Let's Talk About Sex: Teaching the Taboo

No matter one’s observance, talk about sex escapes no community. For Modern Orthodox youth in both Israel and the United States, a commitment to observe Jewish law can conflict with interest in modern societal values, particularly in the realm of sexuality.

In Orthodox Judaism, pre-marital sex is forbidden, as is touching members of the opposite sex beyond immediate family before marriage. As a result, in a traditional Orthodox school setting, the subject of sex is broached from a halakhic (Jewish legal) perspective, and it is discussed within the context of marriage.

“The class we had on mishpacha (family)… included things like putting on make-up to please your husband….It was not an impressive class,” says Rivka (name changed), who attended a Modern Orthodox Religious Zionist school in North America.

In more traditional circles, students equipped with little background on sexuality may marry in their early 20s. They may also experience a gap between what little they are taught about sex in Orthodox high schools and what they are exposed to in the world at large.

“What’s hard is exactly the point you need to talk about…the places where Modern Orthodoxy and secular culture meet,” says Yocheved Debow, who is working on her doctorate about sex education in Israeli religious high schools.

In Israel, there are a growing number of sex education resources. Israeli girls can take an optional bagrut (matriculation exam) on mishpacha and ishut (marital relationships). High school girls can enroll in optional workshops which address issues such as shmirat nigea (touching) and tzniut (modesty).

Although many topics are broached with girls in both Israel and the United States, the boys’ curriculum is almost nonexistent—though the Israeli Rape Crisis Center does offer both genders from first to 12th grade courses ranging from sexual abuse to taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity).

In 2005, the Israeli Department of Education published a sex education curriculum for the Modern Orthodox community which included some subjects previously not dealt with by this population, including masturbation, contraception, STDs, and AIDS. Homosexuality was not addressed.

Though the Israeli Department of Education is currently training teachers to teach the curriculum, it is a challenge to accommodate the broad range of observance encompassed by the Israeli National Religious (Modern Orthodox) community. Debow points out that discussing these topics can be sensitive for some audiences, and the curriculum needs to be tailored to fit the students being taught.

Debow wrote the curriculum for a new program called Tzelem, which seeks to address this topic of sexuality in Modern Orthodox communities in the U.S. Based out of Yeshiva University, Tzelem trains teachers in sex education curricula for Jewish day schools as well as in premarital courses for brides and grooms.

“The idea came to me from growing up in the Orthodox community and feeling that something was missing,” relates co-founder Jennie Rosenfeld, 27, a Modern Orthodox educator and activist, who completed her doctorate dissertation on sexual ethics in the Talmud.

Rosenfeld feels this conflict of Modern Orthodox young adults is exacerbated when messages from society are not counterbalanced by messages from the Jewish community, including the home, the synagogue, and the school. Rosenfeld believes that discussion of sexuality in even one of these realms can make up for the lack of it in other areas.

Curriculum subjects for day schools participating in Tzelem include relating to and developing intimate friendships with the opposite sex, how parents should talk to their children about their bodies and sexual relationships, sexual values in the media, helping couples develop a respectful sexual relationship, the Jewish view of marital and extra-marital intimacy, and sexual abuse. Subjects are tailored for different age and religious populations.

Yet not everyone in either Israel or the U.S. believes that these issues are pertinent to adolescents.

“These matters were always a matter of tznius. They were known and practiced but only discussed privately. To discuss these matters openly in a classroom setting is a sign of huge, huge deterioration of values,” remarked Naftali Weinberg, director of Machon Ahavat Emet, an educational institution in Jerusalem which trains Jewish educators—both Orthodox and secular—at the high school level.

“The entire topic should be taboo until a person is ready for marriage, and then they are given all information necessary by carefully-chosen individuals who are level-headed and can be trusted to put it over in a very positive, constructive, Torah-approved approach, with the proper language and sources,” explains Weinberg.

Indeed, some graduates of Orthodox high schools do feel satisfied with their schools’ treatment of sex education, believing that certain subjects didn’t need to be discussed. Ronit, 30, who studied in an all-girls high school in Israel, believes that schools need not have a sex education class per se, since it could just be a part of “life studies.”

“My sex ed didn’t affect my life much for good or bad,” she says. “Although it’s important to demystify things, once you take a reasonably intelligent girl and explain to her what her period is and how babies are made, she can figure out that it’s not a good idea to have unprotected sex before marriage.”

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