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The Purposes of Marriage

The Purposes of Marriage

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Companionship

The years of romance and intense sexual activity are shorter and less enduring than the years of sustained, lifelong friendship. Companionship must precede true yichud love in marriage, it is a necessary component during the peak years of sexual involvement, and it is the sweet, mellowed, and blessed gift of married life in old age.

The Sages of the Talmud were referring to companionship when they said, "It is better to remain coupled than to be widowed." This parallels the wisdom of Ecclesiastes (4:9), which says, "Two are better than one." It is signified by the description of the relationship as the wedding blessing refers to them: re-im ahu-vim, (beloved friends). The idea of friendship between husband and wife was not a component of non-Jewish religions until the Protestant Reformers maintained that companionship should actuate a marriage.

As an illustration of this emphasis in Jewish tradition, two of the seven blessings under the wedding canopy are joyous celebrations of companionship: "Cause beloved friends to rejoice greatly, as of old You rejoiced Your creatures in Paradise..." and "Who has created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exaltation, pleasure and delight, love, fellowship, peace and companionship..." That companionship is stressed in these blessings is evident from the response of Rabbi David Abudarham to the question of why these nuptial blessings did not include the benediction over the mitzvah of procreation. His answer was that these blessings, because they were recited at every wedding, had to relate to the sterile as well as to the fertile. Thus the subject of companionship was an appropriate blessing, but procreation was not.

It is true that in the Bible's first account of creation (Genesis 1:28) the very first command is, "Be fruitful and multiply." In terms of the law, procreation is the major purpose of married life. In terms of life, however, the Torah does not consider it primary and certainly not exclusive.

Genesis 1 is the record of physical creation. Adam and Eve were natural beings, akin to the animals that surrounded them. But in the second account of creation (Genesis 2:7-24), Adam and Eve were endowed with spiritual dimensions. They rose above that natural environment, had metaphysical yearnings, and could relate to G‑d. In Genesis 1, man and woman were simply ha-adam (undifferentiated hermaphrodites), while in Genesis 2 they were marriage partners. Humanity traces its history to the second chapter of Genesis, where G‑d provides the motivation for the creation of woman: "It is not good for man to be lonely."

While it is true that a progressively larger group of people can endure life alone today, and some even thrive on it, loneliness is a tragedy for those who are not built to bear it. Sociologists have determined that it is particularly devastating for single men, whom society views as ideally free, swinging, and successful. Ramban says of Genesis 2:18 that tov (good) in Genesis refers only to permanent features of creation, whereas lo tov (not good) indicates the ephemeral. Therefore "It is not good to be lonely" implies that loneliness could not endure, and G‑d had to relieve it by the creation of a companion.

Rabbi Isaac Breuer notes that with respect to His other and earlier works of creation, G‑d speaks the word of approval, "good." Only at the creation of man does He utter the negative judgment, "not good." Loneliness is not felt by animals; only man can experience existential loneliness, the fragmentary and incomplete nature of this world. It is the genuine companionship of Adam and Eve that humanity requires, and which is the stated purpose for marriage in the scheme of creation.

Recently, a tendency has developed toward emphasizing companionship as the chief value, and sometimes the sole value, of marriage. In a Louis Harris survey on American men, eighty-four percent of the men said they consider family life "very important." Out of fourteen reasons to marry, two received majority votes: "Having another person to share one's life", and "to have someone to share important life experiences with." Only two out of five cited the desire to have children, and only one out of four the desire to have a stable sex life.

What, in Jewish philosophy, is the nature of companionship? "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be as one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). "One flesh" is the symbol not only of sexual union but of the intimacy of companionship. In the twelfth century, Raavad noted that verse 18 of Genesis 2 records G‑d's intention to create a helpmeet for man, and in verse 21, He does so. But verses 19 and 20 interrupt with a story of Adam's reviewing and naming of the animal kingdom. How are these two events related? With profound insight, Raavad comments, "G‑d says to man, It is not good for man to be alone,' like animals who copulate... yet the female does not become exclusively intimate with the male." The animals may come in pairs, but in fact they are alone. It is not good for human beings to be in pairs but still be alone. Therefore, a man shall cleave to his wife and they shall be "one flesh"—she shall be exclusively intimate with him and he with her. Elsewhere, Raavad continues: "Therefore, 'it is proper that a man should love his wife as he loves his own being, and respect her more than he does his own self,' and be compassionate with her, and watch over her, as a person would watch over one of his own limbs; and she should love him, for she was taken from his side. That is why the Creator commanded man regarding his wife that he should never diminish that which is her due—namely, food, clothing, shelter —in addition to the marital relations which must include joy and intimacy."

Thus a physical relationship alone is animalistic. Human beings also need intimacy, an exclusive, warm, personal relationship of care and concern. As there is a "oneness of flesh," there must also be a "oneness of soul."

Distinguished psychologist Erik Erikson, in defining the ages of man and the dominant psychological theme of each age, notes that the twenties are dominated by the need for intimacy. Seeking marriage or other unions during that age is an expression of this need. But becoming intimate is not a simple matter. Talent and maturity are needed to share intimacies, to have trust, and to risk vulnerability.

Many of the failures in marriage undoubtedly result from the extended childhood given young men and women today. Emotional dependence on the parent becomes an obstacle to forming adult emotional associations. Jewish marriages, which form traditionally closely-knit families, often display this syndrome. Hence the emphasis of the original prescription for companionship recorded in Genesis, "Therefore, shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife..." The formula is leave and cleave.

One must exercise intelligent independence before uniting with another soul. The Bible surely did not imply an end to the child-parent relationship upon growing up; but the quality of that relationship has to change in order to accommodate emotional growth. Part of the wisdom required of concerned parents is to know when to hold on and when to let go.

