Jonathan Muskat

Don’t Alienate Our Teenagers

I teach at an all-girls yeshiva high school. Recently, a student asked me about the boundaries of violating “gilui arayot” (forbidden sexual behavior). It is a well-known halacha that we are required to die rather than commit the sin of “gilui arayot.” She has some friends who are not “shomer negiah,” i.e., who do not refrain from physically touching boys, and she inquired whether actions like holding hands, high-fives, or other forms of physical contact with a boy were included in this definition of “gilui arayot.” I explained to her that according to a straightforward interpretation of halacha, the prohibition of “gilui arayot” pertains specifically to actual relations. However, I also conveyed that halacha acknowledges the concept of “abizrayhu d’gilui arayot,” which encompasses behaviors “associated” with forbidden sexual conduct. Affectionate touching or seclusion with someone of the opposite sex would fall under this category. Some rishonim maintain that just as one is obligated to forfeit his or her life rather than engage in “gilui arayot,” the same applies to “abizrayhu d’gilui arayot.”

Nevertheless, I advised the student against using such terminology when discussing the seriousness of prohibitions regarding boys and girls engaging in physical contact. Many Orthodox teenagers grapple with adhering to various halachot, whether concerning Shabbat observance or being “shomer negiah”. In fact, another student informed me about peers in another prominent yeshiva high school who do not fully observe Shabbat or the halachot of “shomer negiah.” She expressed surprise at how many of her friends identify as Orthodox and attend an Orthodox yeshiva high school but fail to uphold these halachot. She questioned whether these students are truly Orthodox and, if so, why they struggle with basic halachot.

I believe that we must navigate carefully when educating today’s teenagers. On one hand, we must clarify to our children and students that our halachic system entails obligations, not mere suggestions. It is not exclusively for those who wish to be stringent, nor is it merely a set of admirable customs. We must encourage teenagers to observe all aspects of our halachic system, even those that are challenging and diverge from mainstream culture. “Mitzvah” does not mean “good deed”; it signifies “being commanded,” and we lead a life bound by obligations, regardless of their spiritual resonance.

However, raising teenagers is a prolonged journey. Adolescents naturally explore and endure spiritual and psychological fluctuations during this phase. This exploration can be taxing for parents, but it is crucial not to make a child feel rejected or excluded from our Orthodox community due to struggles with certain halachot, even ones integral to our identity as halachic Jews. Criticizing a teenage girl for affectionately holding hands with a boy by equating it to a sin punishable by death according to some halachic authorities may alienate her from the halachic community. Similarly, denouncing a teenager for texting on Shabbat as someone who is outside the bounds of Orthodoxy could further distance her and diminish the likelihood of her return to halachic observance. The key to nurturing successful teenagers is maintaining a strong bond with them, engaging in open dialogue, setting a positive example, and maintaining faith in them.

The Torah advocates for “tochacha” (rebuke), encouraging us to inspire others struggling with religious observance to adhere to halacha, but we must offer tochacha effectively—with love and sensitivity, avoiding language or actions that may alienate the listener.

So, indeed, affectionate touching between boys and girls constitutes a serious transgression, as does texting on Shabbat. However, let us strive to strike a balance by emphasizing to teenagers the importance of “hitchayvut” (obligation) in halacha, while also using language that conveys an invitation to always return if they stumble spiritually, without ever writing them off as rejected.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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