Man is virtually the only creature that engages in marital relations face to face. This is because for him, marital relations are meant to be an expression of his uniquely human capacity to convey his love, the innermost attribute of his heart, to his spouse.
The instruction for couples to face each other as part of their intimacy is the preferred means by which complete intimacy can be achieved on all levels, mind, body and soul.
Indeed, while there are few practical instructions found in the Code of Jewish Law regarding intimacy, the Code does call for the man to be above and the woman below. The Zohar explains that the reason for this is that the couple should be facing the directions from which they were created: man having been created from the ground and woman from the rib which G-d took from Adam. Many Halachic authorities regard the face to face aspect of intimacy as a central aspect of the marriage relationship. It should be noted, however, that while the husband and wife are encouraged to assume this position, this should not be at the expense of denying the couple the opportunity of a meaningful and satisfying intimate experience.
The connection between the concept of face to face contact and the notion of intimacy receives attention in a number of places in the Torah. G-d's relationship with Moshe is personified by the expression "Peh el peh adaber bo," "mouth to mouth I speak to him." In relation to encounters with other great people, G-d says He speaks to them in riddles; no so regarding Moshe. When G-d wants to demonstrate the obscure nature of His being, He uses the expression, "ufonai lo yarou," "and My face may not be seen."
In relations to the contact between a Rabbi and his students, the notion of personal face to face contact is so important that the Code of Jewish Law tell us that "holech l'kabel p'nai rabo, patur min hamitzvot," "one who goes to encounter (lit. receive) the face of his teacher is exempt from fulfilling certain other commandments."
King Shlomo tells us, "As (when looking into) water, face reflects face, so does one's heart find reflection in another's". In wanting to depict the powerful nature of human connection, the king uses the analogy of the image of a face mirrored by water.
The face to face connection was also a prominent feature of the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. An essential component of those sanctuaries was the "kruvim", commonly referred to as the cherubs. The kruvim, two angel-like figures, were constructed from pure gold and were part of the cover of the ark which contained the Ten Commandments. The kruvim, each of which had a face and two wings, faced each other.
The faces of the kruvim were different. According to most opinions, one face was male and the other was female. The Talmud explains that this face to face male and female imagery served to demonstrate the love of G-d to the Jewish people.
There is another intimate relationship which involves face to face contact: the mother nursing her child. The Talmud points out that the breasts of a woman are close to her heart, b'makom habinah, the place of understanding. One of the differences between the human mother nursing her child and the animal suckling from its mother is that in the former situation the mother and child face each other, whereas in the latter situation, the animal suckles from underneath the mother.
"Whereas the animal suckles from the mother's underside, the human baby sucks en face, thereby seeing her reflection in the mother's face. The mother's milk not only helps build bones and muscles, her face also acts as a mirror - helping the baby form a perception of itself and the outside world." How powerful is the experience of the tiny baby feeding from its mother while peering into her eyes? For mother and child this is their first active intimate experience which lays the foundation for their future relationship.
The man-woman relationship is more than a physical union and more than an emotional encounter. It is the coming together of two bodies, two hearts, two minds, and two souls. Of course there are numerous ways in which man and woman can join together. But how many of them involve a union on all of these levels? Fulfillment of one's physical or instinctive desire and needs may be accomplished through many different types of unions, but are they really representative of a total connection?
G-d wants that total connection on all levels, where the bodies touch, where the hearts connect and the minds meet; both partners can embrace together totally with every facet of their psyche, their being and their soul.
In his eloquent discussion about the nature of intimacy, Rabbi Yaakov Emden refers to the instruction for the husband and wife to face each other, linking it to eye contact which the couple enjoys during that time. Both the Talmud and the mystical writings look upon the eye as the window to the soul. The Torah, in describing G-d's special relationship with the Land of Israel says that it is the land which "the eyes of G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year." The vitality of Moshe, even at the end of his days, is reinforced by the words, "his eyes did not grow dim."
Direct eye contact is related to the notion of truth and honesty. For some people such contact is difficult because it calls for a sense of self-exposure and directness. In demanding honesty from others we often say to them, "look me in the eye." When we are unsure if our children are telling the truth we ask them to look at us when they talk. We tend to be wary of people who avoid eye contact when communicating with us.
The ability of husband and wife to look into each other's eyes is testimony to their trust and deep connection. Those special moments serve to reaffirm the commitment tha the husband and wife share with each other in an intimate and deeply meaningful manner.
Indeed, as in the case of a mother feeding the child, human beings are unique in that unlike other mammals, they are virtually the only creatures for whom natural intimate contact involves the partners facing each other. Such a union also carries the message of total openness, trust and total commitment. It is not seeking satisfaction in one are, it is the common sharing of all facets of each of their being from their bodies to their souls. True intimacy involves transcending personal boundaries within the context of a total, open, honest and complete commitment.
Total honesty in a marriage is the theme which finds expression in the Torah, the Talmud and the later Codes of Jewish Law. Already in the Ten Commandments, we are told no to covet or desire our friend's wife. Further Talmudic and post-Talmudic references are found in their listing of nine inappropriate intimate unions which have the potential to affect the children born from those unions. it is significant that in each of those unions, the mention of honesty is severely compromised.
Those inappropriate unions include situations where the husband uses force, or where there are feelings of hatred on the part of either partner. Both situations are condemned because they lack the integrity required for an honest relationship. Even in the situation where the couple is merely quarreling, the union is compromised. Certainly, in a situation where one things of a person other than one's partner or where the husband has resolved to divorce his wife, the union has been seriously blemished. Clearly, the couple is not on the same wavelength; the relationship lacks honesty.
The requirement for honesty and integrity in a relationship is also the reason why the rabbis condemn the intimate union which is conducted when one or both partners are drunk or where one of the partners is asleep.
Ultimately, the position advocated for intimacy within the Jewish marriage code is representative of something far deeper than the physical proximity of husband and wife. Together with the face to face aspect of the intimate relationship, this position represents a statement which connects the intimate act with a commitment to total honesty and openness. By instructing the husband and wife in this manner, G-d is reminding the couple of the awesome responsibility of facing one another with sincerity and integrity. These are the ingredients of a permanent commitment and a lasting relationship.