The Power of Intimacy

Sex is the most powerful, all-pervasive force in human experience. It may be intensely personal, meaningful, and creative at one moment, and depersonalized, meaningless, and careless the next. Much of its glory is that it can bring us as close as we may get in life to experiencing the mystery of our mortality, and because of this it is sanctified. Yet it can also be a blind, nearly irresistible force seeking wanton release on the biological level, and in this way its sanctity is perverted. Paradoxically, sex—the most chaotic, powerful, and untutored drive—can only be fully experienced when it includes an element of discipline and precision.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke postulates a theology of sex on the premise that not even an iron will can truly withstand its force. En apotropus le arayot, the Talmud teaches: "No one can guarantee another's sexual innocence." Long ago the Rabbis said, "The greater the man, the greater the desire," equating personal power and libidinal power. "The sexual attraction first engages the eyes," say the moralists, "and the only effective way to eliminate immorality is to avoid its grasp at every turn."

But temptation, in the form of magazines, books, and movies, is a multi-billion dollar industry and permeates our society. The abuse of human sexuality has reached the stomach-turning point, and there seems to be no way to avoid it—no exertion of universal wills, no permanent cover for the eyes. It is ironic that this situation should exist at a time when cults are multiplying, more people are praying, and atheists are being ridiculed into extinction. It seems we are at a time of religious boom and moral bust.

You may ask, "What else is new?" Haven't religious and ethical leaders throughout history decried society's lack of morality? Yes, but it is different today. Not because the sanctity of sex is violated in practice, not because television brings temptation into the family's inner sanctum, and not because sexual gratification is readily available. Today sexual morality is rejected as an ideal, modesty is scoffed at, and chastity is rejected as anachronistic. Worse, those who articulately uphold moral standards, modesty, and chastity are disappearing; their arguments appear irrelevant.

The Bible rejects one who does only "whatsoever is right in his own eyes" (Deuteronomy 12:8). Today, the philosophy that "man is the measure of all things" is not confined to one group, it is the heritage of our whole society. If we are to be the final arbiters of all value, it follows that whatever serves our needs is declared "good." "The good life" is a life devoted to sensual experience—tennis, water-skiing, the theater. These activities are not intrinsically wrong; but it is noteworthy that the most basic ethical term is so easily transferred to physical pleasure.

We have adopted an ideology of narcissism informed by situational ethics: if you have pleasure and mutual consent anything goes—as long as no one gets hurt. For example, what is disturbing is not the ethical merit of a particular abortion, but the rationale for wholesale abortions: "It's my body and I can do what I want with it." Similarly, there is hardly a trace of guilt to be found in those responsible for media presentations of what is now considered "old-fashioned" sexual immorality. No attempt is made to correct the situation—that's just the way it is. But worse is the accepted justification for casual sex or an adulterous affair: "It makes me happy."

Today contraception, not conception, is the focus of research. The sex act has effectively been separated from its fulfillment—one is play, the other pro-creation. In a day when coitus is no longer necessarily connected with reproduction or with responsibility, not many pregnancies are likely to survive both contraception and abortion.

Today there is no talk of standards, G‑d's or society's. It seems sex is all right in every form—so long as it is not repressed, Freud forbid. We are faced with this question: What shall sex be used for now that it is no longer tied to that sacred, cosmically significant function of perpetuating the family, the faith, and the human race? Society's answer appears to be very simple: fun—and fun has no rules.

Judaism on Sexual Boundaries

There is no single term for "sex" in the Bible. The title for the list of the Bible's prohibited sexual offenses is gilui arayot, "uncovering the nakedness" (Leviticus 18:6ff), and Maimonides classifies these chapters of the law under the rubric of Kedushah (Sanctity). Although Jewish tradition does not treat sexual experience systematically, reference to it can be found in every one of the Five Books of Moses, in every book of the Prophets, and Ketuvim, the "Writings." Even the Talmud contains candid, sometimes explicit clinical analyses and intimate details that would make a Victorian blush. What emerges is a moral discipline that is strict, yet highly sensitive to the human condition; one that affirms the joyfulness of the sexual experience, but insists that it express itself in controlled circumstances; and one that never deprecates marriage and at every opportunity deplores monastic asceticism.

Judaism's philosophy of sexual experience, love, and marriage begins with the Bible's first recorded paragraphs describing Adam's relations with Eve. This philosophy has weathered every new fad and every radical style that boldly declared its doctrine to the world, from the celibacy of Augustine to the free love of Bertrand Russell. Judaism has focused its greatest minds on understanding G‑d's law and nature's demands, and throughout its history has succeeded in elevating sex, sanctifying marriage, and firmly establishing the family as the primary unit of the community.

