Sex Outside Marriage: Modern Rabbinic Views

A selection of statements from rabbis of various denominations.

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Reprinted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Sexuality, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.

Many modern rabbis today have continued to insist that sex within the context of marriage is consistent with Jewish ethics. Following are several opinions from con­temporary rabbis regarding their views on sex outside marriage. 

1. Robert Gordis, a Conservative rabbi, writes:premarital sex

“Far from strengthening the institution of marriage, a premarital relationship undermines it at its most basic. If marriage is to survive in spite of all its liabilities, it must be endowed with one unique attribute characteristic of it and of it alone—it must be the only theater for experi­encing the most intimate interplay of love and sex. Marriage must have this special quality in order to survive the limitless challenges and temptations of mod­ern life in a free and open society…Premarital sex transforms the sexual act from being an expression of the highest level of intimacy and love into a run-of-the-mill sensual experience, casual or irregular, available at any time with any partner” (Love and Sex: A Modern Jewish Perspective).

2. Eugene Borowitz, a leading Reform authority, writes:

“The most ethical form of human relationship I know is love-for-life. Its appropriate social and religious structure is the monogamous marriage. This being so, marriage is, if I may use the strange formulation of ethical pluralism, the most right context, that is, the best criterion for the validity of sexual intercourse. And I think every human being should try to reach the highest possible level of ethical behavior” (Choosing a Sex Ethic: A Jewish In­quiry).

3. Maurice Lamm, a noted Orthodox authority, writes:

“Sexual relations within marriage have a value and life all their own. Sex is seen not merely as a means for perpetuating the species, but as part of the human personality. It is not only a channel of life, but a channel of love” (The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage).

4. Elliot Dorff, a noted Conservative authority, writes:

“Why does Judaism posit marriage as the appropriate context for sexual intercourse? It does so because in that setting the couple can attain the three-fold purpose for marital sex described above—namely, companionship, procreation and the education for the next generation. While non-marital sex can provide companionship as well as physical release, especially in the context of a long-term relationship, unmarried couples generally do not want to undertake the responsibilities of having and educating children. They may care deeply for each other, especially in a long-term relationship, but their unwill­ingness to get married usually signifies that they are not ready to make a life-long commitment to each other” (This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations).

5. Rabbis Samuel Dresner and Byron Sherwin, Con­servative authorities, write:

“Love is an art. Love takes time to develop, to actualize, to perfect. It is not infatuation. It is not physical possession. It is not the satisfaction of an impulse. It is total involvement and concern with another’s present; it is sharing a mutual future. It is a commitment of all of me for all my life” (Judaism: The Way of Sanctification).

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.