Jewish law, which places so much emphasis on honoring parents, applies this theme in legal fashion to a case of conflict between parent and child regarding the child's marriage. It affirms that a daughter or son must personally desire the mate he or she chooses. The Talmud says that "a minor daughter may not be married until she matures and specifies: 'Him do I desire.'" To a formal question as to whether a son must obey his father who protests his marriage to ishah ke'sherah (an upright Jewish girl), Maharik responded that the son should marry the girl he desires providing she is morally, religiously, and otherwise suitable. Until the child learns independence, there is no chance of learning intimacy.

Intimacy, according to Jewish tradition, requires yet another stage of independence—independence in the very midst of intimacy. Ramban notes that the Bible goes out of its way to say not only that a helpmeet (ezer) was provided Adam, but that the positioning of that helpmeet opposite (ke'negdo) him was important. "Perhaps man was created bisexual... but G‑d saw it would be good for the helpmeet to be opposite him. He would then be able at will to separate from her or join her..." A contemporary scholar, Gerhard von Rad, believes that in a circumstance of intimacy, "opposite" implies a mirror image of oneself, in which one recognizes oneself in the other. That is certainly desirable and very often true of long and successful experiences of intimacy. But Ramban, and with him a host of other commentators, reads the biblical ke'negdo as literally opposite, as some popularly refer to the "opposite sex". Opposite, to Ramban, implies not a reflection of one another, but one distinctly different from the other—independent, yet intimate. Kahlil Gibran said, "Let there be spaces in your togetherness." A deeper understanding of the nature of nonsexual, mature relationships will reveal the requirement of both components—ezer as help, and ke'negdo as opposite. Perhaps this depth of understanding is behind the Yiddish folk saying that husband and wife are like lulav and etrog, the palm and the citron, two vegetable growths totally unlike in appearance that achieve meaning only when held together for the blessing on the Festival of Tabernacles.

In Jewish family law, no sexual congress is allowed between husband and wife during the period of menstruation and for seven days afterward. These are days when nonsexual intimacy can develop, and which also prepare the young, vibrant couple for the marital relationship of old age when sexuality, while still important, is no longer dominant. Companionship thus gets constant practice in Jewish family living.

There is an immature form of love called symbiotic union, which is a biological pattern of two entities that live together as one, such as a pregnant mother and her fetus. The fetus is part of the mother and receives everything it needs from her, and the mother's life is also enhanced by the fetus. In a psychic symbiotic union, the two bodies are independent but the minds feed upon one another. When such a fusion exists, no integrity remains for the individual.

Mature intimacy requires a deep, interpersonal relationship in which both people retain their individuality. Mature love enables one to merge with the other, but not to become submerged. Erich Fromm points up both the beauty and the paradox of love: "Two beings become one and yet remain two."

The Torah, in requiring the end result of basar echad (one flesh), requires ezer, an overcoming of loneliness, a mutual completion of the selves, and also ke'negdo, an opposite, independent person with whom one chooses to side at will. True yichud love embraces, never stifles, one's individuality.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said of marriage that it is not a matter "of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries... once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them."

To further our understanding of the intimacy of Adam and Eve, it is necessary to note that the merging of the two beings was a merging not only of two independent partners, but also of two equal personalities. Sforno interprets ke'negdo as the opposite balance of a scale: equal in value and in dignity. Adam and Eve, ish and ishah, have equal worth, though different qualities and functions. Ezer signifies a "giving" quality that woman has always symbolized in Jewish history, not only as a giver of love, security, encouragement, and advice to her husband, but also as mother to the growing child within her, to its nourishment and development.

When dealing with religion, most people tend to assume that principles and values are intended as important but vague preachments. Judaism used values as action-determining ideas, and they sometimes become actionable in strange ways in practical legal considerations. An apt illustration may be found in the laws of evidence: A person is not permitted to bear witness regarding close relatives, up to those three times removed. The Talmud asked whether a man was permitted to testify about his wife's grandson, not his own. The difficulty revolved around a simple question: Is the grandson considered three times removed? The fundamental principle at work here is ishto ke'gufo (a man's wife is to him as his own body). What does that mean exactly in terms of law? Maimonides interprets it to mean that they are once removed from each other. They are as close as can be, but they are still not identical. Therefore, if his wife is once removed, her son twice removed, then her son's son is three times removed. Hence, he may testify for his wife's grandson. But Me'iri holds that ishto ke'gufo means that they are identical, guf echad, one body. If that is so, he and his wife are the same, her son is considered his son and hence only once removed, and his son's son is twice removed; he therefore would not be permitted to testify. The law was eventually decided according to Maimonides. The lesson of this decision and of the accepted laws of testimony should not be lost: man and wife are as close as possible, but they are not identical. For that is the nature of companionship and intimacy—oneness is not sameness.

In Malachi (2:14), a wife is referred to as chaverte'kha, your chaver, companion, as Chatam Sofer explains: one who is involved in a joint venture, or a "joint partner," as in the Aramaic translation. Not "one body, one thought," but one joined body retaining two thoughts. This is also reflected in the Kabbalistic term for sexual relations referred to earlier as chibbur (joining), from the same root as chaverim. Chibbur refers to a joining of equals, mutuality, and a reciprocal love.

Successful marriage requires the practice of the art of intimacy. It is a joint life venture not only in the passion of brief sexual excitement, but in the profound blending of personalities.

The growth of intimacy is a growth of personal sanctity and a sublime goal of Judaism.

Creation of a Family

The Jewish people were first a family. The influence of the family model is so great that it casts its shadow on all of Jewish history. We still refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as fathers, rather than leaders or founders and to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah as mothers. And the Jewish people are called after Jacob's family, the children of Israel. The allusion to family extends even further. The contemporary Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, struggling with a definition of Jews who are neither race nor religion, calls them Beit Yisrael, the House of Israel.

