Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sensuality, Spirituality & Ancient Birth Rituals

The ideal of a God centred life in which fulfilment is derived from spirituality must confront the reality of sensual pleasure, especially at it relates to sexuality. Torah messages on this topic range from celebrating the sensual, channelling it, to containment and even to censure. 

A few principles are useful to introduce this discussion.
1) There is a tradition of modesty, and “Lashon Nekia”, clean speech which means that some talk about these issues is constrained by euphemism such as “and the Man knew Eve his wife[1]”.2) On-going performance of this activity is legally discussed as an obligation from husband to wife[2] known as Ona, time. This is not limited to reproduction, as it applies beyond child bearing years.
3) The Talmud refers euphemistically to the sexual act as “Shalom Bayit”, peace in the home. Recognising the benefit to marriage and broadening its legitimacy beyond procreation.
4) The commandment to be holy[3] is understood as a call to restraint to sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you[4].  
5) Denying oneself the pleasures God created requires atonement, as we see with the Nazirite who abstains from wine and must bring a sin offering[5] and if this is the case with abstaining from wine then “anyone who pains himself (by abstaining from) any thing or thing, how much more so[6]”.

The Torah reading cycle this week touches on issues of reproduction and human sexuality with a particular focus on  women. It begins with an unusual expression “A woman who will seed and she will give birth to a male[7]”. It proceeds to declare her ritually impure for seven days as a result of child birth. I find this puzzling as I would have thought the miracle of a new life would be a completely positive thing. We are also told that offerings of sheep or birds are to be brought to 'atone' for her[8]? Why does she  require atonement? What wider implications are there to all of this? 

The Talmud infers a very practical message about managing male desire. “If a woman “seeds” first she will give birth to a male[9]...this is only that they delay themselves (from “seeding[10]”) on the stomach so that their wife should “seed” first so that their children will be male...Rabba stated that one who wants sons should penetrate and then repeat (because from the desire of first penetration she will be “seeding”...prior to the second time). Let us put aside any questions about the biological accuracy of this form of gender selection or the implications about gender equality arising from male offspring being offered as a reward. I have always understood this to be more about the ethical obligations of men to concern themselves with female desire rather than just their own. As R. Bchai puts it, One who can conquer his (evil) inclination and delay himself so that she “seeds” first he receives his reward that she will give birth to a male child[11].   

One difficulty I had with this teaching is that to me there is something patronising in demanding moral discipline from men but nothing from women. I was happy to be proven wrong by the following; The righteousness of sons are mostly in the merit of the woman.  Indeed you will see, Jacob was thinking of Rachel (when he first slept with Leah) as the verse states “and it was in the morning and behold it is Leah” (Genesis?). If this is so then God forbid, Reuben was brought into existence with his father thinking about Rachel[12]. The same was true with Jesse (the father of King David) because he thought he came to his maidservant but it was in fact his wife and David was born from this. But, everything depends on the righteousness of the woman and the purity of her thoughts. Our mother Leah and the mother of David were meritorious in their thoughts and sanctified their thoughts in purity, therefore their sons were holy. [13].

It is not all praise either. This verse is linked to King David declaring that “in sin was I fashioned[14]” master of the worlds, nothing (in no way) did my father Yishai intend to stand me up (create me), is it not true that his intention was only for his pleasure. You will know that this is  the case because after they did their needs, this one turns his face this way and this one turns her face there... [15]”. A bit harsh, reflecting the spiritual hazards that Judaism seems to see in sensual pleasure, in fact the desire is seen as the root of sexual sins[16].

Yet desire is seen as a positive thing in another context. The basin used by the Kohanim (priests) to wash themselves in the temple was made from the mirrors that Hebrew slave women used in Egypt to attract their husbands attention[17]. “Moses despised the mirrors because they are made for the evil inclination, but The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, accept them as these are dearer to me than everything. It is through these (mirrors) that the women stood up many hosts in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted from the back breaking work they would go and bring food and drink  and feed them, they would take the mirrors and each one would see herself and her husband in the mirror and she would coax him with words, saying “I am more pretty than you” and through this would bring their husbands to desire and they would attend to them and they would become pregnant and give birth[18].

It seems to me that desire is welcomed as necessary and useful but also as dangerous, with the accelerator needing to have breaks put on as well. 

One explanation for the idea of impurity is offered in the name of (the grandfather of the author of one commentator) the Rebbe of Kotzk who asked; “the key to birth is in the hands of God and has not been handed over to a messenger, how can impurity result from that? He answered that the impurity comes later. My father explained his words according to the holy Zohar about the reason for impurity relating to a dead person. (namely that) the place has been emptied of holiness, that is the soul of the person, therefore the forces of impurity seek to dwell there. The same is true with a woman giving birth. Because God himself was the one opening (the womb), and when the Divine presence the forces of impurity desire to attached themselves to her[19].

