Note: This page addresses issues of Jewish law that may not be appropriate for younger readers. Please exercise appropriate discretion.
In Jewish law, sex is not considered inherently shameful, sinful, or obscene. Sex is not seen as a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation. Although sexual desire comes from the yetzer hara (the so-called "evil impulse"), it is no more evil than hunger or thirst, which also come from the yetzer hara. Like hunger, thirst, or other basic needs, sexual desire must be controlled, channeled, and satisfied in the proper time, place, and manner. But when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time and out of mutual love and desire, sexual relations are actually a mitzvah (a Biblical commandment, see Exodus 21,10 referring to "conjugal rights" and the commentary on it).
Sexual enjoyment (whether involving intercourse or mere hand holding) is permissible for Jews only within the context of marriage. For Torah, sex is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure. It is properly an act of immense significance, which requires commitment and responsibility. The requirement of marriage before sex ensures that sense of commitment and responsibility. The Torah forbids all sexual contact short of intercourse outside of the context of marriage, recognizing that such contact is likely lead to intercourse and is damaging in and of itself. Jews are rabbinically forbidden to even engage in sexual fantasy, let alone masturbation alone or mutual masturbation outside of marriage.
The primary purpose of sexual relations is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is intimate long-term companionship (not just bearing children in a family context), and sexual relations play an important role in that. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason; after a woman is no longer able to bear children, she is still expected to have an active sex life, just as during her child-bearing years (the idea that old folks should not or do not have sexual relations is an alien one in a Torah context). Sex between husband and wife is also recommended (and even required) at other times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception. Kosher sexual relations are not necessarily limited to those that can lead to pregnancy, either: anal and oral relations are permitted, if enjoyable to both marital partners, though Jewish men have a separate commandment to reproduce, and should generally end up having normal vaginal intercourse.
In the Written Torah, one of the words used for sex between husband and wife comes from the root Yod-Dalet-Ayin, meaning to know, which vividly illustrates that proper Jewish sexuality involves both the heart and mind, not merely the body. (The English expression "sexual knowledge" seems to be derived from this Biblical idea, but generally has a negative connotation lacking in the Hebrew.)
Nevertheless, Torah does not ignore the physical component of sexuality. The need for physical compatibility between husband and wife is recognized in Jewish law. A Jewish couple must meet at least once before the marriage, and if either prospective spouse finds the other physically unattractive, they should not marry.
Sexual relations should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partner's pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex. A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling. Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.
Sex is the woman's right, not the man's. A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it. The woman's right to sexual intercourse is referred to as onah, and is one of a wife's three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. The Talmud specifies both the quantity and quality of sex that a man must give his wife. It specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband's occupation, although this obligation can be modified in the ketubah (marriage contract). A man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations. In addition, a husband's consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations is grounds for compelling a man to divorce his wife, even if the couple has already fulfilled the halakhic obligation to procreate.
Although sex is the woman's right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. A woman may not withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment, and if she does, the husband may divorce her without paying the substantial divorce settlement provided for in the ketubah.
Although some sources take a more narrow view, the general view of halakhah is that any sexual conduct that does not regularly involve ejaculation outside the vagina is permissible. As one passage in the Talmud states, "a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife". In fact, there are passages in the Talmud that encourage foreplay to arouse the woman, and oral and anal sex are permitted (though not necessarily desirable), if they are not to the exclusion of vaginal sex.
One of the most mysterious areas of Jewish sexual practices is the law of niddah, separation of husband and wife during the woman's menstrual period. These laws are also known as taharat ha-mishpachah, family purity. Few people outside of the Orthodox community are even aware that these laws exist, which is unfortunate, because these laws provide many undeniable benefits. The laws of niddah are not deliberately kept secret; they are simply unknown because most non-Orthodox Jews do not continue their religious education beyond bar mitzvah, and these laws address subjects that are not really suitable for discussion with children under the age of 13.
According to the Torah, a man is forbidden from having sexual intercourse with a niddah, that is, a menstruating woman. The law of niddah is the only law of ritual purity that continues to be observed today. At one time, a large portion of Jewish law revolved around questions of ritual purity and impurity. The other laws mainly had significance in the context of the Temple, and are not applicable today.
