Libido and the Lord: Conference tackles sex and the religious single

Conference at Bar-Ilan University tackles sex and the religious single.

intimacy 88 (photo credit: )
intimacy 88
(photo credit: )
How do modern religious singles in their late twenties and thirties reconcile a faith that preaches abstinence until marriage with a burgeoning libido that has other plans? Over a hundred Bar-Ilan University students, hoping to get some answers, attended a religious dating conference Tuesday evening that featured a liberal Orthodox rabbi, a female educator who teaches Talmud to women, and the screenwriter of the popular TV series Srugim. Some came away disappointed. "I didn't learn anything that I didn't already know," said one participant, a young man in his late twenties, when the conference opened to questions from the audience. "But then what can a bunch of married people know about the difficulties of being religious and single? It's like asking an opulently rich person to give advice to a destitute guy without a home." In recent years public attention has been turned to the plight of thousands of young modern Orthodox Israelis who, after completing army service, yeshiva studies, a university degree and embarking on a career, find themselves single. New and creative matchmaking initiatives have been launched, rabbis have written "dating tip" pamphlets and even the popular TV series Srugim [a nickname for men who wear the crocheted kippot preferred by modern Orthodox Jews] dealing with the trials and tribulations of thirty-something religious singles. The pressures on modern Orthodox men and women are two-fold. As traditionalists, they are expected to get married early and have large families. But as modernists, there is social pressure on both men and women to pursue a successful career. On the one hand young modern Orthodox spend the first years of their adulthood doing pretty much everything their secular peers do: army service, university and career building. But on the other hand they are also expected to adhere to strict halachic limitations on contact with the opposite sex. The Bar-Ilan conference, sponsored by the religious university's Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women and the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism and the Student Union, was ostensibly connected to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As Rackman Center head Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari explained, often the first experiences of intimacy experienced on a date are occasions for sexual intimidation, leading to unwanted sexual contact or physical or verbal abuse. But the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of the difficulties experienced by young men and women who are active members in two different worlds. "Rabbis teach their boys as if we were living in the 18th century," said Malka Piotrekovsky Director of Bruria, a seminary for young women. "But we are living in the modern world. And the rabbis are not preparing their students to relate to women. They are not talking openly and candidly about how to cope with their sexual desires, how to deal with their developing bodies, they do not talk to their students about how to act when they go out on a date. "If they want to, the rabbis have no problem talking about very intimate things. They do not shy away from pushing their students to get married young and start having children early. And they also advise singles who weren't lucky enough to marry to abstain and not to touch. The rabbis are disconnected." Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, head of the Religious Kibbutz Movement's yeshiva on Ma'aleh Gilboa, admitted that more needed to be done to teach young religious men how to express their feelings. "So much emphasis is put on young men's intellectual development, learning secular subjects and learning Talmud," said Gilad. "Many have not developed their emotional side. Some are emotionally handicapped. And this can lead to communication difficulties. But you're not going to get me to say that it is permissible for a boy to touch a girl." Chava Dibon, screenwriter and creator of Srugim, said that many young religious people lack basic social skills needed for dating. "There is a tool box that every religious boy and girl receives that is supposed to help them get through life," said Dibon. "People go to religious preschool, religious elementary school, religious high school. Women do national service and guys go to yeshiva and army and then they are supposed to get married and have religious children. But sometimes it does not work that way and that's when the problems start." Young religious men and women in the audience who were given the opportunity to react to the discussion complained that while their predicament was accurately described by the panel members, they were disappointed that no solutions were offered. In response, Gilad said "at least young people know that they have someone to talk to if they need to."