American Reform Responsa
154. Jewish Attitude Towards Sexual Relations Between Consenting Adults
QUESTION: What is the Jewish attitude toward heterosexual relations between two consenting adult single individuals? (CCAR Committee on Family Life)
ANSWER: The tenor of halachic literature, from the Talmud to the present, is against casual sexual relationships. Some extreme statements were made. For example, Reish Lakish has stated that even one who sins with his eyes may be an adulterer (Lev. Rabba 23); but this did not become normative. This kind of attitude, however, led to, or was a function of, the segregation of men and women. A man was not to walk behind a woman; men and women were separated on festive occasions and in public parks (Yad, Hil. Yom Tov 6.21); and separate days for men and women were even set aside for visiting cemeteries. The attitude which governed such restrictions may be shown through a Talmudic passage concerning an individual who became physically ill over his desire for a certain woman. His physicians stated that he should have intercourse with her, and the rabbi said: No, let him rather die. Finally, they suggested that the woman speak to the man, and the rabbi said: No, let him rather die. This was their feeling, although the woman in the tale was not married (San. 75a).
There was, of course, some conflict over these kinds of restrictions, and so we have a statement that Rabban Gamliel offered an exclamation of thanksgiving upon seeing a beautiful non-Jewish woman (A.Z. 20a,b; Yer., A.Z. 40a). Yet, on the same page we also have statements such as the following: One should refrain from looking at the little finger of a woman to whom one was not married. This statement is of interest even though it presumably was addressed to married men.
All of this led to a good many later restrictions; for example, not touching any woman other than one’s wife, not even another adult relative; not reclining to rest, even when fully dressed, or permitting personal services of any kind (e.g., washing, delousing, etc.) to be performed by a woman for a man (Adret, Responsa I, 1188; Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 21); not conversing much with women (Ned. 20a). This, of course, led to great difficulties with the customary handshake of the western world (Sedeh Chemed,Chatan Vechala 26a). Certainly, no affection was to be shown to any strange woman, and no kissing was allowed (Sh.A., Even Ha-ezer 21.6). We can be quite sure from this that in especially puritanical periods any relationships between the sexes was severely restricted, and every effort was made to keep men and women apart, even within the family circle.
This isolation led to tension and suspicion of illicit sexual relationships whenever men and women were alone together. A young man was supposed to be chaperoned after age nine, and a girl upon reaching the age of three (Yer., Kid. 66b). Even a divorced couple was not permitted to meet again privately or live in the same neighborhood; it was assumed that they would have sexual relations (Git. 81a; Ket. 27b, 28a; Yad, Hil. Isurei Bi-a 21.27; Aruch Hashulchan, Even Ha-ezer 119.25-28). The same assumption was made for spice peddlers who visited homes (B.K. 82a). This was permitted by a decree of Ezra, against the wishes of the townspeople, so that women could obtain perfume (B.B. 22a). It was generally assumed that all people constantly sought for sexual relations and had sinful thoughts (B.B. 164b; A.Z. 20b). In other words, the sexual drive is not only considered constant, but in many ways dominant. This was also illustrated by the statement that males who had not gotten married by the age of twenty would be plagued by immoral thoughts for the rest of their lives (Kid. 29b; Yad, Hil. Ishut 15.2). Unmarried women faced restrictions too numerous to be listed here.
None of these restrictive statements was entirely effective, since it is clear from the literature that sexual relations took place often outside and also before marriage, although virginity for the female was greatly prized. Generally, intercourse with an unmarried girl fell under the concept of Zenut, which was prohibited. If an act of intercourse was intended as a mode of lawful betrothal, the betrothal was indeed lawful (Mishna, Kid. 1.1). Children born of liaisons conducted without contemplation of marriage were completely free of any blemish, and there was no question about their legality (Kid. 4.1,2; Yev. 100b). Aside from such alliances reported in the Talmud, we also hear of them often in the Golden Age of Spain and in Renaissance Italy. Nahmanides was lenient about such illicit unions, and was willing to overlook them (Isaac b. Sheshet, quoting Nahmanides, 6, 398; also 425 and 395). They are mentioned as well in other ages, but less frequently.
We must remember that the sexual drive, when leading to marriage and procreation, has always been considered in a positive light. Its association with the Yetser Hara (wicked inclination) was given two interpretations: sexual relations might be sinful, but they constituted a necessary sin; sexual relations were not evil per se, but capable of leading to evil. Certainly, within marriage–and to some extent outside of it–sex was considered good and perfectly acceptable (A.Z. Sa; Yad, Hil. Isurei Bi-a 22.18f; Tur, Even Ha-ezer 25, etc.). There is an enormous Midrashic literature (see L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews) on the Yetser Haraand its sexual overtones.
Let us also deal with the question of sexual relationships between those who were engaged and might live together for some time. This has been prohibited by tradition (Sh.A., Even Ha-ezer 55.1, etc.). In early times, such intercourse was reported as unobjectionable in Judea (Ket. 7b), but not in the Galilee (Ket. 12a). Some felt that the children of such a union should be declared Mamzerim (Yev. 69b; Kid. 75a), a view which was not adopted. In the final analysis, the stricter view prevailed. Such relations remained fairly common (Yer., Kid. 64a; Otsar Hage-onim 18ff, etc.; Elijah Mizrahi, Responsa, 4; David ben Zimri, Responsa III, 525). Louis Epstein felt that such looser standards, which prevailed in the Byzantine Empire, spread slowly through Rumania to Western Europe (L. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, p. 128). This led to the combination of betrothal and marriage into a single ceremony in the medieval period and perhaps earlier. Prior to this time, the betrothed couple was faced with all the restrictions of marriage, and even needed a divorce in case of separation, but did not have the benefits of marriage. It is clear from all this that sexual intercourse between engaged couples was discouraged, but the prohibition was difficult to enforce. If the engagement had taken place through intercourse (bi-a), then further intercourse was not permitted until an official ceremony and Chupa had taken place (Sh.A., Even Ha-ezer 55.1, Yad, Hil. Ishut
Given the indubitable fact that extramarital relations have become common in our day, can Judaism give them its approval? The answer is decidedly negative. We consider premarital and extramarital chastity to be our ideal.
On the question of informal heterosexual relations outside marriage between two consenting single adult individuals, we can then come to the following conclusions. Such relationships were prohibited and discouraged by authorities throughout the ages. Little was done when such relationships took place between two engaged persons, except in puritanical periods. Other sexual relationships between single adults were prohibited, and every effort was made to enforce such prohibitions. These prohibitions were equally strong upon the man and the woman. In times of lower moral standards, authorities were occasionally permissive or simply looked the other way. Generally, the effort to enforce high moral standards succeeded, and the responsa call attention to the failures. In our own period of loose standards, it would be appropriate to do everything within our power to encourage higher standards for both men and women. We should do whatever we can to discourage casual sexual relations.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
Leonard S. Kravitz
Eugene J. Lipman
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.