The basic attitude of Judaism toward sex and marriage begins with several related statements in the opening chapters of Genesis.
The Lord declares, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” Adam is put to sleep and God takes a rib from him from which he forms woman. When Adam awakes and sees Eve beside him, he speaks these portentous words, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”
The first of the Torah’s commandments is, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Celibacy is frowned upon in Judaism. Even the old, the weak, the sickly are entitled to marry.
Judaism and Jewish law are “chivalrous.” The Bible, the Talmud and rabbinic literature abound in warm tributes to the “woman of valour” who looks diligently after her husband and children. Jewish ethics has much to say on how the wife is to be honoured and cherished.
But words of praise and approbation are not enough. Many Jewish women resent the legal inferiority and disabilities to which Jewish law subjects them – especially with respect to laws of marriage and divorce.
It is disgraceful that Jewish law leaves women totally and helplessly at the mercy of estranged husbands and spiteful brothers-in-law. It is insufferable to be “chained” to a man who has remarried and yet refuses to make it possible for his first wife or his deceased brother’s childless widow to remarry.
Under strict traditional male-made law women can neither vote nor serve as witnesses. They are not counted in the prayer quorum of the minyan. Some of the talmudic sages, concerned that women were a source of sexual allurement, cautioned against holding even a casual conversation with them (Avot 1:5). They taught that men shouldn’t touch a women or even shake hands in greeting.
Two provisions of the modesty laws with regard to women are so troubling that they divide Orthodox Jews even today. The first teaches that woman’s hair is powerfully erotic and that no one but her husband should see it. This rule has led many Orthodox women to wear a wig in public.
The other rule makes listening to a woman’s voice a grave sexual violation. Thus, those who observe this ruling may not attend the opera or theatre, or even listen to women’s voices on radio, television or recordings.
Dov Linzer, an Orthodox rabbi, is the dean of a rabbinical school in New York. In a recent article in the New York Times he writes that the Talmud, in effect, warns the restrictive male that how he treats and regards women must involve his self-control and responsibility.
Romantic love, which is an expression of sexual desire, is natural, normal and good. Expressed in the best human spirit, this kind of love is part of the beauty of holiness. A modern poet expressed it best: “Love is biology set to music.”