Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Shalom LC

Rabbi Michael Gold: Sexuality

Rabbi Michael Gold assumed the pulpit of Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac Jewish Center in Tamarac, Florida, in 1990. Previously, he served as rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York. A native of Los Angeles, Rabbi Gold received his B.A. in mathematics from the University of California in San Diego. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1979.

Rabbi Gold’s most recent book is The Ten Journeys of Life: Walking the Path of Abraham (Simcha Press, 2001). His previous books are Does God Belong in the Bedroom? (JPS, 1992), Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple (JPS, 1992), and God, Love, Sex, and Family: A Rabbi’s Guide for Building Relationships that Last (Jason Aronson, 1998). 

Rabbi Gold has lectured throughout the country on sexual ethics, infertility and adoption, family relations, and finding a mission in life. He served as co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly committee on human sexuality. His weekly spiritual message goes to hundreds of readers throughout the world.

Rabbi Michael and Evelyn Gold are the parents of three children. He can be reached through his website at www.heartfelt.com.

Shabbat Shalom*: What is sexuality? How would you define this term that is so often used in our culture nowadays?

Michael Gold: The fundamental message of the Bible is that we humans are more than animals. We are created in the image of God. According to the book of Psalms, we are a little less than angels. To be a human being is to be suspended between an animal and an angel. Nowhere is the tension played out more strongly than in the sexual arena.

Sexuality is a fundamental drive that we share with most of the animal kingdom. It is a drive for pleasure as well as a drive to reproduce. Sexuality in and of itself is neither evil nor good; our sexual drive can be used to serve God’s will or to defy God’s will. I entitled the book I wrote on sexual ethics, Does God Belong in the Bedroom? The answer is yes; it matters to God how we use our sexual drive.

Shabbat Shalom: How important is sexuality to Jewish life and thinking? How important was sexuality to Hebrew thinking in the Hebrew Bible?

Michael Gold: The Torah presents a view of humanity that begins with the words, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper for him” (Genesis 2:18). God then creates the woman from the ribs of the man and brings her to him. The Torah continues with one of the most important ideas in the entire Bible: “Man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). With that phrase, human sexuality, as opposed to animal sexuality, entered the world.

In the animal kingdom, it is not in a male’s genetic self-interest to cling to one particular female. Rather, it is in his interest to maximize sexual opportunities and spread his seed to as many females as will accept him. For animals, maximizing genetic survival is the key to the future, and it would not be wise to limit his sexual favors to only one female. That is why male animals are created with an insatiable sexual drive.

Human beings are to rise above animals. The male is not to cling to a series of wives and mistresses, lovers, and one-night stands. Rather, he is to cling to his wife. He is to be an ongoing presence for any children he may have. Suddenly, family becomes important. Fatherhood means far more than genetic paternity; a male must become a mentor to his children.

Shabbat Shalom: If it is important, why is it so? What religious or theological reasons are traditionally given?

Michael Gold: The Torah teaches that we Jews are to be holy, just as the Lord God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). By doing so, we are setting an example of holiness for the whole world. “Through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed.”

Holiness is achieved by conquering our animal appetites and using them to achieve a higher purpose. Judaism identifies our fundamental appetites, whether for food, money, power, or sex, with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. This does not make them evil. They are only evil if they are allowed to control us. As the Midrash teaches, “At first, the evil inclination is like a thin spider web, but eventually it becomes like a heavy rope.”

Our task in life is to control our appetites and direct them toward a godly purpose. No appetite is more difficult to control than the sexual urge. In fact, the rabbis teach that “the greater the man, the greater the sexual urge.” Therefore, much of Judaism is concerned with how individuals, particularly men, bring their sexual urges under control. Rather than simply pursuing personal pleasure (as too many do today in this age of noncommittal, recreational sex), the sexual drive is used to build a marriage and create a family. Within the context of marriage, sex becomes holy.

Shabbat Shalom: What is, in your view, the specific Jewish perspective on sexuality?

Michael Gold: Judaism teaches that the sexual drive in the wrong context can be hurtful and even destructive. On the other hand, the sexual drive in the right context can be holy and become a way of serving God.

Judaism forbids any sexuality that undermines families, particularly incest and adultery. It frowns on sex outside of marriage, not because nonmarital sex is evil but rather because of a fear that such sex will become a disincentive for marriage. Judaism forbids homosexuality because it wants a man to direct his sexual drive towards a woman, and vice versa. I want to add that this is very controversial today and is being reconsidered by some rabbis. But even those rabbis who condone homosexual relations see heterosexual marriage as the religious ideal.

Judaism sees sex within marriage as not only permissible but desirable. It becomes a way of achieving holiness and serving God. Such sexual activity is not only for procreation but also for mutual pleasure. In fact, according to the Jewish mystical tradition, marital sex has spiritual effects beyond the couple and becomes a way of doing a tikkun (perfection) of the universe.

Because marital sex is so central to the Jewish view, Judaism frowns on celibacy and has never developed the monastic life prevalent in the Catholic Church. Both men and women are commanded to marry, preferably at a young age, and enjoy an active, joyous sexual life.

