The following article is reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society. The opinions expressed by Dorff were published in a similar form in a pamphlet published by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, entitled This is My Beloved, This is My Friend. Orthodox authorities would dispute many of the positions detailed below.
The two roles Judaism assigns to sex are procreation and marital companionship. Sexual activity and procreation, of course, can take place outside the context of marriage, but classical Jewish texts do not see that as proper. Marriage (kiddushin) is holy precisely because a man and woman set each other apart from all others to live their lives together, taking responsibility for each other, caring for each other, and helping each other live through life’s highs and lows. They also take responsibility for the children they bear. The willingness to assume these responsibilities is critical both for their own pleasure and growth and for the perpetuation of the Jewish community and the Jewish tradition.
Marriage is also important in Judaism because it provides a structure for achieving core Jewish values in our intimate lives–values like honesty, modesty, love, health and safety, and holiness. Marriage is no guarantee that we will succeed in this, but it does help us attain those values. Thus Judaism is not being irrational, prudish, old‑fashioned, unrealistic, or mean in demanding that we limit our sexual intercourse to the context of marriage; it is rather responding to concerns that are at least as real and important in the fragmented society of today as they were in the more stable society of times past.
Sometimes, though, people do not meet an appropriate mate despite a conscientious search, and sometimes marriages end in divorce. Moreover, because Jews commonly go to college and graduate school, they are often not ready to assume the responsibilities of marriage until well after they mature biologically. Some can nevertheless adhere to the Jewish tradition’s ideal of restricting sex to marriage, but others fall short.
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