As my family and friends will readily tell you, I am rarely at a loss for words. This time, however, was an exception. My face flushed and I began to stutter, trying to formulate a response. Hearing a twenty-something year old woman, one of my classmates, claim that “you can’t get pregnant the first time (you have sex)” was, to say the least, disconcerting. Finally, after seconds that seemed like an eternity, I ventured an answer. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said, trying to keep my incredulity out of my tone. She frowned. “Of course it is. We learned it in high school. Didn’t you ever learn the Rashi about Lot’s daughters, and how untznius they had to be to allow themselves to get pregnant the first time?”
The situation seemed surreal, like some bad parody of a Stern student. The fact that she used Rashi as proof about biology, her refusal to say the word “sex,” and her seeming inability to question what she had learned in high school all served to highlight one glaring point: her total ignorance regarding the most rudimentary facts about sex and procreation.
Of course, most Orthodox women are not this drastically ignorant. Nearly all are aware of the basic mechanics of sex, and most are aware of its possible consequences. However, as Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, the clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, highlighted in her lecture at Stern College, many or most have a negative view of sexuality that stems, in part, from the Orthodox community’s refusal to openly discuss sex and sexuality. During the lecture Dr. Marcus asked students to identify implicit and explicit messages they had received from the Orthodox community regarding sex. Responses included many variations of “it’s dirty,” “don’t talk about it,” “men enjoy it more,” and “women don’t like it.” Most admitted to using euphemisms to describe sexual acts and genitalia. Many did not even know the proper names for their own body parts.
This attitude and ignorance stems from a general reluctance in the Orthodox community to discuss issues of sex and sexuality. Many, if not most graduates of Orthodox day schools have never attended a sexual education class. For many young adults, formal sexual education will include little more than the fire and brimstone attitudes of Gila Manolson’s “The Magic Touch,” which justifies the mitzvah of “shomer negiah” by promising dire consequences for those who engage in premarital touching and bliss for those who refrain; or the OU’s “shomernegiah.org” which discusses the terrible physical and psychological consequences of premarital sex. Later, many will attend “kallah” or “chattan” classes, which will expose them to the laws of taharat hamishpacha.
None of these, however, are sufficient to provide Orthodox young adults with a healthy, informed awareness of their own bodies and sexuality. A system whose graduates believe that sex is “dirty,” and are ignorant about their own bodies is a failed system. Orthodox Jews enjoy comparing Judaism’s “healthy” attitude to sexuality with Catholicism’s ascetic ideal. It is time for the Orthodox community to foster this healthy attitude in its young adults by instituting sexual education classes in its day schools. Orthodox students should be taught about sex in a secure environment n a way that includes the facts about sexual function, risks, and health, as well as the Jewish laws and values that are meant to guide sexual behavior.
Some protest that sexual education classes are immodest, and thus contrary to Jewish values. Orthodox Judaism, they argue, views sexuality in a positive light, but also believes that it is a deeply profound and private matter that should not be discussed in public. What this argument fails to acknowledge is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to foster a positive attitude towards an act that is shrouded in mystery and silence. The Orthodox community’s policy of silence does not elevate sexuality; it debases it by turning it into a taboo and thus “dirty” matter. The silence that is meant to protect the sanctity of sex has only succeeded in forcing out of the realm of the holy into that of the profane. Modesty is an important Jewish value. Prudishness, however, is not. The Orthodox community’s failure to recognize the difference between the two has led to the equation of silence with sanctity, an identification that has had dire consequences for its young adults.
A famous story is related in gemara Berachot 62a, in which Rav Kahana hides under his teacher’s bed and listens as Rav Shemaya, his teacher, talks to his wife and takes care of his needs (a phrase that Rashi interprets as having sex.) When the teacher discovers Rav Kahana’s presence he is understandably angry, and demands that Rav Kahana leave. Rav Kahana refuses and declares that “this too is Torah” that he is obligated to learn. Jews often use this gemara as proof of Judaism’s positive attitude regarding sexuality, pointing to the fact that Rav Kahana explains that sex is a type of Torah. However, those who cite this story often fail to realize the story’s implicit criticism of Rav Shemaya who, rather than discussing sexuality with his student in an open and honest way, forced Rav Kahana to learn about this vital topic through furtive methods.
Orthodox day schools today are guilty of the same crime that Rav Shemaya committed millennia ago. Rather than teaching their students about sexuality in an open, honest forum, they force students to learn about sexuality furtively, while hiding in the dark. Unlike Rav Kahana, who recognized his teacher’s mistake, most of these students internalize the implicit message of the silence: sex is a dark, dirty act that should not be discussed publicly. It is time for Orthodox day schools to stop following Rav Shemaya’s evasive example and realize: this too is Torah, and our students must learn.