Today’s Jam

I am a woman in my late 20’s and I recently began dating a man I like very much, but I am not sure if we are compatible as long-term partners. I enjoy our time together and would happily continue dating for the foreseeable future. However, given my uncertainty about the trajectory of the relationship, I feel conflicted about whether or not to sleep with him. On the other hand, I think that sexual compatibility is an important part of a relationship, and one needs to explore it before considering making a long-term commitment. What do you recommend I do?

Sue Fendrick says…

e.SueFendrick HeadshotYou have voiced two hesitations: uncertainty about the relationship, and caution about sexual intimacy given that uncertainty. But you’ve also suggested that sexual compatibility is important enough that you can’t make a long-term commitment to the relationship without it.

While this sounds like a Catch-22, I don’t think it is, for a few reasons:

First, you have reservations about the relationship itself, aside from the question of sexual compatibility. You hesitate to have sex because you are not sufficiently confident in the relationship. That alone tells you something important—you have not slept together because you do not yet feel the relationship merits it.

Second, if sex is not going to tell you what you need to know, what will? What are your concerns? Other kinds of intimacy might be called for so you can better assess the relationship’s long-term viability. That might mean spending time together as a couple with friends and family, and engaging in discussion about money and/or children. Even in the sexual realm, if you’re not yet ready for this relationship to become physically intimate, but want to actively assess its future, conversation about sexual expectations and approaches to sexuality are not off-base. And you may want to have more physical contact that does not necessarily constitute “sleeping together”.

Third, if this question signals that your attitude towards non-marital sex has evolved and you now have some reservations about its value earlier in a relationship, it may be hard to process this with friends who think otherwise. You might benefit from speaking with people who are traditionally observant, or others (Jewish or not) who chose to refrain from sex before marriage, or well into a relationship. How did they determine compatibility with a future spouse? If you’d like to speak with a female rabbinic advisor who has experience talking to women about dating without sexual intimacy, consider approaching a maharat, a female Modern Orthodox clergyperson; you don’t need to be Orthodox to benefit from her wisdom.

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a Conservative rabbi, is a freelance editor, writer, and spiritual director, and co-editor of Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts (Academic Studies Press). Her writing appears in numerous books, journals, and online publications. She has served as a rabbi at American University and Brown University, as founding editor of SocialAction.com and managing editor of MyJewishLearning.com, as a consultant and teacher of adult Jewish education in a variety of settings, and as an assistant faculty member to Peter Pitzele in the bibliodrama training program at the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.

Rabbi Daniel Landes says…

Daniel Landes-color
Let me try to frame this issue from an Orthodox perspective, in which sex outside of marriage is not permitted.

Judaism encourages sexual attraction and fulfillment, but it also has no problem with delayed gratification. As in other areas of life, our tradition places great value on commitment and sacrifice in order to achieve higher ends. Just as we work hard and sacrifice in our educational and professional pursuits, so too in our romantic relations. I suggest that you approach the question about sexual intimacy in this context. You see potential in this relationship and you want to know if it can grow into a long-term commitment. The willingness to invest in a serious relationship takes courage. Don’t undermine this effort by letting go of patience and restraint, allowing yourself to be seduced by your desires. You can see the negative consequences of such behavior in film, literature, and everyday life.

In commenting on the verse “Do not profane your daughter to cause her to be a zonah (harlot)” (Lev. 19:29), the great 11th-century commentator Rashi explains that it refers to “handing over a single woman for intercourse not for the sake of kiddushin (marriage, but literally, a relationship of holiness). A century and a half later, Ramban (Nahmanides) disagrees, saying that the term zonah is usually reserved for adulterous coupling. But he does suggest that in this context, it means coupling that does not lead to Jewish marital status, such as to a slave or to a non-Jew, considered wrong because in such cases sex is divorced from marriage, family, and community.

Understand this legal language in the dialogical terms (“I-Thou”) of the modern philosopher Martin Buber. For Buber, one must seek out the “thou-ness” in another person. When this happens, a relationship changes: it deepens and approximate knowledge becomes real intimacy. If not, then the relationship is only that of I-It, in which the other is but a tool to satisfy your needs and desires.

Take up the challenge of true intimacy based on restraint and respect.

Rabbi Daniel Landes has been Director of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for the past eighteen years. Before that he was founding faculty member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Yeshiva of Los Angeles, and rabbi at B’nai David–Judea Congregation. Rabbi Landes blogs at The Times of Israel. Click here to read more.

Judy Elkin says…

Judy ElkinI sense that you want someone to tell you to wait. If that is the case, I am happy to be that person. If I am correct, I think there are several other related questions to consider: Why do you need permission to wait? Whose permission do you seek? If you had that permission, how would you feel and act?

I think Sue is right in suggesting that you explore other kinds of intimacy. I think we make a big mistake in equating sex with intimacy – whether we’re dating someone or if we are married for many years. That being said, I also think talking about sex is very important in a relationship. I can’t remember who said it, but the wisdom of “if you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be doing it” comes to mind here. I hope you can feel comfortable being honest with this man, saying that you’re interested in continuing the relationship, that you’re not yet ready to add sex into the mix, and that you look forward to being intimate with him in other ways (if, in fact, you do). If he can’t hear that, he’s probably not the guy for you. If he can hear it, lucky you!

Finally, I appreciate Danny’s introduction of courage into the discussion, though I don’t find his textual references compelling for this situation. But his point is a good one: it is hard to take the emotional risk of investing in a serious relationship, and at the same time, be the one to put sex on hold. I also disagree with Danny that the opportunity to experience that beautiful sense of an “I-Thou” connection in a sexual relationship can only take place in the context of marriage. There are certainly married couples that never experience that sense of deep intimacy, and unmarried couples who do experience it. But the point that it is brave for a person in our contemporary Western culture to listen to her heart and wait to have sex because she doesn’t feel ready is an important one. So I’ll leave you with a traditional blessing: hazak v’ematz – be strong and of good courage.

Judy Elkin, M.Ed., PCC, is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) from the International Coach Federation in both individual and relationship coaching. In addition to her private practice in Newton MA, focused on career transitions, executives, teams, and parenting, Judy is a coach for Solstice Coaching and Consulting, which provides executive coaching to top and middle level executives across North America. Judy brings to her coaching a 25-year career in Jewish education and professional development, most recently as the director of the DeLeT Program, a Jewish day school teacher education program at Brandeis University. She combines her skills as a coach and her previous training as an educator in Jewish parenting courses she teaches in the Boston area, and is a co-founder of the Keshet Parent and Family Connection, a group of parents supporting other parents of LGBTQ children on their journey.Click here to read more.

Now, what do YOU say?

When is it appropriate for consenting adults to have sex? Does it matter if the relationship is tenuous or may not be lasting? Where does courage come into play in such situations? Finally, what would you advise this person to do?

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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