Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why there is no concept of religious celibacy in Judaism

In response to my post about Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) women who support their Torah-studying husbands, one of my readers asked me why there is no such concept in Judaism as religious celibacy, which apparently would solve the problem: the holy men who devote their life to religious studies would not have to face the mundane burden of supporting a family, and those who do not feel inclined towards religious life can work to support their wives and children.

The answer could be very long-winded, and of course I'm just skimming the surface here, but I will still say that the Torah is very practical. That's a big part of its beauty. It is not meant to be studied only theoretically, and if a man has knowledge but cannot apply it, what is his knowledge worth? A Jew with a vast religious knowledge is not called to be separated from the world, but on the contrary, to mix in it and turn the mundane into holy by applying the laws of Torah. There is no radical separation of body and spirit.

According to Judaism, each man ought to fulfil the obligation to "be fruitful and multiply". When God called us to have children and fill the earth, He didn't say "oh but wait, those who study Torah full-time are actually released from this". Infertility of one of the spouses is even considered one of the few valid reasons for divorce (though I personally don't think I could go through with it, in a loving marriage).

Being married and raising children is a big step towards infusing the mundane with holy. Of course, when you have a family, you cannot possibly run away from the mundane, as bills must be paid, groceries bought, laundry done, dinner cooked, dishes washed and diapers changed. But you also learn a great deal about being patient, loving and self-sacrificing. Studying Torah is spiritual. Comforting a sick child in the middle of the night, done with a loving heart and a passion for God, is spiritual as well.

If we are talking about the physical side of marriage, Judaism takes an approach which is, in my opinion, healthy and balanced. Desires are not supposed to be stifled, but channeled in the right direction: a holy marriage. There is no such thing as a "holier" vocation; marriage is sacred, and no man is "too good" or "too spiritual" to get married. An unmarried man is considered incomplete.

Furthermore, rabbis are supposed to set an example of godly marriages to the community, and to provide marital advice and counseling. Would I take advice on marriage from someone who is not married himself? Somehow, I think it would lack credibility. By the way, it would also be difficult for me to trust the advice of a man whose family life is crumbling, for example because his wife is about to crack under the triple strain of being the exclusive caretaker of the home, the children, and the family finances.

As a side note, throughout the course of history there were sects of Jews who practised celibacy, but they were marginal and didn't last.


WesternWoodburner said...

“Infertility of one of the spouses is even considered one of the few valid reasons for divorce (though I personally don't think I could go through with it, in a loving marriage).”

Oh, how horrible to divorce a spouse for such a reason! (though I personally do not believe the bible gives grounds for divorce, anyway) and am glad you would not yourself.

I have been reading some of the past posts on your blog and have greatly enjoyed some of them. Thanks for posting.

Undersharing said...

Celibacy is a 'rare' idea across most religions. Within Christianity, the only larger groups I know of that practice it are Catholics and certain Shaker sects. The Shakers are pretty much gone now except for a few tourist towns around New England. Paul was the only Apostle who mentioned celibacy at all. There's a lot of pressure for Protestant minister hopefuls to marry as a minister's wife is usually an important part of the church. You may have read Jane Eyre- part of her cousin's preparation for being a missionary was finding a wife.

I'm not entirely familiar with Hinduism but I think certain people are supposed to be celibate. I'm not sure how much this is practiced now that there's more knowledge of the world spread around and more choices in general.

I think that the idea of Torah scholars being celibate draws the biggest parallel to Buddhism. In most Buddhist beliefs, chastity is part of the doctrine- 'chastity' is interchangeable with 'celibacy' in a lot of interpretations as well since the idea is spending all day meditating on a koan. Still, there's not much cultural opposition to marriage and as long as it doesn't interfere with spiritual learning I haven't heard an argument against it in general.

As far as my (decidedly Athiest) interpretation of Abrahamic scripture goes, it's not "Be fruitful and multiply, unless you're reading this for the 1000th time. Congratulations, you're now exempt!"

Annajean D. said...

"...infertility of one of the spouses is even considered one of the few valid reasons for divorce..."

This would be such a difficult burden to bear. The topic hits near and dear to my heart though as I am beginning my own struggle with infertility. First the pain of why you couldn’t have a child followed by the pain of divorce! My greatest heroines of all time include Hannah the mother of Samuel and Rachel mother of Joseph and Benjamin. For so long they longed for children but battled with infertility. And then of course there’s Sarah the wife of Abraham. What would have happened if they had been permitted to divorce because of Sarah’s infertility? Where would we all be now? I suppose it goes to show that we must trust in God and his plan for us. We can’t see the big picture, but He can.

Buffy said...

You make an important point about the questionable nature of taking marriage advice from a minister (of any religion) who has never been married.

Also I'm afraid experience shows that totally repressing sexual feelings your whole life tends to lead to some very nasty consequences. It's not in our (God-given) nature.

Anonymous said...

To the poster who wondered what would have happened had Abraham and Sarah and others been 'allowed' to divorce due to infertility.

They were 'allowed' to divorce. According to halacha, a Jewish couple CAN divorce if they have no children after 10 yrs. It doesn't mean they have to.
Many of this generation's greatest rabbis (like the Lubevitcher Rabbi) had no children at all, and stayed married.

