Dear Jewrotica #11 – BDSM

Dear Jewrotica

Rated R

Dear Jewrotica,

I am pretty familiarized with Jewish views on sexual relationships, and most of the laws that orthodox apply to their marriages.

I wonder if, between those rules and the general principle of not harming others, even with their consent, BDSM is a halachic possibility. Could it be practice within certain limits? Or is it completely forbidden?

Does this answer change in other branches of Judaism?

-Dirty Di, Colombia

Dear Jewrotica

Shayna Abramson

Shayna Abramson

What a fabulous question!

First of all, my knowledge of the topic is that of an Orthodox layperson: For the official Orthodox answer, it’s best to ask a bunch of rabbis (and educated women leaders, even if they lack the title “rabbi“) from across the Orthodox spectrum.

In general, in Orthodox law, any type of sex within marriage is allowed, provided it is done with the full consent of both partners.

There are two exceptions to this rule:

1. Many couples have the practice of not “wasting seed” – that means that when the man cums, he must do so inside the woman’s vagina.

(This custom may be less relevant to couples using birth control, depending on the method they are using.)

2. It is forbidden to do oneself harm. Each person’s definition of harm may vary; it seems clear however, that any permanent physical damage would be forbidden. So while a couple of whip lashes might be fine, whipping to the point of permanent scarring would be problematic.

Orthodox Judaism believes strongly in the importance of a healthy marriage and particularly the sexual component of marriage, which is considered one of the major marital obligations. Because of this, creativity within the law is highly encouraged, leaving lots of room for BDSM and other fetishes.

The answer may vary for different branches of Judaism, since different branches have different approaches towards traditional Jewish legal sources. I bet that BDSM is not a common topic of sermons in almost any Jewish synagogue – but maybe it should be 😉


Dr. Limor

Dr. Limor

Beat my meat
What’s in a power play? It has been observed that men are more likely to remember specific aspects of a past sexual episode such as a particular smell or piece of clothing. The feminine psyche is less subjected to conditioning, to associate specific things or events with sexual encounters. This may shed light on the higher percentage of male fetishism or male ‘deviancy’ than females. For men, a specific incident in childhood can be linked with sex and thus they are forced to replay it on order to trigger lust.

Through punitive touching on the buttocks, aka spanking, children are often effectively conditioned to associate control through the infliction of pain with sexual arousal. Rousseau wrote that the spanking by his governess elicited both pain and sexual arousal and played a major role in his sadomasochistic tastes upon his mature development.

What’s the chosen people’s take on it? Hard to say, the rules are unclear. Obviously, some of the activities related to BDSM are explicitly forbidden Torah prohibitions. Some, such as those posing a risk to health, are covered by blanket prohibitions against dangerous activities (V’Nishmartem M’Od L’Nafshoteichem). Others by prohibitions against ‘beastly’ behaviors, (B’Al Teshakatzu et Nafshoteichem) Most are prohibited even if they are permissible technically (Naval Bi’Rishut HaTorah).

Maimonides, usually quite conservative on “relations”, proves quite liberal on this question:

“A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or unnatural relations, as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain. However, it is a sign of piety not to show too much levity but to sanctify himself at the time of intercourse… A man should not depart from the way of the world and its custom because its ultimate purpose is procreation. (Mishnah Torah Issurei Biah 21:9) As in the prohibiting laws of ‘having lit sex’ in judaism,one is permitted to have intercourse during the day, with due modesty, in order that intercourse be performed with acceptance and love and not by force”—(Meiri Niddah 17a).

According to Rabbi Johanan ben Dahabai, it is forbidden to “overturn the table” (practice unnatural intercourse or unusual positions), but the Rabbis explicitly disagree with him: “A man may do whatever he pleases with his wife (at intercourse). A woman once came before Rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I set a table before my husband and he overturned it.” Rabbi replied, “My daughter, the Torah has permitted you to him. What can I do for you?” (Nedarim 20b).