The relationship to G‑d is also constructed on the family model. G‑d and Israel are referred to in mystical terms as husband and wife; the Prophet Hosea considers Jews' lusting after other gods as the treachery of adultery in the celestial marriage. The Jewish people are called children (banim atem la-Shem ), and G‑d is called Father. The relationship to the patriarchs is embodied in the principles be'rit avot, the (covenant of the fathers) and ze'khut avot (merit of the fathers). The covenant remains firm regardless of the behavior of the Jews; the unconditional contract G‑d made with our fathers is simply inherited by their children. But the merit of the fathers extends to the children only if they act as G‑d taught them to act. When the child patterns his conduct after his father, he is amply rewarded by the Father in Heaven.

Fellow Jews are considered brothers, as in the prayer acheinu be'nei yisrael (our brothers, the children of Israel), while non-Jews, our fellow human beings, are referred to as reim (neighbors). Internal communal disputes among Jews were considered "all in the family" and kept from public scrutiny.

The family spirit of the Jewish people has never been lost to most Jews who feel personally hurt when a fellow Jew commits a crime, and who feel family pride when Israel scores a victory in the international arena. So long as the few continues to believe in and pray to "the G‑d of Abraham, the G‑d of Isaac, and the G‑d of Jacob," Jews will survive as a family.

We may think it obvious that the family should be considered a natural sociological unit, but the family has had its detractors in every age. When utopias are dreamed of, the family unit is usually disposed of. Plato's program for the ideal state includes total absorption of the family by the state. In trying to create a classless society, Karl Marx also abolished the family, a feat the Soviets tried to accomplish by state edict. Divorce was made very simple and children were taken from their families at a very early age, freeing the mother to join the labor force.

"Progressive" thinkers everywhere proclaim that the family's usefulness is vanishing. They argue that its primary function was economic, while the modern family no longer works or produces as an economic unit. As for social need, the state will educate children, provide doctors, and find homes for the aged. Further, they say, the family has become a psychological prison for superior children, and is often a menagerie of mismatched temperaments, talents, intellects, and goals that have nothing in common except an address and a last name.

Just as there are detractors, the family has always had supporters. Plato was succeeded by Aristotle, who refuted him. Karl Marx's classless society was found to be a disaster, and the Soviet Union set about the restoration of family life on a grand scale. Even Sigmund Freud, after his devastating criticism of traditional family relationships, conceded the family's indispensable role in the development of the child; a father and mother are necessary psychologically as well as biologically as the child matures and assimilates the moral ideals of his ancestors and of society.

Like marriage, the family has been part of the world since the dawn of civilization. Like marriage, the family may cause pain and tragedy, but most often it is the primary source of blessing for humankind. Is there a school in which one can learn love as well as one can in the family? Here ordinary people love others even more than they do themselves, and children receive unqualified love merely because they are there. Where else in our society will young people learn trust, the cement of interpersonal relations, if not in a family setting? It is in the family that children become socialized, and develop the ability to live with and understand two and three generations. The family teaches young people the axioms of the moral life, how to handle joy, and how to celebrate. Where else in this turbulent world will they learn the meaning of "Home, Sweet Home" to which, after traveling long distances, they may come back to find a light at the door, a warm meal on the table, and the welcome embrace of loving parents? The Latin word for womb is hysteria, named for the physical convulsion before birth. The Hebrew word for womb is rechem: compassion.

For human life to endure, it is clear that the primary order of business for marriage must be procreation. Isaiah said, "G‑d did not create the world to be chaos. He created it to be inhabited" (Isaiah 45:18). The Talmud records that "one who does not participate in 'be fruitful and multiply' causes G‑d's presence to vanish. For Genesis 17:7 reads, 'For you and your children after you.' When there are to be children after you, the Presence dwells amongst you. If there are to be no children after you, on whom will the Divine Presence dwell? On sticks and stones?"

"Be fruitful and multiply" is not simply one of the commandments, it is everywhere in the Torah and it is always a blessing. On the sixth day of creation, having blessed the fish and birds with fertility the day before, "G‑d blessed [man and woman] and said unto them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it' " (Genesis 1:28). After the Flood, mankind is reborn and Noah is blessed with fertility (Gen. 9:1). Through Isaac, Abraham is to be blessed with progeny as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5). Through Jacob, Isaac is to be blessed "with seed... as the dust of the earth" (Gen. 28:14). The biblical personalities confer blessings on children that are chiefly fertility blessings. The blessing Rebecca receives from her family before she leaves to marry Isaac is, "Our sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads" (Gen. 24:60). This blessing is the very one pronounced to this day as the groom veils his bride before the wedding ceremony.

The actualization of these blessings is reported after the Jews leave Egypt. "The children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, and the land was filled with them" (Exodus 1:7). When G‑d threatens to destroy Israel for its sins, Moses pleads with Him to remember His blessings of fertility and survival to the Patriarchs. The two words pe'ru u-re'vu—be fruitful and multiply—are the code words for the perennial regenerative force of humanity.

Procreation is the principal reason for sex, and therefore the primary, though not exclusive, purpose of marriage. G‑d has written it into creation, and nature has ordained it by withholding complete satisfaction in copulation until the seeds of reproduction are brought forth. If we consider sex objectively, we see that it was created for the production of children, as lungs are for breathing and intestines are for digestion. The fact that we can use sex for other purposes does not alter childbearing as its primary purpose. The heart was not created for throbbing with excitement, but for pumping oxygen. The ears were not created for fun, though they may hear funny stories. We can use sex for our own purposes, but clearly G‑d intended it for the business of human survival.

This does not mean that when two people decide to marry, their motive is solely to have children. If a man proposes marriage because of the declining birthrate, the woman would be well-advised to refuse him; this type of "love" is much too practical. People marry, obviously, because they want each other—and that is quite all right according to the Torah. It is when the two frustrate the procreational purpose of sex that they thwart the blessing of G‑d.

