Jewish Studies Sexuality and the Body
David Biale
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0033


Judaism is a religion with a full set of precepts governing the body, from circumcision and menstruation to diet and dress. Sexuality is one of the cardinal aspects of the body to which Judaism gives the greatest attention, but its attitudes are not uniformly consistent; they reflect the influences of the surrounding culture and are sometimes marked by internal contradictions and ambivalences. The Bible makes procreation a blessing (“be fruitful and multiply”), and perhaps to enhance procreation, the priestly laws in Leviticus contain strict prohibitions on certain types of sexual behavior (homosexuality, bestiality, incest, and sexual relations during a woman’s menstrual period). The rabbis of the Talmud turned the blessing of procreation into the first commandment. As opposed to the contemporaneous early Christian church, the rabbis required that all men marry and have children. But they too were influenced by the sexual asceticism of Late Antiquity. In the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers and moralistic thinkers, under the influence of Greek philosophy, drew a dualistic distinction between body and soul. Moses Maimonides, the greatest philosopher of the Jewish Middle Ages, took a negative position on sexual desire and pleasure. Yet he was also a physician, and his medical writings are more positive on the body. Jewish mysticism—or Kabbalah—revolted against the asceticism of the philosophers and infused their theology with erotic symbolism. But the Kabbalists were more ambivalent about human sexuality unless it involved the proper mystical intention. In the modern age followers of the Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) saw sexuality as one of the realms to be liberated from rabbinic authority. But under the influence of bourgeois morality they sometimes subjected sexual mores to new types of authority and control. Some aspects of modern Jewish culture (such as American Jewish literature) are marked by sexual struggles and even neurosis, but these ambivalences are not unprecedented and are in fact modern versions of ambivalences going back to the earliest sources of Judaism.


The first general survey of Jewish teachings on sexuality was Epstein 1948. Feldman 1974 adds an in-depth legal discussion, followed by Biale 1984, both treating legal issues pertaining to women. Cohen 1989 follows the legal and legendary trail of the key verse on procreation in Genesis. Biale 1992 was the first attempt to offer a historical—as opposed to just legal—treatment.

  • Biale, David. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

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    Treats sexuality, love, and marital relations in the Bible, rabbinic texts, medieval society, philosophy and mysticism, Hasidism, the eastern European Jewish enlightenment, Zionism, and American Jewish culture. The author puts an emphasis on the dialectical tensions between desire and asceticism in Jewish culture. An important contribution to the new Jewish cultural studies. Reprinted, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

  • Biale, Rachel. Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women’s Issues in Halakhic Sources. New York: Schocken, 1984.

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    A definitive treatment with chapters on sexuality and marital relations, menstruation (niddah), and sexuality outside of marriage. Surveys the legal tradition from the Bible and rabbinic sources to medieval codes and commentaries and modern responsa.

  • Cohen, Jeremy. Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

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    A detailed and exhaustive treatment of the key biblical verse from Genesis on procreation. The author not only treats the implications of this verse for views of sexuality in biblical, rabbinic, and medieval texts but also demonstrates how the second half of the verse was understood in terms of the relationship of human beings to the natural world.

  • Epstein, Louis M. Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism. New York: Bloch, 1948.

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    An older discussion of the laws pertaining to sexuality in Judaism with a somewhat apologetic approach. Still useful for its wide-ranging scholarship. Treats sexual morality, modesty in dress, sex segregation in public places, sexual perversions, prostitution, rape, adultery, and jealousy.

  • Feldman, David M. Marital Relations, Birth Control, and Abortion in Jewish Law. New York: Schocken, 1974.

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    A pioneering study motivated by contemporary American debates on birth control and abortion. The author shows how the nuanced approach of traditional legal texts to these questions must also be understood in relationship to Jewish attitudes toward sexuality. Contains comparative material from Christianity.

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