Off the Shelf: Religion and sex

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Religion and sex: it can be difficult to separate the two because many people’s attitudes about appropriate sexual behavior were informed by their religious education. However, as Noam Sachs Zion notes in the impressive “Sanctified Sex: The Two-Thousand-Year Jewish Debate on Intimacy” (Jewish Publication Society), Judaism has two conflicting ideas about sexual behavior and intimacy. Zion’s in-depth look at how Jewish traditions evolved and changed is 544 pages long (and that’s not counting the footnotes, bibliography and index). Even at this length, Zion writes that he focuses only on the Ashkenazic world since those are the traditions and laws with which he is familiar.

Zion discusses Judaism’s two main approaches concerning the sanctity of sexual desires and actions: “One approach to sanctify is chiefly defined negatively, by what one should not do – namely, by refraining from illicit intercourse and suppressing sexual impulses and thoughts in order to preserve the sanctity of a pious Jew (primarily, male) and of Israel, its land and people. The other involved positive actions that celebrate the expression of erotic intimacy in intimate bonds of fidelity, mutuality, and pleasure as the royal road to enhancing sanctity, peace, love, and unity in the world.” The struggle between these two approaches is still being played out in contemporary times. After looking at the Bible, Zion then focuses on what other Jewish texts say about sex; sources include the Mishnah, Talmud, medieval mystical works, writings from various branches of the haredim world and contemporary ideas from North American rabbis (focusing on the sexual revolution and feminism).

In a book of this depth and size, it’s impossible for a review to discuss all the texts and the changes that occurred, but some generalizations are possible.


  • Focusing on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Zion notes that “the implicit purpose of marriage according to Genesis 2 is the search for existential unity. The text makes it clear that marriage is not created for momentary sexual relief... but rather for a stable new kinship relationship. God facilitates the union of man and woman not for reproduction, but for reunion of the basic man-woman unit that God had earlier divided into two halves (Genesis 2:21, 24), neither of whom was self-sufficient without the other.” He also suggests that although sex plays a role in marriage in the Bible, it can serve either of two functions: procreative sex (in order to produce children) and unitive intercourse “by which two become one flesh.”
  • During the rabbinic period, the ancient rabbis debated the purpose of sex, which included its use for procreation, emotional solidarity and erotic pleasure. Texts speak to a man’s marital duty, which included providing his wife with sexual pleasure. A schedule was developed as for how often sexual intercourse had to occur; the timing depended on the husband’s type of employment. 
  • The two basic models of sex behavior in marriage developed during talmudic times. The behavior was based on two different rabbinic scholars: Rav, who is shown engaging in lively talk with his wife before intercourse, and Rabbi Eliezer, whose behavior was far more restricted. For Rabbi Eliezer, intercourse could only take place around midnight, only a small part of his wife’s body could be exposed at a time (and then must be covered again) and no conversation was allowed. Although some legal rulings say there are no limits to what a couple could do in the privacy of their bedroom, others greatly restricted the interaction of a couple even outside the bedroom. These two models of behavior are still debated in the haredim and Orthodox worlds. 
  • Mystics added a new dimension to the discussion of sex. Kabbalists believe that what happens on earth is reflected in the heavens, and that includes sex. They also note the importance of intercourse on Shabbat. Not only does this help create a peaceful home on the earthly level, but it allows the male and female dimensions of God to unite. 
  • Later legal codes added new stringencies to not only how couples should have sex, but men’s interaction with their wives outside the bedroom. Men were discouraged from having any conversation with their wives and sex was to be limited as much as possible. Some of these rulings were so strict that men came to consider women only as a means to an end, and only because the Bible requires men to be fruitful and multiply. Bodily pleasures were something to be denied. 
  • In contemporary times, some haredim are reclaiming the pleasures of sex. Zion notes that for these groups, “as a relationship partakes of greater life-enhancing intimacy, it becomes more sacred.”
  • These ideas have been challenged in contemporary times. Some liberal rabbis believe sacred sex is only possible in marriage, although they realize many in their congregations are not waiting for marriage to have sex. A few offer different levels of committed relationships, which allow for sex to take place outside of marriage, although marriage is still encouraged. Even rarer are suggestions for how sacred sex can occur without a marital commitment. Feminist writings are divided between those who believe Jewish law can be reformed to feminist ideals and those who demand a new covenant, one that acknowledges the reality of women’s lives.


These are simplistic versions of what Zion discusses in great detail. His explanations are clear so that readers unfamiliar with Jewish texts should still be able to understand the material. Some sections were frustrating – not because of Zion, but the nature of the material. However, that will differ for each reader: some will find the treatment of women unpleasant – for example, one text that notes a man shouldn’t thank his wife any more than he should say thanks his horse – or the need to teach a man it’s not a sin to speak to his wife in order to let her know when he’s leaving the house. Others will dislike the more liberal approaches, some of which OK sex before marriage and believe marital sanctity should be offered to the LGBTQ community. Zion is to be commended for offering such wide varieties of opinion and suggestions for how Jewish thoughts about sex are still relevant today.