Sexuality and the Body

David Biale

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Sexuality and the Body


Judaism is a religion with a full set of precepts governing the body, from circumcision and menstruation to diet and dress. Sexuality is one of the cardinal aspects of the body to which Judaism gives the greatest attention, but its attitudes are not uniformly consistent; they reflect the influences of the surrounding culture and are sometimes marked by internal contradictions and ambivalences. The Bible makes procreation a blessing (“be fruitful and multiply”), and perhaps to enhance procreation, the priestly laws in Leviticus contain strict prohibitions on certain types of sexual behavior (homosexuality, bestiality, incest, and sexual relations during a woman’s menstrual period). The rabbis of the Talmud turned the blessing of procreation into the first commandment. As opposed to the contemporaneous early Christian church, the rabbis required that all men marry and have children. But they too were influenced by the sexual asceticism of Late Antiquity. In the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers and moralistic thinkers, under the influence of Greek philosophy, drew a dualistic distinction between body and soul. Moses Maimonides, the greatest philosopher of the Jewish Middle Ages, took a negative position on sexual desire and pleasure. Yet he was also a physician, and his medical writings are more positive on the body. Jewish mysticism—or Kabbalah—revolted against the asceticism of the philosophers and infused their theology with erotic symbolism. But the Kabbalists were more ambivalent about human sexuality unless it involved the proper mystical intention. In the modern age followers of the Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) saw sexuality as one of the realms to be liberated from rabbinic authority. But under the influence of bourgeois morality they sometimes subjected sexual mores to new types of authority and control. Some aspects of modern Jewish culture (such as American Jewish literature) are marked by sexual struggles and even neurosis, but these ambivalences are not unprecedented and are in fact modern versions of ambivalences going back to the earliest sources of Judaism.

Article.  5087 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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