Rhonda in Chile said...

Beautifully put! And I agree that those who lead the flock of God must exemplify the everyday "how to". My Dh is a pastor and all eyes are on us. I take this a vocation given to us from God. My children and I help my husbands credibility. If he can't have a godly family life, then he cannot teach about it either.
I also believe that it is the most basic of all things that he must teach.

Blessings to you!

Anonymous said...

"Within Christianity, the only larger groups I know of that practice it are Catholics and certain Shaker sects..."

Orthodox Christian monastics also practice celibacy, though our priests are usually married.

Dirtdartwife said...

Chastity and celibacy are two different concepts but both are virtuous in its complete nature.

As a Catholic, it's rather easy to take advice from an unmarried priest (we do have some that are married because they were of a Protestant religion and then converted to Catholicism. It takes a special dispensation from Rome to grant them Holy Orders if they choose to become a priest for our Church). Most priests have pretty good counseling studies in marital relations and most are very objective so we can get honest answers. It doesn't take experience to validate a point (you don't need to burn your hand in order to tell someone to not put their hand in a flame).

But Catholics don't deem one calling in life to be "more holy" than another. A married man is just as holy as a priest because both have roles to fulfill by God. A priest has his "family" in the congregation and the married man, his actual family.

There is nothing unnatural about denying desires, as most people assume when they think of Catholic priests. We deny ourselves ALL THE TIME in other aspects. When practicing NFP, we'll deny ourselves for short periods of time if we find ourselves with a reason to not get pregnant that month. What this does is bring us closer in our suffering to God because there is a purpose behind that suffering. Those desires don't last very long. I don't know anyone (ok, maybe teen boys for a few years of their lives) that walk around thinking of sex 100% of their day and having this overwhelming urge to do it all the time. We're also called to control our urges and desires. We're not dogs in heat that desperately NEED to have sex. Heck, talk to us military wives that go a year without sex. You get through it and won't die from not getting any. (And some of us have more than one deployment under our belts)

God has made some people infertile so not everyone can "be fruitful and multiply." And even some others choose to have their "quiver full" with only two kids. (than again, the severe rise in infertility is also linked to the overwhelming rise in usage of hormonal birth control for long periods of time)

I can empathize with the Charedi women you've mentioned. Being a military wife, I can actually understand alot of how they feel with being overwhelmed and having EVERYTHING placed on my shoulders. But it's my cross to bear and God will bring me through it and strengthen my marriage for it as well.

Sorry for being so long winded in my response. I love reading your postings and I wanted to put a Catholic perspective on what I'm drawing in as inferences into Catholicism. I pray it doesn't come across as rude.

Bethany Hudson said...

Just a few thoughts from someone whose religion does celebrate the celibate life:

Marriage is not considered to be the "mundane" opt-out from religious life. In fact, virginity or celibacy and conjugal love are thought to be perfect complements in Catholicism--each vocationg supporting the other. Where biological fecundity is not possible (because infertility within marriage or due to religious vows), spiritual fertility is demanded: this is where celibates are a great boon to the Church, as they do not have the responsibility of caring for their own families (a very high calling) and so are freed to see to the needs of those who are without families, the poor and displaced.

Secondly, many religious are not withdrawn from "mundane" life. The parish priest is first and foremost a pastor to his congregation, seeing to their needs and getting his hands dirty in the everyday happenings of his parish. When you consider the nuns of Mother Teresa's order in Calcutta, you would hardly say they were "removed" from the world; they were in the nitty-gritty of the world more than most lay people. There are orders that are set aside for contemplation, prayer, and study, but not all.

Finally, not all celibates were always so. Many priests and nuns were once married (and so do know an awful lot about married life) and entered the religious life after losing their spouse.

As Catholics, we take very seriously the call to "be fruitful and multiply." We do not permit any form of birth control or sterilization for the purposes of preventing fertility. But, we also acknowledge that not everyone is called to married life, and this is one of the blessings of having consecrated celibacy.

Maria said...

I once knew a female counselor who devoted her life to counseling and decided she could best do this by not marrying. She was one of the wisest and holiest women I knew, and her understanding of marriage was far greater than many married couples. I can also say the same for many devout nuns and priests I have encountered throughout my lifetime. I realize that celibacy is a hard thing for most people to grasp. At some point in our lives we are all single, and we are always called to be chaste.
In my own marriage, we are what you would call "infertile". I believe that if God wanted to, he could grant us the ability to have biological children. I chose to marry my husband, knowing that he was infertile. I would never divorce him because of his infertility. Surely there must be some place and respect for Jews and Christians who are unable to fulfill the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. What happens to those who cannot have biological children in your faith?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs. Anna T.

My name is Christine.

First of all, I would like to say that I greatly enjoy your blog. I have been reading it now since about two months before your marriage, and I have been impressed and inspired by your thoughts.

As a Catholic, I just wanted to point out a little misunderstanding that appears in this post, and if I could, clear it up. I have no desire to get in an argument; I just hate to see my religion misunderstood--something I am sure you can understand.

