Can we talk … about sex? Jewish theology Pt. VII – Sexual Ethics

Can we talk … about sex? Jewish theology Pt. VII – Sexual Ethics March 5, 2017

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Can we talk? I mean, really … can we dialog … about sex? This post will be slightly difficult, because many Jews differ with Christians (and vice-versa) about the meaning of human sexuality and sexual ethics. I know, I know … but let’s take things one step at a time … at least for the sake of mutual understanding. When we’re done, I welcome your questions, objections, and insights – please, feel free to comment.

I want to remind the reader that modern Judaism is divided – roughly 20% of Jews are Orthodox and the remaining 80% are Liberal, meaning they belong to the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or other branches of Judaism.

For Catholic and conservative Christian readers, Orthodox Judaism’s views on sexual ethics will sound extremely familiar, with practically few differences other than nuance. Orthodox Jews tend to object to contraception, homosexuality, premarital sex, and so on.

Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, tends to be, well, more liberal when it comes to sexual ethics, permitting contraception, limited premarital sex, accepting homosexual acts as morally permissible, and so on.

Why the divide? Why the differences? And how do Liberal Jews square their sexual thinking with the fairly clear sexual guidelines of Torah?

I’m glad you asked!

The Orthodox-Liberal Divide

The fundamental difference between Orthodox Judaism and Liberal Judaism is the approach to scripture. Orthodox Jews tend to take a more traditional, literal approach to Torah, while Liberal Judaism adopts a more mythic, allegorical, and critical view of the Hebrew scriptures.

Orthodox Jews generally view themselves as bound by Torah’s commands, including those related to sexual behavior. Liberal Jews generally view Torah as an ongoing dialog about meaning, purpose, ethics, and how to live. Orthodox Jews see Torah as God’s word given at Sinai. Liberal Jews see Torah as our ancestor’s testament of their wrestling with the divine, meaning, goodness, and life – and view the Sinai event as ongoing.

Orthodox Jews will therefore approach the Biblical and Talmudic judgments about human sexuality as fixed, static, and enduring – rules to be honored. While Liberal Jews will approach the Biblical and Talmudic judgements about human sexuality as insights to weigh along with contemporary thinking, knowledge, and experience concerning human sexuality.

Further, Liberal Judaism generally believes that theological claims, including the claims of scripture, should align with reason to be accepted as obligatory. As such, they engage in forms of natural law reasoning, although, as mentioned in previous posts, tend not to use the language of such.

According to the Liberal Jewish worldview, given that truth/reality is holistic and unified, it is assumed that the claims of theology cannot inherently contradict the findings of rigorous philosophical analysis. Theological knowledge may shed light on philosophically known insights and provide a deeper understanding of certain subjects, but theoretically, it cannot contradict the findings of logic and reasoned discourse. When apparent contradictions arise between philosophical and theological claims, they must be reconciled through philosophically valid means or at least bolstered by reasonable argument as to why the theological claims should trump those of reason.

A Liberal Jewish Philosophical Approach to Ethics

Liberal Judaism’s framework is for reason and experience to dialog with Torah’s vision – the ensuing and ongoing conversation engenders Liberal Jewish theology and theory.

While most Jews do not use the language of natural law ethics, I will – both because I think it aptly describes the underlying Liberal Jewish approach to ethics in general, and sexual ethics in particular, as well as for the sake of Christian readers, particularly Catholics.

Liberal Judaism affirms that from a foundational, evolutionary perspective, the purpose of the human family (species) is to endure and reproduce. In addition, as part of the overall imperative to be fruitful and multiply is the responsibility that each human person thrives, both individually and as a member of the community, reproducing and/or contributing to the thriving of others (the common good).

Every ethical system, Jewish or otherwise, has been an attempt to provide a reasonable framework for analyzing what leads to and constitutes human thriving-flourishing. Typically, within a such a framework, discussion revolves around three key components:

a) Human nature – the effort to lay a foundation in philosophical anthropology offering definitional understanding of what constitutes a human person and what flourishing entails.

b) Goods for humans – understanding those things and states of affairs that enhance or contribute to human betterment and flourishing.

c) Considerations of practical reason – praxeological analysis of human action in relation to goods and their role in human flourishing. Human action can be spoken of as having an inner rational in relation to its ethical impact and ability to contribute to thriving.

