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Can Premarital Sex Get You Fired From a Synagogue?

On Wednesday, while many Jews were camped out in synagogue repenting, Gothamist ran a story entitled “Woman Claims Synagogue Fired Her for Having Pre-Marital Sex.” Alana Shultz, 36, had been employed as program director at Congregation Shearith Israel — the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States — on the Upper West Side, for 11 years.

On July 21, Shultz was told her position had been eliminated and was fired. (Not so eliminated, though, that Shultz wasn’t asked to train her replacement.)

In her lawsuit, Shultz claims she told her supervisor that she had been pregnant at her June 28 wedding, and when she returned to work after her honeymoon, she was dismissed with severance but without medical benefits and under the assumption that she wouldn’t take legal action against her employer. Shultz noted that neither her supervisor, Barbara Reiss, nor the congregation’s rabbi, Meir Soloveichik, would make eye contact with her during the conversation that resulted in her firing.

While it hasn’t been made clear that the reason for Shultz’s firing was because of her at one time “pregnant but not married” status, it’s impossible not to infer it. After 11 years of working at the organization, one would assume that Shultz had a reasonable relationship with her boss, and it wouldn’t be a wild leap to think that boss might be happy to hear the news of a pregnancy, especially in a community that prizes a woman’s willingness and ability to make more Jews above most everything else. In this situation, though, it seems that the fact that someone, particularly a female someone, had sex before marriage is so unpalatable that whether or not she can do her job is no longer a concern.

Judaism, like other religions, views premarital sex as less than ideal. There is a reason why marriage is traditionally referred to as kiddushin[sanctification], and that’s because the relationship between (brace yourselves — this is going to be heteronormative) husband and wife is considered uniquely intimate. Rabbi Michael Gold, in his book, “Does God Belong in the Bedroom” proposes that the written Torah doesn’t expressly forbid sex before marriage (except in the cases of adultery and incest). Conservative and Reform movements won’t give a premarital sexual relationship the distinction of referred to as a holy union, although they, along with Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism, recognize that sex outside of marriage is going to happen, and when it does, it should be conducted ethically.

Premarital sex is not without Jewish legal complications (if you’re interested in those). According to the law of family purity, a woman can’t have sex with a man when she’s menstruating until she’s been to the mikveh, lest he become impure, and this applies to both married and unmarried couples. You also can’t keep a concubine, a woman who’s only involved with one man, but not married to that man, but this idea has come to be considered irrelevant over time.

Orthodox Judaism does pedal the concept of shomer negiah, literally “observant of touch,” the practice of not touching a person of the opposite sex. There’s a wide swath in regard to practice of shomer negiah — for some folks, it means you can’t touch anyone, not even your opposite sex siblings; for others, it means refraining from touching your boyfriend/girlfriend until you’re married. Of course, there are people who publicly observe shomer negiah, and behave differently in private. In February 2015, Hannah Katsman’s Sisterhood piece about sexually active Orthodox singles examined the alternatives the Orthodox world has to simply pretending sex outside of marriage isn’t happening in their communities.

Regardless of the outcome of Shultz’s lawsuit, the story does bring to light the archaic viewpoints and expectations of some Jewish community organizations, and the potential of those expectations to manifest in harmful ways disconnected with the realities of people’s lives.

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