Thank you for writing and submitting your question.
As is so often the case in matters of Jewish concern, the answer is not a simple yes or no. Examining this from the viewpoint of the Reform movement, we see that there are competing values that are in play in the situation that you describe. Allow me to express a few of them (by no means all), and then attempt to weave them into an answer for you.
* First, Judaism places a very high premium on the concept of marriage, and especially the long-term committed relationship and social contract that it implies. Our texts (Torah and Talmud) teach that a person is not complete or whole until they find their bashert (designated or destined one) and marry.
Jewish marriage is not defined by legal documents; it is an affirmation of a relationship and a declaration of commitment. Historically in Judaism, ‘marriage’ could take place in one or more of three ways: by Ketubah (the contract for marriage, solemnified by the ritual ceremony, which incorporates the signing and witnessing of the legal document), by value (the “acquisition” of a spouse in exchange for something of known value, such as a ring), or by consensual sexual intercourse.
The last of these forms is vestigially retained in the secular system of English jurisprudence, and is sometimes called ‘common law marriage’. It is based on the concept that a couple holding themselves out and acting as if married in the eyes of the community, for all legal purposes are married. Under this approach, your status after three years would be ‘married’, without the other trappings.
* Second, Judaism values greatly the stability and social environment that marriage provides (in normal circumstances) for children and spouses. Especially in the matter of children, it is seen as important; procreation is a desirable outcome, and is in fact described as a mitzvah (commandment). Marriage facilitates the fulfillment of that mitzvah, and helps to provide the appropriate setting in which to raise children.
This may not be a great concern to you at this point. With the advent of effective Birth Control (a topic for an entirely different answer), the fear of the social stigma of children born out of wedlock has been largely minimized, and reduced even further by the number of high-profile persons (celebrities) who have dispensed with the need for marriage as a prerequisite to having children (as bad an idea as that is in practice). In Judaism, by the way, there is no such thing as an illegitimate child (a bastard): that is a child that has no legitimate parentage, whereas in Judaism every child is legitimate by definition, no matter the relationship of the parents [with the single exception of the child of a forbidden relationship, such as incest between family members; in that case the child becomes a ‘mamzer’ – one who may only marry another ‘mamzer’, but they are not ‘illegitimate’.].
* Third, Judaism has a very practical take on consensual sex; when done in the appropriate setting by true partners, it is one of the great pleasures and joys in life, as well as an intimate form of communication. Judaism does not see sex as ‘dirty’ or something to be hidden and snickered about; rather, it is a part of life which is to be enjoyed, and even those who cannot have children are encouraged to engage in appropriate sexual acts. Our sages have said that one who refuses to take enjoyment of that which G-d has placed in the world is showing ingratitude and churlishness; those things that exist in this world which are pleasurable are meant to be enjoyed in moderation. At the same time, sex is a very private act, shared between those engaged in it, not meant to be public, and there should be a strong curtain of modesty that surrounds this personal and private form of communication and shared pleasure.
A more traditional approach to answering your question might lean more heavily on the value of marriage as the only appropriate setting for sex, and/or on the value of tzniut (modesty) as a reason to curb your sexual urges until you had entered into the appropriate situation (marriage). Then, if your sexual union resulted in the birth of a child, it would be in a setting that was socially sanctioned and thought to be in the best interests of the child.
The more liberal or modern approach to answering your question might be to accept that you are both adults, living in a committed relationship that is similar to marriage in many regards, with sexual urges and feelings for each other, and able to consent to engage in sexual behavior.
I say might: it is not clear that each rabbi in a given movement would arrive at the same answer; and there would very likely be some overlap in answers across the denominational lines. That is because the answer reached would largely depend on the relative weight given to the various values. I don’t feel that someone offering any of the possible answers would utterly discount the concerns of those who would offer a different answer. There is certainly room to disagree within Jewish thought in this matter.
One area in which I suspect all respondents would completely concur, whatever movement in which they are a part, is that we are talking only about consensual sex. The values and ethical teachings of Judaism utterly reject any form of compulsion, rape, or force, or any sexual act that is against the will of one of the parties. I believe also that all would agree that in no instance would Jewish thought, law, or ethics condone any form of sexual behavior that degraded, abused, or otherwise damaged one of the parties physically, emotionally, or mentally; this includes mutual degradation, which is the source of the distaste expressed in much of Jewish thought for ‘one night stands’ and ‘casual or recreational sex’ and promiscuity.
In short: according to a fairly traditional approach, you should not be engaging in sexual behaviors if you are not married, but taking a more relaxed view (one recognizing that saying ‘just say no’ is not realistic given the situation), by engaging in sexual behaviors within the context of a committed relationship, you are acting in the spirit of Judaism, but perhaps not within the letter of the law.
The concern that I would ask you to consider in light of your question is this: in acting as if you are married, and engaging in sex within the context of a committed relationship, why are you hesitant to formalize the commitment you say you have made? Choosing not to marry in this situation is tantamount to saying to your partner that you are leaving one foot out the door, and that your commitment is only good until you meet someone better or more interesting. Is that really the message you want to convey to someone with whom you share the deepest and most intimate moments of communication possible? I would answer that in the negative - what about you?
Rabbi Joe Blair
Answered by: Rabbi Joseph Blair