“Unnatural” relations are permissible only if they are occasional and not exclusive, and if the intent is mutual pleasure. Both husband and wife must agree on any unnatural forms of sex, for Jewish law forbids a man from forcing his wife into any sexual act against her will. This includes getting her drunk.

Ok, so we pretty much have it down: no booze, consenting activities, and as long as the safe words are kept, nobody is in real pain.. Now go power play you chosen ones 🙂 have a mischievous Shabbat y’all!


David Bookbinder

David Bookbinder

Thanks for your very thought-provoking question! The short answer is there is room in halakha for BDSM according to one approach. The long answer is slightly more involved:

Wounding someone is a Torah prohibition (as opposed to just Rabbinic) based off of an interpretation of Deut. 25:3 (1). In this vein, all the classical poskim, halakhic decisors, rule that wounding someone, even with consent, is forbidden unless there is a great need (like saving someone’s life). This is the position of the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam, among others.

But Rambam takes it one step further. He rules that unless the wounding is contentious or degrading, it is not even considered wounding by halakha, this would be regardless of a great need.

Following this logic, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, when asked about the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, ruled that getting this kind of surgery would be permitted. It is done not only with consent but for the benefit of the patient as well therefore excluding it from the category of “wounding” according to Rambam. (2)

Based on the Rav Moshe and Rambam we could say that any BDSM would be permitted as long as it was not seen as contentious or degrading by the submissive, which of course is extremely subjective. What if the sub does see it as degrading yet derives pleasure from the degradation (which is common)? Rav Wikipedia has this to say:

Good pain and bad pain are terms […] signifying that whilst BDSM may include an element (often quite pronounced) of consensual pain, there is a purpose to it, and some pain is consented to and accepted whilst other pain is not. “Good pain” is therefore pain that is mutually agreed, desired or permitted by the submissive partner to be experienced, and seen by them as of enjoyment or value.

So it would seem one would have to decide where the line between good pain and bad pain is in any giving BDSM scenario.

In denominations which bind themselves to halakha one could use this approach to show permissibility, in certain contexts. In branches which do not see halakha as “binding”, this would depend on each individual’s interpretation of this major concept: Is there a difference between good pain and bad pain? If so, what is it? This highlights an extremely important aspect of BDSM: SSC – safe, sane, and consensual – through open and honest conversations with your partner.

(1) Forty shall he strike him, he shall not add; lest he strike him an additional blow beyond these, and your brother will be degraded in your eyes.
(2) There is an additional prohibition of entering into a dangerous situation, however the Talmud points out that once the danger is a universally accepted risk, it is fine. How universally is applied is another question.


Naomi Dovdavany

Naomi Dovdavany

Dear Reader,

Thank you for sending in such a daring question. Lots of people are curious about this one but not many are brave enough to ask, so bravo for you!

The black and white answer is this: There is nothing in the Torah that explicitly restricts most BDSM activities practiced between a husband and wife. As long as they are in full agreement, with neither being forced or coerced, God has given married couples essentially complete freedom in regards to what takes place in the “marriage bed.” Could this freedom include black leather costumes, bondage, and role-playing? Sure, why not?

The 50-shades-of-oy response is this: BDSM is a term that covers a wide world of wild behaviors. While the Halacha is surprisingly permissive, there are a few explicitly prohibited acts in The Torah that fall under the BDSM umbrella: threesomes, cross-dressing, or pornography are examples. Because of this, while it’s very hard to find a specific legitimate argument against BDSM as a whole, many Rabbis will claim “it’s frowned upon by Jewish law” based on general principles like the one you mentioned against harming others. As long as the Torah and other texts fail to spell out implicit rules on a subject, there is always room left for interpretation. Find you 10 conflicting opinions on the subject? With both hands tied behind my back.

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Dear Jewrotica is an advice column hosted by the Jewrotica staff. We answer questions about sex, sexual health, relationships, romance and other topics as they relate to the Jewish community, culture and tradition. Confidentiality is respected, and we'll do our best to tackle your questions with knowledge, sensitivity and tact.