Sex Education In Orthodox High Schools
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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I recently sat in on a sex education course at an Orthodox high school. The class was for seniors, the first one they had been offered on the subject; they were understandably full of questions. I realized, based upon the nature of their questions, how vital this course is.

If you search on the Web for an Orthodox approach to sex education, one of the main responses goes like this: “Education teaches people how to live. If you are educated about sex, you begin to live with sex. This is not a theory. This is fact… There is an accepted view within Jewish orthodoxy that sex education should be taught when people are ready to have sex. When adults are ready to get married, they are ready to learn about sex.” 

This is not a “fact.” Do we not teach our students about the ideas of other religions lest they come to follow those faiths? Further, this falsehood does not even have the advantage of being useful. How will students learn about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, promiscuity, and sex abuse? How will they learn about their anatomy and the menstrual cycle? How will they learn to have mature, sophisticated conversations as adults if their educators censor learning about a vital life reality? The myth that sex education leads to sex must be challenged for the welfare of our children.

The Jewish perspective is that sex in the right context is necessary, good, and holy. Sex education can be taught in a way that maintains and promotes the values of sexual restraint, modesty, and intimacy, while teaching teenagers about the responsibilities, risks, and values that come with an adult sex life. These can help inform other Jewish law related to adultery, taharat mishpacha (family purity laws), and hirhurim (sexual thoughts).

Orthodox high school students will have sex in marriage or beforehand. Not providing them with a comprehensive education, including sex education, that prepares them for life as observant Jews in the 21st century, is irresponsible. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that pregnancy rates are twice as high among teenagers who watch television shows with high sexual content, compared with teens who don’t. Given that most modern Orthodox teens are exposed to an entertainment culture that normalizes sex, addressing sexuality is crucial.

Further, avoidance to teach sex education may violate lifnei iver (the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind). If we do not include it in our Jewish education, we risk putting our students in harm’s way.

Students, if uninformed about the health, moral, and emotional risks that come with sexual activity, may find themselves with herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, or AIDS; unwanted pregnancy or sexual abuse; and emotional scarring and future resistance to healthy physical intimacy.

We do not want to promote sexual activity in teenagers. However, there is a way to teach this material responsibly to empower students as emerging adults to construct their spiritual and moral guidelines. 

We would be naïve to think that some Orthodox students were not already engaged in sexual activity. Nationwide, around 72 percent of high school seniors, and 90 percent of twenty‑two-year olds, have had sexual intercourse. The numbers at Orthodox high schools are, of course, much lower, but even students not engaged in sexual activity are thinking about it. Is the classroom not a safe and sacred place to enhance these conversations? 

Judaism teaches that there is Torah in everything and that God can be found everywhere. Jewish teachings have much to offer in this realm of thought and experience. Sex education is Torah and should be taught.  

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.


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04/03/2012 - 05:08

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Finally someone is taking a stand against this dangerous trend. I have been on the receiving end of MANY of these questions myself and am flabbergasted and appalled with how close some people come to making bad decisions out of pure ignorance. I will give one example: (If you recognize this story as your own I do apologize and I promise to keep your identity secret) About 2 years ago I was approached by a girl who attended an orthodox day school in the tristate area. She did not go to the one I attended so I was surprised to see that she knew who I was. Apparently she had heard that I was a good person to talk to (the fact that this spread is evidence that jewish teens have no where else to go) on this subject. She was concerned because she was still a dependent and a minor and could not go to the doctor without alerting her parents to her sexual activity. She asked me whether it was a problem that she had been 'using plan B as a contraceptive.' Now aside from the fact that a cursory reading of the package would explain that this was not the proper use and my profound loss for how this could have escaped her, I was more taken-aback by the fact that the difference between emergency abortifacients (or whatever you wish to call them) and contraceptives used on a 'prophylactic' basis had never been explained to her. She came to me when she realized that she might have made a mistake. She was perpetually unwell and had a menstrual cycle that was irregular at best. After stopping this regimen B'H her health returned. I am not a doctor (I did help her to find a physician to answer her questions) and I don't know if there might be lasting repercussions to her frequent use of plan B. All I know is that regardless of one's views on premarital sex, it is irresponsible to ignore the fact that is occurring and that people in our communities are endangering themselves. I myself have made decisions on this matter that are in line with my personal and religious beliefs. I do not however credit this decision to scarcity of information. I am now well informed and still stick to my personal views. What has changed now is that I am disseminating what I have learned to those who realize they need to know it. I am not advocating or denouncing anything. The teens in the community WILL get information if they wish to but there is no guarantee that it will be good information and it is unlikely it will be from a source encouraging restraint and abstinence. If your desired goal is for people to refrain from acting a certain way make sure that their information comes first and foremost from people who embody that ideal. By locking away the information as inappropriate all you do is make consideration of whether or not to have sex an inappropriate one. In so doing you eliminate ANY chance that the subject will be discussed with a rebbeim or parents. This has the undesired consequence of having no religious thought being introduced into this area at all. I am glad to say that the girl who I mentioned says she "think [she] will wait 'till marriage. I really didn't know what I was getting my self into." I cannot help but read the this as very telling of the fact that had she known more earlier she could have decided to wait back then. Once again I hope that IYH this article (and perhaps my horror stories of ignorance and it's consequences) can inspire an overhall of health education in Orthodox Jewish High Schools. Only then can we say that we have prepared our kids for the world we live in and given them the tools to make decisions that are healthy for body and soul alike.

There should also be a mass education effort in the Jewish community to have children immunized against the human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted, and which can cause cancer.

Shmuly, as always, wonderfully put.

One minor quibble:

"Do we not teach our students about the ideas of other religions lest they come to follow those faiths?"

I'd hope they would teach them about other faiths to lead them to become better and more tolerant global citizens - and because, whether or not one agrees with them, they're an important part of the human experience and something about which an educated person should know.

Your point is not totally off base, but the idea that 'Given that most modern Orthodox teens are exposed to an entertainment culture that normalizes sex, addressing sexuality is crucial' raises the question about whether we are allowing a downgrade in our standards based on what is normalized in pop culture and what everyone else allows themselves to be exposed to. A genuine interaction and discussion with those within our flock raised with a keen sensitivity and commitment, as challenging as it can be, about which parts of entertainment fall within the bounds of normative jewish law, may give you an understanding of a slightly different and perhaps a more 'orthodox' approach to these very important and sensitive issues. And you may even come to appreciate the approach advocated by our tradition and rabbinic leaders. Let's not disregard that approach so flippantly, as some do, as being extremist.

This article should not have been published without some fact checking.

My son is in middle school and is the beneficiary of the Tselem curriculum developed at YU, which addresses all of the issues and beyond of this article at a key point in kids development, pre-teen. The curriculum actually starts with elementary school aged children.

Many local high schools including SAR, Ramaz etc. deal with these issues. I'm not sure where the author was, but for a NY paper to publish this is truly irresponsible.

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