Shabbat Shalom: What are the lessons Jews could learn from this Jewish perspective?

Michael Gold: Jews have lost their sense of holiness. The prevalent ethic is that anything is permitted, as long as no one is hurt. When I ask Jews about sexual behavior, most answer that the key question is that we be good. The Torah commands us not simply to be good, ethical, or moral. It commands us to be holy. Holiness means rising above the animal within us and reaching towards the angel. Sexual activity between two casual acquaintances may be pleasurable, and people may treat each other very nicely. But it is not holy. Holiness means set apart, made special, or raised up. It comes from self-control and self-discipline.

Holiness is important in all areas of life, not just the sexual arena. We have lost the holiness of the Sabbath and the festivals—days set aside and treated differently than other days. We are not familiar with holy places; most Jews come to the synagogue only on the holiest days of the year, if they come at all. Holiness is also reflected in our speech, our art, and our music. Without the Holy, our society is becoming coarser and more animal-like. We need to reconsider the centrality of kedusha (holiness) in our vision of the universe.

Shabbat Shalom: Do you think sexuality is related to religion? If yes, how?

Michael Gold: Religion is concerned with how we humans live our lives. The touchstone of Judaism is action—what we do rather than what we believe. Judaism is concerned with all aspects of action-filled business, our family, our interpersonal relations, and our sexuality. Ultimately, in Judaism, we are judged not by our beliefs but by our actions.

Shabbat Shalom: Is the concept of sexuality as proposed in the Hebrew Bible problematic in today’s society?

Michael Gold: The Bible is concerned with holiness—how to rise above the animal within us and reflect our godliness. Today’s society views sexuality as fulfilling recreational needs. One need only watch contemporary movies or music videos to realize that we have lost our sense of holiness. Today’s society needs the biblical view of holiness more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom: Has sexuality become taboo in Jewish tradition? If yes, how should we cope with such a problem?

Michael Gold: Unfortunately, too often, Judaism has embraced the non-Jewish view that sexuality is laced with sin. The rabbis placed more fences around the Torah to prevent casual sexual encounters. In the Orthodox community, men and women are separated both in prayer and socially; among the very Orthodox, no physical contact is permitted, even shaking hands. I believe it is possible to embrace the idea that sex is holy, sexual self-discipline is necessary, and casual sex is inappropriate, without all the fences around the Torah. Men and women can mix and mingle without jumping into bed with one another. It means recreating a vision of holiness for our society.

Shabbat Shalom: How should we educate our children on sexuality in our permissive society?

Michael Gold: Children need to be taught more than the facts of life. They must be taught sexual values. Part of holiness is the ability to draw lines and place limits on what one will do sexually. When I teach sexuality to teens, I speak about the various lines that young people ought not to cross and where those lines should be drawn. I also speak about the idea of kedusha, or holiness, in all areas of life. If the Jewish Sabbath and festivals become holy occasions, if the Jewish dietary laws add self-discipline to life, it makes it much easier to teach holiness in the sexual arena.

Shabbat Shalom: Though sexuality is about relationships, it seems not only to be a topic for couples. What about sexuality and the single person, the individual?

Michael Gold: As mentioned earlier, I do not believe that sexuality outside of marriage is a serious moral issue. I am well aware that most of my congregants are active sexually before they are married or after they are married. Not just young people, but many of my seniors live together without the benefit of marriage.

However, I do believe this behavior falls far short of the holiness ideal of Judaism. I have found that living together outside of marriage is a disincentive to marry. Casual sex leads to many of society’s problems, including out-of-wedlock births, abortions, high divorce rates, adultery, and a coarsening of society. Therefore, I do what I can to discourage premarital sex, particularly among young people.

Shabbat Shalom: An interesting question that many people ask is: Are we going to have sex in the world to come?

Michael Gold: The world to come is not about our physical selves but our spiritual selves. There will be no need for sex, just as there will be no need for food and drink. The Torah is concerned not with how to live in this perfect spiritual world but with how to live in the day-to-day physical world where we presently live. It is in this world that we must pursue the quest for holiness. Judaism is concerned not with how to get to heaven but rather with how to create heaven here upon earth.

Shabbat Shalom: What spiritual, religious, and theological lessons can we learn from the experience of sexuality?

Michael Gold: Judaism is built on the notion that God made a covenant with the Jewish people so that we will be a blessing for the entire world. The symbol of the covenant is circumcision; every Jewish boy has his foreskin cut off on the eighth day. Many have seen this as a powerful symbol.

The covenant is about rising beyond our animal nature. The area where males are most likely to behave in an animal-like manner is how they handle their sexual drive. Therefore, the symbol of covenant is placed on the male sexual organ at a very young age. It is as if the Torah is telling us, “If you want to achieve holiness, control this organ.”

Sexuality is one of life’s most powerful experiences. We can behave as mere animals, simply seeking to satisfy our appetite with no greater purpose. But sex, in the right context, with the right person, and with the right attitude, can become a way of achieving holiness and, ultimately, of serving God.

 

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