Making Sex Holy

Jewish tradition embraces love and sex as part of the human drive for holiness.


Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

It would be correct but still too simple to say that the tradition sees the goal of relationships to be marriage. Coming out of a traditional cul­ture, it regarded sex as restricted to married couples.

Unlike some other religions and cultures, Judaism does not see the body as the enemy of the spirit, or sex as “dirty” or grossly physical. The picture of sexuality in Judaism is more complicated. The tradition contains strands that are very ascetic and puritanical, as well as those that see sex as something to be enjoyed for its pleasure.

Yet I would suggest that attaining holiness through relationships is central to Judaism as a spiritual practice. Let us develop a notion of holiness in relationships by returning once again to the beginning of creation.

At the Beginning

“Be fertile and increase, pru urvu, and fill the world” (Genesis 1:28) are the first words addressed by God to human beings. Not “keep the Sabbath”; not “don’t steal” or even “you should have two dish drain­ers, one for dairy and one for meat.”

loving couple“Be fertile and increase, pru urvu, and fill the earth.” At this mo­ment of the creation of the first humans, God calls upon us to be like God and create a world–a world of new human beings. According to the rabbis, pru urvu, “be fertile and increase,” is the first mitzvah, the first commandment of the Torah. There is a paradox here. The mitzvot, all 613 commandments, are meant for the Jews. And yet we begin with one which is universal–all human beings should be fruitful and fill the world (not just the Jews).

Sex then begins right at the beginning. It doesn’t even wait for the Garden of Eden story. What then is the primary purpose of sexual rela­tions: procreation, enjoyment, kedushah (holiness)?

With just this verse one could argue that procreation is the prime di­rective for humans, and thus sex is primarily for procreation. Or one could argue that since God says ki tov, “it is good,” that sex–like the world at large–is given to humans to enjoy, and so sex, like food, like life itself, is to be savored for its rich pleasures. Certainly Judaism sees sex as involving procreation, and also enjoyment. Both are of importance to Judaism. Yet it is the third possibility, kedushah, “holiness,” that is the primary purpose of sexuality.

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Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

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