Uncovering our BCC History: Our First Rabbi’s Sermon on Sex Ethics

This article is reprinted from BCC’s newsletter, Gvanim, vol. 49 no. 2, November/December 2020, Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet 5781.
Larry Nathenson

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the early years of BCC as reflected in our newsletter.  On November 11, 1983, Rabbi Janet Ross Marder, our first ordained rabbi who had been with BCC for only a few months, gave a sermon about sexual ethics.  It was so well received that it was printed in full in the December 1983 issue of G’vanim.  I had joined BCC only a month earlier and had the privilege of hearing this sermon in person – I can still hear Rabbi Marder’s voice in my head as I read it.  And it still seems relevant to our lives and our relationships today.

I have edited the sermon for length, hopefully without detracting from the overall message.  Once again, my thanks to Jerry Nodiff for providing me with many of the early newsletter issues he saved.

As you may know, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking on behalf of the temple.  The audiences have without exception been friendly and respectful – and very curious….  A few of the questions reveal that some people have a slightly distorted idea of what goes on here at BCC.  For instance, just last week someone asked me if every week I give a sermon about sex.  He seemed a little disappointed to hear that I didn’t….

But his question set me thinking.  I really have been derelict in my rabbinical duties.  After all, what useful information about sex have I passed on to you so far?  Not very much.  So I turned to my favorite Jewish source of useful information: Woody Allen….  And I remembered a sage bit of advice that he offered in one of his movies – I think it was “Love and Death.”  Diane Keaton says to him “Sex without love is an empty and meaningless experience.”  And Woody replies, “Yes, but as empty and meaningless experiences go, it’s one of the best.”

… As a rabbi, my goal is to teach Judaism, and so I am going to present some Jewish attitudes toward sex…. Rabbi (Eugene) Borowitz sets out a basic problem very clearly.  “Sex is a personal and private matter,” he says.  “Ethics is a public and abstract discipline.  ‘Sex ethics’ thus seems to be a contradiction in terms.”  The fact is that the whole idea of a religion talking about sex makes a lot of people very nervous.  Religion has been the cause of intense pain and guilt for so many men and women – straight as well as gay.  I have no wish to add to anyone’s inner burdens, or to judge, or to criticize.  Therefore, my purpose here tonight cannot be to define a sex ethic for you, to tell you what the right kind of sexual behavior is… Rather, my goal here, as in other matters of conscience, is to encourage you to make your own choice in as informed, thoughtful, and sensitive a way as possible….

To begin, then: The first thing Judaism has to teach is that we are sexual beings and this is good. The sex drive is healthy, a source of pleasure, a blessing from God. In Stoicism, Hinduism, and Christianity, especially early Christianity, we find an emphasis on escape from the body, denial of the body…. But in Judaism we find a joyous affirmation of sexuality; the ascetic, the monk, the nun, the virgin or the celibate, are not Jewish ideals. Instead, the Talmud warns us that renunciation of the pleasures of this world is regarded as ingratitude to God who gave us those pleasures. Rav said: “Each person will have to render an account to God for all the good things which his eyes beheld but which he refused to enjoy.”

The second thing Judaism has to teach is that sex, like wine, is a source of pleasure that must be sanctified and enjoyed responsibly – that is, with thought, care, and self-discipline.  For traditional Judaism, sex is practiced in a proper and holy way within the limits of marriage.  As we make the act of drinking wine holy by pronouncing over it a blessing, the kiddush, so also we sanctify the act of sex by performing the rites of kiddushin, the marriage ceremony.

The great 13th century rabbi and mystic Nachmanides wrote a letter to a friend on the subject of sex, which he titled, interestingly, “Iggeret Hakodesh” – the letter of holiness. In it, he wrote that “(the sexual act) is holy and pure when carried on properly, in the proper time and with the proper intentions. No one should claim that it is ugly or unseemly, God forbid! … For we who have the Torah and believe that God created all in … wisdom (do not believe that God) created anything ugly or unseemly. If we were to say that (the sex act) is repulsive then we blaspheme God who made the genitals. … Hands can write a Sefer Torah and are then honorable and exalted; hands, too, can perform evil deeds and then they are ugly. So the genitals …. Whatever ugliness there is comes from how a person uses them. All organs of the body are neutral; the use made of them determines whether they are holy or unholy.”

