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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What are some of the religion's teachings in the area of human sexuality?
by Howard Greenstein

Judaism 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.

While 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.”

The 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.

Sexuality 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.

Although 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.

These 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.

To 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.

One 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 101b).

Jewish 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).

On 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.

Procreation 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).

In 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.”

But 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.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard 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).

Excerpts 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.


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