HMS 5765-18: Judaism and Sex I: Legal Responsibilities

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

January 31, 2005 – Number 5765-18

Judaism and Sex I: Legal Responsibilities

Unlike some other religions that see sexual relationships as evil, degrading or less than ideal, Judaism looks upon the human sex drive as part of the way G-d created human beings. To denigrate sexual relations is to imply that G-d made a mistake when creating human beings, a position that would go against the Torah which proclaims all of creation “Tov Meod” or “Very Good”. At the same time Judaism does not imply that sex is the only important force in our lives. It is only one part of what it means to be a human being, and, as it does with so many other drives in life, Judaism declares that sex is neither good or bad. It is just another human drive and the goal is to control our sexual desires and not to let them control us.
The most important sexual laws, therefore, are those that fall under the category of “Taharat HaMishpacha” the laws of “Family Purity”. The frequency of sexual activity in the life of husband and wife is regulated by her menses. During the time wire is menstruating, and for seven days after it stops, sexual activity is banned. At all other times it is permitted. The two times are divided by the wife’s visit to a Mikve, a natural collection of water, into which she must immerse (with the proper blessing) before sexual relations can begin again. Sometimes these two times are called the time of her “impurity” and her “clean days” but this designation in English, implies that there is something wrong with the woman during the time of her menstruation. This is not the case. The issue is one of holiness, holiness of the sexual act and the holiness of the relationship between husband and wife. Menstruation is seen as a time when a holy act can not be permitted, and after immersion in the Mikve, the time for such holy acts has resumed.
Jewish Law understands that one of the many purposes of marriage is to have a partner for sexual relations. This is an independent part of marriage, separate from the law that requires each family to have children. Sexual pleasure is a legitimate goal of a sexual relationship with or without the possibility of having children. It is so important in a marriage, that a change in the frequency of sexual relations between a husband and wife can be a cause to dissolve the marriage. Therefore, before a man can enter into a new occupation that may change the frequency of sex in the marriage, the wife could veto that job change on the basis of not wanting to further limit her conjugal rights. For example, a man who is in business and comes home each evening at the end of the workday, could not change his occupation to sailor where he would not be home for six months at a time without the agreement of his wife who stands to lose the frequency of sharing a bed with her husband seven days a week.
Implied in all of this is the requirement that sexual activities are reserved for those who are married to each other. Adultery is a capital crime in Judaism, and both the cheating wife and husband can be executed for the violation of their marital vows. Pre-marital sex is also forbidden but it has an interesting twist. A marriage can be initiated in one of three ways. One of these ways is by having sexual relations. The Rabbis frown on this kind of “common law” marriage and hold that it is only proper for a man to sign a ketubah ( a wedding contract) (see 5764-34 for details) and to give to the wife an article of value. Still there is a determination in law that “Jewish men do not have sex with Jewish women without the intent to marry”.
Jewish Law maintains that between a husband and wife, whatever kind of sexual activities they prefer are their private decision. There are no forbidden positions as long as both husband and wife are in agreement. One can not force a partner to engage in sex or in any sexual activity to which he or she does not agree. Sexual activity in a marriage is a private matter between the husband and wife. It is not public in any matter. It should not be discussed with friends or family (or on national television) and must be performed in private as well. It can be discussed with a doctor or mental health professional when necessary. Sexual activity is not coercive, partners do not play power games with each other when it comes to sexual activities.
Sexual activity, in a marriage, is a powerful and important part of the marital bond, that leads to a stronger relationship, a healthier relationship and builds trust between partners. It is a holy relationship that finds its source in G-d. It can be fun and playful, but it is never to be degraded or manipulated for other purposes. It is one of the keys to a successful marriage.

Next week: Judaism and Sex II: Procreation and Birth Control

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