Traditional Judaism makes the following general propositions about sex and its place in human society:

  1. Sexual relations may take place only between a man and a woman. This means that sex with an animal is considered a perversion, and intercourse with a member of one's own sex prohibited.
  2. Sexual relations and marriage are not permitted with someone outside the circle of the Jewish people (mixed marriage) or inside the circle of close relatives established by the Bible and the Sages (incest).
  3. Sexual relations are a mitzvah, a religious duty, within a properly covenanted marriage in accordance with Jewish law. Outside of that covenant, premarital sexual relations are not condoned and extramarital relations are considered crimes.

  4. Sexual relations within marriage must accord with the laws of family purity with respect to the wife's menstrual cycle.

Rabbi Akiva deduced these fundamental ideas from a single verse (Genesis 2:24): "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." By extension, "his father" also includes his father's wife, even if she is not his mother, and his "mother" is meant literally—to exclude incest. "And he shall cleave," but not to another male—to exclude homosexuality; "to his wife," not to his neighbor's wife—to exclude adultery; "And they shall be as one flesh," not to animals—to exclude buggery.

Seven Axioms for Sexual Conduct

These propositions are based largely on the following axioms that form the fundamental concepts of human sexuality in Judaism.

1. The Human Being Is Not an Animal

Simple observation teaches us that we have the genitalia of animals and participate in a similar sexual process. Why, then, can we not act like animals? It does seem to be nature's way. Indeed, Freudian psychology teaches us generally that we must see ourselves as we are, pleasure-seeking animals, and that we will not succeed in negating our essential animality except at the risk of neurosis. In the physical and psychological sense, then, human beings are considered to be fundamentally no more than animals.

Convinced of the truth of this specious reductionism—that we are nothing but animals—we begin to act that way without guilt, and even with gusto. There are no rules for beasts to follow other than blind obedience to instincts, satisfaction of needs, and "doing what comes naturally." The consequences of this irresponsible behavior can be disastrous, resulting in broken homes, broken hearts, loneliness, children born out of wedlock, loveless marriages, and infidelity. Ecclesiastes (3:19) declares only in bitterness, "Man has no preeminence above a beast, for all is vanity." But if that is all we are, then the world, humanity, the soul, and all of life becomes meaningless and empty. We were created in the image of G‑d, and Judaism does not permit us to squander our humanity. Ha-neshamah lakh ve'ha-guf Pa'alakh ("the soul is Yours [G‑d's] and the body is Yours, too") is a cornerstone phrase of the Yom Kippur liturgy. At the wedding service, a blessing is recited to remind the bride and groom that the human being is created in G‑d's image.

Despite the similarity of sexual anatomy and parallel reproductive processes, the essential humanity of our sexuality can be discerned in the very fabric of the physical act. If it is to be successful, the sexual act must be based on a sense of concern for the partner. Helmut Thielicke notes that "there is a two-way communication in the structure of the libido, for the prerequisite for the fulfillment of pleasure is that the other person gives himself to it, that he participates.... The other person should not be a passive object upon which one's own urge is simply 'abreacted.'" Without this communication, coitus is disguised autoeroticism. We cannot successfully follow the animal instinct and achieve release, but must be synchronized with our partner in order to satisfy ourselves.

This "synchrony" required of sexual partners reflects a unique factor that is fundamental to our understanding of the difference between animal sex and human sex: A man's curve of sexual excitement tends to rise sharply and fall precipitously, while a woman's may rise more slowly and taper off gradually. At first this may appear to be an imperfection, when compared to the easy harmony of animals. But perhaps this apparent incongruity is designed to prevent human beings from merely following the erotic impulse in blind animal fashion. To achieve genuine satisfaction, we are forced to express our humanity. Sex exposes us to failure and success, and in all this it confronts us with the theme of human communication instead of mere animal copulation. It is precisely this human need to correct the natural impulse that impels the thirteenth-century author of Iggeret ha-Kodesh, a document on the mystical significance of marriage, to give detailed advice to his son on preparing his wife for the sexual act and designing the proper erotic atmosphere.

