NEW YORK (Dec. 20)
As Catholic theologians debate whether to approve instruction about the use of condoms in Catholic educational programs on AIDS, American Jewish religious leaders are clarifying their own movements’ positions on the issue.
At the Dec. 16 monthly executive meeting of the Rabbinical Council of America, for instance, rabbis representing mainstream Orthodox Judaism passed a resolution that advocates monogamy in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex, rather than the use of condoms, to prevent the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Condoms are “definitely against Jewish law,” according to Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of RCA, who said the resolution would instead focus on the “positive aspects of faithfulness and fidelity.”
By contrast, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central congregational body of Reform Judaism, while also advocating abstinence and monogamy as both Jewish values and preventive measures against AIDS, recommends that educators “talk about condom use and provide (age-appropriate) instruction on how to use a condom properly,” according to Dr. Boris O’Mansky, chairman of UAHC’s Committee on AIDS.
Similarly, a policy paper issued earlier this month by the United States Catholic Conference said providing information about condoms could be permitted if presented within the context of Roman Catholic teachings that advocated “abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage, as well as the avoidance of intravenous drug use.”
Some Catholic bishops, including New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, have voiced their opposition to the policy paper.
NO CENTRAL JEWISH BODY
American Jewry has no body analogous to the Catholic Conference, the administrative arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is responsible for all Roman Catholic teachings. The Synagogue Council of America includes Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representation, but only plays a coordinating role and does not speak for the Reconstructionist and some ultra-Orthodox movements within Judaism.
Thus within and among the various Jewish branches, there are no expectations of the kind of theological consensus sought by the Catholic clergy.
According to David Zweibel, director of government affairs of Agudath Israel of America, strict interpretation of Jewish law forbids the use of condoms because of biblical injunctions against the “destruction of seed,” or onanism. (Exceptions have been allowed by some rabbis, said Zweibel, when a marriage partner had tested positive for AIDS.)
Thus Agudath Israel, a congregational body of strictly Orthodox Jews, “does not teach about (condom use) and makes no bones about it,” said Zweibel.
“We stress abstinence outside of marriage and that drug abuse is not healthy. Our type of education contributes to the type of lifestyle least susceptible to the disease,” he said.
Zweibel pointed out that the New York State Department of Education mandates instruction about AIDS in both public and private schools. But because the regulations call for instruction “consistent with community standards,” Zweibel said that Agudath Israel was able to support them.
INCLUDED AT ORTHODOX SCHOOL
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, immediate past president of the New York Board of Rabbis and principal of the Ramaz School, an Orthodox secondary school in Manhattan, said that students there are informed about the uses of condoms in a sex ethics course taken during the sophomore year.
“From a Jewish and a health point of view one should abstain from premarital intercourse. But one should make available the information that if one is going to do that, a condom is better than nothing,” said Lookstein.
The United Synagogue of America, representing 850 Conservative organizations around the world, recently adopted a resolution on AIDS that “goes counter to what the cardinal (O’Connor) believes,” according to Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman, executive vice president.
The resolution, adopted at United Synagogue’s biennial convention in November, calls for congregations to “convey whatever information is available for (AIDS) prevention,” said Kreitman. “Without endorsing their use, congregations should make available information about condoms.”
Jewish groups are unanimous, however, in expressing concern about the treatment of AIDS sufferers. The Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, for instance, recently issued a “responsum” (Jewish legal opinion) on the subject, saying that people with AIDS “are entitled to full medical treatment and the unstinting compassion of the Jewish community.”
Non-denominational Jewish education organizations, meanwhile, are pulling together AIDS information and allowing educators to make their own choices as to whether or not to include condom education in classroom instruction.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education is readying a lesson plan and bibliography for Jewish educators, and the Jewish Education Service of North America makes resource material on AIDS available to federations and education bureaus through its National Educational Resource Center.