gordan explained, “Some Orthodox rabbis did point out that Jewish law has something to say about female sexuality, but it was not foregrounded in the Orthodox discussion of Kinsey during the 1950s. Male desire and the idea that a happy sexual life between husband and wife were valued at a time when these aspects of life had become part of what was considered healthy and important in marriage.” 

Gordan’s research proposal explains that Kinsey’s findings erased the stereotype of the oversexed Jew that was dominant at the time and established the image of the undersexed Jew. Though fiction, Wouk’s writing exposed the reality of the American Jewish experience. Gordan explained, “As a writer of realistic, popular fiction - and not a rabbi - Wouk was concerned with capturing American Jewish life as it was actually lived. When he wrote Marjorie Morningstar in the early 1950s, he wanted to capture some of the shifting societal mores around dating and sexuality. The goals of a popular writer like Wouk - to strike a chord with readers - guided him toward looking for the truth in a situation. Those Orthodox rabbis who read Wouk and responded to him generally understood that as a novelist - and a popular one at that - his approach to writing about Judaism and sexuality was different than their own.” 

“Kinsey’s findings became a way that some Orthodox rabbis and writers called attention to the fact that Jews shared the same healthy desires and feelings (now considered healthy and appropriate, thanks to Alfred Kinsey) as everybody else. Talking about sexuality was a way to show that Jews were like everybody else, but that Judaism was perhaps a bit superior to Christianity because, as Wouk and Orthodox rabbis pointed out, it seemed to have more of a system for dealing with sexuality.” 

Nora Smolonsky was an HBI Gilda Slifka intern and a recent graduate of Concordia University.

Rachel Gordan is a former HBI Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence and recipient of a 2015 HBI Research Award, which funds artists and researchers who are producing work that examines the intersections of Jewish and gender studies. Her book, How Judaism Became an American Religion (under contract with Harvard University Press), is expected to be released in Fall 2017.