Neither biblical nor talmudic Hebrew possesses a specific term for sex. While classical Jewish literature is replete with references to it, the subject is never treated separately and systematically. The most intimate and frank discussions on sex are featured frequently in the Talmud and have always been a natural part of religious education, unmarred by self-consciousness. Nevertheless, laws concerning forbidden relations should not be expounded in public (Ḥag. 2:1 and 11b), since "there is no guardian against unchasteness" (Ket. 13b). The Jewish attitude to sex, then, shows a certain apparent ambivalence or, more correctly, a balance between extremes. It insists on a stern discipline of moral restraints and yet avoids excessive prudery or asceticism. On the one hand, Judaism regards moderation and self-control in sex as the essence of "holiness" (Lev. 19:2, and commentaries), condemning unchaste conduct as among the most heinous offences against God and society and branding as capital crimes such perversions as sodomy and pederasty (Lev. 20:13, 15–16) as well as adultery (ibid., 10) and incest (ibid., 11ff.). On the other hand, it rejects the notion of considering the sex instinct as intrinsically sinful or shameful. The sex drive should be sublimated rather than suppressed, for "were it not for the evil inclination, no man would build a home and marry" (Gen. R. 9:7). Indeed, to the rabbis, who frowned on *celibacy, it was this instinct which completed the creation of the world and caused God to pronounce His work as "very good" (Gen. R. ibid.).
Legislation on sex occupies considerable space in the codes of Jewish law, as do warnings against lewdness in thought, word, or deed in the moralist literature of Judaism. Building on the foundations of the pragmatic laws in the Torah and of the passionate denunciation of pagan licentiousness by the prophets, the rabbis erected a complex structure of regulations to govern every area of sex life. Particularly extensive are the rules of family *purity based on the prohibition of sexual relations with a menstruant woman (Lev. 20:18). Similarly elaborated are the laws on birth *control, *sterilization, and *abortion, as well as the ban on *prostitution (based on Deut. 23:18), and indeed on any sexual relations outside lawful wedlock (Maim., Yad, Ishut 1:1–4). To guard against illicit intimacies, any meetings in private between individuals of opposite sexes are also strictly prohibited (Sh. Ar., EH 22), just as the Bible forbids men or women to wear each other's clothes (Deut. 22:5) to prevent levity and promiscuity (see commentaries). Many additional rabbinic rules seek to curb lewd thought and immodest conduct, even among spouses (Sh. Ar., EH 21–25).
Though far removed from the Freudian concept of sex as the ultimate key to normal and abnormal behavior in childhood as in mature life, the rabbis often asserted the predominance of the sex urge and the effort needed to control it. "Who is mighty? He who subdues his lust" (Avot 4:1), and "for most people there is nothing harder in the entire Torah than to abstain from sex and forbidden relations" (Maim. Yad, Issurei Bi'ah, 22:18) are typical statements. Characteristic, too, is the interpretation given to the rite of *circumcision, the "covenant" between God and Israel and the first law enjoined upon the first Jew, as symbolizing the primacy of hallowing the sex act by an operation "to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate" (Maim., Guide, 3:49).
L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Custom in Judaism (1948); J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin (19233); P. Elman (ed.), Jewish Marriage (1967); Baron, Social2, index.