The Vow of ‘Onah and Other Jewish Attitudes About Sex

Photo by Search Influence on Flickr

Photo by Search Influence on Flickr

A Blog Series – God’s Hope in the Gift of Sexual Desire and Sexual Expression
Blog Six of Eight – The Vow of ‘Onah and Other Jewish Attitudes About Sex

This is the sixth in a series of eight blogs which share powerful SEX POSITIVE stories from our Judeo/Christian heritage. God gave us the delicious experience of sexual desire and sexual expression on purpose – with the intent that we would experience greater understandings of his abundant and extravagant love. He also hoped that we would experience abundant aspects of what it is to love deeply – both the giving and receiving of love. To have our own experiences of loving a beloved other.

The Vow of ‘Onah and Other Jewish Attitudes About Sex
In addition to previous blogs in this series, I want to share with you a few other Hebrew teachings about sexuality, sex, and marriage prominent in the Jewish faith. As you read these instructions you may wonder like I did, “How did our traditional Christian sexual ethic diverge so dramatically from the attitudes and beliefs of our ancestors?” “What happened in the development of the Western Church to evoke such a change?” As you read these teachings ask yourself how this is different than what you were taught about sexuality either by American culture or by the Christian church. Can you see the relationship wisdom in these guidelines distilled over generations that increase the probability of a mutually satisfying sexual life for a man and for a woman? Certainly our Jewish ancestors provide us with plenty of food for thought.

The Vow of ‘Onah is assumed by a Jewish man on the day of his wedding. This vow provides instruction on how he is to care for his wife. Here are some of the instruction in this sacred vow:

Sex is considered a woman’s right, not a man’s. The husband is given the commandment of ‘Onah which is one of the religious obligations he assumes at marriage, ‘Onah is the commandment to supply all forms of well-being and pleasure to the wife. According to Hebrew scholar Moshe Idel, the term ‘Onah as a religious obligation is not connected to the sexual satisfaction of the husband, but to the special sexual needs of the wife. The husband has a duty to ensure that all forms of sexual touch are pleasurable for her. He is also expected to watch for signs that his wife wants intimate touch and to offer it without her asking for it. In the book Jewish Explorations of Sexuality, the author further expounds on the requirements of the husband to ensure that all sexual touch be accompanied by closeness (kiruv), and joy (simchah). This level of attentiveness and intimacy raises love-making onto a higher more emotional and spiritual plane.

• Sex and sexuality are not seen as primarily about genital intercourse. All forms of sexual enjoyment are recognized from holding hands to sexual intercourse. This vast sexual enjoyment is seen as a vital component of pleasure and an act of immense significance requiring commitment and responsibility to each other and to any offspring that might result. In fact, in some expressions of a Jewish faith, two weeks of every month were devoted to other forms of intimacy and intimate touch outside of intercourse.

• The purpose in all sexual touch is to reinforce the loving bond and intimacy across the lifespan together. Sexual touch is expected to evolve and change over time as life stages are traversed together. The idea that an elderly couple is not sexually intimate is a foreign concept in the Torah context.

• Sexual touch and intercourse were meant to be celebrated in joy and not in sadness, anger, disinterest, when drunk or in self-interest.

• Sex for selfish personal satisfaction without regard for the partner’s pleasure is wrong and considered evil. This word ‘evil’ is considered a very strong word and is rarely used in the Torah.

• A man may never force his wife to have sex or use sex as a weapon against a spouse either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. 

• It is considered a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse. 

• In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. Sex is not a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation. Some familiar with Hebrew scripture might point out sexual desire comes from the Yetzer hara, the so-called evil impulse, but it is well known by Jewish scholars that sexual desire is no more an evil impulse than the desire for food and water, which also originates from the Yetzer hara.

Sexual enjoyment is extended to allow other activities if desired by both partners.

• The written Torah uses the root word Yod-Dalet-Ayin, meaning ‘to know,’ to describe sexual intimacy as a knowledge of your spouse in mind, soul, and body. This word illustrates all sexuality, the act of knowing another in Yod-Dalet-Ayin, is meant to involve the whole of a person—the heart and mind—not merely the body. The Jewish understanding of sexual knowing and sexual sharing between a husband and wife took the whole person into consideration—heart desires, body desires, thoughts, feelings, etc. The body was not separated from the mind or heart. But this accountability to heart and mind in sexual intimacy was lost in the early Christian church translation when the focus of the term ‘to know’ became a negative expression condemning someone who had sexual intercourse out of the marriage context. This negative connotation is not in the original Hebrew meaning. The focus was a reminder of the importance of the mind and heart’s involvement in the sexual relationship.

Some scholars believe that during the development of the Christian Church the desire to establish and differentiate the Christian religion from the Jewish religion meant a loss of roots … and thus generations of wisdom. Early Christian church leaders preoccupation with celibacy as a sign of holiness severed the Jewish wisdom of sexuality and God’s grace reflected therein from the development of a Christian sexual ethic. Nowhere in the sexual ethic of chastity and a split of spirit from body, will you find God’s vision, hope, and purpose in the gift of sexual communion. That my friends are why we have been floundering to find a way to understand sexuality in a way that is bathed in God’s love and light.

[1] Kabbalah and Eros, Moshe Idel. 2005

[2] Jewish Explorations of Sexuality, Jonathan Magonet. 1995.

[3] Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer, Vol.1, No. 102. By Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

[4] Introductions to Judaism: The Source Book, Einstein, Kukoff, p114-122

[5] Judaism 101: Kosher Sex


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