This leaves us with the problem of the sin offering brought for Kapara (usually translated as atonement).One justification is that in the time that she is crouching to give birth she jumps and swears that she will not be with her husband any more (sexually)[20]. Because she swears out of pain, the oath is not fit to be valid because she is already committed (lit. enslaved) to her husband, therefore she is required to being an offering to atone for a sin of thought. The problem with this explanation is that the requirement to bring the offering also applies if she did not swear[21].

Another explanation is that the offering is there to stimulate gratitude for surviving child birth[22]. This is rejected on the basis that “The word Kaparah is not used for anything other than for a sin...If the sacrifice was for the fact that she was saved from danger than she would bring a thanksgiving offering...[23]”. The commentary suggests an alternative sin requiring atonement.  “it can be explained that the sacrifice was not because of her own sin but because of her mother's sin (Eve) the mother of all the living. Because were it not for that sin, man  would cause birth with his wife not in the way of lust and desire but rather in a completely natural way just like the nature of the tree that brings forth its fruits every year without lust. This woman giving birth, (it can be said of her) like mother, like daughter in the act of sin. Because the branches are rotten with the rot of the root. Therefore she is required by the verse to bring an offering to atone for that primordial sin. ...[24]Not very gentle stuff. It seems to reflect those traditions seeking greater restraint of the passions and lusts.

Still another commentary suggests that the word “Kaparah” in this context is not related to sin at all but some kind of spiritual cleansing[25]. My father, drew my attention to Rashi's argument that sin offerings are not always brought for atonement[26]. Another sage states “but the truth is that we don't have the ability to understand the reasons of the Torah and the thoughts of God are very deep”[27]. I suspect that we are not meant to have absolute clarity about this murky area of life and that that is probably a good thing.

[1]    Genesis 4:1
[2]    Referred to in the marriage contract, the Ketuba and Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer, laws of Ishus, 25:2
[3]    Leviticus 19:2
[4]    Lekach Tov, also see Ramban who discusses the possibility of “degenerate with permission of Torah”, when a person indulges excessively in the permitted pleasures. Instead the Ramban understands the Torah as calling for moderation
[5]    Numbers 6:13-14
[6]    Talmud Taanis 11a
[7]  Leviticus 12:1
[8] Leviticus 12:6-7
[9]  Talmud, Nida 31a&b
[10]  Rashi
[11]  Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[12]  This issue was touched on in my post “” Based on Rashi on Beresheet 49:2, Beresheet Rabbah, Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 176a, cited by Rabbi Ari Kahn, .
[13] Chida, quoted in Greenberg, A. Y, (1996) Iturei Torah, p. 64 Yavneh, Tel Aviv
[14]  Psalms 51:7
[15] Midrash Rabba 14:5
[16]  Rashi on Psalms above
[17]  Exodus 38:8
[18]  Rashi on Exodus 38:8, the Shulchan Aruch also allows conversation for the purpose of arousing his desire “Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer, laws of Ishus, 25:2” along with discussion of the wife's emotional needs
[19] Shem Mishmuel, quoted in Greenberg, A. Y, (1996) Iturei Torah, p. 64 Yavneh, Tel Aviv
[20]  Talmud Nida 31a
[21]  Ran, Talmud Nedarim
[22]  Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 168
[23] Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[24]  Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[25]  Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot on Leviticus 12:8
[26]  Rashi Leviticus 10:17, beginning with words Laseat et Avon Haedah, two examples of a sin offering that were not for the purpose of atonement
[27]  Minchat Chinuch discussion relating to Mitzvah 168


  1. Did I read the bit about the Rebbe of Kotzk correctly? The womb is a holy place because within it is the pure soul of a child. When the child is born the soul is gone and the womb is no longer holy and at threat from the forces of impurity. Is the offering to seek protection from this?

    This seems to compare childbirth with death,(the removal of the soul from the body.Also in death we move from one world to the next as a baby moves from the protected world of the womb to the outside world. Is there a similarity between the rituals accompanying birth and the rituals accompanying death?

  2. Gary, the "father of fathers" of impurity in Judaism is a dead body. Holiness is equated with life while death is seen as an impurity.

  3. I have 2 questions first is about premarital sex? Is there any issue on this subject?
    Also, I am seeking to know if there are any references in making pregnant a woman without husband, as she asking for this gift from a friend, and knows that the friend is in relation with other woman, and the other woman with whom man is in relation is encouraging the man to conceive with friend, before they get married. In the certain aspect it resembles the Onan and his obligation, but from man's point of view this is the act of adultery as he is in relation with other women, and even though nobody is married. Both woman however are saying that this should be a moral obligation of a man to provide the seed? None the less, this women never met both like the same man but only one of them is loved by man. Any suggestions?