The time of separation begins at the first sign of blood and ends in the evening after the woman's seventh "clean day". This separation lasts about 12 to 14 days. The rabbis broadened this prohibition, providing that a man may not even touch his wife during this time. Weddings must be scheduled carefully, so that the woman is not in a state of niddah on her wedding night.
At the end of the period of niddah, as soon as possible after nightfall after the seventh clean day, the woman must immerse herself in a kosher mikveh, a ritual pool. The mikveh was traditionally used to cleanse a person of various forms of ritual impurity. Today, it is used almost exclusively for this purpose and as part of the ritual of conversion. It is important to note that the purpose of the mikveh is solely ritual purification, not physical cleanliness; in fact, immersion in the mikveh is done only after a woman has bathed and shampooed and combed her hair. The mikveh is such an important part of traditional Jewish ritual life that a new community is required to build a mikveh before they build a synagogue.
The Torah does not specify the reason for the laws of niddah, but this period of abstention has both physical and psychological benefits.
The fertility benefits of this practice are obvious and undeniable. In fact, it is remarkable how closely these laws parallel the advice given by medical professionals today. When couples are having trouble conceiving, modern medical professionals routinely advise them to abstain from sex during the two weeks around a woman's period (to increase the man's sperm count at a time when conception is not possible), and to have sex on alternate nights during the remaining two weeks. When you combine this basic physical benefit with the psychological benefit of believing that you are fulfilling God's will, it is absolutely shocking that more couples with fertility problems do not attempt this practice. The rejection of this practice by the liberal movements of Judaism is not a matter of "informed choice", but simply a matter of ignorance or blind prejudice.
In addition, women who have sexual intercourse during their menstrual period are more vulnerable to a variety of vaginal infections, as well as increased risk of cervical cancer.
But the benefits that the rabbis have always emphasized are the psychological ones, not the physical ones. The rabbis noted that a two-week period of abstention every month forces a couple to build a non-sexual bond as well as a sexual one. It helps to build the couple's desire for one another, making intercourse in the remaining two weeks more special. It also gives both partners a chance to rest, without feeling sexually inadequate. They also emphasized the value of self-discipline in a drive as fundamental as the sexual drive.
In principle, birth control is permitted, so long as the couple is committed to eventually fulfilling the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply (which, at a minimum, consists of having two children, one of each gender).
The issue in birth control is not whether it is permitted, but what method is permitted. It is well-established that methods that destroy the seed or block the passage of the seed are not permitted, thus condoms are not permitted for birth control. However, the pill and IUD are acceptable forms of birth control under Jewish law.
Jewish law not only permits, but in some circumstances requires abortion. Where the mother's life is in jeopardy because of the unborn child, abortion is mandatory.
An unborn child has the status of "potential human life" until its head has emerged from the mother. Potential human life is valuable, and is not to be terminated casually, but it does not have as much value as a life in existence. The Talmud makes no bones about this: it says quite bluntly that if the fetus threatens the life of the mother, you cut it up within her body and remove it limb by limb if necessary, because its life is not as valuable as hers. But once the head has emerged, you cannot take its life to save the mother's, because you cannot choose between one human life and another.
Male homosexual relations are clearly forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 18,22). Such acts are condemned in the strongest possible terms, as abhorrent, and are punishable by death (Leviticus 20,13), as are the sins of adultery, incest, and bestiality.
It is important to note, however, that it is homosexual acts that are forbidden, not homosexual orientation. The Torah focuses on a person's actions rather than a person's desires. A man's desire to have sex with another man is no more a sin than his desire to have sex with another man's wife, so long as he does not act upon that desire. In fact, Jewish tradition recognizes that a person who chooses not to do something because it is forbidden is worthy of more merit than someone who simply chooses not to do it because he does not feel like doing it; thus, a man who feels such desires but does not act upon them is worthy of more merit in that regard than a man who does not feel such desires.
Interestingly, female homosexual relations are not specifically mentioned by the Written Torah, but are only forbidden in the general prohibition of "the [lewd] practices of Egypt" (Leviticus 18,3, translated "the doings of the land of Egypt" in the JPS Bible).
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