Judaism and Sexuality

Jewish tradition looks favorably on sex and sexuality, given certain conditions.

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The prohibition against having intercourse with a menstruating woman (known as a niddah) is stated in Leviticus 18. This chapter contains an extensive list of other inappropriate sexual relationships, including incest and bestiality. Adultery, of course, is one of the Ten Commandments listed both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Rape is treated in the Torah and later rabbinic writings as a monetary offense, perpetrated as much against the father of a rape victim (who ultimately will receive less of a dowry) as it is for the woman herself.

The Evil Inclination

Despite the holiness of sex, rabbinic tradition often associates the sexual drive with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Paradoxically, however, the evil inclination isn't all that bad; it can be harnessed for productivity and holiness. Indeed, according to a famous midrash, "Were it not for the yetzer hara, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children."

The sexual imagery found in the Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, is also worth noting. As Arthur Green wrote in the Second Jewish Catalog, "Kabbalists see the very origins of the universe as a never-ceasing process of arousal, coupling, gestation, and birth within the life of a God who is both male and female, and proclaim this complex inner flow of divinity, described in the most graphic of sexual terms, to be the highest of mysteries." In contrast, many of the medieval philosophers were far less appreciative of sex. In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote, "The law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether, hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely."

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