This exception of the human being from the rule of instinct in the natural realm teaches us that we must exercise our essential humanity in the area of sexual relations as in all other critical areas of life. We must reasonably and intelligently choose a life partner, make proper human covenants, order our lives and our priorities, control our urges, and submit to a higher discipline: a halakhah, the law we were given by G‑d. This is a law that we need in order to protect our love, both from other humans who act like animals, and from the internal animal that we sometimes allow to crouch at the door of our souls.

While some segments of society attempt to animalize our humanity, Judaism tries to humanize that which is called animal.

2. The Human Being Is Not an Angel

If we are not animals—and thus not permitted to abuse our sexual gift—we are also not angels who may abstain from sex altogether. We must live according to a higher ethical and moral law as beings created in the image of G‑d, but reality dictates that we are not, and will never become, angels.

Judaism therefore frowns on celibacy. As recorded in the Talmud, Ben Azzai (one scholar among the thousands recorded) chose to remain celibate in order to study Torah and was chastised severely. This is in stark contrast to the celibacy of the two founders of Christianity, Jesus and Paul, and the pronouncements against the institution of marriage (I Corinthians 6 and 7), which accept it only as a concession to human frailty. To wit, Paul: People should marry only "...if they cannot contain...; for it is better to marry than to burn" (I Cor. 7:9); and Matthew: "Be a eunuch for the sake of Heaven" (19:12); and John Calvin, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: Marriage is "a necessary remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust." Reinhold Niebuhr considers the Christian development of the family a triumph over the negative Christian attitude to sex and marriage.

Judaism posits that sex is a gift from G‑d. How could such a gift be considered evil or sinful? Properly used in a legitimate framework, sex is to be viewed positively as joy and as mitzvah. The patriarchs marry, the kings marry, the kohanim marry, the prophets marry, and the Sages marry. Nowhere is there the slightest indication that sex or family interfered with their mission. The term used for Isaac's sexual relationship with his wife is me'tzachek, rejoicing (Genesis 26:8). The author of Iggeret ha-Kodesh writes: "Let a man not consider sexual union as something ugly or repulsive, for thereby we blaspheme G‑d. Hands which write a Torah scroll are exalted and praiseworthy; hands which steal are ugly."

While the sexual act is considered good in the proper context, there were some ascetic pietists who viewed the sheer pleasure of even the legitimate act with some disdain. In the seventeenth century, Rabbi Hayyim Vital established the rule of Kabbalists: "He should sanctify himself at the time of intercourse so that he should derive no pleasure from it." However, the Seer of Lublin indicated that this applies before the act, as it is impossible to have no pleasure during the act. The Seer quotes Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk, active in the eighteenth century, as saying that there is no benediction before performing the mitzvah of intercourse, "because it cannot be performed without an admixture of the ‘evil’ inclination." Nonetheless, while one should not seek pleasure from it, and while a full blessing may not be recited over it, the author concludes that we should thank G‑d if we have received pleasure, so that we should not be guilty of using sacred things without proper acknowledgement.

Sex is not sin, and it does not need to be spiritualized. It must, however, be humanized, by affirming the reality of its power and attractiveness, rejoicing in its presence, using it as a blessing for the benefit and development of human-kind, and abstaining from it when its Creator forbids it. A corollary of the two statements—that we are neither animals nor angels—may be that we have aspects of both. In this case, our humanity would consist of proper resolution of the tensions and contradictory demands made upon us by our dual nature.

3. Human Sexuality Is Clean and Neutral.

Judaism believes that sex is morally neutral. Libidinal energy is an ambivalent power, the effect of which depends on what the human being does with it. Sex does not even have the status of an intrinsic value, but can function as a means to express love and build family, or as random personal gratification. Sex is neither bestial nor sinful, neither sacrament nor abomination, and so may not be abused or discarded. It is not to be denigrated as a necessary concession to human weakness, nor is it to be worshipped as an idol.

Genesis (1:31) tells us that at the end of the creation, G‑d saw everything that He made and that it was tov me'od (very good). Interpreting the verse, Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said: "Tov, good—that is the yetzer tov, the good inclination; tov me'od, very good—that is the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. But how can an admittedly evil inclination be considered good, let alone very good? Because without it, man would not care to build a home, he would neither marry nor beget children, nor would he pursue a livelihood."

Judaism does not believe that sex in itself is evil, it is the abuse of sex that is evil.

4. Sexuality Cannot Be Separated from Character.

If we agree that the sexual force is neutral and that its good or evil qualities depend on how we use it, we can begin to appreciate that our sexuality can never be separated from our total personality. Thus the way we handle our own sexuality is not primarily a matter of facts, but of values. Indeed, sex can be a revealing indication of character—is our partner a giver or taker, sensitive or gross, caring or selfish, religious or irreligious?

