The brilliant lay philosopher of Judaism, Dennis Prager, has written lucidly about the utter distinctiveness of Judaism among the nations of its time in its understanding of human sexuality. Prager writes:
The gods of virtually all civilizations engaged in sexual relations. In the Near East, the Babylonian god Ishtar seduced a man, Gilgamesh, the Babylonian hero. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister, the goddess Isis, and she conceived the god Horus. In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active, having had many wives and pursuing Radha; the god Samba, son of Krishna, seduced mortal women and men.
In the temples of its neighbors near and far, Israel saw that ritual acts of prostitution and sacral couplings between religious leaders and women (or men) were routinely performed. Sexual activities were placed at the core of worship ceremonies in virtually all cultures, even including pre-mosaic Israel. Only in Israel did the prophets rail against these activities, and repeatedly drove them from the temple. The ancient world considered sexual “normality” to be fulfilled in the ungoverned sexuality of males, to which women were merely instrumental. In many of the cultures surrounding Israel, sexual acts between males were given equal or even superior value to those between males and females. In those cultures, little differentiation was made between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The important difference to people then lay in who did the penetrating and who was penetrated, not in which gender played which role.
Against this common vision of sexual normalcy stood the towering Moses. He taught Israel, virtually alone, to embrace a new standard for human sexual life. This standard gave its blessing solely to sexual acts between a man and a woman in the covenanted relationship of monogamous marriage. What a great channeling of sexual energies this provision achieved. What a great concentration of energies it brought to the world. What great, non-instrumental dignity it gave to women.
Many elites in other cultures continued to exhaust their energies in polymorphous sex. They expended whole days on the arts of pleasure—the smells, the scents, the music, the languorous bodies of dancers. And in this sexually saturated world, women remained mere instruments. As Norman Sussman wrote, “The woman was seen as serving but two roles. As a wife, she ran the home. As a courtesan, she satisfied male sexual desires.” When sensory pleasures are considered the highest aim of life—not study nor inquiry nor civic virtue—economic and cultural development is heavily retarded.
Is sexual activity the highest end of life? For Moses and the people of Israel, it assuredly was not. It was of course a great good, and one essential to the perpetuation of the human race. Sexuality was not meant to be repressed. But it was meant to run—and to run deep—in only one channel.
From this sublimation there arose two great social consequences. First, women achieved sexual equality with men in the holy union of marriage. “In His image [God] made them, male and female He made them” (Genesis 1:27). This text says clearly that the divine radiance in human life shines through the marital union of man and woman. Therein, each person finds completeness. Only together, fully one, does the married couple bear the image of the Creator.
The second great consequence is to channel immense energy into society through its fundamental unit, the family—and not just energy, but also a continuity of consciousness, and the dream of a more perfect future. Thus Judaism gave birth to the idea of progress. Judaism introduced the ancient world to the reality of progress. Judaism sees itself as always unfinished, always unsatisfied. “Next year in Jerusalem,” when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and the Messiah will at last appear. Each family, at the family table, carries these hopes forward into the future. Making progress is always, in time, an unfinished business.
It is worth noting that the fundamental energy of the family, in this vision, is spousal love. This love is not a sentimental feeling or a passionate desire, but a firm commitment to the good of the other. Not “her good” as you wish it were, nor even the good as she wishes it were, but her objective good as identified by reason. Thus, the point of even sex is realistic love. Not mutual self-indulgence, but the growth in adulthood and virtuous living that raising a family entails. (There is no point in getting married if you don’t want to hear the truth about yourself—especially all those truths you don’t really want to hear—from your spouse and your children.) Those who live closely together come to shed their illusions about each other, and to love in each other the better self that each would like to become. This is realistic love.
Further, man and wife, though assuredly equals in marriage, are not identicals. The one sex is opposite to, not identical to, the other. In this difference lies dynamic complementarity. (The great English journalist G.K. Chesterton once marveled during his first long stay in America, that Americans can seek divorce “on the grounds of incompatibility.” “I would have thought,” he commented dryly, “that incompatibility is the reason for marriage.”)
Thus, the complementarity between a man and a woman in covenantal marriage—a privileged image of God—is designed to increase the best of all forms of happiness among human beings: growth in the ennobling habits of the heart, in virtue, in honesty, and in mutual caring, “until death do them part.” This complementarity is also designed to generate productive, creative, and ever-advancing societies, driven by dreams of perfection yet to come (and never to be fully realized).
Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.