Sex saturates our Torah. So many of the stories central to our tradition thrive on sexuality, sensuality and straight eroticism. Entirely of her own volition, Sarah gives her handmaid, Hagar, to her husband for purposes of procreation. Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and seduce him. Onan resorts to the withdrawal method to avoid the risk of impregnating his late brother’s wife. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks her former father-in-law into marrying her. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph and then accuses him of rape when he rebuffs her advances. And Shir HaShirim was clearly intended for languid recitation under the enticing glow of a Spring moon, the scent of jasmine in the air.
Of course, our holy text devotes considerable space to delineating the prohibited and the permissible within the realm of sexuality. This week’s parshah, Ki Tetzei, addresses adultery, virginity, rape, the problem of favoring one wife over another, cult prostitution, divorce and family honor. Included in the mix is a rather fascinating step-by-step guide to taking captive a woman from a people a soldier has only just vanquished on the battlefield; as well as the parental responsibility to provide proof of a daughter’s virginity and the punishment of stoning.
The drama of human experience is clearly balanced by a strict framework of rules and regulations. What proved relevant for our people in ancient times, however, does not always resonate as well today. “But if the charge proves true, the girl was found not to have been a virgin, then the girl shall be brought out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death; for she did a shameful thing in Israel, committing fornication while under her father’s authority. Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
I’m grateful we’ve left the days of murdering women who’ve had premarital sex behind, but the portrayal of sex in 21st century American culture doesn’t make me feel much better. We’ve retained a relentless emphasis on virginity, placing a remarkably high social value on both having it and “losing” it. For heterosexual men, there seems to be a concurrent value based around “taking” virginity. Movies and television depict consensual sex as passionate and effortless – completely devoid of anxiety, awkwardness, and very real negotiations around contraception and sexually transmitted infections. We’re generally treated to a story about romance blossoming, or an encounter that is in some way new between two (or more) people. Typically, we are not offered a portrayal of mutual fulfillment within the context of a sustaining and committed relationship. Yet, many of us have chosen partnerships or are actively pursuing partnership. The chasm between sex in the Torah and sex in Hollywood is enormous and most of us seem settled somewhere in between.
For centuries, our sages have devoted tremendous attention to sex. Their philosophical musings, judgements and advice have created a concept of sex in Judaism that is both inherently positive and profoundly spiritual. Of course, Jewish law frames all such sex within the confines of marriage. But as the right to marry has yet to be extended to all American citizens, and because marriage for many of us is a state-sanctioned category rather than a religious one, I prefer to replace the “sex within marriage” ideal with the concept of sex within a committed relationship.
In Judaism, procreation is only one, and not the primary, purpose of sex. Indeed, sex is a means for two people to truly know one another in a way no one else can. In fact, the Hebrew word for sex between husband and wife in our Torah comes from the root “to know.” Sex can prove a portal to deep and enduring intimacy, both physically and emotionally. It is essential for establishing a strong and sustainable bond between people working to build a life together.
When we think of ourselves as sparks of divinity, we must think of sex as the uniting of one divine spark with another. The resultant blaze is completely unique, unreplicable with anyone else. And if we are all drops in the ocean of infinity, uniting with another moves us slightly closer to God. In our tradition, sex is holy and within the context of mutual love, respect and commitment, it’s considered a mitzvah.
Unfortunately, from our Puritan heritage and perhaps other religious traditions, Americans have inherited negative and unhealthy attitudes towards sex. In Judaism, sex is not shameful. Neither is it a casual game or a weapon. The pleasure of both partners is paramount and God is thought to be present with those united in love. It’s as far from stoning adulterers as it is from summer blockbusters.
This week’s parshah is a great opportunity to think about our own sexuality and attitudes towards sex. Write a sexual identity manifesto, explore yourself or explore a partner. Contrast the experience of feeling connected to a partner and the sense of divine connection. Consider finding divinity solo. And always know that where there is love, respect and pleasure, so too there is God.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.