It is extraordinary that sex should be used for childbearing. By the function of these bodily organs, one cooperates with G‑d Himself in the production of a new human being. Sex is, therefore, man's greatest glory in the physical order. It is also astonishing that sex should be the instrument to produce a family. Of all the drives of the human being, sex is surely the most turbulent and unpredictable. Of all of the duties of the human being, the bearing and rearing of children requires the most order, stability, and tranquility. It is only in marriage that these two contradictory forces can be reconciled—enormous power channeled into enormous good. In marriage, sex loses none of its strength, but serves life; family love loses none of its stability, but is powered by zest and excitement. It is a blessing of the first magnitude.

Because procreation is the purpose of sex, the wanton wasting of seed (hashchatat zera) was prohibited. There are three principal forms of this wasting. The first is onanism, which refers to coitus interruptus. Onan (Genesis 38:9) "went in unto his brother's wife and spilled [seed] on the ground." The Rabbis call this "threshing within and winnowing without." The second is contraception, which is permitted only in limited circumstances, as will be discussed later in this chapter. The third is masturbation. Although current psychological literature almost unanimously endorses this practice as natural, useful, and even desirable, Jewish law and tradition look upon it as wrong. The blessing of G‑d is not to be wasted for any reason; it must retain its naturalness and its integrity. Thus the blessing may be spent only within the legitimate moral confines of marriage.

Because people might excuse themselves from the blessing with a "thanks, but no thanks," Judaism declared procreation a religious duty—a positive commandment. Maimonides states, "G‑d has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply with the intention of preserving the human species, and this is what the Torah says: As for you, be fruitful and multiply.'" Maimonides' use of the term "with the intention" probably means "binding insofar as it contributes to the preservation of the species in accordance with the demands of the law." Presumably, once one has done one's share in maintaining the population of the next generation, one may no longer be obligated to fulfill the command. "Be fruitful and multiply" is not only good advice, "a blessing on your head," it is law for every Jew.

Some very well-intentioned and highly idealistic people shun the idea of bringing children into a society that is shot through with violence and rife with injustice. They believe that the evils of poverty, prejudice, hatred, and corruption, and the mind-boggling inequities of colonialism and capitalism are unremitting and essentially irrevocable. They refuse to make their child heir to a certain destiny of sorrow.

It is unfortunate but true that this sentiment has been expressed in virtually every generation, surely in every century of Jewish history. It is a reflection of the indomitable character of the Jew that despite every indication of doom, every legitimate, substantiated, obvious reason for pessimism, the Jewish response was optimistic: "It will get better." And, incredibly, it did get better. Perhaps it is not so incredible—is there no G‑d? Have we no trust? Is trust only for sure bets or is it for when there is no other avenue of hope? Has not G‑d assured us that we are an eternal people? Can He not interfere in history to save us? Is anyone who is familiar with history prepared to dispute this?

Things have been blacker, much blacker; but children were born even during the Holocaust. It is because of one such child, born during a much earlier holocaust, that we have the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." The Midrash relates that Moses' parents did not want to have a child and so decided to divorce. What moral imperative could demand that they bring a child into the world when Pharaoh had decreed death for every male child? If by some utterly remote coincidence he could remain alive, he would become a bricklaying helot, whipped daily by sadistic guards in the slave stables. But Miriam, their daughter, convinced them that they were wrong. Why?

Because resignation as a response to challenge is the sign of spiritual failure. It would not have been difficult for Miriam to throw up her hands and resign the next generation, and with it all hopes of redemption. Miriam said to Amram, her father, "Pharaoh declares death only in this world. You decree death in the world to come." Some resolution to the crisis would come, and perhaps the cumulative effect of all those children who survived could bring a change in the prevailing conditions. It was this blind unreasonable faith, this struggle for redemption hidden in the heart of a young daughter, that effected the miracle for the whole people. A Moses is born not by strategy or by accident, but by an act of faith.

We have no right today to resign the future. Withdrawal will bring us no solution, only certain demise. Even if the analyses of present evils were correct, and that is by no means certain, our response must be, "Let us raise a new generation that will continue the struggle against injustice. Even the slight diminution of evil will be a major conquest on behalf of G‑d."

There is another response that is characteristically Jewish: obstinacy. "You want us to submit? Never. "Everything looks hopeless? We will survive. How? Davka. In spite of everything." Jewish survival is not only a matter of faith. How did we survive? Davka—despite everything. That is why procreation is not only a blessing, it is a commandment for every age.

Some people cite the population explosion as a more severe threat to human survival than nuclear holocaust or urban crime and blight. As worldwide medical advances make possible a diminished death rate and a wildly increasing birthrate, the world's available supply of food and energy is at a critical point.

There is no shred of doubt that the crisis is very real and potentially disastrous. Thomas Malthus, who anticipated the problem in 1798, theorized that war, famine, pestilence, and poverty would eliminate the "unwanted population." He recommended late marriage and premarital continence, but he had little hope that restraint would be exercised. Others, among them Marx and Engels, insisted that overpopulation was a matter of production and distribution efficiency. Only one-fourth of the arable world is cultivated, the oceans have not been tapped, and even the soy bean has yet to yield its full potential. There is, however, universal agreement that contraception must be used extensively if the geometric progression of births is to be halted.

The Jewish community has demonstrated its very sensitive moral conscience in this regard. To halt overpopulation, as well as for other personal reasons, many young Jews have accepted a regimen of birth control that stands to bring the Jewish community to utter catastrophe. Everywhere in the United States, the Jewish birthrate is far smaller than that of the non-Jewish community in which it resides. We have exceeded zero—the Jews are at negative population growth. The Arabs inside the State of Israel are producing two to five times as rapidly as Jews. Simple arithmetic will demonstrate that this is the gravest threat to Jewish survival. In a few years, we will have contracepted our way to the loss of millions of unborn souls—a self-made holocaust. The Jews now number approximately thirteen million worldwide. Professor Salo Baron, a Jewish historian, estimates that without pogroms and crusades, the population of the Jews would now be two hundred million. Together with assimilation and interfaith marriage, the Jewish community seems hell-bent on suicide.

