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Sexuality in Judaism

Judaism promotes study, prayer, and practicing mitzvot to have a closer, “right” relationship with the Universal. But there is another method: sex. Judaism emphasizes that sex is a deeply holy act to be performed regularly, and insists that it be pleasurable for both members of a married couple.

Judaism outlines a number of strict rules involving physical intimacy — rules that, in fairness, are embraced wholeheartedly by some and rejected by others.

Jewish sexual ethics and practices are rooted in two basic concepts: That all human life is holy and that people can be in a state of ritual purity or impurity. These lead to the following laws:

  • Menstruation: Traditionally, sexual relations are not permitted when a woman is menstruating or for seven days after the last sign of blood. This is part of the highly intricate laws of purity that, like the kosher laws, reflect a range of meanings.

    One practical effect is that it encourages couples to resume intercourse when a man’s semen count is high and a woman is ovulating — thereby maximizing the chance of conception. It also emphasizes that a Jewish marriage must be based on much more than sexuality, as the couple is required to partner together without physical contact virtually half of each month.

    On the other hand, many liberal Jews consider this an archaic set of rules written by men, based on superstition and a lack of understanding of women’s bodies. Therefore, the majority of Jewish women don’t participate in the monthly mikvah, or ritual bath that concludes the menstrual cycle, nor do they refrain from physical contact with their husbands.

  • Spilling of seed: Jewish tradition is focused — you might even say “obsessed” at times — with procreation. This focus makes sense: In the Bible, God’s very first instruction is “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Plus, historically, the Jews have always been a minority, and building up their community presence was a crucial task.

    Orthodox Jews also see each sperm and egg as sacred — a potential life. The result is that they condemn any activity that “spills seed” — ejaculation outside the vagina. Many Jews now disregard this interpretation, tending to appreciate masturbation and other acts as a natural part of human sexuality.

  • Avoiding enticement: Jews understand that they must maintain a balance between the natural yetzer hara (the inclination toward evil or base actions) and the yetzer hatov (the inclination toward good). To achieve this balance, they believe that lust must be paired with love, just as the desire to work must be offset by the peace of Shabbat.

    One of the ways traditional Jews attempt to maintain balance is to avoid lascivious thoughts outside the intimacy of a married partner. Thus, Orthodox men and women dress and act modestly, and are physically separated, especially during religious services. Once again, most liberal Jews attempt to find their own balance without these restrictions.

Additionally, Jews don’t traditionally condone premarital sex. Once again, more liberal groups within the Jewish community may look toward religious insights when determining their own behavior, but they are not ruled by it (as the Reconstructionists say, “history has a vote, not a veto”).

Even though Jews have many laws regarding sex, Judaism sees sexuality not just as a method of procreation, but as a pleasure and a joyful responsibility in marriage. Jews have clear laws outlining a man’s requirement to marry and a husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife.

The mystical Jewish tradition takes sexuality one step farther: that the sexual union between two people is the reflection of God’s own nature — reflecting the union of the masculine and the feminine aspects of God, and facilitating the flow of shefa (divine abundance, grace, or effluence) in the universe.

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