The Purpose and Meaning of Sex in Judaism
Judaism approves of sex and sexual pleasure, valuing it as a means toward procreation and companionship.
Reprinted with permission of the author from Does God Belong in the Bedroom?.
The Torah never explicitly lays out a sexual ethic; rather, it hints at certain attitudes in numerous passages. These attitudes are further explored in the rabbinic interpretations of these passages articulated in the Talmud and midrash.
The Torah sees the world and everything in it as essentially good: “And God saw all that He made, and found it very good” (Gen. 1:30). This goodness includes sexual activity. After creating human beings, God blesses them and tells them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it” (Gen. 1:28). Thus sexual activity is a basic part of God’s creation; as such it must be good. For the most part, Judaism rejected the negative teachings about sex that later became prevalent in Christianity. In fact, the rabbis throughout the talmudic period and the Middle Ages often spoke of sexual relations as a wonderful part of God’s creation. One famous passage teaches:
“We the possessors of the Holy Torah believe that God, may He be praised, created all, as His wisdom decreed, and did not create anything ugly or shameful. For if sexual intercourse were repulsive, then the reproductive organs are also repulsive…If the reproductive organs are repulsive, how did the Creator fashion something blemished? If that were so, we should find that His deeds were not perfect.” (from “The Holy Letter,” attributed to Nahmanides)
Sexual relations, at the proper time and in the proper context, are part of God’s plan and are essentially good.
In the Torah, human beings are portrayed as sexual creatures. When God creates Adam, God’s immediate response is that Adam has no fitting helper—that is, no sexual partner. Adam gives names to all the various animals, but none is found to be a fitting partner for him:
“So the LORD God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the LORD God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.’ Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:21‑24).
The creation stories in the Torah suggest two purposes of sexual activity. The first and most obvious is procreation. Sex is part of God’s plan for populating the world; it fulfills God’s will for both animals and humans. The rabbis used the words of Isaiah as a proof text: “The Creator of heaven who alone is God. Who formed the earth and made it, Who alone established it. He did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation” (Isaiah 45:18).
The second purpose of sexual relations is companionship, which the Torah seems to regard as an even greater justification for sexual relations than procreation. In Jewish tradition, the belief that “it is not good for man to be alone” is as important if not more important than the command to “be fruitful and increase.” The Torah uses the term yada—“to know”—to indicate a sexual relationship. Sex is thus considered more than a mere biological act; it involves intimate knowledge shared by two human beings.
The positive attitude of Judaism toward sexuality stands in sharp contrast with a more negative picture that developed in early Christianity. Although Christians disagreed on the nature of Adam’s sin in the Bible, it was generally believed to be tied up with sexuality. Paul particularly emphasized this attitude. According to Elaine Pagels, a Christian scholar:
“He [Paul] often speaks of marriage in negative terms, as a sop for those too weak to do what is best: renounce sexual activity altogether. Paul admits that marriage is ‘not sin’ yet argues that it makes both partners slaves to each other’s sexual needs and desires, no longer free to devote their energies ‘to the Lord’ [1 Cor. 7:1‑35].”
Admittedly, Paul was speaking to a community that believed the kingdom of God was imminent. Even after such hopes failed, however, this identification of sex with sin was further developed by the early fathers of the church, particularly Augustine, and has remained influential in Christianity to this day.
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