Every Jewish birth today is a commitment to the Jewish future. It is a resounding response to the Hitlers of history that the Jews will survive. Today, bearing children is more than just fulfilling the religious duty to "be fruitful and multiply"—it is an act of faith in the G‑d of Israel and the destiny of the Jewish people.

Far more Jews today are limiting family size because of pressing personal reasons such as unstable early marriage, insufficient income, psychological unreadiness, or career objectives that have yet to be accomplished. One must assess these matters with great compassion. People are sincere, intelligent, and idealistic, and the weightiness of their concerns should not be easily dismissed. Yet one must also ask disturbing questions, because the violation of this first blessing-commandment strikes at the roots of our very survival. If the couple is not yet prepared psychologically, why did they marry so young? Shall we allow ourselves to enjoy the privileges of marriage without accepting the obligations? If the question is economic, we must ask ourselves what will we have to do without. Is it a question of a larger car, a newer convenience or a bigger apartment versus a larger family? Can we equate a material good with a new life? Is the limiting of the family to two children a question of ideals or convenience? Do we not sometimes underestimate our capacities? We may be living in a "new" world but, after all, we are only a generation or two away from those twelve-children families that enjoyed somewhat fewer conveniences.

The Zohar declares, "When is the person called complete after the supernal pattern? When he is joined with his mate in unity, in joy and in affection, and there issue from their union a son and a daughter. Then the person is complete below, like the Holy Name above."

The Law on Birth Control

The foremost scholars of the Talmud have debated the question, "How large a family must one have in order to fulfill the religious obligation?" Considering the crisis proportions of the problem today, an appropriate reply would be "as large a family as possible!" The Sages, however, discuss the minimum acceptable fulfillment of the mitzvah.

The Mishnah states, "A man shall not abstain from the performance of the duty of the propagation of the race unless he already has children." How many children? The school of Hillel ruled "one boy and one girl," to imitate G‑d's creation, "male and female He created them." The school of Shammai ruled "two sons," as Moses had two sons before he separated from Zipporah. Conjecturing, one could postulate that the Shammaites take Moses as their paragon and emphasize two males because they hold that a family must provide men who can study Torah and defend the borders of the homeland. The Hillelites take their cue from creation and concern themselves with the propagation of the race, which requires a balance between men and women. While the Halakhah accepts the Hillelite view as normative, and a man has indeed fulfilled his basic obligations if he has sired one son and one daughter, that is not sufficient to provide all the guidance that is necessary for the implementation of the Halakkah. First, the Halakhah is concerned with the means of contraception used after the basic family unit has been established. Second, the national Jewish need for survival in this post-Holocaust period places upon each of us special requirements to avoid the disappearance of Judaism and all it stands for.

Technically, two commandments are focal when considering questions of birth control. First the duty to have children, based on the positive commandment "Be fruitful and multiply." Second, the prohibition against "wasting seed" (hashchatat zera). This does not refer to intercourse with a sterile woman, but to conception prevented by artificial means. The legal literature discusses circumstances in which these two principles may be disregarded.

Several ground rules should be stated:

1. Since extramarital relations are prohibited, there is no permission for the use of any contraception, under any circumstances, outside of marriage.

2. The "wasting of seed" refers primarily to the male, thus contraception for the man is ruled out.

3. If pregnancy will cause death or injury to the woman, there is every indication that the rabbi will permit the use of contraceptives. This question should be presented to the rabbi for his ruling.

A halakhically-competent and authoritative rabbi will ask the following questions:

1. What is the reason for wanting to control birth?

2. What means will be used? (Mechanical and chemical means are less satisfactory than oral contraceptives, which do not directly cause the "wasting of seed.")

3. How many children do you already have?

4. Is there any threat to the mother or to the unborn child?

Birth control is not a matter of "individual conscience." These words may sound like the ultimate heresy in the context of our individualistic American democracy, but religious law, like civil law, is not made by decisions of individual conscience. (There is a proper area for decisions of conscience—in areas beyond the law, but this volume is too short for a protracted consideration of this sensitive issue.) The crisis of Jewish survival is implicit in the birth control question. It is difficult to be objective about our problems. It is tempting to decide on the basis of what is convenient rather than for what is right.

Jewish law concerns itself in a comprehensive manner with matters of utmost private concern. These, too, as all of life, come under the aegis of the Torah.

Sexual Relations within Marriage: Beyond Procreation

We have discussed the two central purposes of marriage in the Jewish tradition, lifelong companionship and the creation and nurturing of a family. There is also a third purpose, negatively-worded but of vital positive significance to the welfare of society: the constraint upon sexual adventurism. Marriage creates a framework where sex can function to unite two people and help to make their lives meaningful, rather than be squandered in successive, isolated experiences. Marriage provides strong banks within which sex can course at the utmost of its power for the service of life, and enables each person to turn to the business of life beyond the sexual, to grow closer to G‑d and more compassionate to humanity.

Thus one purpose of marriage is the avoidance of illicit sexual relations. The Talmud says, "He who reaches the age of twenty and has not married, spends all his days in sin. Sin actually? Say better: All his days in the thought of sin." G‑d is described as waiting for people to marry so that they may not succumb to temptation and to erotic fantasies, which are obstacles to holiness. Marriage, in which temptation is satisfied and sex given expression, is called holiness (kiddushin).

Holiness, then, is part of the mitzvah of marriage. The presence of the wife, the husband's tie to the family, will keep society ordered and the sanctity of life maintained. For this reason, the Torah ordained the mitzvah of onah: conjugal relations that are positively required, separate and distinct from the need for procreation.

Sexual relations within marriage have a value and life all their own. Sex is seen not merely as a means for perpetuating the species, but as part of the human personality. It is not only a channel of life, but a channel of love. Judaism teaches that G‑d did not plan the reproductive organs as strictly mechanical means for the production of new life; G‑d constructed the human being to appreciate the physical and soulful ecstasy of the sexual act. Saadiah Gaon notes the view of some of his contemporaries (which he believes is one-sided), that "sexual intercourse holds the most remarkable of pleasures. It increases the soul's gladness and gaiety, it drives gloomy thoughts from the mind and serves as an antidote to melancholy. And there cannot be anything reprehensible about the sex act since G‑d's holy men in the Bible engaged in it with His approval..."

