“The Jewish Attitude Toward Sexuality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Both of this week’s parashiot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, contain extensive instructions regarding forbidden marriages and sexual offenses. Particularly in light of the redefinition of acceptable sexual norms that is taking place in our society today, these two chapters (Leviticus 18 & 20) appear particularly germane and relevant.

As we’ve noted in previous studies of these parashiot, the main purpose of Jewish life is to establish a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6). The world in which the newly-formed People of Israel found themselves 3300 years ago was entirely antithetical to that Divine prescription of holiness.

The Midrash in Vayikra (Leviticus) graphically describes how the ancient Israelite slaves had sunken to the 49th level of impurity as they participated with their Egyptian masters in the orgiastic “blood feasts” in ancient Egypt. And now this inchoate and uninitiated people was destined to confront the alluring blandishments of the local Canaanite nations and be called upon to resist their enticing and seductive decadent lifestyles.

The late contemporary Bible scholar, Bernard J. Bamberger, writes that in the ancient Near East civilizations sexuality was intimately associated with the Temple cult. The concept of the “Mother Goddess,” and her marriage to a divine consort called “Ba’al,” was a prominent feature of those cultures. This divine union was often celebrated with sexual orgies at the shrines or in the fields. The pagan people of those times believed that these rites increased the fertility of the soil. It was not uncommon for male and female prostitutes to perform at the temples, with their earnings donated to the temple treasuries.

In this most hostile moral environment, the Torah loudly proclaimed (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Hashem Eh’lo’kay’nu Hashem Echad,” The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one. The Jewish G-d has no mother, no father or any partners, and is not identified with any natural force or principle. In stark contrast to the pagan idea, human sexuality in Judaism is considered a Divine gift to be used primarily for reproduction, but also for pleasure. And while Judaism strongly condemned mindless surrender to sensuality, the sexual impulse was not to be repressed, but to be controlled.

It is this sense of balance that Judaism tries to bring to all human desires and expressions–whether it be food or drink, thought or speech, modesty or humility, anger or passivity. And so, while the Bible records 17 prohibited relationships that the rabbis extended by an additional 26 relationships, Judaism is hardly a sexually ascetic or repressive religion. To the contrary, reproduction is a mitzvah in Judaism (“P’roo oor’voo,” Genesis 1:28), and so is providing sexual pleasure to one’s wife (Exodus 21:10).

Although adultery, incest, homosexual practices and intercourse with animals were strictly forbidden, the Torah encourages heterosexual marriage as the normal vehicle for sexual expression, and girls and boys were often married at a tender age. While marriage at an early age may be regarded as problematic by contemporary standards, it was an extremely effective way of controlling the youthful “hormones” in ancient times. Sexuality within marriage was not only natural, it was sanctified and holy. Marriage in Judaism is therefore known as “Kiddushin,” because it is meant to serve as a vehicle for sanctifying the people.

While Judaism regarded the celibate lifestyle as sinful, it was, apparently, practiced by some Jewish cults (possibly the Essenes) in the ancient Dead Sea area before the turn of the common era. It may have been these celibate groups that influenced early Christianity to regard celibacy as an exalted way of life. This, however, was never the Jewish norm, and its practice was condemned by mainstream Judaism. It is unclear whether our rabbis foresaw the unfortunate behaviors that would result from the unnatural demands of celibacy on human beings. Yet, once again, Judaism has proven to be right on the money when perceiving peoples’ physical and psychological needs. As Bamberger writes, “it was the Christian teachers who identified ‘the flesh’ with sin, glorified celibacy, and regarded marriage as a concession to human frailty.” Jews were never saddled with the concept of “Original Sin.” Procreation was a mitzvah (Genesis 1:28), so much so, that in fact the human being is directed to cleave to his wife, so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

Despite the many restrictions recorded in parashiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, Judaism looks upon the union of man and woman within the marriage context as the most favorable element in the building block of life. Even the “Yetzer Hara“–the so-called evil inclination was declared by the rabbis to be “very good” because it arouses sexual desire and leads to the establishment of family (Bereishith Rabbah 9:7). Because of this, the Jew is called upon to serve G-d even with the evil impulse as well as the good (Mishnah, Berachot 9:5).

It is the critical concept of “balance” that truly reflects the structure and substance of Jewish life. “Balance”–calls out to the Jew to avoid extremes, not to canonize restrictions, nor abuse liberties. Judaism is a civilization based on structure, neither ascetic nor libertarian, neither excessive nor repressive, but balanced. It is this Divine sense of balance that one feels pulsating so profoundly in the Torah as we read the dynamic chapters of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.

May you be blessed.