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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
It is a high religious obligation to marry and have children, so that the question of whether it is religiously proper to be celibate is really a question of whether there are circumstances when the religious injunction of procreation can be set aside.
The classical text in this connection is in the Talmudic tractate Yevamot (63b). Here the story is told of the Palestinian teacher Simeon ben Azzai (early second century CE), who preached an eloquent sermon on the duty of procreation. When his colleagues reproached him for not practicing what he preached since he himself was unmarried, he replied: ‘What can I do? Mv soul is in love with the Torah. The world can be populated through others.
Ben Azzai’s vocation as a diligent student of the Torah did not allow him to shoulder the responsibilities of married life. His love of the Torah prevented him from being a proper husband to a human wife. (The idea of the Torah as Israel’s bride is found in many Talmudic and Midrashic passages.)
Does the Jewish tradition extend this exemption from the duty to marry to other students of the Torah, or is the case of Ben Azzai treated as unique because of his exceptional qualities? A number of medieval authorities did not treat the case of Ben Azzai as exceptional. They are followed in the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer, I. 4): “Anyone whose soul is constantly in love with the Torah like Ben Azzai so that he cleaves to it all his days without ever taking a wife such a one commits no sin, provided that his [sexual] inclination does not get the better of him.”
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