You Shall be Holy

December 1, 2007
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Jillian Cogan

Growing up in a strong Reform Jewish community and attending a Jewish summer camp, provided teachers, counselors, and educators that were open and willing to answer all questions. The concept of “kosher sex” never entered the minds of my fellow religious schoolmates or camp friends, though, until high school. One situation sticks out in my mind: During our last summer as campers at URJ Camp Harlam, we had the choice of what classes, and one of the topics was Jewish sexual ethics. What my friends and I discovered was similar to what Danya Ruttenberg describes in her essay: a list of “don’ts” instead of what Judaism actually says about having a healthy relationship. It was during this session that we learned about Judaism’s different texts and stances on sexuality.

My camp encounter with Jewish sexual ethics was a key moment in formulating my personal belief system. At the 2005 URJ Biennial, I heard Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s sermon where he addressed the problems with sexual ethics and education within Judaism. As he put it, “the guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is k’doshim tih’yu, ‘You shall be holy,’ which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God.” After listening intently to the sermon I became more aware of how Judaism speaks about sexuality.

Today, the Reform movement is beginning to educate children (beginning with bar/bat mitzvah preparation) on Jewish sexual ethics. This initiative will offer a new generation of young Jews a more stable set of values. I applaud Danya’s suggestion — “We only have to be brave enough to proclaim that this, too, is Torah, and to be willing to discuss Jewish sexuality with the frankness and fearlessness that it deserves” — because it’s important to explore sexual ethics as a teen in order to solidify a set of values that one can carry on throughout life.

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Jillian Cogan, from Cherry Hill, NJ, is a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington. She served two years as the Religious and Cultural VP of NFTY-PAR. In her spare time, she plays guitar and watches “Entourage” with her friends. She hopes to attend Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as a rabbinical student.

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