Sexual Ethics in Contemporary Society

In Orthodox Judaism, sexual activity is either mutar (permitted) or asur (forbidden) and, a person is either hiyav (obligated) or (patur) (not obligated.) The parameters of Jewish observance are clearly black and white no shades of gray exist.

In light of the sexual revolution of the sixties (having paved the way for various forms of sexual activity and relationships viewed as commonplace today) we may need to take a more flexible approach when defining “acceptable sexual values and behavior” given advances in birth-control technology. Quite possibly, as Rabbi Zalman Schechter-Shalomi suggests, “…a sliding scale of sexual ethics and holiness may be a more suitable model for contemporary society.”

The purpose of a sliding scale is not to judge whether a particular activity is permissible or forbidden, but rather how closely the activity adheres to the Jewish ideal of holiness.

Proposed Sliding Scale for Jewish Holiness

At the bottom of the scale would be unethical sexual relations, including all forms of nonconsensual, exploitative, and destructive sexual relationships. The next rung up the ladder would include sexual activity between consenting, unmarried, adult relationships that can be quite loving and caring. Again, the issue here is not a judgment of relative “goodness” or “badness,” but rather holy or unholy. While not permissive, the Torah does not clearly condemn such sexual relationships in the same light as it does incest and adultery. At one extreme on this step of the ladder is promiscuity, i.e., sex with no pretense of a relationship, and even anonymous sex. At the other end is sexual relationship between people in love.

In Judaism, sex becomes holy only within the marriage relationship. Marriage constitutes the top of the scale. Non marital consensual sex, no matter how much sharing of love between the partners, falls far short of the Jewish ideal of holiness. Judaism demands that the people of Israel go beyond the good…to be holy. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)