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“Purity and Population: American Jews, Marriage, and Sexuality”

In Devotions and Desires: Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the Twentieth Century United States, edited by Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton, and Heather White, 54-70. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

During the twentieth century, religion became more important to American marriages, while marriage assumed a more central place among the activities and priorities of religious organizations. The history of marriage generally—and this chapter's discussion of Jewish marriage in particular—shows that far from being antagonistic, religion and sexuality have shaped one another, often very profoundly. Jewish investment in marriage in the twentieth century affected the ways in which Jewish Americans practiced and valued their faith. In turn, the religious investment in marriage, by Jews and other people of faith, contributed to national conversations about the sanctity and value of marital stability. Until the very recent national movement for marriage equality transformed the legal landscape, investing in marriage necessarily entailed investing in heteronormative sexualities. Religious individuals and institutions therefore played central roles in the promotion of the modern categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality through their efforts to promote and sustain marriage. The history of religious investment in heterosexuality has featured Protestant and Catholic actors most prominently; American Jews articulated and acted upon their ideas about marital sexuality within this predominantly Christian context.


American Jewish religious leaders put concerns about marriage and the family at the center of their communal and spiritual work throughout the twentieth century. That emphasis is largely due to the religiously and ethnically specific preoccupations of American Jews. The twentieth-century American Jewish concern with Jewish survival, most often expressed as a fear of interfaith marriage, shaped the Jewish community's investment in marriage as a site for procreation. This essay examines two branches of the American Jewish experience, Orthodox and Reform, to suggest ways in which the theological and cultural particularities of American Jewry influenced[1] Jewish leaders' approach to modern marriage. Orthodox Judaism, the branch of Judaism that teaches strict adherence to Jewish law (halakhah) and ritual, linked the observance of the laws of "family purity" (concerning sexual intercourse and the wife's menstrual cycle) to marital success. Reform Jews, who reject the authority of Jewish law, observe ritual selectively, and embrace an outward-facing social justice mandate, became preoccupied by the mid-twentieth century with a perceived crisis of rising interfaith marriage rates. For all their considerable differences, both Orthodox and Reform Jews highlighted the reproductive aspects of marital sexuality.