Whenever I leave a group of teenagers or young adults where I have led a session on Jewish approaches to sexuality, I am reminded of how few healthy and normal spaces there are to learn and discuss these issues in safe and sophisticated ways while maintaining modesty.
The conversation tends to be much more open and thought provoking than the young adults anticipated since Judaism takes a nuanced approach to issues of sexuality. Every religion places heavy emphasis upon the soul. Judaism is certainly no exception, but the religion also places heavy emphasis upon the value of the human body and the reality that we live in a material world. Consider this teaching (Midrash – Leviticus Rabbah 34:3):
‘He who does good to his own living being is a man of piety’ (Proverbs, 11:17). Such a one was Hillel the Elder. After taking leave of his disciples, he proceeded to walk along with them. His disciples asked him, “Master, where are you going?” He answered, “To perform a mitzvah.” “What mitzvah?” “To bathe in the bathhouse.” “But is this a mitzvah?” “It is indeed! Just as they take the icons of kings and set them up in theaters and circuses, and someone is appointed to look after them, and he scrubs and washes them down, and he receives a salary for the work. And what’s more, he is esteemed as one of the notables of the empire. All the more so am I required to scrub and wash myself – I, who have been created in God’s image and likeness, as is written, ‘In the image of God He made man’! [Genesis. 9:6]”
This represents the anomalous notion that humans resemble G-d in some physical way (not in an intellectual or spiritual manner) and thus we must embrace the sanctity of the body. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, went further, arguing for the religious value of exercise and of strengthening the body (Orot HaTechiya 33):
We need a healthy body. We have dealt much in soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh no less than holy spirit…
Our return (teshuva) will succeed only if it will be–with all its splendid spirituality–also a physical return, which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, mighty, solid bodies, a fiery spirit radiating over powerful muscles….
The exercise the Jewish youths in the Land of Israel engage in to strengthen their bodies, in order to be powerful children of the nation, enhances the spiritual prowess of the exalted righteous, who engage in mystical unifications of divine names, to increase the accentuation of divine light in the world. And neither revelation of light can stand without the other…
Sex is a normal human activity and the Torah seeks to elevate this human encounter to make it sacred. It is to be learned and discussed as it is part of Torah. A comical Talmudic story illustrates what happens when parents and educators do not openly discuss and teach on the matter (Brachot 62a):
Kahana once went in and hid under his Rabbi’s bed. He heard him chatting and playing and joking and “taking care of his needs.” He said to him: One would think that Papa’s mouth had never tasted this dish before! The Rabbi said to him, “Kahana! Are you in here?!? Get out!! This is not appropriate!” Kahana replied: This too is Torah, and I must learn!
This Talmudic episode (while taken to an extreme) demonstrates the importance of parents and teachers talking with their children and students about sex and sexuality: “This too is Torah!” Judaism has all kinds of laws and wisdom about family purity, birth control, loving empathy, the power of touch and intimacy, and much more.
Of course, we all reject the wanton licentiousness of certain ancient pagan civilizations, which encouraged abusive sexual relations based on class and wealth. Nevertheless, even today there are signs that we have not learned the lessons of Torah, and sex is often used as a symbol of abuse and oppression. For example, it is estimated that there are nearly 748,000 sex offenders in the United States, ranging from pedophiles to those who assault their significant others. In addition, it is difficult to determine how many women are raped in the United States annually, as the majority are not reported. Estimates range from 300,000 (reported) to about 1.3 million (based on surveys indicating that 1 in 5 women have been raped). Even with these alarming figures, twelve other nations have rape statistics that are worse.
While certainly less physically abusive, adultery is also an improper use of sex. A survey conducted by the National Science Foundation about 5 years ago concluded that, while the percentage of adult infidelity tends to be about 10 percent, the adultery rate has been rising among people older than 60 (28 percent for men, 15 percent for women) and among couples age 35 and younger (20 percent for men, 15 percent for women. Perhaps all those ads for drugs that correct dysfunction have had an unintended consequence, and the increasingly heterogeneous workplace, with long hours and many business trips, has created temptations beyond what existed in the past. Or perhaps the bonds of committed relationships have been weakened and the sanctity of intimacy has been diminished.
In the secular context, our American society has tried various approaches to introduce sex to children in a responsible way. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted research on teenage heterosexual activity. While virtually all teenagers have been exposed to some form of sex education, far more have been taught about how to say no to sex (81 percent boys, 87 percent girls) than have been taught about birth control methods (62 percent boys, 70 percent girls), figures that reflect the values prevalent during President George W. Bush’s tenure. However, the CDC concluded that the most effective way to achieve delayed sexual activity and use of birth control was related to parental communication with their teenage children.
Indeed, programs that only deal with abstinence and avoid any discussion of birth control or avoidance of sexually transmitted infection (STI) may backfire. Several academic studies have concluded that abstinence only programs do not reduce but may increase the level of STIs and teen pregnancy, and often spread false ideas due to a religious bias that runs counter to scientific fact. According to CDC data from 2006-2008, nearly 40 percent of adolescent girls age 15-17 have engaged in sexual activities with the opposite sex, while among boys of the same age about 48 percent have engaged in these sexual activities. Thus, the preservation of ignorance is worse than exposing children to knowledge that they already may be experimenting with.
Previously I explored the importance of sex education in religious schools. There is such a demand for open conversations about the body, sexuality, and holiness today and I hope educators will embrace these opportunities to help honestly and creatively guide young adults toward more informed, reflective, and intentional choices. The spiritual and emotional value of sex is not lost by talking and learning about it modestly and appropriately.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”