Jewish traditional view on sexuality recognizes, and often celebrates it, as a necessary and crucial part of human life and development. For Judaism, sex is “not shameful, sinful or obscene,” neither is it “a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation,”1
but rather, it is part of the “conscious Divine act of creation and as such [is] purposeful and positive,” and belongs to the Divine ideal of Shleimut (“wholeness, completeness, unity and peace”) for mankind.2 “Sexuality and sexual expression are integral and positive elements in the potential wholeness of human beings” and, as the other aspect of human life within Jewish thought, should be sanctified in a manner that “elicits the intrinsic holiness within the person and the relationship.”3
New Testament views on sex and sexuality are fundamentally rooted upon the biblical and Jewish perspectives, within the context of the divine ideal for Shleimut in human life. This can be perceived, for example, in the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 4:3-5, where he wrote against the ascetic views of some Gnostic teachers4 by saying: “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (NIV). As in traditional Jewish thought, Paul’s teachings on sexuality were founded on the theology of Creation. Sexuality and marriage, as well as food, were part of God’s Creation, coming closely related in the sequence of the biblical text (Genesis 1:27-29). Paul’s opinion here followed the biblical statement found in the Creation story: “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31, JPS). Furthermore, Paul connected these ideas with “thanksgiving” and “consecration” by the word of God and prayer. This particular connection is very Jewish. God’s ideal in Creation, food, “thanksgiving” and “consecration” are at the very heart of the Jewish wedding ceremony and the partaking of meals, through the recitation of the b’rachot (“blessings, thanksgiving”) and of the kiddush (“prayer of consecration”). These recitations were specially intensive on the occasion of a wedding, since festive meals would follow the ceremony for an entire week.
More details on New Testament teaching on sexuality can be found in passages like 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5:22-23, and Matthew 5:22-33. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul answers some very practical questions, raised by the believers in Corinth, on issues in marriage and sex. The very first instruction in this chapter, however, seems to be very un-Jewish. Paul wrote: “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1). This opinion seems very contradictory to the one the same Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, as seen above. It would also go against the very first mitzvah (“commandment”) of God giving to man—p’ru ur’vu (“be fruitful and multiply”)— in Genesis 1:28. Paul seems to go here against the very cornerstone of Jewish life, i.e. the family.5 Paul’s words here, however, should be understood within their context. He clearly stated that this is personal advice, not a commandment (1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 25). In view of very difficult times they were about to face with suffering, persecution, imprisonment and death, he wanted to spare them from additional suffering, related possibly with the suffering of one’s spouse and children (verses 26-31). Beyond this dimension of personal advice, however, what Paul taught in this chapter was very biblical and Jewish. Instead of an immoral sexual life, one should get married, a man should have his own wife, and a wife her own husband (verse 2). Husband and wife should fulfill their marital duties to each other, and should not deprive each other of his/her rights for a long period of time (verses 3-5). Paul’s instructions are very close to the Talmudic regulations on the matter, where a husband, for example, is forbidden to take a vow to abstain from sex for a long period of time, and could not take a journey for an extended period of time, for he would deprive his wife of her rights of sexual relations. A wife’s right to sexual relation is known as onah, and is one of the three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. Although, in Jewish tradition, sex is the woman’s right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. She should care about his needs in a loving and caring way also.6
The main point is that husband and wife should care about each other and concern oneself with the other’s needs. One should not be egocentric, in a self-satisfying, selfconcerned attitude. Abuse and violence in sexual or any other aspect of this relationship is forbidden. Love and caring respect should be present in all aspects of a husband-wife relationship. This loving and respectful attitude, according to the laws of God, brings marriage and sexuality to a level of sanctification and holiness, the Jewish ideal of kedusha (“holiness”), where both spouses strive continually for a higher level of moral living in “their unique emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy.”7 The New Testament follows the same line of reasoning in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where it is written: “Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as the Messiah loved his Qehilah [in Greek ekklesia “church”] and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by washing with water8 through the word, and to present her to himself, as radiant Qehilah, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as the Messiah does the Qehilah—for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:22- 31).
