Sex and faith on campus

Rabbis concerned the academic world presents new spiritual challenges.

Hebrew university 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hebrew university 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
They're young, intelligent, good-looking and single - and their libidos are at a peak. They meet others like themselves on campus, in class, in the cafeteria and during activities held by the students' unions. Sometimes the result is just flirtation, but sometimes it goes farther. Life on the campuses of the nation's colleges and universities is not just about scholarship and book-knowledge. For some secular-minded students, free sex is a rite of passage, a phase in one's development. But for an increasing number of religious youths, the encounter with the secular world results in culture shock that can totally undermine a religious world-view still in its formative stages. "My rabbis warned me before I went to learn in university," said one religious female student. "They told me that the lecturers and professor there teach apostasy and ideas that contradict religious faith. "I've been at university for two years and have never been taught ideas subversive to my faith. Nevertheless, my [level of observance] has plummeted. The danger is not in the classroom; it is during the breaks, around campus, on the lawn, in the coffee shop. The atmosphere here is very secular. And it is very tempting." This religious student's testimony is one of several quoted by Yona Goodman, a veteran religious Zionist educator, in a controversial article entitled "Culture Shock." The article, which appeared in the recent edition of Tzohar, an influential periodical written by and for religious Zionist rabbis, has aroused a flurry of interest and controversy in modern Orthodox circles. In coming weeks, Tzohar, an organization of modern Orthodox, Zionist rabbis, will be holding a special meeting with rabbis and educators involved in providing spiritual assistance to young religious men and women on college and university campuses. The goal: to formulate and institute an educational and spiritual framework that can help young religious students grapple with the temptations and challenges they meet on campus. "If in the past the main spiritual danger for young religious people has been army service, today the new frontier is college and university campuses," said Goodman this week in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. "If we don't do something, we are liable to have a repeat of what happened in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when hundreds of young religious men went into the IDF and ended up removing their kippot for good," he said. In the late 1980s, a concerted attempt was made to combat the secular influences within the IDF. The result was the creation of pre-military yeshiva-academies. These academies were geared toward religious male high school graduates who rejected the shortened army service advocated by Hesder Yeshivot but who were aware of the potential spiritual dangers of immersing oneself in a very secular environment for at least three years. Now rabbis are contemplating the establishment of pre-academic academies, or on-campus yeshivot like the one already established on Bar-Ilan's campus, to help young students deal with the potential spiritual pitfalls of campus life. However, preparing religious men and women for the challenges of college and university is proving to be more complex than preparing them for IDF service. "It is much easier to teach young men that protecting the land of Israel and the Jewish people is a mitzvah than it is to teach that learning some secular thinker like Foucalt is a mitzvah," said Goodman. Goodman argued that from an educational point of view, it was important for young religious people to see their academic studies as activity that fell within the framework of religious adherence. If not, they were liable to see themselves as transgressors, and would therefore be more apt to embrace secular behavior. "They are liable to say, 'If I am already doing something against Judaism, then I may as well go all the way,'" said Goodman. "The learning of [pure] sciences is more accepted in religious circles because it is seen as learning the wonders of God's creation. Learning practical knowledge such as law or business administration is also accepted, because there is a religious obligation to support one's family. Learning social sciences or the humanities, on the other hand, is more problematic," said Goodman. Goodman teaches at Orot Girls' College and is a former general secretary of Bnei Akiva. He has made a name for himself as a leading educator thanks to his work with religious Zionist youths in the aftermath of the Gaza Disengagement and the Amona demonstration, two of the most ideologically and spiritually traumatic incidents experienced by religious Zionism since the Oslo Accords. Goodman said that there was currently an unprecedented number of religious men and women studying in colleges and universities. This, he said, was due to structural changes in the job market which have made it impossible to get a well-paying job without at least a master's degree. Another factor contributing to the rise, said Goodman, was increasing gender equality. It has become more accepted for religious Zionist women to pursue careers. "I don't have exact numbers," said Goodman, "But everyone with whom I speak, including heads of yeshivot, ulpanot, pre-military academies and educators agree there has been a real boom in the number of religious people entering the academic world." The secular life they encounter on campus - especially the sexual permissiveness - presents a serious challenge. For the first time, these young people are on their own without spiritual guidance, in a coed environment. Even young men who served in the IDF often did so in predominately religious units. Young women's national service was often done in a religious environment, or while they lived at home. Suddenly, they are thrown into an environment in which social relations are formed in accordance with common academic interests and not on the basis of common religious adherence. "The guys are not in separate, predominately religious army units or in Hesder Yeshiva. The girls are not in national service. Suddenly they have a lot of freedom and are thrown into a high intensity meeting with a very secular, sexually permissive environment. The sad result is many spiritual casualties. We as rabbis and educators have an obligation to help."