The sex act that does not symbolize love is only physical and is a meaningless acrobatic. Menahem Me'iri said in the thirteenth century, "Had relations been only physical, the Bible would not have referred to them as ye'diah [knowledge}." Physical joys subside with mechanical repetition, and the sheer vacuity only intensifies the lack of love.

The marital sexuality that is beyond procreation is called by the Bible onah. Healthy, proper sexuality as an act of love in marriage can bring new value into ordinary life. It adds a renewed hope of permanence and an ever-deeper fusion of personalities. It precludes the certainty of ultimate boredom, for while one soon comes to the end of what a body can give, there is no limit to the exploration of a personality. This mitzvah of onah, quite distinct from the mitzvah of procreation, serves the children already born by making the marriage a firmer, warmer, and more loving partnership. Even if no children can be born, the couple will serve the primary purpose of sex by adding one more strong and happy marriage to the whole institution of marriage on which each generation depends. The law of conjugal rights, and the quality of relationship which it fosters, is essential to the understanding of love and marriage.

Literally, onah means "time." It refers to sex that takes place during the portion of the month following the niddah period (abstention during the menstrual cycle).

Though it takes place only during fertile times of the month, onah does not relate to sex that serves the procreative functions (e.g., in the case of a pregnant woman, sterility, or a woman who has passed menopause). This sexual activity, far from being considered useless because it is nonproductive, is a religious duty. Indeed, there is substantial opinion that it may be encompassed by both a negative and a positive biblical command. The negative: Exodus 21:10, which is applied by the Rabbis to every Jewish wife, states that a man "may not withhold her conjugal rights." The positive: Deuteronomy 24:5 states, "When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out to the military, neither shall he be charged with any business; naki yiheye le'veito, he shall be free for his house one year, ve'simach et ishto, and he shall rejoice his wife whom he hath taken." During the first year of marriage, the husband was considered to have only begun to fulfill the onah, and he was exempt from the military draft. This applied even if his wife was pregnant, so that intercourse would not serve the purpose of procreation. Raavad says that only these two motivations for the sex act, procreation and onah, bring sanctity and purity to the family.

The Bible conceives of sex within marriage as the woman's right and the man's duty. (Until quite recently, the western concept of marital duty was that it is man's right and woman's duty). The woman's right is assured by the Bible; she may not waive it, and her husband may not preclude it as a condition of the marriage contract.

Woman's duty to man is specifically described in the Talmud, though it is not recorded in the Bible. The basic idea of the woman's right does not originate in an act of kindness, but is an essential component of marriage. No man may marry a woman and then simply ignore her or her sexual needs. It is remarkable that it has taken western thought so long to come to the conclusion that was evident in ancient biblical times, namely, that women have sexual needs just like men. The Victorian idea that a "lady" has no such feelings is a piece of prudery that never appeared in the long Jewish tradition.

Jewish law goes so far as to state that if either partner to the marriage refuses to participate in conjugal relations, (under certain conditions) that person is considered rebellious (mored) and the other spouse can sue for divorce. The Bible records three fundamental, unqualified rights of the woman in marriage—food, clothing, and conjugal rights—but only a refusal of the last dubs the husband a mored. That surely is because onah is the essence of the marriage. Food and clothing can be handled in court, but a withdrawal from onah is a functional termination of married life.

The husband's refusal to cohabit with her entitles a wife to a divorce, and if necessary he is compelled to issue one. As long as he refuses, her ketubah clause of financial guarantee is increased from week to week, thus adding to the settlement he must grant her upon termination of the marriage. The husband will not be considered a mored, however, if he can adduce proof that he finds his wife repulsive. In that case, he must be prepared to grant a divorce. The wife, on her part, is considered rebellious (a moredet), if for twelve months she persistently refuses to cohabit with her husband. Anger or strife is not considered legal justification for a refusal to cohabit, and her ketubah is lessened by the courts from week to week. If she claims revulsion the husband is entitled, according to her own wish, to divorce her. Maimonides says, "A wife should not be urged to have sexual relations with a person whom she finds repulsive."

The frequency of conjugal relations was of concern to the law, although the regulation of passion was obviously difficult. While the law here applies to the complex desires and needs of the human being, it must make a minimum quantitative assessment in order for marriage laws of onah to be enforced. If it did not, the law would be rendered ineffective. Rights and duties must be defined, or they will be ignored as merely sentimental platitudes. While it does seem paradoxical to define love by law, it is an effective, minimal safeguard that enables love to continue to function satisfactorily in society. Of course, in regard to the frequency of copulation, the law cannot deal in absolute numbers. Raavad says, "The onah frequency ordained by the Sages refers to the satisfaction of the individual woman's desires." According to Maimonides, it is also relative to the man's potency and to the nature of his work.

In addition to normal onah, the husband is expected to respond to his wife's needs whenever that may be (outside of the menstrual period) and even anticipate her desire (e.g., before leaving on an extended trip).

The Sages who stipulated the once-per-week onah for scholars recommended that it take place on Friday night. This Talmudic prescription can help us to understand the nature of onah. There are two well known interpretations in medieval Jewish literature. One is that of Rashi who said, "Friday evening: for it is a night of delight, rest and physical joy." The joy of sex is not vulgar and merely tolerated. It is a joy appropriate to the holiest day of the week, a physical joy that is not merely the delight of the spirit.

The second appears in the mystical document Iggeret ha-Kodesh. "Friday night: for it is the secret of the turning of the 'wheel of time' in the seven-day period." It is a highly spiritual moment, when we celebrate the end of the six-day physical creation and the beginning of the day of olam ha-ne'shamot (the world of souls). Sexuality is raised to the level of spiritual heights. Onah is not G‑d's indulgence for the weakness of the flesh, it is G‑d's elevation of humanity through loving union on the most spiritual of days. It is special, as the Sabbath is special.

