Maybe the Prudes are Right

There should not be a prostitute among the daughters of Israel and there should not be a male prostitute

among the sons of Israel. (Sefer Devarim 23:18)

  1. Contrasting views on sexuality

This passage explicitly prohibits prostitution. However, Maimonides explains that included in this prohibition is any sexual intimacy that is outside of the context of marriage. In other words, the passage’s prohibition extends to pre-marital and extra-marital sex.[1] According to Maimonides, sexual intimacy outside of marriage is prohibited by the Torah. This prohibition is included in the Torah’s 613 commandments.

There is some discussion among the authorities regarding Maimonides’ position. This discussion is focused on whether Maimonides’ classification is correct or whether this prohibition might be an injunction created by the Sages. There is also some debate over whether Maimonides intends to include in the prohibition only casual sexual intimacy or even sexual intimacy in the context of a committed relationship that has not been sanctified by formal marriage. However, these authorities agree with Maimonides that the Torah does condemn casual sexual intimacy and perhaps, all sexual intimacy outside of marriage.

The Torah’s perspective is very different from conventional attitudes. Our contemporary culture does not view sexual intimacy outside of marriage as immoral or wrong. The only expectation is that both parties fully consent. Sexual abstinence before marriage is viewed as prudish and unenlightened. The basic argument is that we are the owners of our own bodies.   A person is entitled to freely choose to share one’s sexuality with another. Suggesting that one’s personal choice should be limited or judged reflects an outdated, puritan attitude toward the body and sexuality. Why does the Torah restrict how two mature, consenting human beings use their bodies and prohibit their sexual intimacy?

When a person commits a sin punishable by death and you shall execute him, you shall hang his body from a tree. You shall not hang his body on the tree overnight. Rather, you should certainly bury him that day.

Because he sinned against Hashem he was hung. You should not defile your land that Hashem

your L-rd gives to you as a portion. (Sefer Devarim 21:22-23)

  1. The dignity of a human being

The first passage above discusses the treatment of a person who has been executed by the courts because of his sin. The passage indicates that there are instances in which it is appropriate – after execution – to hang the sinner’s body. Maimonides explains that this measure is only applied to a person who is executed for idolatry or cursing Hashem.[2] Sefer HaChinuch comments that this extreme measure – public display of the sinner’s body – is intended to reinforce the message of the severity of the sin committed.[3]

The second passage prohibits the extended display of the body. The body may not remain on display overnight. Instead, it should be quickly removed from display and suitably buried. Maimonides explains that in practice the body is hung shortly before sunset and then removed and buried immediately after sunset.[4] In other words, the body is displayed for the minimal duration of time.

Maimonides explains that the prohibition against leaving a body unburied does not apply only to one who is executed by the courts. It applies to every Jewish person. We are obligated to provide immediate burial to every Jew.[5] What is the basis in the passage for extending its prohibition to every Jew?

There are various opinions regarding this issue. However, the translation above provides an important insight. This translation is based upon Unkelus as understood by Netinah LaGer. According to this translation, the passage states that the sinner must be buried immediately because he has been hung. In other words, he has experienced the consequences for his sin. We may not cause him further disgrace. He was executed and his body has been displayed. We must not impose any further consequence. Leaving his body unburied – even overnight – would be a further disgrace to the sinner. We may not impose this additional abasement.[6]

This interpretation of the passage provides a very simple basis for the extension of its injunction to every departed Jew. The Torah regards leaving a body unburied for even a relatively short duration a disgrace. This disgrace may not be imposed even upon a person who has committed an enormously serious sin. Certainly, such a debasement cannot be imposed upon a guiltless person.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from this analysis. First, we are required to demonstrate respect to the human body – even when this body is no longer the abode of a living human being. Its association with the sacred soul that recently departed demands our respect. Second, even a person who has committed terrible sins cannot be disgraced beyond the consequences imposed by the Torah. Both of these conclusions express a shared unified theme. The Torah demands that we demonstrate intense respect to every human being.

Therefore, a man will leave his father and his mother and he will cling to his wife and they will be a single flesh.

(Sefer Beresheit 2:24)

  1. A role for sexuality

This passage from the Torah’s creation narrative describes the relationship between husband and wife. These partners are to merge into a single organism. They are to become a single flesh. Of course, for this to be achieved the partners in a marriage must share common values and appreciate each other’s outlooks and perspectives. However, the sexual intimacy shared by the partners is essential to their bond. In this passage, the Torah is outlining the proper role for our sexuality. It is the catalyst essential to the unique relationship between wife and husband. It provides the force of attraction that brings together two unique individuals and sustains a relationship of remarkably intense connectedness.

Let us compare this manifestation of sexuality with casual sex. In the context of marriage, sexuality is an expression of love and devotion. It communicates more than romance; it expresses commitment. In the casual sexual encounter, sexuality is an expression of desire and lust. In marriage, sexuality expresses connectedness between the partners. In casual sex, each partner uses the other as a stimulus for personal pleasure. In marriage, sexuality connects two souls. In casual sex, each partner uses the other partner’s body for one’s own personal pleasure.   This is an encounter in which the opposite party and that person’s body are reduced to objects of pleasure. This is a debasement of that person.

  1. Contemporary implications

In recent years, attention has been given to the experiences of young women on our college campuses. It has become evident that instances of sexual abuse and even rape are underreported.   The extent of the abuse faced by female coeds is still being debated. However, the evidence does seem to conclusively demonstrate that a problem exists in our society. What is the source of this problem? Why do young men feel that they have the right to impose themselves upon others? From where is this callousness and even depravity derived? Perhaps, part of the answer lies in the above discussion. If we condone or practice casual sex, we encourage perception of human beings not as individuals but as objects of pleasure. This is a debasement of the human being. Perhaps, even in this “harmless” casual sexual encounter an underlying element of abuse is present.


[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Eysut 1:4.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanedrin 15:6.

[3] Rabbaynu Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 535.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanedrin 15:7.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanedrin 15:8.

[6] Rav Natan Ader, Netinah LaGer, Commentary on Targum Unkelus, Devarim 21:23.