Judaism on Prostitution

Condemnation of harlotry existed throughout Jewish history, though there is evidence that the practice was known in every time period.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Prostitution, 'the oldest profession,' is naturally referred to frequently in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 38:14; Joshua 2:1). 

In the famous judgment of Solomon (I Kings 3:16-27) the claim to be the true mother of the infant was made by two prostitutes. A priest was forbidden to marry a woman who had been a prostitute (Leviticus 21:7). The book of Proverbs (ch. 7) warns against the loose woman who entices young men to sin with her. Israel is described metaphorically as a prostitute when unfaithful to God (Numbers 25:1-2; Jeremiah 3:6; Hosea 4:12).

Against Cult Prostitution

In the ancient Near East, temple prostitutes (men as well as women) offered the gain of their bodies to the gods. It appears that this practice was at times copied by the Israelites from their pagan neighbors, hence the injunctions:

'No Israelite women shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any Israelite man be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog (usually understood to refer to a male prostitute) into the house of the Lord your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 23:18-19).' The practice persisted until King Josiah suppressed it as part of his reforms (2 Kings 23:7).

streetwalker heelsCondemnation Throughout History

The Talmudic Rabbis not only condemned professional prostitution but also referred to any sexual contact between a man and a woman who were not married to one another as harlotry (zenut).

When a Palestinian Rabbi waxed eloquent in describing the social improvements resulting from the Roman conquest, his colleague retorted that the Romans did build market-places but only so that they will be frequented by harlots (Shabbat 33b).

Condemnation of harlotry persisted throughout Jewish history, although there is sufficient evidence that it was known in every period. In some medieval communities special regulations were drawn up against prostitutes and those who availed themselves of their services.

The Galician Rabbi, Abraham Menahem Steinberg (1847-1928) was asked whether a former brothel can be used as a synagogue. Steinberg remarks that he was unable to find anywhere in the Talmud or the Codes that such a thing is forbidden. Yet, he states, it should not be permitted, since the average person will find it extremely odd that a brothel can be converted into a synagogue. Even things permitted by law must be rejected if they seem extremely offensive to the moral sense and cause the masses to view aspects of Judaism with distaste.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.