New Possibilities in Jewish Sexuality

Judaism may need new categories of sexual relationships in order to adjust to the reality of sex outside marriage.

The following article details an approach to sexual ethics characteristic of the Jewish Renewal movement, in which the author is a leader and teacher. Many—if not most—more conventional Jewish authorities would disagree with its suggestions and conclusions.  The following is reprinted with permission of the author from “Down-to-Earth Judaism: Sexuality,” published in
, March-April 1988 (3:2).

Most Jews reject in their own practice and in theory the traditional adherence to early marriage and the traditional opposition to sexual activity by unmarried people. The two sentiments are connected. Few American Jews believe that early marriages are wise in our complex society, where personalities, careers, and life paths almost never jell in the teens and often not until the mid‑thirties, sometimes come unjelled during the forties and fifties, and usually change again with long‑lived retirements beginning in the sixties or seventies. It is hard enough to make stable lifelong marriages when one partner is changing in this way; when both are changing, it becomes extremely difficult.

jewish sexThere are several different conceivable responses to this situation:

1) Reverse the basic situation and restore the kind of society in which life patterns are set close to the onset of puberty and do not change much. Few American Jews believe this can be, or should be, done. The Hasidic communities, however, may be showing that for a sub-community such a society can be created.

2) Accept the notions that first marriages will occur many years after sexual awakening and that most marriages will end while the partners are sexually active and alert—and practice celibacy for long periods of unmarried time. This is the solution that almost all American Jews have rejected. It is also, however, the solution that they identify as the “official” position of Jewish tradition and religious authority. There are few public assertions by religious authorities or communities that this is not the “correct” Jewish view, and almost no public Jewish way of honoring or celebrating sexual relationships other than marriage exists.

This chasm between the practice and the understanding of the Jewish tradition may be one of the most powerful elements driving most Jews in their pre-married, sexually active years—from sixteen to thirty-one—and in their “post-married” sexually active years away from Jewish life. Who wants to be part of an institution that looks with hostility or contempt on the source of much of one’s most intense pleasure, joy, and fulfillment?

3) Accept the fact that life patterns will change several times in any person’s lifetime and that marriages will change accordingly, and greatly change our expectation of “marriage” so that it carries fewer burdens of financial, emotional, and other involvement. In other words, make it easy for sexually active people from puberty on to enter and leave marriages—make marriage a much “lighter” contract unless children result from it. But to make marriages “light” enough so that sixteen-year‑olds or eighteen‑year‑olds easily could enter them, expecting to exit from them at twenty—and to enter and exit again at twenty‑one, twenty‑five, twenty‑eight, thirty‑two—would make that kind of “marriage” so different from one that provides an adequate context for child‑rearing that it is hard to imagine the two sharing the same name. (Note that many American marriages are dissolving even during the child‑rearing years. Should leaving marriages be “light” then too? Or is the distinction one that most Jews would want to keep?)

For those Jews who try to abide by halakha [Jewish law], it might be easier to use the traditional labels and forms of marriage and redefine the content than to follow the paths listed above or those listed below. The Talmud, for example (Yebamot 37b), mentions that a few of the rabbis, when they went on what we would call lecture tours, would marry a woman one night and divorce her the next morning. In that period, of course, men were permitted to practice polygamy—so such a practice of “light” marriage did not undermine simultaneous “heavy” marriage—at least not in law.

4) Accept and publicly honor the fact that many unmarried people are sexually active and that there are likely to be periods of “fluidity” in sexuality during any life path, without creating standards of ethical behavior for unmarried sexual relationships or creating ceremonial or legal definitions of them. This is basically the pattern followed by the burgeoning havurot (participatory and relatively informal congregations of prayer and study). In many of them, married couples and unmarried people who are fluidly coupled and uncoupled share the same communal space. Acceptance of unmarried sexual activity has been high and public, with little effort to set standards or to deal with painful experiences except among close friends or with the help of psychotherapists who themselves use only such “Jewish” sources as Freud, Reich, Fromm, and Perls.

This solution is not as opposed to Jewish tradition as many of us suppose, for there are many references in the traditional literature that legitimate sex between unmarried people. (See, for example, in the thirteenth century Nachmanides—#2 in Responsa—and in the eighteenth ­century Rabbi Jacob Emden, cited in Gershon Winkler, “Sex and Religion: Friend or Foe?” in New Menorah, second series, Number 7, pp. 1‑3.) But the main definitive statements of traditional law in the last four centuries—particularly in the popular Jewish consciousness in Eastern Europe whence most of our grandparents came—ignored these permissive authorities.

5) Redefine marriage and create new Jewishly affirmed forms of sexual relationships that are to be publicly defined with certain standards and are to be ceremonially honored. Certain vestiges of ancient tradition might even be drawn upon for such new forms—the pilegesh relationship, for example, which is usually translated “concubine” but has great openness to legal, practical, and ceremonial definition.

We could imagine three different basic forms of sexual relationship:

Times of great fluidity, when the com­munity might affirm only such basic norms as honesty and the avoidance of coercion, without expecting monogamy or emotional intimacy.

Times of commitment without great permanence, when notice of a pilegesh relationship is given to a face‑to‑face Jewish community—not to the state—and is defined by the people entering it (explicitly monogamous or not, explicitly living together or not, explicitly sharing some financial arrangements or not, etc.). In this pattern, the community joins in honoring, acting in accord with, and celebrating such arrangements, and there is an easy public form by which either of the parties may dissolve the relationship.

Times of marriage, which may also be partly defined by the couple through the ketubah [Jewish marriage contract], but which are expected to be more long‑lasting, to be essential for child‑rearing (though used also by couples who do not expect to have children), and to be dissolved only by joint agreement of the couple and by serious participation of the Jewish community as well as the civil order in arranging the terms of separation.

This fifth approach, it seems to me, takes the complexity of our present situation and the resources of Jewish tradition most fully into account. But it would take more than a piece of paper announcing pilegesh for this approach to begin functioning.

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