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For Orthodox, a New Spin on Sex-Ed

The news of two new developments in Modern Orthodox sex education raised my interest, but also my skepticism. Since halakha—Jewish law—is quite restrictive on sexual behavior before marriage, I wondered what these educators would say besides “Don’t try this at home”? Apparently, a lot.

Until very recently, discussions of sexuality were virtually absent from even liberal Modern Orthodox day schools, but now Tzelem, a project of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, is piloting the “Life Values and Intimacy Education” curriculum in two schools. Recognizing that no existing sex-ed curricula would be appropriate in this context, Yocheved Debow and Anna Wruble adapted them into units that go beyond mechanics, says Jennie Rosenfeld, Tzelem’s director. The new classes will cover human anatomy, sexual orientation, body image, STDs, sexual abuse, sexual ethics, tzniut (modesty) and the Jewish laws concerning physical contact and sexuality. Rosenfeld—whose Ph.D. dissertation was entitled “Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic”—says this program sends the message that sexuality is not something to be “cordoned off.” She explains that Judaism views sex as “kedusha” (holiness); the body is holy and therefore deserving of respect, and students are advised to use this perspective to guide their actions.

Rosenfeld hopes that the curriculum achieves a balance, not enforcing Jewish law to the point where students feel guilty, but at the same time “not flouting halakha.” Rosenfeld says teachers take the approach of “minimizing feelings of transgression” so that students don’t feel like they have done something “off the charts” if, for example, they held hands. Rather than fostering feelings of guilt and inadequacy, this program offers understanding.

There’s change afoot also in another resource where Orthodox women can get information about sex. Kallah (bride) teachers, over a series of 5-8 classes, instruct brides-to-be about the laws of niddah (pertaining to sexual relations within a marriage). These classes are often the “last stand” according to Rosenfeld, the last opportunity to prepare women for a sexual relationship. Bat Sheva Marcus, chair of a recent conference co-sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) to train such teachers, told Lilith that women had “nobody to talk to about sex,” and that kallah teachers often avoided sexual issues or passed along their own misconceptions to their students—“the blind leading the blind,” notes Rosenfeld, who described brides being told that sex is not pleasurable for women, but that they should “grin and bear it” for their husband’s sake. Marcus, Clinical Director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, noted cases where women were informed that they should not fantasize, that oral sex is always forbidden and that they can have sex only at night and in the dark. Both Marcus and Rosenfeld point out that while there are indeed Jewish texts with negative and restrictive statements about sex, there are also positive and flexible attitudes within the Jewish tradition; one of their goals is to communicate this to brides.

By educating a group of 15 kallah teachers about the wide range of human sexual activity— oral, anal, manual, bondage, etc.—they’re encouraged to discuss these with their students. And rather than saying that X is not permitted and that’s the end of the story, these teachers now have access to the broadest range of Jewish legal sources and options.

Both Rosenfeld and Marcus report cases of brides who simply do not know how to have intercourse. Marcus emphasizes that women should be told that sex can be awkward at first and that the penis “does not have radar.” The goal is both to provide knowledge and to open the lines of communication; women won’t know what information they are missing unless their teachers themselves are more forthcoming. If enlightened sexual education in Orthodox schools becomes more common, kallah teachers will no longer bear the brunt of educating woman about their bodies and the sexual experience. Marcus believes that “we need to do a better job educating our kids,” and would like to see programs for parents, too. With this in mind, Tzelem is a developing a sexuality manual that will speak to the Orthodox population and their unique set of issues. Rosenfeld predicts such tools will lead to “healthier people in the community, stronger marriages and more well-adjusted individuals.”

For now, these new initiatives mark a significant departure from past Orthodox silence on sex. In a world where there are ads for KY Jelly on trains, it’s about time.