Wendy Nelson (c) 1999
"For a little love you pay all your life."
From the beginning of time, human sexuality has been a topic of consuming interest and heated debate among human beings. Sex has been a particularly important topic in religion, where scholars and theologians have debated the definition, purpose, and modus operandi. The religion of Judaism takes a conservative but somewhat middle ground stance regarding the issue of human sexuality. Judaism regards sex as a "divine gift" from God, not solely for the purpose of procreation, as some Western religions might believe, but for the purpose of companionship and pleasure. Judaism does not believe that sexuality is evil, but rather a strong and chronic urge similar to hunger or thirst, that is apparent in healthy human beings (Rich 1).
It is because sexuality is such a strong drive, however, that Judaism seeks to control it. Judaism believes that of all human urges, sexuality, when not controlled, will lead most people astray (Waskow 244). According to Judaism, marriage is the only allowable outlet for men and women so as to express their sexuality as to avoid excessive temptation and the sins that might occur due to temptation (Biale 64).
The marriage bed is discussed in great lengths in the Mishnah, as it is an important part of a Jewish person's life. Judaism does not believe sex to be a mere physical act, solely for procreation, but an encounter that involves the whole being. The word used in the Torah for sex between husband and wife comes from the root "yod-dalet-ayin" meaning, "knowledge." This indicates sex is more than physical encounter, but involves a thinking act that requires responsibility and commitment (Rich 2).
According To Herman Wouk, author of This is My God, The Jewish Way of Life, "Judaism regards sex as the cord that secures the union of two lovers for life: for shared strength, pleasure, and ease, and for the rearing of children" (137). In this way, sex becomes a "mitzvah," which is a good deed or meritorious act (Occhiogrosso 264). One of the most notable attitudes in Judaism is the fact that while it regards sex as a healthy and necessary part of a couple's life, it also asserts that the purpose of the sexual relationship within the bounds of a marriage is to satisfy the needs of the woman first of all.
Judaism believes sex is one of the three basic rights of women, not men. The other two rights of women are food and shelter (Biale 126). A man has a legal obligation to fulfill the needs of his wife and, if he is not willing or able, then he is called to divorce her. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud have set up complex rules governing sex; therefore the needs of the woman can be fulfilled. These laws of "onah" are directed mainly toward men and require the man to give his wife pleasure during the sexual act, not just think of himself. These laws of onah also regulate the number of times necessary for "performing the conjugal duty" (Biale 121).
Maimonides said, "A husband is forbidden to hold back from his wife her matrimonial rights for sexual relations" (Ben Shea 165). The amount or frequency of sexual relations in marriage is directed in the Mishnah. This timetable is based on the man's profession so that he might be able to fulfill his obligation as a husband and still perform his duties at his job. For example, a man who drives camels is required to perform his obligation of onah once a month, while a sailor is only obligated once every six months (Biale 130). The best situation for onah from a woman's perspective, however, is that the man would not be bound by duties required at work and could perform the obligation of onah every day (Biale 131). The only time when it is acceptable for a man to withhold from a woman is during the time of "niddah," which is the time when the woman is on her menstrual cycle and is deemed unclean, or during the time when the man is studying Torah (Rich 3).
It has been debated whether the times for onah prescribed in the Talmud are the maximum or minimum times for frequency of relations, but it is generally accepted that the man's obligation of onah requires him to be available to perform his duties for his wife whenever she has the desire.
While Jewish law is very open and positive about sexuality within marriage, it asserts that sexuality outside of the marriage bed is wrong or deviant. Social intercourse or premarital sex is taboo, as well as adultery, self-gratification, or any other practice which involves "spilling of seed" (Jacobs 453). According to the Torah, it is a sin to have sex with any relative, whether blood-related or not, with a neighbor's wife, with a member of the same sex (although the Torah uses the wording "with another man" and some would argue that it is only a sin for men to engage in homosexuality, but not women), with an animal, or with a woman during her menstrual cycle (Lv. 18:6-23).
While there are many laws governing the purpose and frequency of sex within marriage, Judaism has struggled with disagreements over what conduct is permitted within a marriage. Rabbi Huna, a third century Babylonian teacher, is said to have advised his daughters on how to practice sex techniques, which included different positions, with the objective of "arousing their husbands' desire." Another Rabbi taught that children were born lame because the husband "inverted the table" in regards to the acceptable sexual position. Current Jewish attitudes about sexuality are more open, allowing that "unnatural relations," such as any sexual position other than the man on top, or kissing anywhere other than on the lips, are permitted between a man and a wife as long as it only occurs occasionally and does not become a habit (Jacobs 454).
Sexuality has long been a heated topic of debate in the religion of Judaism. While Judaism is known for its conservative stance regarding many issues, it takes a refreshingly frank, albeit strict, attitude with regards to the powerful impulse of sexuality. Marriage is touted as the only acceptable outlet for expression of this impulse and to engage in any other sort of sexual release outside of the boundaries of married life is considered a grave sin. However, when sex is enjoyed by two people within a marriage, "it turns out to be one of the keenest pleasures in life, which is no surprise to a people eternally sure God is good" (Wouk 138).
The image above is the Burney Relief of Innana, ca. 2300 BCE. Also on this web site is the story of Lilith from The Alphabet of Ben Sira and The Zohar.