If sex were merely a matter of physiological function, it could be treated like a mechanical problem—get the best engine, use the best technique, and achieve the best result. If it doesn't work, trade it in. If this were the case, then sexual partners would be interchangeable, and society would function as a warehouse for suitable parts. This mechanical concept is analogous to prostitution, which is concerned solely with the biological function. It follows, therefore, that the more one's life is motivated by isolated instinct, the more one tends to polygamy and the less one seeks a single person with whom to share everlasting love.

The Jewish world view makes it clear that sex cannot be mechanically abstracted from the totality of human activity. Thus, the problems of premarital sex, adultery, and casual sex are really questions of values.

5. Human Sexuality Has Meaning Only in the Context of Relationship.

Perhaps our greatest fear is that our lives will be meaningless. If sex, the most powerful and sensitive area of our lives is to have meaning, it must be used as an expression of love or affection for another person. If we depersonalize the act by relating to another person only on a biological level, we dehumanize our partner and rob ourselves of our own integrity. To be successful, the act of sex requires the sensitive involvement of both partners. Noninvolvement results in a mechanical orgasm that is ultimately meaningless and demeaning.

If simply sleeping together would produce happiness, then the prostitute would be the happiest person in society. According to Helmut Thielicke, what is an ethical deficiency for the person who seeks the prostitute—the need for the physiological function rather than the person—is for the prostitute a positive element of moral self-defense. She saves her sense of self-worth by with-holding her "self" during sex.

It is this distinction that determines whether the act is merely another sensation, or a true step toward relationship. It is becoming characteristic of our society that old as well as young people seek experiences rather than relationships, episodes rather than the continuous growth toward greater love. Ramban, in his commentary to the fundamental verse of love and marriage in Genesis (2:24), notes: "First one must cleave to his wife, and then they will become one flesh. There can be no true oneness of the flesh without first experiencing a cleaving together of the heart."

The later Rabbis analyze the specific commandment of onah, the mitzvah that requires the husband to care for his wife's conjugal needs. They ask whether the mitzvah requires only the object of the act (cheftzah), or the subjective involvement of the person in the performance (gavra). After finely dissecting the mitzvah and reducing it to its several legal components, they firmly maintain that the sex act ordained by the Bible as the right of the wife must be accompanied by closeness (kiruv), and joy (simchah). Both of these qualities require gavra, the involvement of the total personality, not merely a physical performance.

The sexual union of two people on a primitive, impersonal, casual, biological level is a gross misfortune. If it is by mutual consent, it is simply mutual exploitation. It has met the test of liberty in that it is not coerced, but it has failed the test of meaning, sensitivity, decency, and responsibility to the future.

6. Sexuality Has Value Only in a Permanent Relationship.

In the Jewish view, it is insufficient to affirm that the act must have meaning: it must also have value. For Judaism, value in human sexuality comes only when the relationship involves two people who have committed themselves to one another and have made that commitment in a binding covenant recognized by G‑d and by society. The act of sexual union, the deepest personal statement that any human being can make, must be reserved for the moment of total oneness.

The sexual act is the first and most significant event of married life, and its force and beauty should not be compromised by sharing coitus in the expectation that some day a decision will be made to marry or not to marry. The act of sex is not only a declaration of present love, it is a covenantal statement of permanent commitment. It is only in this frame of reference that sexual congress is legitimate, because only then is it a religious act, a de'var mitzvah.

Love by itself is not a sufficient motivation for sexual expression; love that is authentic will want to reserve the ultimate act for the ultimate commitment. The test of a good marriage is not compatibility in bed, but compatibility in life. Given love and respect, sexual technique can be learned. Engaging in sex to "test it out" de-sanctifies the act. It is not a rehearsal for marriage, it is a rehearsal for divorce.

The Torah speaks of the sexual act as carnal knowledge, as in (Genesis 4:1) "Adam knew his wife Eve" (Gen. 4:1). Ye'diah is the most sublime human knowledge because it knows the mystery, the soul of the beloved. In the sexual act, knowledge comes not only from physical intimacy and harmony and oneness, but also from experiencing the very depths of passion and extremes of emotion emanating from the loved one. It is knowledge from the inside. All such knowledge has two aspects: We learn about the other person, and we also experience ourselves at the extreme of our potential. Perhaps that is why taboos surround both love and death. A taboo is designed to protect us where we are most vulnerable and most mysterious—as we generate life in the privacy of our room, and as we take leave of life.

