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    Celibacy – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What does Judaism say about celibacy?

    “A Jewish wedding” – painting by Jozef Israëls, 1903

    A. Judaism finds it hard to understand why anyone would consciously choose never to get married.

    Marriage is seen as the basic human community, established by God at the time of the creation. Its purpose is twofold – deep companionship (“It is not good for man to be alone”) and procreation (“Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth”).

    The person who deliberately renounced marriage lacked joy, blessing, happiness (and, said one of the sages, also peace: Y’vamot 62b). The celibate also deprived society: for who knows what blessing one’s child might bring to the world, even that of being the Messiah?

    Yes, the Essenes frowned on marriage, but this may have been due to outside influences, and in any case Essenism is not normative Judaism.

    Only one of the Talmudic rabbis chose not to marry – Ben Azzai, who when criticised said, “What shall I do, since my soul embraces the Torah? Let others perpetuate the world” (Y’vamot 63b).

    However, some say that he had in fact been married but separated from his wife so as to study Torah (Sotah 4b); others say he had been engaged to Rabbi Akiva’s daughter but they never married (K’tubot 63a, Tosafot).

    Other sages stayed away from home for long periods in order to study, and the marital problems they caused were acknowledged.

    Some authorities such as Maimonides had a rather negative view of sex and among the Chassidim, Nachman of Breslov asserted that he was able to achieve indifference to sexuality.

    But the basic teaching of Judaism is that marriage is a mitzvah and while some Jews, including rabbis, happen not to marry, ideological celibacy has no place in Jewish teaching.

    When celibacy for the Christian clergy was reasserted in the middle ages Jewish writers produced polemics against it; the 13th century Sefer Nitzachon Yashan indeed remarks that clerical celibacy does not work and priests “wallow in licentiousness in secret” (David Berger, “The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages”, 1979).

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