What Happens to Sexually Active Orthodox Singles?

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

When it comes to singles and sex in the Jewish community, Orthodox spiritual leaders have a dilemma. They can pretend it’s not happening, or they can open a difficult dialogue with their constituents.

Last week, the Israeli rabbinic organization Tzohar attempted to address this issue in a groundbreaking conference, “In the First Person: Sexuality within the Family and Religious Society.” Tzohar trains rabbis to perform participant-friendly wedding ceremonies at no charge. Its female volunteers teach Jewish and secular brides the Jewish laws surrounding immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) before and after marriage. The event was attended by the female volunteers, and the wives of Tzohar rabbis.

“Many singles today feel that it’s their right to express their sexuality,” said panelist Rabbanit Chana Henkin, director of the Nishmat seminary for women, calling sexuality among Orthodox singles the elephant in the room. “Despite our discomfort with the topic, educators and community leaders must be prepared to discuss these issues openly.”

Nishmat currently trains female advisors on Jewish law called Yoatzot Halacha who specialize in sensitive issues pertaining to women. According to Henkin, the anonymous questions to its hotline and website provide a glimpse of the reality today within the Orthodox community. “Many of the questions addressed to Nishmat fall on the seam between halacha and sexuality.”

Orthodox education assumes a future involving marriage and family, with the basic tenet that all sexual activity will take place within marriage. Even the most liberal Orthodox rabbis are not going to permit, encourage, or sanction sex outside of marriage under Jewish law.

Educators still assume that most Orthodox young people will get married by their mid-20’s. In the best case, they get some sex education at the end of high school and in yeshiva, seminary, or national service. Yet not everyone gets married young, and this raises a whole set of new questions. Henkin maintains that we do not prepare young people for this possibility, asking, “Do we speak enough about the very strong temptations?” She emphasized the need for a framework to address these concerns.

“The problem is only going to become more acute,” says Dr. Naomi Grumet of Jerusalem’s Eden Center, an initiative that hopes to “transform” the mikveh. “People have higher expectations and want to accomplish things, like travel and education, before they settle down. Also, when they have done these pursuits, they aren’t necessarily willing to come back and marry the boy or girl next door. It is likely to take more time to find someone.”

Like Henkin, Grumet doesn’t want to see sexually active singles ostracized. “Singles who are sexually active may feel they don’t have a place in the community. Yes, it’s happening, and it’s forbidden by Jewish law. But a lot of people transgress in other areas of religious practice, yet still feel welcome within the community.”

One religious 37-year-old single woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she did not have anyone she felt comfortable with discussing sexual behavior in light of Jewish law. “I feel that the mentor I am closest to would be shocked and upset by any such frank discussion, so I respect her feelings,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone suitable to talk with. There’s this assumption that you just won’t, coupled with the knowledge that past a certain age you probably will, but it’s wrong and therefore we don’t discuss it so as not to seem like we approve.”

In recent years, a debate has emerged within Israel regarding the mikveh (ritual bath) for single women. Before engaging in sexual relations, a woman must count seven days after the end of her period and immerse in a ritual bath. Unmarried Orthodox women considering sexual activity must decide whether they are willing to face disapprobation by attending a community mikveh. Some skirt the issue by immersing in the sea or a natural spring.

Not everyone feels that they cannot get advice on Jewish law from within the community. A divorced woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I am not shy and did not have a problem discussing this issue with people that I respect that are very learned in Torah, some rabbis and some just super smart talmid chochoms (rabbinic scholars).” Others don’t ask, but still want to observe. “I went to the mikvah for a long time after my divorce while being sexually active,” said another. “I don’t do that anymore. But I did.”

Grumet told me that the Eden Center is interested in running a program on sexuality for divorced religious women. Some divorcees had problematic sexual relationships in their first marriage, and feel the need to process it in order to move forward.

It’s not clear where the discussion is going to go, beyond whether or not unmarried women in a sexual relationship should be visiting the mikveh.

Tzohar panelist Tami Samet, a psychologist and director of the Machon Bar Emunah track for sexuality counselors, agreed with Henkin about the need to open up. “We are abandoning many singles unless we discuss difficult halachic issues with them. We must deal with this, and people knowledgeable in Torah must be part of this dialogue,” said Samet. “The singles are very, very lonely.”

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