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.”
The later commentators, however, do tend to see Ben Azzai as exceptional and some point to the less than categorical formulation in the Shulhan Arukh: “commits no sin,” implying, perhaps, that if such a student were to ask his Rabbi whether he might remain single he should be told that it is his duty to marry.
Others again note the qualification that celibacy is only allowed where the student is fully able to control his sexual urge and they hold that nowadays such total dedication to the ideal of chastity no longer exists. Even among his rabbinic colleagues Ben Azzai’s attitude was not accepted. Evidently, although they were also in love with the Torah, they did not feel that a celibate life was possible for them.
In practice, throughout the ages, only a very few scholars remained unmarried and there are only a very few instances of a community seeing no objection to appointing a bachelor as its Rabbi (but this is not entirely unknown). The weight of the tradition is against the celibate life even for the most dedicated students of the Torah. With the possible exception of the Essenes, there has never been anything like a religious order of celibates in Judaism.
Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.