Is sex holy or dangerous? Tracing Jewish thought on sexuality

Rabbinic Judaism unanimously rejected the idea of celibacy and defined sexual activity as a mitzvah.

 THE BOOK explores the meaning of the sexual relationship in Judaism.  (photo credit: PEXELS)
THE BOOK explores the meaning of the sexual relationship in Judaism.
(photo credit: PEXELS)

The classical Christian doctrine about sexuality was based in part on its reading of the biblical book of Genesis. Adam and Eve sinned (in Genesis chapter 3), and only then was human sexual activity mentioned for the first time (in chapter 4), when Adam “knew” Eve. Since sexuality followed the Fall, Christianity understood it as resulting from humans’ Original Sin. Most pre-modern Christian denominations taught that celibacy was the ideal, and that sexuality was just a concession to humans’ lustful nature.

In the history of Jewish Bible interpretation, we find two approaches to the Bible’s first mention of sexual activity. Some (e.g. Rashi in the 11th century) taught that human sexual activity began in the Garden of Eden, i.e. before humans sinned. According to other Jewish Bible interpreters (e.g. Rabbi David Kimhi, in the 12th century), sexual activity began only after humans were expelled from the Garden of Eden. 

But Rabbinic Judaism unanimously rejected the idea of celibacy and defined sexual activity as a mitzvah, a religious obligation, based on the words “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis chapter 1. 

But is it a mitzvah only as a concession to our “fallen” nature?

In his encyclopedic work, Sanctified Sex: The Two-Thousand-Year Jewish Debate on Marital Intimacy, Noam Sachs Zion traces the history of Jewish thought about sexuality, and particularly about sexual pleasure. Zion, a prolific author, has been a senior research fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem since 1978. His most widely known book is the best-selling A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah. (Full disclosure: Zion is also a good friend of mine.)

Zion surveys the vast corpus of Jewish learning – including texts of Bible interpretation, Talmudic laws and stories, works of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism, religious law codes and modern manuals for prospective grooms and brides – and demonstrates that a debate about the appropriate attitude to sexual pleasure has raged within Judaism for the last 2,000 years. 

Some Jewish texts portray sexual pleasure as a positive force that unites men and women in loving, holy relationships. If sexual behavior is a mitzvah, it follows that sexual passion is a force that not only brings husbands and wives together, but also brings us closer to God.

Other Jewish texts, though, emphasize the dangerous aspects of sexual passion, indicating, as Zion summarizes, that “sexual drives detract from the image of God within humanity.”

This dichotomy is the core of the book, but the final chapters go in a new direction. Here, Zion outlines the struggles of modern non-Orthodox Jewish thinkers to create a new Jewish sexual ethic that is egalitarian and not heteronormative, and that does not restrict sexual activity to marriage. 

This section could easily have constituted a separate volume. It is, at least in this reviewer’s understanding, less about the reinterpretation of classical Jewish teachings, and more about the struggle of permissive modern liberals to enunciate a sexual ethic that consists of something more than simply requiring that the participants be consenting adults.

Few writers can command the vast array of genres of Jewish literature and synthesize them the way Zion does. Earlier works have addressed Jewish attitudes to sexuality, for example Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel and David Biale’s Eros and the Jews, but both of these are written for academic audiences. Zion has the gift of being able to popularize even when analyzing difficult texts, using a comprehensible and engaging style appropriate for a general audience. 

One pioneering section of the book deals with the contemporary haredi world’s efforts to educate young people who are about to be married. Zion identifies two contradictory trends. In an attempt to combat societal permissiveness, some haredi groups have adopted stricter standards. 

Drawing on the scholarship of Prof. Benjamin Brown, Zion points to current teachings in some hassidic circles, according to which “marital asceticism came to be a necessary path to spiritual intentionality in the worship of the Divine. Love of God, to the exclusion of love of one’s wife, became a primary form of spirituality.... The ideal of marital asceticism became a universal norm for the followers of some influential Hasidic rebbes.” While no loyal follower of Jewish law accepts the model of celibacy, some have come close.

In other haredi circles, Zion finds the opposite trend. Some leading haredi rabbis have become “champions of an educational campaign for teaching yeshivah students about the mitzvah and the art of passionate loving relationships with their wives,” at times drawing upon “kabbalistic sources... [discussed earlier in the book] that celebrate sexual union as a mystical experience enhancing sanctity.”

While Zion does not explicitly judge between the approach that sees sexual pleasure as holy and the approach that sees it as dangerous, his preference for the former is clear. The dichotomy, though, may not be so stark. As anthropologists teach us, holy things require constant vigilant care, and become dangerous when misused. 

Zion may have done an important service by giving voice to both approaches, especially in our highly sexualized world.

Sanctified Sex: The Two-Thousand-Year Jewish Debate on Marital Intimacy

By Noam Sachs Zion

Jewish Publication Society 

656 pages; 36$