Liberal Jewish tradition, based on insights from Torah, asserts the notion that human nature is more or less a fixed reality, and although circumstances and cultures will change, the essential features of what constitutes a human person – their nature – will not change. It is generally accepted that human persons are a unified, embodied, individual subjectivity with rational, emotional, and volitional capacities – a relational, self-aware, self-governing being, inherently social as demonstrated through the capacity for language, sexuality, and love.

In Liberal Jewish traditions, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature. Flourishing could be interpreted as a state of Shalom – interpreted broadly as wholeness. 

The pages of Genesis, Jewish commentary, and Liberal Jewish thinking affirms that human beings are embodied socially natured beings who can thrive only in community. Thus, strong Jewish prohibitions against forsaking the Jewish community. Solitary existence is rare and undertaken only under special circumstances. Sexuality is that dimension of human person’s that allows for intimacy – that is, intersubjectivity – the sharing of self.  

In a strict sense, not all acts of intimacy are considered sexual. In Jewish thinking, for an act to be sexual in nature, it will must have an erotic aspect or intention, aim for physical and emotional arousal, and involve a base level of attraction or desire. Sexual acts usually include elements of physicality at least as a reference.

Sexual acts, as human acts, reveal an inner logic in accord with nature of embodied persons. When we speak of the logic of sexual acts or examine their natural purpose, we are seeking to understand the inner meaning that sexual acts convey. There is an objective quality to bodily actions, desire, attraction, and other aspects of sexual acts.

Purely subjective or relativistic assessments of sexual acts are therefore precluded by the objective meaning and thus consequences of the acts themselves. Clearly, in any moral analysis, intention matters, but intentional alone cannot completely negate the objective quality of the actions themselves – such insights are affirmed repeatedly in Jewish law. 

From a Jewish perspective, to speak of the morality of sexual acts is not to require their justification as if they are morally suspect by their nature. Such suspicion reveals an attitude of fear that is not positive toward the inherent goodness of human sexuality and/or the body. Such attitudes are clearly not supported by Torah, Jewish ethics, or Jewish tradition. Sexual acts do not require justification; rather they have an inner, inherent meaning and basic natural goodness. Sexual acts engage the whole person and as such are not, by their nature, base or undignified.

Rather than justify sexual acts, Jewish moral analysis of sexual acts looks at whether certain contexts and types of sexual acts (and their meanings) are conducive to human flourishing and affirm human dignity or whether they harm individuals and detract from their dignity as persons.

A phenomenological analysis of sexual acts can reveal something of their inner meaning as well as the values pursued in engaging them. Few disagree with the values/meanings revealed by this sort of analysis; however, there is significant disagreement, even within the Jewish community, over the required realization/presence of each meaning-value in every sexual act for it to be considered moral. 

Inherent Meanings in Sexual Acts

Procreation – historically, the biological-procreative value/meaning of sexual acts has garnered primary attention in moral analysis, often dominating the discussion of the purpose of sexual acts and sexuality itself. Torah does seem to favor the procreative aspects of sex in terms of it’s sexually related content. Part of the reason for this is the obvious intelligibility of the matter – there is a clear and natural connection between sex and reproduction.

Unity/Mutuality – as the understanding of personhood, interiority, and subjectivity has deepened, other personalist (and Torah based) dimensions and values/meanings of sexual acts have emerged and become part of the mainstream analysis. Sexual acts are now also understood through the personalist insight of their conveyance of the gift of self. Sexual activity has the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and — by means of this gift — fulfills the meaning of his being and existence. Sexual acts are a deep sharing of self and an expression of love, tenderness, and affirmation of the beloved.

Pleasure – sexual acts can serve as sources of pleasure in a variety of ways, not limited to mere physical pleasure alone. There is also the pleasure of being affirmed, of being found desirable, of companionship, human warmth, and the complex nature of human touch. Despite certain limited attitudes still present in our culture, sexual pleasure, Jewish sexual ethics considers pleasure in sex as a morally legitimate aspect of sexual acts.

