Straight talk on teen sexuality and halacha

Straight talk on teen sexuality and halacha

Rivka Schwartz
Rivka Schwartz

In a recent column for NJJN, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, called upon the Modern Orthodox community to foster more open and honest conversations about sexuality, Shabbat observance, and substance abuse while our students are in high school, to prepare them for the realities they will face on secular college campuses (“Sex, drugs, and Orthodox students on campus,” June 19). In a powerful charge to step up and assume the mantle of leadership, he called on school heads to be bold, rather than risk-averse or PR-conscious, in meeting this challenge.

I have sort-of good news for Rabbi Segal.

The good news is that there are institutions already doing this work, addressing these challenges both in high school and beyond. The response that we receive when we do so is an indication of how desperately needed it is. And it’s only “sort-of” good news because, in that our reach is limited, young adults’ desire to be engaged around these issues is great and Segal is entirely right that in order for this to make a difference for our entire community, it needs a broader reach than the tiny less-than-a-handful of institutions currently engaged in it can offer.

I am fortunate to work in SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., a school that offers a comprehensive health education program in 10th grade, along with a companion Beit Midrash course that teaches Jewish sources and values around sexuality. Over the past few years, through Machon Siach, SAR’s affiliated research arm honoring the memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum, we have had high school teachers researching, thinking, and writing about the question of how one teaches about sexuality in an Orthodox Jewish context, being honest about the realities of kids’ lives and upholding fealty to halacha. Beyond that, Machon Siach has also initiated an undertaking to engage schools across the area to address substance use among our community’s teenagers. And this year, I have spent Shabbat with the Orthodox communities on four college campuses, speaking at length with students about these issues.

But here is the unavoidable reality: We cannot have that conversation without acknowledging — frankly, openly — that many (most?) young adults in our community are not adhering to the halachic sexual ethic of “no intimate contact until straight marriage.” (And that is, of course, even before we talk about all of the young adults in our community who are not straight.) We need to speak honestly about the aspects of this that are related to mitzvot that are both bein adam l’makom (between person and God), and bein adam l’chaveiro (between person and person).

On the first count, the disconnect between halacha and the lives that they are living can be profoundly religiously alienating for some of our young adults, in a variety of ways. Some are tormented by shame and guilt because of the gulf between what their schools, summer camps, or youth groups have taught them and what they are doing, a pain that they carry privately even as they go about their Orthodox lives. Others, seeking to avoid that guilt, leave Orthodox institutions or practice entirely. And broadly, young adults often feel that the religious institutions, teachers, rabbis who have guided them have nothing to say beyond “don’t” when it comes to the issue most pressing to them in their personal and religious lives.

But that is not the beginning and end of this problem. Beyond people’s lonely individual religious struggles, we have a community of young adults who may not have received comprehensive sex education, who may not have thought deeply about consent and what it means, who do not have accurate information about contraception and disease prevention. Because “good kids don’t,” many of our institutions are not speaking to the many kids who do. In my capacity as an educator and rebbetzin, I have counseled young women who “whoops”-ed into a sexual encounter that they did not intend to have (or could not admit to themselves that they intended to have), and so had not established clear boundaries with their partners, nor had they adequately protected themselves. Jennie Rosenfeld, in her doctoral dissertation on this topic (a very important work that I regularly recommend to college students), also raises the question of the impact of teaching young men to view young women as sources of sin or temptation, rather than human beings created in the image of God.

In my health class, I often tell my students that a sexual relationship should be ethical, it should be safe, and it should be halachic. Our highest aspirations for you are that it be all three. But just because it is not one does not mean that we should not aspire to the other two.

Can high school students manage the complexity of this message? That there are nuanced betters and worses here, for yourself and for others, beyond the clear dos and don’ts? We do not minimize the challenge of conveying that message. We address it head-on with both students and parents every year, explaining why we do this in the face of the obvious discomfort, the challenge, the complexity of navigating the demands of halacha, and the realities of people’s lives. I have had the same conversations with alumni of SAR and other high schools on college campuses, and with adults in my shul community.

As urgently needed as these conversations are, having them opens institutions up to external criticism that we are sanctioning non-halachic behavior and internal soul-searching about whether we’re achieving the correct balance and conveying the right message. For all of the challenges and difficulties, we keep at it. Because the alternative is to concede that in the face of this most sensitive issue, Judaism has nothing to say.

Rivka Schwartz is associate principal of SAR High School.

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