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Jewish Sexual Ethics

By Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman

In an effort to counter the sexual excesses of the society surrounding us, contemporary Torah literature has tended to focus on the negative aspects of this powerful drive. Limitation and restraint are indeed crucial in a Jewish marriage. However, it is not correct to completely reject all aspects of the sexual drive. In its own way, renunciation of the sexual element of life is no less contrary to the Torah’s philosophy than is the world’s obsessive preoccupation with sex. The goal of this article is to present a balanced Torah attitude toward intimacy in the context of marriage at times when the wife is tehorah.

How does the Torah understand the enjoyment of physical pleasures?

The Torah does not subscribe to the notion of an irreconcilable struggle between the physical and the spiritual, and is, in fact, unequivocal in its rejection of this philosophy. On the contrary, the Torah maintains that, if used properly, the physical becomes an indispensable aid in achieving spiritual greatness. This is accomplished in two ways:

First, physical activity is much more effective at impressing an idea into the soul than intellectual contemplation alone could be. Almost every mitzvah involves using some element of the physical world to serve God. Our job is to take the gifts of this world and elevate them to the heights of holiness. The Shabbat, for example, is sanctified over a cup of wine – words alone will not suffice.

Second, the Torah views the enjoyment of physical pleasure as desirable, since each pleasure provides an opportunity to feel and express gratitude to the One who created and provided this enjoyment.

The Torah’s view of pleasure differs dramatically from that prevalent in Western society. Western society prizes pleasure and directs much of its energy, imagination, and resources to its pursuit. Obligations and responsibilities are viewed as the price one must sometimes pay for pleasure.

The Torah also values pleasure – but with a significant difference. Duties and responsibilities are not the inevitable “cost” of pleasure. Rather, pleasure is a welcome by-product that accompanies the proper fulfillment of many of our God-given obligations. In such instances, pleasure introduces a duty (in fact, an opportunity) to feel and express gratitude to the Giver of all pleasures. But pleasure is not primary – our responsibilities to God are.

The Torah’s view of sexuality is a perfect illustration of the general Torah attitude toward the physical world and its pleasures. Physical relations between a husband and wife are meant to be pleasurable. Having marital relations is a fulfillment of two separate mitzvot – pru ur’vu (procreation) and onah (marital intimacy itself).

Pru ur’vu and Onah are the paradigm mitzvot because they reflect the uniquely Jewish approach to sanctifying the physical world through mitzvah observance. These mitzvot are the most dramatic examples of the phenomenon of elevating the physical world to the heights of the spiritual in that the element of the physical world which these mitzvot hallow is the one most susceptible to abuse and lack of sanctity.

What is the Torah’s attitude towards sexual intimacy?

There is a widespread misconception that the Torah views sexual intimacy as inherently negative. According to this notion, God instilled within us a desire for sexual intimacy only to ensure the propagation of the human race. Thus, the Torah permits marital intimacy. But since this is, at best, an uneasy compromise, it is carefully circumscribed. This antipathy is expressed, for example, through the Torah’s stringent niddah laws which significantly restrict sexual contact between husband and wife. Similarly, the halachot that regulate marital intimacy seek, as much as possible, to minimize and direct attention away from the enjoyment of the sexual act itself.

This line of thinking is patently false and fundamentally non-Jewish. It is true that the Torah views procreation as a central aspect of marital intimacy. But it is also clear from many statements in both the Written and Oral Torah, and from the relevant halachot, that this is not the only purpose of intimacy. The halacha, for example, protects a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction in situations where pregnancy is clearly not an objective or a possible outcome. A pregnant woman, a nursing woman, and a woman physically incapable of conceiving are all afforded the same protection by the Torah as the woman whose potential to conceive is at a maximum.

Furthermore, the rules of niddah are seen in traditional sources as enhancing the intimate relationship in marriage, not as negating it. For example, Rabbi Meir states that the monthly separation of niddah makes a woman as beloved to her husband as she was when she entered the chupah. By limiting (but not eliminating) the times when husband and wife can share physical intimacy, the Torah fans the flames of desire between them so that, at every reunion, their joy resembles that felt on the wedding day itself, many years ago. The laws of niddah protect a couple from the overindulgence and overfamiliarity that can quickly lead to jading, dissatisfaction, disgust, and restlessness.

Without a successful reunion, the niddah laws are incomplete, their potential unrealized, their purpose subverted and frustrated, their promise stillborn. Meticulous observance of niddah finds its purpose and completion in the exuberant observance of onah, and the enjoyment derived from the experience of marital intimacy is heightened and magnified immeasurably by the abstinence and restraint that niddah requires.

Note that Rabbi Meir did not state, “so there will be the same sexual passion and desire as when they went to the chupah“; instead, he recalls the love of that first wedding day. What is the connection between the pleasure of physical union and the emotion of love?

The term for this most intimate relationship between a couple is “devek” (lit., union, attachment). The Torah commands: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling (“davak“) to his wife” (Bereshit 2:24). Rashi states that pleasure produces devek (Sanhedrin 58a,b). In the Torah view, the pleasure of marital intimacy serves the positive function of maximizing the attachment between husband and wife.

The Ramban’s commentary on davak (Bereshit 2:24) emphasizes that marriage will cause an emotional, not just physical, union between husband and wife. The desire to enhance emotional closeness accounts for the halacha’s disapproval of certain behaviors such as thinking about another when having relations with one’s spouse, having relations when one is drunk, or having relations without mutual consent. In these situations, physical pleasure has been divested of the emotional component which would produce devek. That is exactly what the Torah does not want.

On the other hand, sexual sanctity, transforming the experience from a physical act of sexual self-gratification to a spiritual act of selfless concern and consideration, is best obtained through maximizing the pleasure of one’s spouse during intimacy.

This article is a brief overview of an exceedingly complex, multifaceted subject. You can find further discussion in the book Marital Intimacy by Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman. To obtain copies of Marital Intimacy, contact Compass Books / P.O.Box 3091 / Linden, NJ 07036.

Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman is the Rabbi of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden, New Jersey. He earned an MSDD from Columbia University and Rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Friedman has taught at numerous Israeli and American yeshivot. He was Executive Director of the Jewish Learning Experience of Durham NC, Chaplain at Duke University for four years, and a Chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, NC. Rabbi Friedman is a consultant to the Behavioral Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. He is the author of Table for Two (Targum Press, 1992), Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement (Compass Books, 2005), andMarital Intimacy (Compass Books, 2005).

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