Sex Education in Religious Schools

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 4 cases of illicit sexual activity between consenting Orthodox Jews. And I emphasize ‘consenting’. Two were students at a coed Jewish high school where the young women became pregnant and had ‘shotgun’ weddings. One was a Yeshiva student who got a girl friend no one knew about pregnant. He too had a shotgun wedding. And the fourth was a rather famous (or infamous) case where the respected Rosh HaYeshiva of a respected Hesder Yeshiva in Israel committed adultery with a married staff member. (He obviously is no longer the Rosh HaYeshiva).


I mention these cases to demonstrate a famous Talmudic principle: Ayn Apitropus L’Arayos – there is no guardian for sexual activity. It can happen to anyone at any time. No matter how devout they might be.


This is why there are so many fences built around Orthodox Judaism with respect to interaction between the sexes. This is why there is a Halacha called ‘Yichud’ which forbids any man to be in the same room alone with a married woman (and to a lesser extent any woman - married or not) other than his wife.


(The details of this Halacha are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that this Halacha is often observed in the breach. If it were observed more scrupulously, there would be far less accusations of rape or sex abuse. But I digress.)


As has been noted here many times, we live in a culture where interaction between the sexes is as common as breathing air. Coed education in western culture is therefore very much the norm. And that is the reason we have many (but not all) Modern Orthodox day schools and high schools that are coed.


I am opposed to coed schools beyond 6th grade and especially high school. Once a child reaches puberty the sex drive kicks into high gear. Teenage boys think of little else when their minds are not being distracted by their studies. Which is often the case when in the same classroom with young teenage women. I have always felt that the benefits of learning how to socialize with members of the opposite sex are outweighed by the harm it can theoretically cause in a variety of ways. The less distraction there is in the classroom, the more a student will learn.


But that is not the only problem. More important is the fact that coed high schools increase the chances for sexual activity. The fact is that violations of the Halachic prohibition against men and women touching each other (commonly called Shomer Negiah) are completely ignored by the majority of coed students – which can easily lead to more explicit sexual activity in some cases.


What about boys and girls learning how to interact with each other? I support social contact outside the classroom on a limited and more or less chaperoned basis. Like inviting families that have teens of the opposite sex from your own children over for a Shabbos meal. Or at a Shabbos Kiddush in Shul. Or perhaps  chaperoned Bnei Akiva type functions. (I am opposed to coed camps past high school too. There is just too much un-chaperoned time given to teens that are away from home in those circumstances.)


For me this is the happy medium between complete isolation of the sexes and complete integration of the sexes.


Which brings me to an article in the Forward about sex education. Lana Adler tells us of a call by Open Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s to change the Orthodox paradigm for this subject. In essence he suggests we embrace the kind of sex education they teach in public schools. Which does not rely on only abstinence to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and to prevent unwanted pregnancies. We need to teach our young about safe sex, he says, because even though sex among Orthodox teenagers is rare, it does happen (as I pointed out). And consequences like contracting STDs can be tragic.


First let me say that I believe Rabbi Yanklowitz is a wonderful, comapssoante human being. As someone pointed out to me, how many people donate a kidney? How many people fight for the humane treatment of animals? How many people fight so strongly for acceptance of the convert? I understand his motives. They are pure. But I have to question the propriety of a religious school teaching young observant teenagers how to use condoms to avoid STDs or unwanted pregnancies when having sex.


True, teaching abstinence doesn’t always work. Especially in young people in coed schools whose behavior typically ignores Hilchos Yichud and Negiah. Although it may work in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t work in all of them.  But is teaching them to use condoms the answer?!


The problem with teaching young people that is that you are teaching them to violate Halacha. But perhaps even worse is the idea that by inference you are teaching young teenagers full of raging hormones that unmarried sex is not so bad since your religious teacher is telling you how to avoid getting STDs. This is not Jewish education. This is an abomination of Jewish values. And not how we solve the problem of rare cases of teenage transmitted STDs or unwanted pregnancies.


Sure – young people should be educated about those things. But not at the cost of implying that unmarried sex is OK – or at least so common that we have to teach teenagers how to avoid contracting STDs by using condoms. There ought to be a lot more education about the parameters of Halacha that forbids unmarried sex and anything that might lead to it.  Education that teaches the severity of having sex with a Niddah (a woman that has experienced menstruation and yet never gone to a Mikva). It is an Issur Kares - one of the most serious violations of Halacha in  Judaism.


That in rare cases where it might happen anyway, is not a reason to ignore our values. Teaching teenagers to use condoms when having sex implies that sex is almost expected at that age. Even among religious Jews. Are we teaching our young people to have condoms in their wallets – just in case?! That is an outrage and absolutely not what Jewish education is about. Besides, I have to wonder how many teenagers haven’t heard about using condoms to prevent STDs anyway in this day and age? And even if they know about it, in the heat of the moment, they may not do anything about it.


The best way to handle this problem is along the lines I suggested. Reduce the amount of un-chaperoned time teenagers of the opposite sex have with each other. And if possible avoid sending your teenage children to coed schools. Even though that is not 100% foolproof, condom use isn’t 100% foolproof either. True - as noted above – Ayn Apitropus L’Arayos. But following these guidelines will make abstinence more likely and make rarer the likelihood of illicit sex and the possible contraction of STDs.