Many, if not all, traditional approaches to sexual ethics strongly emphasize the necessary aspect of the procreative meaning of sexuality. In fact, most argue that openness to new life in a biological sense must be present in every sexual act for it to be morally valid. Moreover, the emphasis is so great as to argue that any personalist-emotional-unitive meaning to sexual acts is rendered null and void by the absence of openness to the procreative aspects.

This means that heterosexual, vaginal intercourse within the context of marriage is the only moral sexual act. Oral sex, manual sex, masturbation, artificial contraception, and so on, is all deemed immoral sexual activity that denigrates human dignity.

A Liberal Jewish Critique of Traditional Perspectives on Sexuality

Liberal Jewish theology posits that the various values/meanings of sexual activity overlap and intersect, and the above values/meanings of procreation, mutuality, and pleasure, are primary.  However, while the values/meanings inherent in sexual acts overlap, they are not necessarily, in the view of Liberal Judaism, all required to be fully realized in each and every sexual act for a sexual encounter to be considered moral.

Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships – even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they do not want – or cannot have – children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

The hermeneutics of the body and notions of the fecundity and life-giving aspects typically ascribed to heterosexual sex as open to physical new life, can be extended to sexual acts where the physical dimensions of procreativity are not realized. For example, in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships the partners, as sexual human beings, give their bodies to one another, may form loving, enduring relationships, and are, in these circumstances, witnesses to the broader community of love’s constancy and steadfast fidelity.

In such a witness, homosexual couples have “iconic significance” through embodied interpersonal union, just as heterosexual couples, both fertile and infertile, have “iconic significance” in their embodied interpersonal union. Heterogenital complementarity is not a determining factor. Rather, two genitally embodied persons, heterosexual or homosexual, in permanent interpersonal union, who reflect a commitment of constant love and steadfast fidelity, are the determining factor of the moral viability of such an arrangement.

Broader issues of gender complementarity also fade when one recognizes the amazing depth and richness of the individual personality. Human subjectivity – regardless of gender – provides enough nuances, difference, and touch points to ground a lasting and meaningful union of two persons of the same gender.

Bodily acts do not occur generically or in an intentional vacuum. Yes, intention alone cannot alter the inner logic of certain actions. However, once sexual orientation is determined, the reality of a bodily act will be defined morally, in part, based on whether or not it is an authentic expression of one’s sexual orientation. We are arguing for expanding the definition of moral sexual acts beyond reproductive sexual acts based on a fuller anthropology that recognizes sexual orientation as a valid, personalist, dimension of the sexual human person.

Avoiding Biological Reductionism

Judaism has strong personalist foundations and these apply to human sexuality as well as other arenas. The Jewish view of human sexuality is one of recognition of the immense power that sexual acts contain – and ensuring that all sexual acts be used for human flourishing. However, the Liberal Jewish tradition does not assert that the biological aspects of fertility are necessary for every sexual act to be morally valid.

The sexual meaning of procreation should not be limited to its biological aspects only. The traditional position treats fecundity solely in terms of its childbearing capacity and not for other aspects of the fruitfulness of love. Such a position is one of biological reductionism. 

There is a life-giving, procreative dimension to the committed, sexual relationship that fuels stability, motivates fidelity, and increases joy. To deny this aspect or insist that it is only presence in cases of biological procreation is indeed reductionist and not necessary – morally, or otherwise. Love is fertile in the sense that it conveys and affirms life. The fertility and fecundity of love spills over to benefit others in the family and community.

Formulated positively, the unitive meaning of sexual acts between loving couples is a good worth pursuing and realizing even if the procreative meanings of sexual acts are not present in their biological capacity.

Human Sexuality Oriented to Human Flourishing

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal” (Leviticus 19:18)

 This ‘great principle’ of the Torah, proclaiming the primacy of love, mutuality and reciprocity, provides the ethical framework for a code of sexual behaviour.
From the vantage point of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, the danger associated with misused sexual power has more to do with the potential for exploitation involved in non consensual sex and sex where power differentials render consent impossible. Thus the Jewish view that women’s sexual rights are safeguarded and that all forms of coercive sexual acts between spouses are forbidden. Jewish law recognizes marital rape as a moral offense and a crime.
Also prohibited are situations where previous sexual promises are violated or where lust alone is the sole motivation for sexual actions and sex is engaged in without full regard of the sexual partner as person.
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