The temptation must be great, I imagine, to stop here.  Because Jewish law regards all sex outside marriage as illegitimate – not only homosexuality but adultery, incest and premarital sex – we might say that we reject it and have no further interest in it.  I think, however, that Judaism still has much to say on the subject of sex that is interesting and perhaps even useful.  If we are willing to look beyond the fact that the rabbis are talking about sex between marriage partners, we may still find their ideas about sexual relationships worth discussing in terms of our own lives.

Let me show you what I mean.  It was not enough for the rabbis to say that sex within marriage was holy.  They believed that, although we are sexual beings, we are more than sexual; above all, we are human beings, and our sexuality is to be understood in the broader context of our human relationships.  Therefore the rabbis give detailed rules for the conduct of married persons to ensure that their sexual relationship will truly be a human and ethical partnership.

First, they point out that a husband is bound by the principle of onah: the wife’s sexual rights.  (Exodus 21:10, as interpreted by the rabbis, specifies that a woman’s sexual needs are as important and legitimate as her needs for food and clothing.)  Marital sex, the rabbis taught, must be characterized by simcha, joy, and a husband is required to seek simchat ishto – his wife’s pleasure and satisfaction.  Rabbi Abraham ben David counsels that it is better not to hurry, “in order that one’s wife derive greater pleasure.”  The principle we may derive from this, I suggest, is that of mutuality in a sexual partnership – an attitude of generosity and a sensitive attention to one’s partner’s needs and desires.

Similarly, a couple is forbidden to have sexual relations when they are in a state of enmity, for this is no true union. A husband may never force his wife, quarrel with her or strike her in connection with sex, says Nachmanides, “for in such union the Divine Presence cannot abide.” Nor may a couple have relations when they’re severely intoxicated, because no conscious love can be present then; nor may a man make love to his wife when his mind is on another woman, for this is like adultery. The principles we see here are those of free consent, gentleness, tenderness and honesty in a sexual relationship.

The rabbis taught also that sex is kadosh – holy – and the root meaning of kadosh is “set apart, special.”  Hence they designated Shabbat, a holy day set apart for spiritual delight, as particularly appropriate for lovemaking…. The 18th century rabbi Jacob Emden writes “to us the sexual act is worthy, good and beneficial even to the soul.  No other human activity compares with it; when performed with pure and clean intention it is certainly holy….”  The principle the rabbis are teaching here is that the sexual relationship is rare and precious because it is intimate.  It is the deepest connection two people can make.

The rabbis also praise the principle of sh’lom bayit – domestic harmony – of two people building a home together based on lifelong love and sexual fulfillment.

Underlying all these rabbinical teachings about sex is a fundamentally religious view of human relations – an assumption that all human beings have moral worth and dignity.  What this implies, first, is respect for self.  We’re commanded to enjoy and respect our bodies – to protect our health, for instance.  We’re also commanded to respect ourselves as persons, to give of ourselves – our friendship, love or sexuality – in a way that shows we value the gift.

And second, it means respect for others – a respect that leads us to treat another human being as a person to be cherished, not an instrument for our satisfaction.  This respect for oneself and for others is nowhere as crucial as it is in sex – our most personal act, our most intimate connection.

I’ve done my best to share with you, in abbreviated form, some Jewish attitudes towards sex.  Now I’d like you to tell me: Do these Jewish “sex ethics” make sense to you?  Can – or should – heterosexual ethics be a model for gays and lesbians?  How do you go about choosing a sex ethic?

Editor’s Note: In the same issue, our then newsletter editor Harriet Perl, may her memory be a blessing, reported some congregants’ reactions to this sermon in an editorial.  Some spoke wistfully, wishing their parents had imparted to them these positive Jewish attitudes toward sex.  Some also compared “junk sex” (the quick and easy kind, cheap in terms of personal investment in a relationship) to “junk food” (stopping at McDonald’s on the way home from work).  Shabbat can be a time for both a home-cooked meal prepared with loving care and an intimate relationship based on the same devotion and joy.