By Rabbi Ariel Abel
Recently, a former soldier learned his wife was intending to end their relationship, following a history of his increasing impotence. Before she left the family home, she mocked his impotence on the last occasion they were together – so he battered her to death.
In view of this tragedy, what is the Torah view of impotence? That the husband is an army recruit is reminiscent of another solider, King David.
The Scripture tells us that as David aged, he had problems with blood circulation and so received body warmth from a consort, Avishag, of the Samarian town of Shunem.
According to tradition, David’s adversaries learned of this and mocked him, presuming him to be impotent. To disprove his critics, David invited Bathsheba into his private parlour and provided evidence that he was able to experience ejaculation seven times over.
This tradition is reflective of the shame associated with impotence. One of the three obligations of a husband towards his wife is to provide sexual satisfaction.
Therefore, if a newly married husband is found to be suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED), there would be grounds to consider the contract of marriage to be retroactively annulled on the grounds of mistaken belief.
ED alone would not prevent a man from fathering children. However, a woman is entitled by Torah law to experience sexual satisfaction out of a marriage partnership. There are nonetheless legitimate reasons for ED, which therapy can help with.
In Israel, studies have shown that recently-married religious men may experience impotence owing to the guilt men have at experiencing erectile activity before marriage.
In addition to the pre-marriage taboo of any sexual performance, there is also the associated concern over the “wasting of seed”, often equated with the deliberate act of onanism.
This can even cause the involuntary withholding of seminal discharge even when erectile functionality is normal. Many cases of such impotence are entirely the result of seeing sex as fearful.
King Solomon said: “Shepherd, love with the woman you have loved for she is your friend, the wife of your bosom”. King Solomon maintained a harem of 60 queens, 80 concubines and countless maidens.
In the biblical context, it appears sexual performance was presumed and even a precondition to a relationship. Although religious life expects virility, religious restrictions on sexual life mean couples can experience strain to the spousal relationship owing to sexual dysfunctions, which emerge from halachically over-sensitive states of mind.
• Rabbi Ariel Abel is lecturer-in-management at Manchester International College