In Defense of “Everything But” as a (Modern?) Orthodox Ideal

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In Defense of Everything But 3

Written by Shayna Abramson. Shayna is a first-time Jewrotica writer.

Rated PGA friend of mine recently shared an article demanding more dignity for single women in the Modern Orthodox community. As a single woman who self-identifies as Modern Orthodox (yet occasionally finds herself in Conservative synagogues), my first thought was “Yay!”, which is about as profound as I get before I’ve had my cup of coffee. As I read the article however, my “yay” turned into “nay”: The article complained about Orthodox society expecting single women to live in perpetual pre-adulthood until their wedding days, but it didn’t mention one of the most harmful ways that expectation manifests itself: inside the bedroom.

I don’t mean the marital bedroom: I believe that pre-marital sex is neither a prerequisite for nor a guarantee of married sexual bliss. I mean the pre-marital bedroom: Most Orthodox women are expected to not be sexually intimate before their wedding day. They are expected to have never been kissed when they walk down the aisle. They are expected to miss out on an essential physical and emotional part of adult life, because there is a rabbinic fear that if they have that while being single, they won’t get married and produce Jewish babies. While sexual pressure might be effective, it is certainly not healthy, and at a certain point, the desire to be physically intimate can skew a person’s perceptions, making it more difficult for them to have a healthy relationship that results in marriage. One can only but imagine what it might feel like to have one perception of what marriage might be for someone who is only focused on finding someone to share their twin mattress.

I have never seen anyone link the rise of “shomer negiah,” the practice of abstaining from any pre-marital intimacy, and the “shidduch crisis,” in which Orthodox Jews are marrying later and less frequently. Yet in “Excerpts from Interviews with Orthodox Singles”, Koby Frances and Jennie Rosenfeld maintain that current Orthodox social norms – ie. shomer negiah- ensure that “with the sexual lives of single people in particular, there are few venues for socially legitimate discussion and guidance. Unmarried couples who are in a conflicted quagmire about their intimacy and shared physical or sexual experiences, are often uncomfortable and ashamed discussing together the meaning of their relationships, the limits or discomfort in their intimacy…When people internalize the message that this is not to be spoken of, it is not a far jump to believe that it can also not be thought about. The result is that many single adults lack the language in which to internally process and outwardly discuss their sexual feelings and experiences….silence on the issue was also often accompanied by deep guilt and confusion, not only for physical contact, but even for experiencing the desire for such contact. The guilt was mostly unproductive in that it did not lead to any form of teshuvah, but only to increased feelings of guilt and self-loathing.” (Blau, 123-4)

Given all the challenges to a healthy attitude towards one’s own sexuality – and by extension, to a healthy romantic relationship – listed above, is it purely coincidental that the rise of “shomer negiah” and the “shidduch crisis” both seem to coincide?

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Shayna is a native Manhattanite whose interests include Torah, human rights, and poetry. An avid procrastinator, Shayna spends most of her time on Facebook, or watching any game involving the Brazilian soccer team. Brasil para Mundial 2014!
    • Thank you for sharing your perspective – the plight of divorced women and of abused women in our society is definitely something that merits more discussion.

    • The rabbinic concensus is that this does not prohibit pre-marital sex. The Rambam disagrees – he is the lone opinion, that it does. I mentioned that there is a rabbinic prohibition on pre-marital sex in my article.

      • Shaina

        There is a prohibition on pre-marital sex. The attitude of premarital sex is, if a Jewish man has sex with a virgin – he MUST MARRY her and if her father refuses, he’s to pay her father. If a woman “plays a harlot” in her father’s house then she’s to be stoned – (look up Tamar – Genesis 38:24 – Also look up Deuteronomy 22:21. We’re supposed to be a holy nation. It’s a shame people call themselves ‘Mod Orthodox’ yet justify pre-marital sex. There’s no justification for that.

  • I think this touches on another aspect. If rabbis don’t trust women then how are we supposed to trust them with decisions over our bodies? The lack of trust issue could also be part if the growing crisis. Good thought provoking post.

  • C.

    The truth is this has happened to me. Coming from a being FFB I am now not sure where I stand and a lot of it has to do with what was described above. I have not found a truthful response to these issues or I just have not searched well enough. But because of the overwhelming issue in the Modern Orthodox or even Ultra-Orthodox of getting married for the sake of getting married, I lost my way and slowly but surely did more then “anything but” now it is hard to turn back.