The increasing freedom from sexual restraint in this post-Freudian era is testimony to the demystification of sex and the irretrievable loss of precious "knowledge." We can conjecture further that perhaps the use of the term yada (revealing knowledge) for the sex act is contingent upon the prior existence of hiddenness, mystery. This he-alem, (concealment) exists both on the biological level—the internality of the female genitalia—and the societal—the idea of modesty, tze'niut, and its use of clothing to cover the body. As society sheds its clothing, there is progressively less to "know" by means of sexual exploitation. If the object of carnal knowledge is to know our self as well as our mate, then the demystification of sex adversely affects our self-knowledge as well.

7. Sexuality Needs to Be Sanctified.

If sexuality is that deepest personal statement, filled with ecstasy and informed by knowledge, it follows that even within marriage sex is not considered simply a legitimated biological function. The Torah motivated the Jew to sanctify sex within marriage, for sex as a part of daily routine threatens to become wearisome and a dread bore, and sometimes more divisive than supportive. The laws of "family purity," which require abstinence during and shortly following the menstrual period, place the sexual act in a special category.

On a basic level, sanctity means separating oneself consciously from immorality and illicit thoughts. Maimonides incorporates the laws of sexual morality in a section of Kedushah (the Book of Holiness), and states that the deliberate separation from the illicit is an act of self-transcendence that constitutes sanctification. Ramban goes beyond Maimonides in his comment on the verse in Leviticus "Be you holy" (19:2): "Sanctify yourself even with that permitted you" is a call to those who strive to a higher level of spirituality and sensitivity to separate themselves from gross acts and uncouth behavior, even that which is technically permitted, so as not to become naval bi-re'shut ha-Torah, "a knave within the realm of the Torah".

Kiddushin—which signifies sanctity and betrothal—leads inevitably to nissuin—nuptials, elevation. Thus sanctification raises the physiological act of sex onto a higher, more spiritual level. This understanding of sanctity as leading to elevation is implied in the suggestion of the Talmud that it is preferable for a pious scholar to perform the conjugal act on the Sabbath. Rashi explains, "It is the night of joy, of rest, and of bodily pleasure." Such an affirmation is descriptive of how the Sabbath invested even bodily joys such as wearing special clothes and eating special foods with a special significance, elevating them to the realm of sanctified physical pleasures.

Sanctity also implies mystery. The Holy of Holies of the Temple, its inner sanctum, was visited only once every year, and then only by the High Priest. In the imagination of the people, it was a subject of awe and mystery.

Our society has lost the sense of the sacred, and there is little mystery attached to sex. Its physiology and technique have become commonplace to children, and teenagers are already tired and bored veterans.

Judaism teaches that the erotic act has wide significance, and that this physical act operates transcendentally. The creation of family and the consecration of marriage are events of which Jews sing at the wedding feast, she-ha-simchah bi-me'ono, "There is joy in His [G‑d's] abode."

There are two terms for the sexual act. The better known is that which is used in the Bible and Talmud, bi'ah, which means "a coming" as in "he came unto her." The second is a Kabbalistic term, chibbur, which means "joining." It is used in Iggeret ha-Kodesh, which is subtitled Sefer Chibbur Adam ve Ishto, "The Book of Joining of Man and His Wife." The word and concept are based on the mystical vision of the cherubim facing and embracing one another in spiritual mutuality. It also connotes the ideal of ye'diah, "knowledge from the inside." The Kabbalah considers knowledge and joining synonymous—true "knowledge" derives only from an interpenetrating and joining of the two bodies, the knower and the to-be-known.

Where bi'ah is simply descriptive of the physical position of the male, chibbur implies a coming together of equals. While rape or seduction must be referred to as bi'ah, chibbur implies a need for consent.

Chibbur also recalls the fundamental Jewish mystical drive of uniting and mending into oneness the fragmented world of "broken vessels." Genesis records the separation of the rib from ancient Adam, and chibbur refers to the rejoining of that rib to the side of Adam. Judaism strives for an understanding and an affirmation of the concept of chibbur in the context of yichud, the mutual love of husband and wife. The contemporary writer I. Lewald says: "In the consciousness of belonging together, in the sense of constancy, resides the sanctity, the beauty of matrimony, which helps us to endure pain more easily, to enjoy happiness doubly, and to give rise to the fullest and finest development of our nature."