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A Jewish Perspective on Sexuality

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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In Jewish history there have only rarely been groups who rejected sex as a normal part of life. Jewish teachings tend to encourage us to enjoy sex as an important element of a happy, mutually consensual marriage. Having babies is seen as the first commandment given to humanity, and so sex is a very important and even holy thing to engage in. But this means that it also has to be respected, and couples are often encouraged to ensure that they can provide adequately for a child before they get in too deep!

 

In Judaism there is a teaching (which today can cause problems for secular Jews who later become religious) that a couple can become married in any one of three ways: through a gift of value (usually a ring), through a contract (of which a little more later) or through sex. Now all these have to be confirmed by two valid witnesses, but help us to understand the importance and seriousness of sex, which symbolises the partnership and coming together of two individuals.

 

Traditional Judaism

 

Traditional Jewish weddings ask a husband to sign a contract in which he promises to clothe, house and care for his wife, and also obliges him to provide for her sexual needs: there is even a description in our law books of the exact number of times a week men of different professions must satisfy their wives. Failure to fulfil this obligation can be grounds for divorce. Today this kind of contract can seem archaic and unfair, but when it was developed, it was ahead of its time in trying to protect the rights of women who often got a very raw deal. At Jewish weddings today, the ring and the contract are a part of the public ceremony, and quiet time alone is permitted for the couple to symbolise their private union, which we can assume usually happens later when they are unencumbered with wedding dresses and guests awaiting their return.

 

The bride and groom are treated as a king and queen, and it is a good deed to make them happy on their wedding day. A big deal is made of weddings because having a family, and human partnership, are seen as important elements of a Jewish life and of fulfilling our potential as humans; as it says in Genesis: 'It is not good for man to be alone.' Perhaps for this reason we as a community need also to be sensitive to those among us who do not have a partner, some of whom may have chosen not to, and may feel lonely, or that they do not fit the norm. We need to be aware of different family models and individuals' lives in order to create communities that can embrace everyone.

 

Progressive Judaism

 

Because many Progressive Jews feel the traditional kind of contract doesn't reflect today's equal male-female partnerships, or the variety of sexual partnerships that are accepted not only by secular society but which are also seen as religiously blessed by many Progressive Jews, Progressive weddings today include vows by both male and female partners, and gay commitment ceremonies are becoming more and more acceptable, with Liberal Judaism having already created Brit Ahavah or Covenant of Love as a model same-sex commitment ceremony. Such ceremonies would not be acceptable in traditional communities, although there are traditional Jews who struggle to balance their homosexuality and being an observant orthodox Jew. Traditionally Judaism has not been accepting of homosexual acts, similar to society in general. Today, however, Progressive Jews are welcoming of members of the gay community, as well as people who choose not to be in relationships at all. Not marrying in the past was never really encouraged in Jewish life, and Judaism does not have groups within it that are celibate.

 

Contraception for men has traditionally been forbidden, as it was seen as wasting seed, and mirrors the behaviour of Onan, who in Genesis tried to practise the rhythm method and was struck down by God for it. It is also discouraged because men are considered obligated in the commandment to 'Go forth and multiply' – women aren't considered obligated, however men do struggle without them! But for this reason women's oral contraception has been permitted by some orthodox authorities in some situations. The Jewish principle of Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, might mean for many Progressive Jews today that wearing a condom is essential to prevent the spread of STDs and HIV. Abortion is also permitted in Judaism if the life of the mother (and this may include mental health) is endangered.

 

A short anecdote: when my husband and I got married, his rabbi asked him, 'How long do you think the groom remains a king?' A week? guessed my hubby-to-be (because we have a week of celebrations after a wedding). 'No.' A year? he tried. 'No, the groom is a king so long as he treats his wife as a queen.' In relationships, sex and partnership are easily taken for granted, and we need to continually remind ourselves that how we treat our partner reflects who we are, and perhaps how we deserve to be treated.

 

 

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