What are some of the religion's teachings in the area of
by Howard Greenstein
concedes that biologically a human being is part of the animal kingdom.
Spiritually, however, it insists that every person is also little
lower than the angels. Among the lower animals, the sex drive is
a purely biological one, but in the human animal the situation is
much more complicated.
there is little controversy over the belief that sex in modern civilized
societies must have more than biological meaning, there are wide
differences expressed by various religious groups about the question
of sinfulness or the basic evil nature of sex. Rabbinic literature
records the observation of Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman, who noted the
verse from Genesis, “And behold it was very good,” and
observed, “This alludes to the ‘impulse to evil’—the
yetser hara. Is then the ‘impusle to evil’
ever good? Yes, for were it not for the ‘impulse to evil,’
no man would build a house, nor marry a wife, nor beget children,
nor engage in trade.”
Talmud identified sex as an aspect of the yester hara—“the
impulse to evil.” Yet it persisted in calling that impulse
“good,” not only because it too was a divine creation,
but because this impulse was part of the drive that makes for progress.
It was only in its unleashed and uncontrolled expression that the
sexual impulse was considered evil.
then in Judaism was almost always considered to be a necessary and
healthy function of human personality. Sex was not sinful or shameful.
It is a blessing to humanity. Indeed,
this attitude toward the enjoyment of the pleasures of life—in
moderation—is one of the distinguishing features of Judaism.
a certain prudishness prevailed periodically in Jewish communities,
Jews usually exhibited an exceptionally open and honest approach
to sexual morality. While a debate still rages in many places about
the wisdom of sex education in public schools, Jewish students of
the Talmud covered such topics as puberty, conception, menstruation,
birth control and breast feeding by the time they were eleven or
twelve years of age. The subject of sex was not obscene, but a natural
function of human behavior.
students, therefore, were not shocked, as some modern readers might
be, to learn that Jewish law provided that husband and wife should
not have sexual intercourse while either is intoxicated, sluggish
or in mourning, nor when the wife is asleep, nor if the husband
overpowers her, but only with the consent and happy disposition
of both. The sexual act in Judaism is the culmination of a loving
relationship in which both partners find and share mutual satisfaction.
It does not exist only for the purpose of producing children.
the contrary, the sages submitted that the beauty, character and
health of the offspring were often influenced by the nature of the
sexual relations between their parents. More than that, sexual relations
were not to cease after a woman’s menopause. A man satisfied
his conjugal obligation even if his wife were sterile or if she
suffered from a disability that made conception impossible.
of the worst obscenities was cohabitation without the spiritual
components of love and consideration for one another. In
Jewish mysticism, “the bond between male and female is the
secret of true faith” (Zohar, Genesis
law provided specifically that a wife should use cosmetics and wear
ornaments that would make her attractive to her husband not only
in her youth but also in her old age. One of the leading authorities
of medieval Jewry added, “Let a curse descend upon a woman
who has a husband and does not strive to be attractive” (Meir
of Rothenberg, Responsa #199).
the matter of birth control, Judaism was far in the vanguard of
the current moral climate. If a woman’s life was at risk,
or if the health of the child was in jeopardy, or if there were
negative hereditary or environmental factors, the rabbis not only
permitted, but in some cases required, methods of contraception.
Never, however, did they advocate total abstention.
was most assuredly a serious responsibility in marriage, but love
and companionship were at least as important in Jewish tradition.
The sages reminded their students that Eve was created to be a “helper”
to Adam, since in the words of God himself, “It is not good
that the man should be alone…” (Genesis 2:18). Only
later on, after they had known and loved each other, did God command
them both to “be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis1:28).
commenting on the biblical verse, “And Isaac brought Rebecca
into his mother’s tent and took Rebecca and she became his
wife and he loved her,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested
that from the order of the verbs, we might conclude that Isaac’s
love for Rebecca came after his marriage to her. In modern life,
we would place “he loved her” first and write, “Isaac
loved Rebecca and he took her and she became his wife.”
however important it is that love shall
precede marriage, it is far more important that it shall continue
after marriage. For Judaism, sexual relations are
a vital component for a lasting loving relationship.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.