Judaism considers sex natural and holy, though not without boundaries. In the famous words of the Iggeret HaKodesh (The Holy Letter), a 13th-century treatise on sexuality often ascribed to Nahmanides, “One should know that sexual union is holy and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should be, and with proper intent.”
Over the years, there have been different Jewish understandings of when, with whom and what proper intent entail.
Sex Within Marriage
The traditional Jewish ideal is sex within the context of a marital relationship. This is the only kind of sex that is considered kiddushin (holy). However, Jewish tradition has also traditionally permitted sex outside of marriage provided that the woman is not married or betrothed to someone else — though this is considered less ideal.
Sex within a marriage is not only permitted but encouraged. Men are absolutely forbidden from raping their wives (Eruvin 100b) and are also also supposed to move slowly enough in the act to make sex enjoyable for their wives. As the Talmud explains:
“Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster, who first coaxes and then mates.”
While according to the Talmud wives do not owe their husbands sex, they themselves are due conjugal relations alongside other forms of basic support. In other words, sex is considered his duty, and her right. How frequently he must offer it depends on what his occupation will allow (Ketubot 61b).
All pleasurable consensual acts are permitted in the context of marriage, as the Mishneh Torah 21:9 observes:
“Since a man’s wife is permitted to him, he may act with her in any manner whatsoever. He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally (traditionally, this refers to anal and oral sex) provided that he does not expend semen to no purpose. Nevertheless, it is an attribute of piety that a man should not act in this matter with levity and that he should sanctify himself at the time of intercourse.”
There are also traditional restrictions on marital sex. Jewish law prohibits sex during menstruation (Leviticus 18). Though the Torah prohibits only intercourse during this time, when the woman is called niddah and later rabbinic authorities prohibited all physical contact. These restrictions apply for the seven days following a woman’s period and extend until she has immersed in a mikveh, a ritual bath. This category of laws is often referred to as Taharat HaMishpacha, or “family purity,” and though they have fallen out of favor with most contemporary Jews, many women — both liberal and traditional — are rediscovering and reinterpreting these laws to suit modern sensibilities.
Sex and Procreation
The first commandment in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply,” and procreation is one of the reasons that sex is considered holy. According to the Talmud, this commandment applies to men but not women. For men to fulfill it, according to the school of Hillel, they must have at least one son and one daughter.
Contraception was debated among rabbinic authorities because some think it conflicts with the Jewish principle that a man is forbidden to “waste seed” (i.e., emit semen without purpose). The interpretation of the biblical sources for the prohibition of emitting semen in vain are ambiguous. In Genesis 38:7-19, Onan, the son of Judah, “spills” his seed on the ground as instructed by his father (more on that story here). Some rabbis consider this to be the reason for the prohibition, while others viewed this act as unnatural intercourse, with no leverage in the discussion.
The Talmud permits contraception under certain circumstances, especially when pregnancy could be detrimental to the mother or other children (for instance, forcing her to wean a child too early). The Talmud also records that women who did not wish to have more children (for instance, those that suffered terribly in childbirth) did take potions in order to become infertile.
There is a famous passage in the Talmud called “The Beraita of the Three Women” that outlines some instances in which women are allowed to use birth control: if they are pregnant, nursing or a minor. In the passage, the woman uses a moch (absorbent) and there is a discussion about what precisely is meant by this word. Ultimately, stricter interpretations will forbid the use of any contraceptives, while the majority of authorities interpret this passage to permit the use of contraceptives. Of all forms of birth control, most modern rabbinic authorities prefer the birth control pill. Still, there are more liberal rabbinic authorities that will permit the use of condoms especially in cases where sexual intercourse poses a medical risk to either spouse. The duty to maintain health and life supersedes the duty of the male to procreate. Reform and Conservative rabbis permit all forms of contraception.
Sexual Pleasure & Companionship
Judaism recognizes the importance of sexual pleasure and companionship for its own sake as well. In Genesis, God recognizes that “it is not good for man to be alone” and creates Eve.
As stated above, the Torah requires that a husband fulfill his wife’s need for intimacy. Exodus 21:10 lists marital intimacy as one of three basic things that a husband must provide to his wife (the other two are food and clothing). And the Talmud provides a detailed schedule for men’s conjugal duties, organized by profession. While a man of independent means is obliged to sleep with his wife every day, a camel driver is obligated only once in 30 days, and a sailor once in six months. That being said, a woman is allowed to reject her husband’s sexual advances, and Judaism forbids a man from pressuring his wife sexually.
Forbidden Sexual Relations
There are a number of prohibited sexual relationships according to Judaism. Leviticus 18:6-24 details three classes of forbidden sexual activity: familial relationships, adultery and bestiality. The familial relationships are broken down into longer lists of prohibitions from the Bible and the Rabbis.
Rape is discussed in the Torah and in Jewish law and is condemned. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the verse states:
“If a man finds a virgin girl who was not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, the man who lay with her shall give 50 shekels of silver to the girl’s father, and she shall become his wife because he violated her. He shall not send her away all the days of his life.”
It is important to make the distinction that rape costs a monetary offense for virgins rather than widows, or nonvirgins, for which it would not cost. If the rape is to a minor, then the father receives the money.
The rabbis prohibit marital rape, based on the verse from Proverbs 19:2, “Also without consent, an improper soul; he who is hasty with his feet is a sinner,” which is interpreted to mean that it is forbidden to force one’s wife in marital relations, the result being children of bad character. (Eruvin 100b, Kiddushin 13a, Yevamot 53b-54a)
Sex and the Evil Inclination
Despite the holiness of sex, rabbinic tradition often associates the sexual drive with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Paradoxically, however, the evil inclination isn’t all that bad; it can be harnessed for productivity and holiness. Indeed, according to a famous midrash, “Were it not for the yetzer hara, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children.”
Sexual Imagery in the Kabbalah
The sexual imagery found in the Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, is also worth noting. As Arthur Green wrote in The Second Jewish Catalog, “Kabbalists see the very origins of the universe as a never-ceasing process of arousal, coupling, gestation, and birth within the life of a God who is both male and female, and proclaim this complex inner flow of divinity, described in the most graphic of sexual terms, to be the highest of mysteries.”
In contrast, many of the medieval philosophers were far less openly appreciative of sex. In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote, “The law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether, hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely.”
Normalizing LGBTQ Relationships
The source for Judaism’s traditional restriction on homosexual sex comes from two verses in Leviticus (Leviticus 18:23 and Leviticus 20:13). Both verses apparently condemn male penetrative homosexual intercourse. The latter verse says that if a man lies with another man, both have committed an abomination and should be put to death. The verse does not comment on female-female sexual acts, though later commentators also disapprove it.
Interestingly, the sources against homosexual relationships don’t condemn sexual orientation, rather only if someone acts on that impulse. The desire for homosexual relationships is thus not prohibited.
In the modern era, many Jewish movements have found reinterpretations of the verses in Leviticus in order to allow homosexual relations. Over the last many decades, lesbian and gay relationships have become normalized in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and even some left-wing Orthodox circles.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.