For Jewish singles unable to wait until marriage, sex can still be a holy experience if religious moral standards are followed, according to a report on developing a contemporary sexual ethic for the nation’s largest branch of Judaism.
“Committed, loving relationships between mature people who strive to conduct their sexual lives according to the concepts and values described (in the document) can embody a measure of holiness, even if not the full portion available in marriage,” says the report, “This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend.”
Marriage is still the “appropriate place” for sexual relations, but the report released Wednesday encourages Jewish leaders to reconsider whether even homosexual relations can be part of God’s gift of sexuality if other moral standards are obeyed.
The pastoral letter from a commission of Conservative rabbis is called the first modern attempt to draft a sexual ethic by any branch of Judaism. Among its recommendations: Jews have a particular responsibility to avoid AIDS by disclosing their sexual history to their partners, by undergoing HIV testing and by abstaining if either partner is infected.
The report from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Human Sexuality will be presented Tuesday to the group’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The law committee, which sets official policy for the assembly, is expected to begin deliberations on the recommendations in the fall.
The assembly represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis who serve 1.5 million congregational members. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing Reform Judaism, has approximately 1.3 million members in North America. An estimated 1 million American Jews are affiliated with Orthodox organizations.
Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said the report represents the “first time that a major Rabbinic group in the United States has crafted the beginnings of a sexual ethic for the Jewish community.”
Zelizer, a rabbi from Metuchen, N.J., said the committee attempted to apply a kind of moral hierarchy to the many kinds of sexual relationships today, with marriage as the ideal.
Among its traditional teachings, the report not only upholds the importance of marriage, but condemns adultery as a gross violation of Jewish law. The report also condemns casual and promiscuous sex and encourages adherence to the Jewish law forbidding sex during a woman’s menstrual period.
But in recognition of changing sexual practices, the report offers guidelines for sex outside of marriage.
The values the commission upholds include avoiding coercive sex and advocating modesty in speech, dress and sexual activities, honesty about each partner’s commitment to the other, and fidelity.
“When people are not married, these norms are still valid,” said Arnold Goodman, an Atlanta rabbi and the commission’s chairman.
To prevent AIDS, the rabbis urge both partners to disclose their sexual history since the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1980 and to have HIV testing before sex is considered. If one partner is infected, the couple should abstain from sex, the report said.
The commission did not take a definitive stand on homosexuality, but is asking the law committee to examine the tension between the traditional teaching that considers same-sex relations an abomination and Conservative Judaism’s commitment to civil rights for homosexuals.
“In our day, when we have many people who are single and others who are openly homosexual, we affirm their values as human beings and as Jews and earnestly want to involve them in the Conservative Movement,” the report says.
“It’s trying to imbue those relationships with Jewish values where people are doing it anyway to make those relationships more holy,” Zelizer said.