Rachel Gordan

In 1949, Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male became a bestseller and sparked a widespread conversation about sexual norms and sexual variance in the US. Kinsey’s 1953 volume on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was even more explosive as it challenged widely held views of female sexuality. Kinsey’s dry and data-filled unexpected bestsellers successfully touched a nerve in American culture, even reaching into the subculture of Orthodox Jews. While it would be an overstatement to say that Orthodox Jewish leaders in the late 1940s and 1950s embraced Kinsey’s findings and his taxonomic approach to sex, several Modern Orthodox Jewish leaders viewed Kinsey’s popularity as an opportunity to publicize what they viewed as Judaism’s more healthy and candid approach to sex.

Three women react as they read a review about the Kinsey Report on female sexual behavior, 1950s.

Orthodox Judaism is the label applied to less liberal brands of Judaism in response to the religious innovations introduced by Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century. Orthodox Judaism encompasses several branches of Judaism that view Jewish law as binding. Within marriage, sex is is not considered evil or sinful in Orthodox Judaism; it is rather understood as a helpful reinforcer of the love between spouses, and like other human impulses, sex requires regulation.

Why were Kinsey’s reports and findings of interest to mid-twentieth-century Orthodox rabbis and writers? After all, these were observant Jews who turned to religious law – not the latest findings by a secular sexologist – for guidance about their marital lives. In part, Modern Orthodox Jewish leaders valued non-procreative sex and they sought to synthesize Jewish law and the secular world. Further, Kinsey provoked a response by distinguishing between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews; a differentiation to which Orthodox Jews were not yet accustomed in wider American society. For example, Kinsey writes in his male volume:

With one exception, there are surprisingly few differences between the behavior of equally devout or non-devout members of the three religious faiths. The one exception lies among the Orthodox Jewish males.

What Kinsey found, in this instance, was that Orthodox Jewish men evidenced much lower “total sexual outlet.” During a Cold War era when politicians and popular culture promoted a masculine virile, heterosexuality as integral to American citizenship, Kinsey’s reports suggested a normalization of non-Orthodox Jews. In contrast, when it came to Orthodox Jews, Kinsey’s data portrayed them as outside of the sexual and the American mainstream.

Published in the years immediately following the Holocaust, Kinsey’s volume on male sexuality took note of the contrast between his findings about Jewish sexuality and the Nazi stereotype of oversexed Jews: “This relative inactivity of the Orthodox Jewish males is especially interesting,” Kinsey wrote, “in view of the diametrically opposite opinion which recently stirred a considerable portion of Europe against the Jews as a race.” He continued

Of all religious groups they are the sexually least active, both in regard to the frequencies of their total sexual outlet, and in regard to the incidences and frequencies of masturbation, nocturnal emissions, and the homosexual.

If Kinsey’s reports challenged the stereotype of the carnal Jew that was prominent in Nazi ideology, they did so by substituting it with a stereotype of another extreme – what Kinsey called “the pervading asceticism of Hebrew philosophy.” Even less devout Jews, Kinsey maintained, “may still be controlled to a considerable degree by the Talmudic interpretations of sexual morality.” In a speech before the National Probation and Parole Association in 1952, Kinsey revealed his inclination to associate Orthodox Judaism with America’s Puritanical sexual ethic. Criticizing American sex laws as impracticable, Kinsey posited that much of the American pattern of law regarding sex “merely preserves Talmudic tradition.”

But rather than attack Kinsey for these comments – and contrary to Kinsey’s image of Jews – some Modern Orthodox Jewish thinkers actively participated in an invigorated discussion about sexual norms in the postwar era.

We are indebted to Dr. Kinsey for recording the intriguing paradox of, on the one hand, the openness and frankness of Jews in talking about sex, and on the other hand, their relatively greater restraint in its full biological (and especially illicit expression).

These were the words of Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of a few prominent, mid-twentieth-century Modern Orthodox Jewish leaders who publicly engaged with Kinsey’s reports and argued for their utility in supporting the Modern Orthodox approach to sex. “The Torah has given us an approach… which can help bring more happiness to both husband and wife,” the Orthodox Rabbi Morris Max explained as he described the formation of the Jewish heterosexual male as someone who learns

…To exert self-control in every sexual relationship in order to gauge her feelings as well as his own so that she as well as he can reach the climax of the relationship. Thus… we Jews more than 2,000 years ago found the solution to the problem of enabling women to experience the climax, to which Kinsey devoted so many chapters in his book.

In Max’s highly gendered account, an Orthodox Jewish education was one that taught Jewish men, inter alia, to be exemplary sexual partners. Kinsey’s 1953 report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female brought new attention to female sexuality, proving that, contrary to beliefs that they were asexual, women were in fact sexual beings who enjoyed sex and experienced orgasms. Orthodox rabbis who read (or, more likely, read about) Kinsey’s findings, found that they seemed to coincide with the sexual standards of rabbinic Judaism, in which sex is a woman’s right in a marriage and a husband has a duty to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her.

Kinsey’s descriptions of a repressed Jewish approach to sex set the circumstances for Orthodox writers to educate Americans about Judaism’s actual approach to sex and to distinguish their movement from other religious groups. A range of Orthodox Jewish responses to Kinsey ensued, but most of those who wrote in public forums sought to show how the Orthodox approach to sex, with its frank discussion of the topic and its value on sexual pleasure within marriage, harmonized with the latest science.

Were Orthodox leaders truly expecting to reach non-Jewish Americans in their publications? Most were not, although Herman Wouk’s bestselling This Is My God (1959), which included an Orthodox response to Kinsey, was unusual in its non-Jewish readership (the book was serialized in newspapers all over the country). Modern Orthodox rabbis were responding to a cultural moment by showing how Orthodox Judaism fulfilled the desideratum of modern men and women. The Cold War valuation of heterosexuality, combined with the popularity of Kinsey’s reports, nevertheless created a unique opportunity for Orthodox leaders to articulate their sexual values within a postwar heterosexual paradigm.

Historian R. Marie Griffith has shown that in spite of his own vehemently secular identity, “Kinsey played a critical religious role in the United States by enlivening Protestant liberals to reconsider, and, indeed, revise their views about sex.” But that religious influence extended farther than historians have previously acknowledged. Placing Jews at the center of scholarship about the Kinsey reports illuminates the intersection of religion and sexuality in midcentury, Cold War America, and the ways that a secular scientist influenced Modern Orthodoxy’s public identity. For those who read these Modern Orthodox respondents to Kinsey during the 1950’s, the message was likely titillating: If you desire a great sex life, you don’t need Kinsey. You need Orthodox Judaism.


Rachel Gordan teaches at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on post-WWII American Jewish religion and culture. She is revising a book manuscript based on her Harvard dissertation, Post-WWII American Judaism: How Judaism Became an American Religion, which focused on the immediate postwar years as a time when a new American Judaism was created as a result of changes in world Jewry and cultural shifts in Cold War America.



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