A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.
Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran
[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:33 PM ]
Chapter 11. Sex in Judaism
There exists in Jewthink a concept which we might state as follows: If a drive, feeling or characteristic has a tremendous potential for good, then that same drive, feeling or characteristic has an identical potential for the opposite, namely evil. The rationale behind this idea is that anything which a human being is capable of doing is neutral in essence and can be channeled into different directions, with quite different results as the consequence.
What is often misunderstood as a puritanical attitude in Real Judaism toward sex is in reality a keen awareness of the importance and great significance of the subject. For if any topic illustrates the thought with which we opened this chapter, it is the topic of sex.
The Talmud repeatedly makes a point of stressing that the purpose of Creation (i.e. the prime mission of man) is the establishment of families and the procreation of the species, the continuation of the inhabitance of the world. The Talmud also calls the conception of the child a microcosmic Creation in which man and woman join G~d in bringing about new life.
The overwhelming importance of this subject is also evident in the cults and myths of all primitive societies where fertility rites occupy a very prominent position. Often the entire religion of the primitive society is a blatant or poorly concealed mode of fertility-worship. This further testifies to the uncanny stress and importance which the collective unconscious of mankind, albeit distorted in the primitive mind, puts on procreation.
Judaism, though thoroughly aware of this universal truth (the importance of procreation), always differed from the attitudes of other societies in that a stress and emphasis was put upon the desirable type of relationship to exist between man and wife.
The Torah makes clear the unique character of the alliance of the man and the woman who have decided to join together for the rest of their lives. The Bible and the Oral Law was teaching Jews the great meaning of marriage long before the concepts of a hallowed union and the woman as man's partner became established. Indeed Judaism was hated and mocked by its enemies for centuries because it did not make the man the pinnacle of importance but rather the husband-wife union. How ironical it is to see the times change and the imbalance of the world's viewpoint shift from one extreme towards the other. Judaism remains the eternal scapegoat for those who hate it, attacked this time by madmen who try to promote the belief that women are no different than men. The faddish beliefs of societies, the ad hoc philosophies and conveniently misconstrued half-truths of the world will wax and wane, come and go. But the Torah's truths will remain steadfast and watch the parade. One day the entire world will recognize them.
The sexual drive is a powerful one in man, second (perhaps) only to the survival instinct, and the thoughts and acts related to it make up the essence of man's most important endeavor in life, his establishing a family. Jewthink views the marriage as a fusing of two people into one, to the fulfillment of both, in the person of the new couple. Man, until marriage, is half an entity; he is missing half a Self. The joining of man and wife is then the major crossroads in the lives of both. So one begins to see how monumental the idea of the union of two people is, spiritually and correspondingly, physically, in Jewish thought. It is no coincidence that the highest platonic feelings of warmth, closeness and love are so inseparably intertwined with a true sexual relationship.
The sexual drive is basically a possessive one, since its purpose is for the man to acquire his missing part and form a union with it. The Torah hints at this in various places. This is also a major "discovery" of modern psychology and is evident in many aspects of nature, for instance in the use of pseudo-sex by animals to show assertion of authority and subjugation. Hence this force, by virtue of its Power and direction, is easily misused selfishly and when used indiscriminately without caution and restraint, is an extremely dangerous weapon with potential for disaster.
The abuse of this power by man is among the most harmful and destructive things within human ability. When man directs it in any direction other than towards his fulfillment in the person of his spouse, or when he views it as no more than a source of animalistic pleasure, an end in itself, then he is taking a holy possession, the exalted source of life itself and debasing it, doing untold harm to himself and to the Cosmos. It is for this reason that sex, by virtue of its paramount grandeur when properly used, and its corresponding catastrophic potential when misused, plays a role of such gravity in the Torah's written laws, in the historical evolution of the Jewish nation, and in our halacha, or specific legal application and interpretation of the Torah.
To be a Jew is to take every single aspect of one's life and make it holy, by applying it in such a way that it serves its true purpose of leading to a closer relationship with G~d. The drives and desires which we share with animals are precisely what differentiates us from them. In the way we view and use them, we give them their uniquely human dimension by seeing them as tools with which to build holiness and nearness to G~d. The way to accomplish this is by following G~d's instructions on the subject, thereby giving the drive a holy Torah-meaningfulness.
Man is comprised of both body and soul. Anything which caters to the former without taking the latter into consideration is wrong. Even physical indulgences that the Torah permits us are to be used only for the direct physical or psychological welfare of the person. The Talmud points out that even a permissible pleasure, when overdone for the sake of pleasure alone, is a sin. The Torah is our guide in the maintenance of a proper balance in our synthesis of the body and soul's respective needs.
It is in the light of the above that Real Judaism takes a stringent view of our subject and rules out any sexual indulgence which is not part of the special relationship between man and wife. The genius of the Talmud, with its characteristic insight into the psychology of man, is clear in its prohibition of anything which might remotely lead to the misuse of the sex-force, in thought or in deed. Love must be reserved for something special. From this there arose somehow the popular notion that Judaism is prudish and puritanical. In truth, however, as any talmudic scholar will readily acknowledge, Judaism is explicit and to the point in all human matters and has nothing of the attitude of the puritan factions in the non-Jewish world who avoid certain issues in embarrassment. Real Judaism is not ashamed of the powers in man; it is in awe of them.
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