Friday, December 09, 2011

Sex and the Orthodox Single Girl

Shmutz! That is most likely what any of my rebbeim would have called it.

It was a lurid tale about a sexual encounter. Not really all that newsworthy in the scheme of things today. Certainly it was not pornographic by modern standards. It would hardly rate a PG rating in a movie if it were shot without exposing any nudity. And yet it has caused quite a furor at Yeshiva University. That’s because this particular tale was written for the online student paper, the YU Beacon, by a female student who attends YU’s Stern College for Women.

The anonymous writer describes herself as modern Orthodox. In vivid detail she describes to the reader what was on her mind as she anticipates and then has that encounter with a young presumably Orthodox male student from the same university. Afterward she expresses regret by saying, ‘The only thing I learn is how to do the walk of shame the day after’.

I don’t know if the tale was fact or fiction. But this kind of thing does happen.

It may seem strange to some people. If one is religious enough to care about Shabbos and Kashrus, wouldn’t they be careful to not violate one of the most serious transgressions in Judaism (Hilchos Niddah)? One would think so. But the sex drive is very strong and Chazal recognized this. That is why they said ‘Ayn Apitropus L’Arayos’ – there is no guardian for sex. Everyone is susceptible to temptations of the flesh no matter how religious they are.

I’m not sure how prevalent this phenomenon is. My guess is that it is relatively rare. I am also convinced that to the extent that it happens at all - it is not the exclusive domain of Yeshiva University. Most religious students would of course never do anything like that even though their sex drive is very alive and well – no matter what their background.

That is why there are so many barriers erected between the sexes in Orthodoxy – especially among Charedim and even more so in the Chasidic world. In fact one of the reasons Chasidim get married so young is because they understand the power of the sex drive in young people. It is not uncommon for a young Chasidic couple to get married while both are still in their teens.

The culture of modern Orthodoxy that is Yeshiva University does not discourage the mingling of the sexes. Although the men and women are geographically separated, there is plenty of socializing. Most of the time it is fairly innocent. Sometimes it even results in an engagement and succesful marriage.

But… combined with the fact that students from modern backgrounds imbibe quite liberally in the culture with all of its sexually provocative images – my guess is that it probably makes them more vulnerable.

I think that makes a story like this an important one. Fact or fiction at the very least it tells you what’s on the mind of at least some Orthodox young people. And that ought not to be buried into our collective subconscious. It is far better to get it out into the open and to talk about it. If a school is going to properly deal with this problem they have to understand what is going on in the minds of their students.

The question arises as to whether a story like this belongs in a student publication of Yeshiva University a school that believes in Torah and Mada. On the university (Mada) side freedom of expression is paramount and ought not to be censored. On the Yeshiva (Torah) side it is highly inappropriate to be telling lurid tales like this… even if it generates much needed discussion.

Ideally Torah and Mada should never be in conflict. But not all Mada is values neutral, and when those values come into conflict with Torah values, they ought to be put aside. Shumtz does not belong anywhere in an institution with the word Yeshiva as part of its title.

YU President Richard Joel and their student council correctly asked them to take down the article. At first they agreed and then later they put it back up. Editors at the Beacon did not like the idea of censorship and has decided to sever its ties with YU instead. I agree with that decision. Whatever the merit of an article like this, it does not belong in a religiously affiliated publication – at least not in the form it was written.

That said there needs to be a conversation about these problems. They are not going away. Although highly inappropriate - perhaps a shocking article like this is what’s needed to kick start the discussion. But the Beacon was wrong to do it under the auspices of YU. So breaking off from YU was the right thing to do. I just wish they had done that first.