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The word "sex" was not spoke out loud once at the meeting on premarital sexual relations among religious Jews. The evening, organized by two moderate Orthodox Zionist organizations, Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah and the Herzog Center, the religious's kibbutz movement's Jewish studies center, took place on Monday evening at the Ohel Nehama Synagogue in Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood, a popular gathering place for the city's young singles.

They go to the synagogue on Shabbat to see and be seen, and as such it plays an important role in the Jerusalem religious singles' scene. it is referred to by those in the know as "the swamp."

The taboo-breaking discussion on premarital sex, which was titled, "Between him and her: Before marriage in religious society - danger or opportunity," managed to draw a large crowd. The hall was filled to capacity with young singles and married people. Some even brought their children.

In the front row sat some older people, a reminder that behind the scandalous topic stands the struggle over the identity of religious society. Until now, the sector has given a central role to the institution of family. Now, young people are delaying marriage, having sex and asking for single women to be allowed to immerse themselves in the mikveh (ritual bath). This is seen as a threat to the institution of marriage and to the religious establishment as a whole.

Moshe Tur Paz, chairman of Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah, said after the event that he had expected an "angry mob" from among the Hardal (the Hebrew acronym for Haredi-dati-leumi, or ultra-Orthodox-religious-nationalist) sector. But no one tossed any eggs at the panel. Even in the rows where the older people were seated, it seemed that no one was shocked, proof perhaps that reality was way ahead of the debate and had already changed perceptions and positions.

Tur Paz attributes great social significance to the gathering, which for the first time, openly and in a dignified public forum, discussed the distress of young religious people stemming from the prohibition of negi'a (touching, which includes physical contact between the sexes).

He says he is concerned that people will leave the religious community because of this distress. "Those who came today to listen and who are troubled by this problem are a minority," he says. "I'm worried about those young people - and there thousands of them - who don't talk about their distress. And about the impact of this distress on marital relationships in religious society," he says.

Tur Paz says that in the wake of the event, Ohel Nehama ended its association with Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah, which had held a series of lectures and discussions there, because, he says, they "couldn't handle us any more with such topics."

According to the synagogue's rabbi, Danny Tropper, the arrangement between Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah and Ohel Nehama ended because they did not see eye-to-eye on several other issues as well.

Until the redeemer comes

Early this month, an explosive article was published in De'ot, the journal of Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah, known for its openness to controversial topics. The article, "Between him and her, between halakha and practice," describes the intense conflict experienced by single men and women. Given the Jewish religious law's prohibiting of sexual relations outside of marriage, an unfortunate reality exists of a large number of religious singles agonizing over sex. Many "do it" and are tormented by guilt and a sense of having sinned.

The article opened by quoting from a young religious woman, Tzurit Doron, who had written on the Internet site Michnasayim [slacks], a religious cultural alternative: "These girls, mostly girls who grew up in the ulpanot [religious girls' high schools] have understood that if they reach a certain age and have not found a groom, they are meant to give up a whole part of their lives, meaning the physical experience, and remain chaste and suppressed for the rest of their lives or until the redeemer comes, if ever. This is a humiliating, shocking, paralyzing and above all an explicitly anti-Jewish thought."

The article also quoted young people saying that the ban on sex is "not a legitimate demand." The article discussed cases of couples that do have sex and whether single women should be permitted to immerse themselves in a mikveh so that they do not violate the prohibition of nidda. Nidda literally means menstruation, referring to ritual impurity during and immediately after the menstrual period, which requires women to refrain from relations with their husbands during that time and then immerse in a mikveh, after which they are again permitted to have relations with their husbands.

As expected, the article prompted favorable and critical reactions. According to a member of the journal's editorial board, one harsh reaction came from a rabbi who is supportive of the movement and who expressed his disappointment over the journal's initiative.

The gathering at Ohel Nehama, which was intended to open a dialogue on the topic raised in the article, caused a real stir. Tur Paz says that 15 rabbis were invited to sit on the panel and that they all declined, giving various excuses. The only one who agreed was Rabbi Eli Kahan, the head of Midreshet Ein Hanaziv, a religious seminary for young women. De'ot editorial board member Dr. Ariel Picard, one of the speakers at the gathering, served in the past as the rabbi of Kibbutz Shluhot but no longer calls himself a rabbi.

The panel discussed the topic as if they were holding a hot potato in their hands. They refrained from explicitly referring to sex, and spoke about "it" - "doing it" - and about "the problem." Sharon Mayevsky was the only speaker to comment on this. Perhaps this was because the discussion was not focused.

Contrary to the expectations of the many young people who showed up, the evening did not generate any revolutionary, incisive and public conclusions. One of the young women in the audience left the packed hall in the middle of the discussion, and her parting words were - "call me when the psika [halakhic ruling] can change."

Unlike her, Mayevsky, 32, has no expectations from halakha or the rabbis. "I don't know what it is to be a rabbi, with public responsibility," she says. "But I do expect that a young woman or man who is deliberating over his/her sexuality should look at the issue without any baggage, and not out of guilt feelings. I want it to be understood that this discussion does not stem from an inability to abstain - sexuality is an intense social-emotional issue," she says.

An inflated number of questions

Even without a call to change the halakhic ruling, there were some unconventional statements made at the event. For example, Ariel Picard talked about the unnecessary intensification of the ban on sexual relations. "The whole issue of observing negi'a has reached hysterical proportions," he said. "It's not just about sexual relations, but covers relationships between boys and girls in general and the whole issue of gender separation in the schools. As a result, they fill them with fears and anxieties up until the wedding. There are other prohibitions commanded by the Torah, such as withholding wages. The wages of mikveh attendants were withheld. Did anyone get hysterical?" he says.

Picard also commented on the religious public's great need for rabbinical rulings. According to him, the religious public is asking rabbis an inflated amount of questions about contact. This situation is clearly reflected on Internet responsa sites, where rabbis repeatedly give the same laconic answers, prohibiting contact and encouraging abstinence, and the young people repeatedly ask very detailed questions relating to various sexual acts.

"In modern society, the individual has autonomy. People need to take personal responsibility, responsibility for their relationships and their partner, and decide by themselves based on what is appropriate for them and for their partner. Religion is also a personal matter," Picard says.

He does have some expectations of the rabbinical arbiters. "I expect that the rabbis will not lie, that they speak the halakhic truth. When people ask a rabbi if a single woman can immerse in the mikveh, he relies on a responsum of the Ribash (Rabbi Yitzhak Bar Sheshet, a 14th century rabbi from North Africa. His responsa offers an explanation why the rabbis did not require single women to immerse in the mikveh - T.R.). But the interest in this responsum is educational, as it relates to the ethos of the halakha - the fact that they did not permit ritual immersion, in order not to ease the conscience - and not to the halakha itself," Picard says.

According to Rabbi Kahn, "There is a halakhic basis for permitting immersion in the mikveh, but the question that I struggle a lot with is whether or not it is appropriate to exercise it. To find the explanations is not complicated, but the question is undermining the institution of marriage."

Like other speakers at the event, Rabbi Kahn feels that the entire discussion represented an opening to a deeper discussion of relationships between men and women in religious society, which has become more problematic since Hardal influence has imposed a greater separation of the sexes in schools.