In your post, you mentioned that in Judaism there is no concept of "a man is "too good" or "too spiritual" to get married." I just wanted to say that Catholics don't understand the priesthood as something reserved for those men who are "too good" or "too holy." Rather, they see it as a special calling from God. Just as another man might be called to be a doctor or a teacher, priests are men called to devote their lives to the spiritual service of all God's children.

Far from feeling especially good or holy, a good priest will always be very humble and aware of his own unworthiness, and will be very sensible of the gift God has given him in allowing him to have a vocation to the priesthood. As for the rest of the faithful, while we give a certain respect to priests because of their office, we acknowledge that many of them are less than perfect. No one, priest (the good ones) or layperson, denies that oftentimes an individual layperson is far more holy than an individual priest. We are all called to holiness, and each responds to that call more or less well; the preist has no corner on the market of virtue.

I hope that this helps everyone to understand a little bit more about how Catholicism sees the priesthood, and I sincerely hope that I have not given offense to anyone.

Again, Mrs. Anna T, thank you so much for your wonderful blog. You are an example and inspiration to us all.


Wenonah4th said...

The Shakers, to clarify, are completely died out. The villages left are museums run by various non-profits but not practicing Shakers.

What's the Jewish view on adopting?

SBCE said...

This blog entry was interesting reading for me as a Roman Catholic, because I take the celibacy of priests and consecrated men and women for granted. They have always been part of my spiritual landscape, and I have a deep sense of gratitude for these individuals who were willing to sacrifice something valuable for God and for the souls entrusted to their care.

The life of a celibate person (especially in our culture) is far from easy, but anyone who has been married can tell you that marriage has its challenges!

A well-lived celibate lifestyle, like a healthy marriage, is a beautiful and fruitful thing, and those around it can come away experiencing what true love can do.

Marriage and celibacy are like two sides of the same coin.

God has indeed commanded us to "be Fruitful and Multiply." Celibate individuals mature where they become fathers and mothers to the souls entrusted to their care. I've experienced a fathers' and mothers' love from these consecrated persons on numerous occasions. I can picture my high school chemistry teacher (a religious Sister) and her kind and patient face as she explained difficult concepts to me.

In some areas priests and consecrated persons are very capable of advising married couples, but there are other areas where they cannot do so. Celibate persons are willing to provide references if someone is in need of counseling they cannot provide.

Our society has so many unfortunate misunderstandings about chastity, marriage, and the role of women. Society also treats religious celibates as dysfunctional at best and pedophiles at worst. I felt compelled to write this in defense of the fine people I've met over the years and from whom I've received so much good. I don't expect any of them to be reading "Domestic Felicity" but hopefully the readers here will see that these individuals are worthy of respect, since you know that our culture suffers misunderstandings about so many things.

I enjoy this blog very much! Keep up the good work, Anna and all commentators!

Kim M. said...

Very interesting! :-)

Mrs. Anna T said...

Oh wow, I suppose I should have expected all the comments from Catholic readers. Thank you for taking your time to explain your views.

Just another note about Abraham and Sarah's example: certainly they weren't divorced, but you shouldn't forget that Abraham (with Sarah's explicit encouragement) fathered a son (Yishmael) with Hagar, a practice that, shall we say, would NOT be tolerated so well today.

About adoption: that is viewed in a very positive light, though of course, there are some difficulties to overcome when adopting a non-Jewish child.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Of course, the purpose of this post was not to start a Jewish-Catholic debate, but simply to explain our point of view on this. I actually tried to Google for links on the subject, but didn't find anything, so I tried to tackle this myself. :o)

Bethany Hudson said...

Oh, Anna, I hope you do not see this as Jewish-Catholic debate. I prefer to think of it as dialogue: an elder and younger sibling speaking about the different ways God works in their lives!

Andrea said...

As a side note, throughout the course of history there were sects of Jews who practised celibacy, but they were marginal and didn't last.

Anna, I don't know if you intended the irony in that statement or not but it gave me such a giggle! I got a mental image of a group of persons sitting around, solemnly waiting for their line to be continued even though none of them were making a move to continue it themselves!

Anonymous said...

Dear Anna,

With Bethany, I very sincerely hope that you do not see this as a debate, simply a mutual education about our faiths.

God bless!

Wenonah4th said...

If a Jewish family adopts a non-Jewish child, what then is the process for him/her becoming a Jew? Is it somewhat similar to the process of a child adopted from outside the US becoming a citizen later on?

Elizabeth said...


The shakers are not completely died out. There is a shaker church here in the area where I live.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Anna, I hope you won't mind me coming to you to ask about a matter that has puzzled me. I asked a Jewish friend of mine and she didn't know. If there is no eternal reward or punishment in your faith, what keeps you on the straight and narrow?

Thank you for your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

"If there is no eternal reward or punishment in your faith, what keeps you on the straight and narrow?"
Common sense. I was born in a christian family, but I am not afraid of the eternal punishment, nor am I greedy about any eternal reward. What I feel is that my heart rejoices sometimes and it shrinks some other times and I choose the rejoicing actions, thoughts and feelings. Guess what? Choosing this gets me closer to what it is written in the holly books.