New Possibilities in Jewish Sexuality

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

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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.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.