"Sex is not inherently evil," Ross said to about 50 people last week at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. "At times, sex is a mitzvah."
The talk, titled "When Sex Is Kosher: Intimate Relations, Contraception and Abortion – a Jewish View," completed three days of programming as part of a scholar-in-residence weekend.
The speaker is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Mass.
Ross argued that even in the earliest passage of the Torah, sex did not have a negative connotation. "In Genesis, Chapter 4, Verse 1 – before [the] expulsion from Eden – Adam and Eve had sex," said the rabbi, who pointed to Torah passages and scholarly works throughout his lecture.
He also injected a bit of science into the discussion, claiming that after God created the universe through the big bang, a broken world needed to be put together again. The intimate act of sex can perform that task – two people at a time – he advised: "Through sexual conduct, we restore God's wholeness."
Turning to the sensitive topic of birth control, which Judaism's various streams view differently – many Orthodox groups, for example, take a strict stance on contraception, and argue that anything inhibiting a pregnancy runs counter to the biblical injunction to "go forth and multiply" – Ross said that such methods as the pill, spermicides and condoms are not only acceptable in Judaism, but advisable in some cases.
"It's not a sin not to procreate," explained the rabbi, who then quickly added that "it is a mitzvah to have a kid, but if you don't have a kid, you're not performing a sin."
Sex, he continued, should not be viewed in light of its consequences: "When enhancing an intimate relationship, sexuality is something that strengthens bonds."
The Abortion Issue
Ross – also the director of the New York-based Concerned Clergy for Choice – said that he believes Judaism leaves the question of abortion in the hands of the woman.
"Abortion is a decision that should rest between a woman and her health-care provider," he said. "If she wants her religious leader's opinion, she should solicit it."
The rabbi also said that the religion supports abortion if the mother's life is in danger.
"A woman's life takes precedence over a fetus," he explained. "A fetus does not have the same legal rights and protections as a living human being."
He also noted other complications that would necessitate an abortion, such as if a fetus is diagnosed with a genetic disease, like Tay-Sachs.
Though some religions maintain that killing a fetus destroys a soul, Ross countered that the idea is simply not possible.
"A soul is indestructible," he proclaimed. "Nothing will harm a human soul; you can't tarnish it. Before birth, an embryo is not a person."
The Reform rabbi conceded that Jews of other denominations may not share his beliefs on sexual issues. Still, there was one reproductive issue on which Jewish opinions do concur.
"More traditional authorities tend to be more restrictive when we come to contraception and when we come to abortion," said Ross in an interview after the event. But "every denomination of Judaism has endorsed embryonic stem-cell research."
All available technology must be utilized in the fight against disease, he stated, even if that means developing embryonic stem-cell lines.
"It is our responsibility," he acknowledged, "to develop innovative needs to those facing medical ailments."
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