Sex and the Evil Inclination

The Rabbis recognized that the yetzer hara is not entirely evil. This inclination actually plays a vital role in human life. One famous Midrash states, “Were if not for the yetzer hara, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children.” (Gen. Raba 9:7)

Judaism expects people to serve God with their inclinations, the good one, Hatov, and the evil one, Hara. Hence, the presence of a powerful yetzer hara does not mean that a person is evil. On the contrary, the Rabbis recognized that sometimes the more pious the person, the more powerful the yetzer hara. According to Jewish tradition, the man with the strongest yetzer hara was King David; the very man with whom God made a special convennant and, whom God designated as the progenitor of the Messiah. In a Midrash, the Rabbis explain how David, yielding to temptation in his lust for Bathsheba, commits adultery, and even murder.

Judaism views our sexual drive as basic to human life, and that it is wrong to suppress it totally. Therefore, there is no tradition of celibacy in Jewish writings. The goal of a Jew is to serve God, channeling one’s sexual desire into appropriate behavior, i.e., marriage and children.

The centrality of sexual morality to Jewish self-identity is apparent even in synagogue ritual. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, a special Torah reading in Minhah services (held on Yom Kippur afternoons) focuses on sexual conduct. It is a particularly holy time; congregates have been fasting for nearly twenty-four hours, and people are feeling light headed. The passage includes a long list of forbidden sexual relationships. In it, we recognize that no area of human behavior offers greater temptation to stray from the path than one’s sexuality.

The Reform Movement and, some Conservative congregations, have felt troubled by this reading having replaced it with another.

Its important to note that Judaism judges one’s acts, not thoughts or people. A particular act may be considered “sinful” (missing the mark) or, a person may be considered a “sinner” while committing that act. However, the individual is not “evil” in his or her essence. Judaism always leaves room for Teshuve (repentance.)

Similarly, if a person has evil thoughts or intentions, he/she has not sinned as long as the act has not been committed. Whatever the intention, sexual thought and activity committed within its proper context and circumstances, can become a way of achieving holiness.

Does God Care About Sexual Behavior?

In Judaism, every sexual act must be judged in terms of God’s will for human beings in general, and for Jews in particular. Some sexual acts are clearly transgressions, hurtful both to the individual and to society. Other sexual acts are Mitzvot, increasing the holiness of the universe.