In biblical, Jewish and New Testament concepts, the marriage relationship should be patterned after God’s relationship with His people. Husband and wife should imitate God’s love and care for His own (compare the imagery in Hosea 2:14-20 and the book of Song of Songs). It is a profound and serious relationship, a b’rit (“covenant”), a covenant that should reflect God’s b’rit with His people.9 Seen as a holy covenant, both spouses should strive with all their strength to keep themselves faithful to their covenant relationship (compare Malachi 2:14- 15), for, as said in Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” It is on these lines of covenant relationship that New Testament takes its stand concerning divorce. Jesus’ teaching on the issue of divorce was very close to the more restrictive Jewish view of the Rabbinic School of Shammai, that is, divorce was a possibility only in case of adultery: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). One should avoid not only adultery but even lust after someone else (Matthew 5:27-30); the idea here is of the covenant relationship where love and desire should be only for the covenant partner (cf. the Shema in Deuteronomy 6—love only the Lord and follow Him only). Faithfulness to one’s partner is an important part of “holiness,” and God ordains in His Torah: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
Responsible and serious marriage covenant relationship brings to the forefront the biblical concept of equality between man and woman. In the biblical account, man and woman were created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim (Genesis 1:26- 27); every person, male or female, has an inherent dignity, with equal honor and respect due to his/her integrity and sexual identity.10 Jesus followed very strongly this ideal and treated women with the same respect and concern he would give to men. He intentionally broke with his time’s cultural convention and talked publicly with a woman (John 4:1- 26), instructed women (Luke 10:39) and included them among his followers (Luke 8:1-3). He commended them (Mark 12:41-44) and defended them publicly (Luke 7:38- 40). He rejected reducing women only to the reproductive and sexual roles that many ancient societies had allocated them, and he summoned women to the kingdom of God, to be taught the Word of God and treated as its agents (Luke 11:27-28). When Martha implored Jesus that he should instruct her sister Mary to leave the circle of disciples and return to her household duties in order to help her, he answered: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41). Following Jesus’ example, the ideal of equality between genders became very strong in the early Christian community and every person was considered of equal worth before God (see Galatians 3:26-28).11
This concept of equality does not mean that physical, psychological and social differences were blurred. Man and woman are celebrated each in their own uniqueness, in the importance of their roles in society and in the congregation of faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 3:1-8). For the New Testament, equality does not lead to independence from one another, as it is usually seen in our world today, but rather to mutual dependence: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Corinthians 11:11); “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as the Messiah loved his Qehilah [“Church”] and gave himself up for her. . . . In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:22, 25, 28). In the area of sexual relationship this is also truth, for: “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Following the biblical pattern on sexuality, and celebrating man’s and woman’s uniqueness and the all-importance of their gender, the New Testament positions itself against immorality and all kinds of sexual deviations. In Romans 1:18-32, for example, Paul dealt with a series of these issues (homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, etc.) according to the biblical and the traditional Jewish view on them (cf. Leviticus 18; Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-9): They were not accepted and were seen as sin. Indeed, sexual immorality is listed among the sins people would cling to in the last days (Revelation 9:21), sins that God condemned (Revelation 21:8; 22:15).12 Man and woman are called to sanctify their lives, according to the divine will revealed in God’s Law: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus the Messiah is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:13-16).
1 Richard H. Schwartz, “Judaism 101: Kosher Sex.” See on the internet: [http://www.jewfaq.org/sex.htm], May 2002.
2 Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality: Report to the CCAR Convention, June, 1998.” See on the internet: [http://www.ccarnet.org/hs.html], March 2002.
4 Gnosticism probably had its origin in the Far East and flourished in the Hellenistic world of the first century C.E. Its central teaching was that spirit is entirely good and matter entirely evil. This teaching led to some very radical opinions like: (a) man’s body, which is matter, is evil; (b) one should therefore strive to escape from the body through special knowledge (gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”); (c) since the body was evil, it should be treated harshly, so asceticism and celibacy enjoy great favor among many Gnostics. For a study of Gnosticism see W. S. LaSor and A. M. Renwick, “Gnosticism,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:484-490.
5 See “(5) Mishpacha” in Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality.”
6 “Judaism 101: Kosher Sex.”
7 “(9) Ahava” and “(10) Kedusha” in Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality.”
8 Paul’s phrase “cleansing her by washing with water” seems to reflect here the Jewish custom for a bride to enter the mikveh (“ritual bath”) in order to be purified prior to the marriage ceremony, which is called Kiddushin (lit. “consecration,” “being set apart for God”). See David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996), 592.
9 “(7) B’rit” in Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality.”
10 “(1) B’tzelem Elohim” in ibid.
11 See on this subject B. L. Bandstra and A. D. Verhey, “Sex; Sexuality,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 4:435-436.