Making Sex Holy

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

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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.

Holiness & Wholeness

Judaism looks at the human condition and invites us to take those things that we have in common with the animals and make them holy. We are called to do this in the area of sex as well. We are not just animals reproducing our species. Or just seekers of sensuous pleasure. The act of sex primarily involves another person. We are in relationship with that person--and in that relationship holi­ness can be created. Relationships of caring, intimacy, affection, mutu­ality, are relationships of holiness, and sexuality is one way to create such relationships.

For Genesis goes on from "Be fertile and multiply" to say, "A person should leave their parents and cleave unto their partner and be like one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). This one verse captures the basic underlying rhythms of the universe. Separation and striving for union. The world of Genesis is one of separation: light from darkness, sea from land, etc. We, each of us, know the utter aloneness of human existence. Our world is one of partiality, of brokenness, of loneliness, a world of light but darkness as well.

Yet as God said to the first human, lo tov heyot ha'adam l'vado--"it is not good for a human to be alone." All the rest of creation from the first day on is described as ki tov,"it is good." The one thing lo tov--"not good"--is a human alone.

The rhythm of the universe is set. We begin in separation and strive for wholeness. A person should leave his or her parents and cleave unto his or her partner and be like one flesh. We leave our parents (separation) to find another (unity). It is in the moment of sexual union that we come closest to wholeness. Instead of alienation and apartness, we become as one flesh. We lose our sense of twoness and become as one. In sexual union and in love there is the holiness of being in relationship to rather than in alienation from the other.

In fact, the mystery and power of sex is a gateway not just to the holiness of relationships but the holiness of God. For Genesis tells us we are all created in the image of God. Interacting with other people is interacting with other divine images, thus reminding us of who we are and reminding us who created us and who calls us to restore holiness and wholeness to the world: God.

What About Lust?

By now, you're probably thinking that this is all very nice. For surely love--deep love, expressed romantically and erotically--is holy and won­derful. But there is a kind of sexual love that feels more like partiality than wholeness, more like lust than love, or more like simply sex. So where is holiness in those moments? Despite the fact that more people say the words "Oh God" with fervor in a moment of passion in the bedroom than in any synagogue, I'm not sure that it is an expression of supreme religious faith.

Judaism calls us to strive for an ideal. That ideal is not platonic love but rather a love that is deep, mutual, caring, and expressed in every way, including and especially through the physical. The tradition un­derstands that we will live far from that ideal but nevertheless believes the closer to the ideal the better, and recognizes that we deeply long "not to be alone" but to cleave together as one flesh.

Hasidism believed not just that the underlying impulse in the universe is human beings striving for wholeness, but that the whole uni­verse is striving for wholeness. Our task is tikkun olam, "repairing the world," and restoring even God to wholeness. The Hasidic writers therefore taught that when you are trying to pray and instead find yourself distracted by thoughts of attraction to another human being, instead of saying, "Feh! I'm such a lowlife," you should realize that all attraction, all love is just a reflection of this impulse underlying everything to love God, to come close and cleave to God, to experience the unity of the world.

Even pure lust is only a distorted reflection of the impulse buried deep inside us to love God. Hasidism calls us to follow that lust back to its sources as the love of God.

But even if we are less ambitious, we should understand that sex and love are doorways to Judaism's deepest value: holiness. To love God, one must first love another human being; one must first love oneself; and then together with the other loved ones we can restore the world to peace, wholeness, and harmony. Judaism, then, is not setting boundaries or trying to keep in check the power­ful sexual urge. Rather it sees sexuality and its highest form, love, as among the most critical gifts of holiness given by God to us to live in and beyond this world.

Love of humans and love of God are inextrica­bly linked, and are Judaism's answer to the human condition.

"Love Is Alone Sufficient"

Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order of monks in the Middle Ages, wrote in his commentary on the Song of Songs: "Love is alone sufficient by itself; it pleases by itself, and for its own sake. It is itself a merit, and itself its own recompense. It seeks neither cause, nor consequences beyond itself. It is its own fruit, its own ob­ject and usefulness. I love, because I love; I love, that I may love."

There are a number of specific values that are part of this notion of the holiness of sexuality. First, we are created by God. This means that the penis and vagina are also created by God. The sex drive is also God's rather than Satan's creation. Our bodies are a gift to us from God. There is nothing dis­gusting about any part of them.

Even more important is to remember that what makes humans spe­cial is that we are created in the image of God. We are all equal and should be treated as such. To treat another person as an object is to deny at that moment this basic teaching of Judaism. In that way, sex is different from other pleasures, such as food. Even if we eat food without appreciation of it as a gift or without any awareness of the holiness of the act, at worse we hurt ourselves by self-destructive eating habits. Sex (except for masturbation) involves another person.

This concept of treating another person with respect is called kavod ha-beriot, "respect and honor for all human beings." The potential to hurt someone else is particularly present in sex because the act, no matter how "casual," involves vulnerability. You are naked before another person. If the Torah urges us to take special care of the widow, orphan, and stranger because they were particularly vulnerable in ancient Israelite society, how much more so, when we lie naked physically and emotionally with a lover. Knowing our common vulnerability, we need to be especially protective of the other person in their nakedness.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

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.