The Sabbath suggestion is even more instructive in light of an ancient Christian stricture regarding the frequency of copulation. In that literature, we find an opposite tradition: on Friday, one is to abstain from conjugal relations in memory of the death of the savior; Saturday, abstain in honor of Mary; Sunday in memory of the Resurrection. In this tradition, holiness and sexuality appear contradictory.

The onah experience may not be mere mechanical fulfillment, for as such it does not conform to the biblical requirement to rejoice one's wife. Rejoicing means satisfying needs, and it signifies a sensitive and caring involvement of the whole person and a genuine sense of intimacy, (kiruv). Therefore, Maimonides teaches that one may not have intercourse without being mindful, sensitive, and alert. "One may not have intercourse while either intoxicated or sluggish or in mourning; nor when [one's wife] is asleep, nor by overpowering her; but only with her consent and if both are in a happy mood." The act must be capable of expressing devotion. Thus one may not have intercourse if husband and wife are not committed to one another and are thinking of divorce, nor if they quarreled during the daytime and have not resolved it by nightfall. Raavad refers to this as exploitation, using one's partner as a harlot. One should not perform the conjugal act while imagining some other partner. The physical onah must be expressive of love; otherwise, it is simply animalistic.

Great sensitivity is a basic requirement in the Jewish attitude toward sex. No excuse of superior religiosity on one hand, or of rough-and-tumble masculinity on the other, may justify a less than delicate approach. The Midrash asserts, "The groom may not enter the bridal chamber without the specific permission of the bride." The Talmud counsels, "Ishte'kha gutza [if your wife is short] bend down and whisper." In an insightful and instructive passage, the Talmud reaches the epitome of delicacy: "The intimation of desire will usually come verbally from the husband, but Jewish women will hint only with the heart." Rabbi Hananel elucidates, "She hints by dressing up, prettying herself, and speaking softly in order to encourage her man to perform the mitzvah." Me'iri notes, "Her 'hinting' is not forwardness, but praiseworthy for its modesty... and she will be blessed with good children."

In addition to being delicate and gentle, onah requires the couple to design an erotic atmosphere. Sweetness and respect must permeate the darkened room. Iggeret ha-Kodesh says:

Therefore you should begin with words that will draw her heart to you and will settle her mind and will make her happy, to unite your mind with her mind and your intention with her intention. Tell her things, some of which will produce in her desire, attachment, love, willingness and passion. Tell her words which will draw her to fear of Heaven and to piety and modesty [tze'niut]. Tell her of pious and modest women and of how they bore proper and pure children. It is fitting to win her heart with words of charm and seduction and other proper things, so that the intent of both of you will be unified for the sake of Heaven. Similarly, one should not have relations while his wife is sleepy for their minds will not be unified. Arouse her instead with pleasing words of desire as we have explained.

In summary, when you are ready to have relations, ensure that your wife's mind agrees with yours. Do not hasten to arouse her desire, so that her mind may be serene. Begin in a pleasing manner of love, so that she will be satisfied first [i.e., the woman should achieve satisfaction before the man].

Ramban added a nuance to these requirements. In the three obligations of marriage, the husband's duty is to provide food, clothing, and conjugal relations. Special clothing appropriate to sexual activity is not part of the clothing obligation, but part of the onah obligation. Of course, the onah obligation is more critical to the marriage in the eyes of the courts, hence we see that clothes and linens are obligatory for the enhancement of amorous relationships. The reasoning of Ramban is also significant: "A wife is not to be treated as a concubine... The bedroom atmosphere must have honor."

Maharam of Lublin writes that these sensitivities should prevail at all times, not only when sexual activity occurs. "...Even for the bride who is a menstruant during her wedding and for the seven days of celebration thereafter... Know that not only is conjugal intercourse a mitzvah. All forms of closeness by which man rejoices his wife are mitzvot... Thus one who is starting on a trip and his wife is about to have her menses, must pay special loving attention to her with words of kindness, and care, and closeness."

In our age of commercialized sex and the fear of sexual repression, it is necessary to recite and repeat the simple standard of decency to every married couple: The bedroom door must stay locked—physically during erotic encounters, and symbolically at all times. It is no one else's business, and surely should not serve as living room banter. The only times these matters may be spoken of is in therapy. If we do otherwise, we vulgarize that which is beautiful and make coarse that which should be delicate. The Hebrew word we have used for sexual intimacy is yichud, privacy.

The acme of the cultic experience in ancient Canaan was public fornication, orgies of the fertility cult with their temple prostitutes. When the Bible commands "Therefore shall you keep my charge, that you do not any of the abominable customs which were done before you" (Leviticus 18:3), it refers to the Canaanites and Amorites whose hallmark was the public display of sex, "the abominable practice" of the nations. Exile is the punishment for its violation. We may not tolerate the Canaanite barbarism of today's X-rated society. Jewish love is discreet, modest, intimate, private, quiet. The Talmud says: "There is no one so loathsome as one who walks naked in the street." Onah, surely, is the very personal province of husband and wife.

Perhaps the most devastating destroyer of marriage is boredom. To avoid that distasteful eventuality, the physical act must be a fusion not only of bodies, but of personalities. An expression of mature love doesn't dull, it gets deeper and richer. An act of muscles and glands easily becomes routine, with the sense of mystery diminished by constant closeness, total availability, and a "business-as-usual" attitude. The fire that transformed Adam into esh with the creation of Eve, and into ish with the recognition of the divine component of marriage, reverses when only bodies unite.

The physical act must be sensitively appreciated. The Halakhah understood this crucial matter and provided for the widest latitude and the fullest expression, with the constant qualification that the act retain the potential for reproduction and that there be total consent and an abiding sense of human dignity. The law comprehends the human need for variety in the conjugal act, but it has only disgust for pe'ritzut, the obscenities of the Playboy ethic. The Talmud makes bold decisions on these matters, and Rabbi Huna even advised his own daughter in the method of conjugal relations with the goal of keeping awareness alive.

