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Encyclopedia Judaica:

Jewish Ethics: Table of Contents | Celibacy | Heresy

CHASTITY, avoidance of illicit sexual activity. In the name of holiness, the Bible exhorts against following the abominations of "the land of Egypt in which ye have dwelt" and "of the land of Canaan into which I bring ye" (Lev. 18:3). Adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality are called abominations; rape and seduction are likewise censured (see *Sexual Offenses ). Maimonides writes, "No prohibition in all the Torah is as difficult to keep as that of forbidden unions and illicit sexual relations" (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 22:18), quoting the talmudic statement that the Israelites initially objected when taught to desist from the immorality they had known in Egypt (bokheh le-mishpeḥotav, Num. 11:10 = al iskei mishpeḥotav, Yoma 75a). Accordingly, preventive measures are set forth in the Talmud and codes to keep one far from temptation and sexual sin. The force of this temptation, however, varies: while yiḥud ("being alone together") is forbidden as a safeguard against fornication, "Israel," says the Talmud, "is above suspicion of sodomy or bestiality" (Kid. 82a), and hence no preventive precautions were deemed necessary against these perversions (Yad, loc. cit., 22:2 and Sh. Ar., EH 24:1). Against incest, on the other hand, which might occur even unwittingly through the marriage of persons of unknown parentage, the preventive laws included measures to establish clearly the paternity of a child.

Adultery is severely condemned. It is both a sin (Joseph to Potiphar's wife: "How can I commit this great evil, sinning against God?" Gen. 39:9) included in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:14) – a sin which defiles (Lev. 18:20) – and a crime (Deut. 22:23–24). Along with murder and idolatry, the sexual offenses of adultery and incest are considered so grave that one must prefer death, viz. martyrdom, to committing them ("let him die rather than transgress," Sanh. 74a), whereas the entire Torah is otherwise set aside to preserve life or health (Yoma 82b). The adultery so roundly condemned is that involving a married woman, whereas sexual relations between a married man and an unmarried woman constitute an offense of a lesser category. This "double standard" is consistent with a patriarchal system, which allowed for polygamy but not for polyandry. Still, if the husband had not taken the second woman as wife or concubine, the relationship was considered to be one of zenut ("harlotry"). With polygamy and concubinage declining on both social and moral grounds, the mutual fidelity of *monogamy became the normative ideal. John Calvin was astonished at not finding an explicit reference to "fornication," i.e., relations between unmarried consenting adults, among the sexual prohibitions of the Bible. The Sifra (Kedoshim, perek 7:1), however, interprets Leviticus 19:29 ("Thou shalt not profane thy daughter to make of her a harlot") as referring to consensual relations without benefit of marriage (cf. Sanh. 76a). Maimonides codifies the view that declares such relations harlotry (Yad, Ishut 1:4) and that sees the marriage bond as the Torah's advance over primitive society. "A bride without the wedding blessings is forbidden to her husband like a niddah" (Kal. 1:1). Indeed, the laws of *niddah (of separation during the period of menstruation and subsequent purification) added a dimension to the regimen of chastity. Since even an unmarried woman, not having ritually immersed herself since her last period, is technically a niddah, the prohibition – interpreted to include contact (from Lev. 18:19; Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, negative precept no. 353; cf. Naḥmanides ad loc.) – was construed to apply to her as well (Ribash, Resp., no. 425; Maggid Mishneh to Maim. Yad, Ishut 4:12). Intimacies already prohibited on grounds of erotic stimulation, or of temptation to illicit sex, were thus to be avoided on additional grounds (as opposed to other such permitted contacts: cf. Ex. R. 5:1 on "and Jacob kissed Rachel," Gen. 29:11; Ket. 17a). The implicit prohibition against premarital sex was strengthened by a decree against yiḥud with an unmarried woman (Av. Zar. 36b). But the temptations are seen as remaining formidable, and are best overcome by early marriage. One who passes the age of 20 and is not yet married "spends all his days in sin. 'Actual sin?' Rather say, 'in the thought of sin'" (Kid. 29b). The "sin" here, however, ends with marriage (Yev. 62b; Tur, EH 1:1, and Isserles to Sh. Ar., EH 1:1, based on Prov. 18:22) – which sets off the Jewish view of chastity from the classical Christian view. Chastity is not an avoidance of sex but of illicit sex. Sex is not intrinsically evil – embodied in original sin, incompatible with the holiness required of a priest or nun, a concession to human weakness for others – but is a legitimate good, even a mitzvah. Nor is procreation its justification or its primary purpose. The husband's conjugal obligations, independent of procreation, are defined in terms of frequency (Ex. 21:10; Ket. 47b) as well as quality (Isaac of Corbeille, Sefer Mitzvot Katan, no. 285, on Deut. 24:5; Pes. 72b); they continue even during the wife's pregnancy or if she is barren. When the procreational mitzvah must be set aside, for health reasons, for example, then proper contraception is called for by the various rabbinic responsa (see *Birth Control ), as opposed to abstinence, which is rejected as an unwarranted frustration of the mitzvah of marital relations. Chastity, then, was the manner in which Judaism steered a course between the twin excesses of paganism and puritanism. To stipulate, for example, that husband or wife follow "the custom of the Persians" and remain clothed during conjugal relations is grounds for divorce according to Talmud and Codes (Ket. 48a; EH 76:13). Natural tendencies toward modesty or chastity within marriage are acknowledged in Talmud and moralistic works, but the law is established (Ned. 20b; Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 21:9) that a "man may do with his wife as he pleases," in keeping, i.e., with her wishes (ibid.; Abraham b. David of Posquières, Ba'alei ha-Nefesh, Sha'ar ha-Kedushah; Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by R. Margalioth (1957), 339, no. 509). A man may not be "pious" at his wife's expense and pursue ascetic inclinations to the neglect of the marital mitzvah (Abraham b. David, loc. cit.), so that when *asceticism became popular among both Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages, there was "one important respect in which Ḥasidism differed sharply from its Christian contemporaries" – that "nowhere did penitence extend to sexual abstinence in marital relations" (Scholem, Mysticism, 106).


L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948, repr. 1967); D.M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (1968); E.B. Borowitz, Choosing a Sex Ethic (1969).

[David M. Feldman]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.