“The Jewish Attitude Toward Sexuality”
(updated and revised from Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

As we’ve noted in previous studies of these parashiot, the Torah declares 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) Rabba, cited by R. Eliyahu KiTov, in Sefer haParashiot, Acharei Mot, pp. 46-49, 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 blandishments of the local Canaanite nations and their orgiastic practices, and be called upon to resist their enticing and seductive decadent lifestyles.

The late contemporary Bible scholar, Bernard J. Bamberger, writes in his Modern Commentary on The Torah, (pp. 877-879), 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 “Baal,” was a prominent feature of those cultures. This divine union was often celebrated with sexual orgies at 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): השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, השׁם אֶחָד, The L-rd 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 and sanctified.

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 sexual 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 (פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ“P’roo oor’voo,” Genesis 1:28), and so is providing sexual pleasure to one’s wife (Exodus 21:10).

While 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. Although marriage at an early age may be regarded as problematic by contemporary standards, it was an extremely effective way of controlling youthful “hormones” in ancient times. Sexuality within marriage was not only natural, it was sanctified and holy. Marriage in Judaism is therefore known as קִידּוּשִׁין–“Kiddushin,” sanctification, because it is meant to serve as a vehicle for sanctifying the people.

Although 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. Bereishith Rabbah 9:7, citing Genesis 1:31, notes that even the יֵצֶר הָרָע–“Yetzer Hara”–the so-called “evil inclination,” was declared by the rabbis to be “very good” because it arouses sexual desire, leading to the establishment of family. As a result, the Mishnah, Berachot 9:5, calls upon the Jew to serve G-d even with the evil impulse as well as the good.

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 pulsates so profoundly in the Torah as we read the dynamic chapters of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom Ha’zikaron–-Memorial Day, Monday night, April 24th and all-day Tuesday, April 25th) is observed this year on the 5th of Iyar, Tuesday evening, April 25th, and all day Wednesday, April 26th.