When conjugal relations are the result of compulsion, sexual intimacy is robbed of its essential holiness. It makes the blending of bodies and personalities inhumane. True, the tradition does counsel the spouse to yield if at all possible, but if that does not occur, the Halakhah has no tolerance. It is nothing less than "domestic rape." The Talmud says, "He who coerces his wife will produce unworthy children." The Rabbis go so far as to say that in such ugly exploitation of his wife, a man is considered morally, though not legally, to have cohabitated with a harlot and to have produced a child who is akin to a mamzer.

Maimonides declares, "You must not have relations with her against her will. In such relations, because they are not done with great desire, love, and willingness, the Divine Presence does not rest; for your intents are different and the mind of your wife does not coincide with your mind. You must not fight with her or beat her in regard to conjugal relations." The Talmud, in a precise and graphic analogy, says that "just as a lion tears his prey and devours it and has no shame, so an Am ha-Aretz, a boor, strikes his wife then cohabits with her and has no shame." Fortunately, wife-beating has virtually no history in the traditional Jewish community.

The use of sex as a weapon by a manipulating mate is a desecration. Indeed, the negative phrasing of the duty of onah implies this rejection of its misuse: to yigra (a man may not diminish her onah) ke'dei le'tzaarah (in order to pain her). Rabbi Isaac of Trani complained, "Some men go on business trips and stay overly long, well into the period of her onah." There is a large body of rabbinic opinion that insists, for this reason, that the husband does not violate the duty of onah if he "diminishes it," providing his wife voluntarily concurs with him on its need. Maimonides adds that the wife is also not permitted this manipulation: "The Sages commanded the woman that she not withhold herself from her husband in order to hurt him or even to increase his love for her..."

Cynics like to say that the world is a marketplace and we must barter to get what we want. However one may feel about this, surely people ought to be sensitive enough to consider conjugal sex beyond trade. Such manipulators only put their mates in the position of "in-house" prostitutes. May their spouses one day not find it more attractive "out of the house?"

The sexual act is not something invented by man's lust and tolerated by an indulging G‑d. It is ordained by G‑d Himself as the means for the perpetuation of the human race and for the ultimate expression of human love. There is nothing shady about the sexual appetite legitimately expressed. The Tenth Commandment says "Do not covet another man's wife." It is not said about desire for one's own wife.

The positive duty of the mitzvah of onah is simchah, the rejoicing during sex that is literally a religious duty. The Talmud says, "R. Joseph said that 'clothing' [one of the three obligations that husband owes to wife] really implies 'the closeness of the flesh'—as clothing is placed on the flesh, so the conjugal act must relate directly to the flesh. So as to tell people not to conduct themselves as the ancient Persians did who cohabited fully-clothed." If husband or wife insists on doing this, it could constitute cause for divorce. Ritba comments, "Even if they insist on this for the sake of religious modesty... for this is not the way of love."

The sexual aspect of marriage does not fall under the shadow of sin or shame, and this is evinced in many statements in Jewish literature. The beauty, character, and even the health of children are held to be influenced by the nature of the act. The act itself, ideally, should not be perfunctory and dutiful, but as fresh as the first union on the wedding night. The wife is urged to use cosmetics and to wear jewelry so that she should always continue to be attractive to her husband. Maharam Rotenburg went so far as to say, "Let a curse descend upon a woman who has a husband and does not strive to be attractive." Being religious means fulfilling the goals of Torah, it does not mean being "more religious" than one's neighbor. "Do not be overly-righteous," Ecclesiastes says. Judaism is not Puritanism.

"My beloved is like a gazelle" (Song of Songs 2:9). This is a symbol of the beloved as beautiful, graceful, dainty, nimble—the very perfection of erotic refinement. In Proverbs (5:19) a comely and beloved woman is called a "loving deer, a graceful roe." She is the picture of modesty: "Knowest thou the time when the goats gave birth?" asks Job (39:1). And like the mountain goat, the male should be strong, self-contained. able to retain his balance while climbing on rocks and negotiating the tall peaks. One can still see this picture in Ein Cedi in Israel: the mountain goat stands motionless, statuesque, his excitement and power molded in self-control, waiting only for his mate. She is modest and beautiful; he is strong and self-controlled. Solomon's Song is the Jewish way: "My beloved is like the deer."

The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Discussion (4)
May 12, 2014
"The Arabs inside the State of Israel are producing two to five times as rapidly as Jews. "

They can't possibly be true. The birth rate per woman in Israel was 3.87 on 1960, fell to 2.7 in 1992 and increased to 3.0 per woman in 2011. The Haredim are responsible for the rise.

I would love to know how the woman with 12 children can have a Friday night of delight, rest and physical joy.
BM
UK
May 27, 2010
Re: onah
Why should they separate? They cannot fulfill "be fruitful and multiply" at any rate, and so have no obligation to do so. I am sure their marriage and love brings G-d great pleasure.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
May 23, 2010
onah
this was beautifully written, filled w/ love and sensitivity. it could be an outline for a very useful book. i shared it w/ friends who are too shy to ask a rabbi. i think their problem is common, i hear of many older, sexless marriages. these 2 are married for decades, both older and have severe disabilities. the husband had prostate removal after cancer. he cannot be sexually intimate. still, they take care of each other and express affection. must they separate?
Anonymous
June 6, 2008
That is so beautiful
I love your vision of mariage. It is so beautiful. As a gentile who used to know little about Judaism, it is a shock to me, but a pleasant one. I guess that the field reality probably is that many jewish couples do not live up to that ideal, but at least, the ideal os beautiful, much more than the Catholic one.

I strongly suspect that Catholic Church is largely responsible for the spread of disbeleif in the West. Maybe, if the notion of B'nai Noach was better known, then many could be reconcillated with Faith.
Anonymous
montreal, quebec, canada

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