Making Sex Holy

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

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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.