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Jewish ethics should be part of sex education for children

ENCINO, Calif., Nov. 9 (JTA) – Sex education, in our family, begins in kindergarten. That’s when the teachers at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Calif., introduce a unit on mammals. You know, those warm-blooded, teeth-bearing, fur-covered creatures that also – and here’s the tricky part – reproduce sexually. It’s invariably the study of the sperm whale that has prompted each of my four sons to come home and ask, “Just how does the sperm get from the male to the female?” Over the years, I have learned to handle this question with dignity, composure and maturity. “Larry,” I shriek to my husband, “get the book!” While Larry reads “Where Did I Come From?” to our curious kindergartner, I realize there are advantages to being the mother of sons – if I had a daughter, I would have to tell her the facts of life. Over the years, I have also learned that the “sperm” part of sperm whale refers not to semen but to spermaceti, the waxy buildup that surrounds the whale’s nasal passages. But the whale is only the beginning. Now, with my sons – ages 7, 9, 11 and 14 – the questions are more complex: Do you have to be married to have a baby? What’s oral sex? What’s Viagra? Can a Jewish person have sex with a Christian? You see, my sons are exposed to influences my husband and I never experienced. Newspapers and newscasters brandish words such as sex, semen, and serial adulterer. Billboards plug AIDS medications and paternity testing. Internet ads offer phone sex, cybersex and same-sex encounters. And unwed single mothers serve as Hollywood heroines. Fortunately, our children are also exposed to other influences we never experienced – a comprehensive sex education program in grades five through nine at their Jewish day school that incorporates basic biology with Jewish sexual values and laws. My husband and I grew up in the murky morality of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when hedonism ruled over halachah, or Jewish law, and when consensual and casual sex ruled over committed and consecrated relationships. Now, as we search for answers to our children’s questions, we find ourselves also looking to Judaism for guidance. In the Torah, we learn that sex is good. It is a natural and intrinsic part of life, a gift to be enjoyed, a mitzvah under prescribed circumstances. Celibacy and asceticism are not celebrated in Judaism. Like all aspects of life, which comes from God and is therefore sacred, sexuality is to be imbued with a sense of kedushah, of holiness. Therefore, sexual conduct must be carried out responsibly, according to Jewish laws and values. This adherence to a higher authority elevates us over the animal kingdom, which operates on impulse, instinct and immediate gratification. To be invested with kedushah, sex must take place only between a man and a woman and only within the context of a legal Jewish marriage. Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” This secures the family as the primary foundation of the Jewish people, a bulwark and refuge against outside forces. Within marriage, sex has two purposes. One is procreation, to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people. This carries out God’s first commandment, in Genesis 1:28, to “be fruitful and multiply.” Equally important, sex is essential for marital harmony; it fosters companionship, physical pleasure, emotional strength and intimacy. And interestingly, the Bible also tells us that sex is a woman’s right and a man’s duty. In fact, a wife may sue for divorce if her sexual needs are not met both regularly and pleasurably. To protect the sanctity of the marriage and the family – and the steady income of divorce lawyers – we have the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The Bible defines adultery for men as sexual relations with a married woman; an encounter with an unmarried or unbetrothed woman didn’t count. Today’s husbands, however, may no longer lean on that loophole. As our sons grow older, my husband and I will continue to advocate sex within a loving Jewish marriage as the ideal. But we are also realistic. People today marry at a later age and engage in sexual relationships at an earlier age. Our children will have to make difficult decisions, especially when faced with powerful sexual urges, peer pressure and precarious social situations. This is where a solid foundation in Jewish ethics can be especially useful. Here are some Judaic concepts that can help our children wrestle with sexual decisions: * Judaism teaches us respect for our own body, which is a wondrous gift from God. We must not abuse it with degrading and dishonorable sexual conduct. * Judaism also teaches us not to put our lives in danger. In a sexual context, this means guarding against AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. This also means guarding against drugs and alcohol, which can increase the possibility of peril. * And most importantly, Judaism teaches us personal responsibility for our actions toward ourselves and toward others. As parents, we want to raise solid Jewish citizens – ethically armed, rigorously responsible and inexplicably fond of the sperm whale. We want to raise children who will discover the joys, rewards and warmth of an intimate, devoted and Jewish sexual relationship.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.