When I first presented this idea to my weekly class of twentysomething Jewish singles, they were incredulous. They argued, understandably, that there has to be sexual compatibility before making a commitment. How else but through pre-marital sex could you know this? Would you buy a car without a test-drive?
True enough, but the analogy is faulty. People aren't cars. For one thing, a prospective buyer need only take a car for one test-drive in order to make a decision. For another, cars tend to drive the same over time. Parts deteriorate and need replacement, but a Cadillac will always be a smooth ride, and a Ferrari will always be fast. Not so with people. Even if you do a test-drive, five years into a marriage your sex life will most likely be very different from that test.
Time, age and experience change a person. As an individual changes, so does their relationship. In a good marriage, as trust grows, love multiplies. A suitable couple might decide not to marry based on an unsuccessful test-drive that bears little resemblance to what their intimate life might have evolved into in a healthy marriage. In fact, it may be that the absence of commitment, mutual trust and enduring love are the very factors that contribute to a failed "test-drive."
Okay, but what, my class argued, are they supposed to do with natural biological urges? That question begs another question. What's behind the urges? What is our real desire? Is it for flesh or something deeper?
The Torah answers that we want something better. In Genesis 4:1 we read the first mention of sex in the Bible. Revealingly, the Hebrew word for sex is yadah, which means "to know." Traditional Jewish sources tell us yadah means that Adam and Eve were connecting on a deep soulful level that transcended the flesh.
Sexual urges are natural, but they are not meant to remain without direction or purpose. We do not shy away from them, but the Torah teaches that our physical passions are a stimulus aimed at helping us develop and maintain a meaningful relationship between husband and wife.
We have become a society of sitcom sex. On television and in movies, most dates are only the appetizer before the main (inter)course. A few scenes or episodes later, that romantic interlude or wild bedroom romp is ancient history. There is no comparison between sitcom sex (even if it lasts half a season) and the richness of a physical relationship built on a foundation of commitment and trust.
In marriage, safe sex doesn't just mean disease-free. It also means nobody is worried about "love me and leave me." In "The Death of Cupid," author Rabbi Nachum Braverman talks about the effects of misusing sex as the language of love. After a while there is an inevitable numbing effect. Compare this emotional numbness from too much loveless sex to the emotions of a couple who has never touched prior to their wedding ceremony. Those lucky enough to have experienced it can appreciate its wonder, depth and preciousness.
Hearing this, some of my students admitted they agreed. But they had one last troubling question. What if you tie the knot and sex is terrible?
Nobody is suggesting that chemistry isn't important between potential spouses, or that a healthy sex life isn't vital to a successful marriage. So what are the chances of a disappointing love life following marriage? To answer that, it's important to understand one fundamental difference between secular-style dating and Orthodox Jewish dating.
Orthodox men and women date in order to find a suitable spouse. In their world there is no such thing as sport dating. When young Orthodox singles meet, their conversations are seriously focused on mutual goals and outlooks -- and, of course, each one sees if there is attraction for the other. Years of education and upbringing have sculpted them into individuals committed to the idea of commitment. A 19-year-old orthodox man or woman is quite often mature beyond their years in their outlook on love and marriage. This maturity translates into a level of commitment to finding solutions to any problems that may arise, sexual or other.
Surprisingly, experience tells me that sexual incompatibility is much less likely when a couple has no experience to begin with. They have clean slates. They are not comparing their spouse to a past lover. They can grow together in their intimacy as they grow together in their emotional and spiritual lives. What begins as incompatibility may just be shyness or lack of trust. As the couple gets to know each other better, as trust grows, they will naturally become compatible.
What, in today's secular style of sex, would be labeled incompatible, is more likely a product of loveless, trustless, sexual calisthenics.
Rabbi Baruch Gradon, a well-known local Rabbi who counsels hundreds of couples, says he has never seen a couple breakup only over sex. Bad sex is a symptom of other problems. In other words, while important, sex is but one of many elements that contribute to a healthy marriage.
I realize that in today's modern world, marriage before sex is a hard thing to sell. But think about it before you take your next test-drive. Your best buy may be the one you never test.
Mark Firestone teaches "User Friendly Judaism" for twenty- and thirtysomethings. He can be reached at (310) 278-5943. Beth Firestone, the author of "Candles in My Window" (Targum Press), contributed to this article.