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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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 Tikkun, 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?)

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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.