Sex and Sexuality 101

Judaism has an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward sex.

Judaism and Sexuality

Judaism has an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward sex and sexuality. Procreation is a fundamental Jewish religious obligation, but it is not the only religiously validated purpose of sex. Jewish tradition recognizes sexual companionship and pleasure as important and good. Nonetheless, Judaism forbids many sexual relationships and considers adultery and incest among the most severe religious transgressions.

Non-Marital Sex

Traditionally, Judaism only approves of sex between a husband and wife, but the Torah does not list non-marital sex among the numerous sexual offenses discussed in Leviticus 18. The positive attitude toward marital sex seems to account for rabbinic disapproval of non-marital sex. Jewish marriage is referred to as kiddushin, from the Hebrew word for “holy,” and sex within the context of this relationship is also considered holy. In addition, the Torah prohibits sex with a menstruating woman (a prohibition that continues until the woman immerses in a ritual bath or mikveh) and this applies to both married and unmarried women.

Traditional Jews who abide by these rules consider it inappropriate for a non-married woman to immerse in a mikveh, making non-marital sex even more problematic. However, because the Torah does not forbid non-marital sex, there are traditions–particularly the biblical notion of pilegesh or concubinage — that have been invoked to validate non-marital sex. The various non-Orthodox denominations have — to varying degrees — discussed the application of Jewish sexual values to non-marital sex.

Homosexuality

The Torah explicitly forbids male homosexual activity, though it says nothing about homosexual orientation or lesbian orientation or acts. Later Jewish authorities prohibited sexual activity between women, though it never received the level of condemnation associated with male homosexual behavior. In recent years, many Jews have become increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional Jewish position on homosexuality.

Some Jewish legal authorities — basing their views on research showing that homosexuality has a physiological basis or on the presumption that, whatever its origin, being gay or lesbian is not a choice — have argued that since homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation, their sexual expression cannot be forbidden. They rely on the fact that traditional Jewish law does not hold one responsible for things out of one’s control and that complete celibacy is not a value in Jewish tradition.

The issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays have also emerged. While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements approve of both of these measures, the Orthodox movements do not. However, awareness and sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues has increased in many traditional circles as well. The Conservative movement approves of both measures, but it is at the rabbi’s discretion to whether or not he or she will officiate at a gay marriage ceremony.

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