    I am one of those guilty ones and it is tough to be healthy because of this. This article definitely is a step in the right direction for discourse on these topics that most people are afraid of bringing up.

    Sex: Male
    Location if any: New York, New York, United States
    Year of Birth: 1987

    • I am sorry you have not found a truthful response. Please don’t describe yourself as guilty. The past is the past: I am confident you will find a set of sexual habits for the future that you feel are in accordance with your values – maybe it means “everything but”, maybe it means being shomer, or maybe it just means everything – the important thing is doing what you feel to be right for you. I actually saw this great quote on Fbook I will share: “Stop viewing your life with hindsight. View your life with kindsight. Instead of asking “What was I thinking”, ask “What was I learning?” Good luck on your journey 🙂

  • disqus_JD04Vbfz8C

    This is very well written, however, my own personal experience is the opposite. I am rather new to the Upper West Side “Modern Orthodox” scene and let me tell you, most of the “Modern Orthodox” Jews that I encounter here are not shomer negiah. That being said, the UWS is probably the epicenter for the “shidduch crisis”. There are so many young men and women touching/hooking up with each other to go around that perhaps people feel sexually satisfied and don’t have that additional urge for touch that one might find in the yeshiva world. I believe that the trend now is to forgo being shomer negiah in modern circles…..and yes, I do agree that the “shidduch crisis” is intensifying.

  • If I had to name the primary cause of me leaving Orthodoxy, it’d be Niddah and Shomer Negiah (I know that’s two, but to me they are intimately related).

    • I honestly think that sexual-related halachot are the reason many people leave Orthodoxy. Even for those who choose to remain in the Orthodox world, those halachot are often a struggle.

  • This issue has been on my mind for a while. This perception of sexuality (especially female sexuality) as something worthy of fear can’t be good for a couple, married or not, exploring intimacy together. Sort of counterintuitive to producing nice Jewish babies, isn’t it?

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  • Thank you for your feedback and for your thought-provoking comments.

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  • Yakkov

    I’m sorry but I don’t think you researched yourself very well.

    Firstly: A woman is not forced to marry anyone at all even if she is ‘found’ with a man. A woman can turn down such a person. Typically if it was by force then she is expected to be compensated for her trauma. The Gemara is pretty explicit on that.

    Also the idea of concubines is deeply entrenched in the Gemara as well. Where do you think the concubines came from? They didn’t import goyim people. So the idea of Jewish women and men not having sex premarital isn’t an issue. Just look at Tamar in the Torah! A concubine had to have a contract and couldn’t be with anyone else unless proven she wasn’t pregnant (next period) until she had another customer (or maybe she had it a different way)

    Rambam is one of the most pragmatic rabbis about sex. He essentially allows any type of sex between a man and women as long as it is in moderation.

    My marital class teacher was very frank and made sure that I had an obligation to make my wife feel good and not to do something she wouldn’t like. Other than that everything is fair game.

    I don’t know of any ban you speak of that prevents single women from going to the Mikvah. I do know that Mikvah ladies in general won’t allow a single girl in if they know she isn’t married but that is joy the result of the ban but closed mindedness.

    You know how to get around it? Slip a snood on as you walk in and you are golden.

    And I don’t see the lack of sex or anything you wrote about that topic as causing the shidduch crises. In fact we know too many friends in the UWS who attribute the whole casual hookup and be amazing friends scene as a big problem because boys aren’t growing up and girls don’t know how to act with guys.

    My wife and I find it nice to have a break makes us want each other after being apart and kicks up the sex life up a notch. If you have ice cream all the time it gets boring. Only have it half the month and when you have it you devour it.

    Stop focusing on the purposed negatives and try and look at the positives. Also look at the real causes of the shidduch crisis instead of blaming something that actually happens to be the opposite.

    Here are some of the real issues causing the current crisis:

    1) many guys act like babies until their kid 30s. They get free play from girls and when they decide to get married they can easily find an early 20s girl who is fresher than a girl closer to their age.

    2) both genders are they get older seem to get pickier. They only want a certain set of credentials and criteria. They don’t want to settle for 8 out of 10. No one is perfect but they are disappointed by how their lives are in this dream world of older single living that they only see the apple and not the apple tree.

    3) boys feel they are scarce so girls need to suck up to them. Boys won’t drive to baltimore a girl but expect her to come to them. And girls are giving in to this. Guys are feeling entitled because girls are allowing it to happen.