Thursday, September 01, 2016

Sex Education in Judaism: An Educator Responds.

Guest contribution by Paul Shaviv

Paul Shaviv
Yesterday, a post on sex education in religious schools generated a spirited discussion about whether it is appropriate at all… and if so, how to go about it. That spurred me to ask Paul Shaviv, a respected educator if we could have his input. He has graciously accepted my invitation to do so. His words follow.

The fundamental question about sex ed in Orthodox Jewish schools boils down to this:  do you provide education about the world in which students are actually living, or do you only provide them with education about some idealized world which doesn’t exist?

The issue is further complicated by the bizarre and ever more extreme attitudes to sex and gender separation (masquerading as “tznius”, but actually far more sinister) which have been developing in the Orthodox world in recent years, which all but prevent a rational discussion of the subject.

We live in a complicated world.  Some generally-held attitudes and social movements in contemporary society are healthy; many may be judged less so.  Children need survival skills, and they need essential knowledge to navigate their way through life.  The Orthodox community has, within it, fundamental differences about the definition of “essential knowledge”, and I offer the following in the awareness that we are talking about a community where increasing numbers do not wish their children to learn to read, write or even speak English.  In that context, discussion about sex ed is futile.

Having said that, here are some general points for consideration.  (Some echo opinions already made in the ‘Comments’ to Harry’s posting.)

The reporting of sexual abuse and molestation in every type of school and community is so widespread that it is impossible to argue that children do not need comprehensive education about how human desires – healthy and unhealthy – operate; how to recognize predatory sexual behavior; and how to protect themselves against it.

Apart from protection against the negative, they also need guidance about the positive, including realistic advice about growing up, the beauty of human beings and of human relationships; and the enhancements which a Jewish religious lifestyle can offer them.

Children need clear, factual knowledge about puberty, adolescence, and the biology of reproduction.  Without it they are confused, often afraid, and also extremely vulnerable. 

It is entirely possible to teach about contraception (and all other forms of sexual activity and human relationships) while pointing out that there are some practices which halachic Judaism approves of, and some which it doesn’t.  Every teenager can understand this, just as they understand that the McDonalds on their main street is not an option for them.  If they can understand kosher and treif, they can understand that condoms are not halachically approved.

In every part of society, in every part of the Orthodox world, there will be a range of behavior.  The difference in sex ed is the that the consequences of ‘breaking the rules’ are much more far-reaching in human, emotional and social terms.  If parents are not giving their children guidance, then the schools have to.  It should not be done in a “values vacuum”, but – as mentioned above – our community seems to be totally unprepared and ill-equipped to discuss these matters.  Perhaps it is time for some teacher-education initatives?

The emergence and acceptance of LBGT lifestyles, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the associated cultures permeate American society.  No teen is unaware of that world, and, practically speaking, they cannot be isolated or protected from it. 

Altogether, sex ed and social ed can only really take place in a context of integrated and healthy community values.  I think we are very far from that place, which is why the discussion seems to be so fragmentary.  In some Jewish schools, sex ed is left to the biology teachers (where biology is taught…); in others, it is idiosyncratic, and probably only confuses the students further. In many it is non-existent.

Every community has to formulate its positive, reasonable and healthy educational policy.  I am not optimistic. (The article in the Forward gave little or no indication of what Rabbi Yanklowitz’ ideas actually are, so I can’t comment on them).  The only thing that I can say with some certainty (based on experience) is that scare tactics, negativity and ranting against the ‘perversions’ and ‘evils’ of ‘others’ will have zero educational effect, and only cause the students to a) be curious and b) probably resent that instruction in later years.  Ignoring it is also not an option – to do so is to betray our children.

Sexual norms, and sexual behavior in society – including in Jewish society – are changing rapidly.  The Jewish family is changing.  Many Jewish schools have children of same-sex parents.   Every Jewish school and yeshivah sees more children of single parents, or ‘blended families’, and of other family structures which were far less common a generation or so ago. Historically, schools were very often in the forefront of community and religious change.  Maybe this is an issue where it will happen again?

After a long career in leading Jewish schools, Paul Shaviv is now a consultant and trouble-shooter for Jewish and non-Jewish independent schools.