Teaching Jewish Sexual Ethics

December 1, 2007
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Danya Ruttenberg

Some years ago, I taught several classes on Jewish sexual ethics to teenagers. Each time, I’d start the semester by asking students to tell me about “kosher sex.” The students would immediately come forth with a list of impressions of traditional Judaism, some more accurate than others: “you can’t do it when you have your period,” “you can’t have sex until you’re married,” “you have to have sex through a hole in a sheet,” “you can’t be gay,” and so forth. The growing list on the blackboard comprised almost entirely limitations and prohibitions. Certainly, there are important limits worth discussing in any conversation about sex, but teenagers — or anyone, really — seeking to understand themselves, human relationships, and their burgeoning sexuality, need something more than just a bunch of “don’ts.”

After the first round of brainstorming, I asked my students to define “kosher sex” according to their own values and sensibilities. Suddenly, the list would get more interesting: respect and communication were seen as important as safe sex, sober sex, and emotional commitment. They emphasized the importance of consent, caring, and clarity.

Many of the ideas that my students articulated are Jewish values, even if they weren’t labeled as such. Of course, Judaism demands consent and teaches respect, and many rabbis encourage condom use under the rubric of pikuach nefesh (saving a life). (This principle should be regarded as a baseline when we consider the messages we send regarding same-sex relationships, given that about a third of queer youth attempt suicide.) The importance of caring for oneself and others lies at the heart of our sacred texts.

Even otherwise liberal people often fear that speaking frankly about sexuality, in all of its messy complexity, will encourage young adults to become sexually active — but this is unrealistic. Young adults in America are having sex at younger ages, irrespective of patently ineffective “abstinence education.” (It should also be noted that students who take pledges of abstinence are more likely to forego condoms and contraception when they do become sexually active — an average of only eighteen months after taking said pledges.) If anything, teaching Jewish teenagers about the importance of mutuality, respect for self and others, and about the sacred nature of intimate connections will help them to make decisions that are not born out of insecurity, peer pressure, or even, perhaps, hormones detached from the heart.

There are myriad Jewish texts that can help us talk about Jewish sexual ethics in a way that cuts to the heart of the enterprise of loving: The Song of Songs tells us about embodiment, sensuality, and reciprocity. Martin Buber’s I-Thou helps us learn not only how to see the “other” and how not to exploit, but how to understand that the “I” of the equation is just as worthy of consideration and respect. Kabbalistic literature invites us to consider the ways in which our sexuality could be a path to union with the Divine, and the Torah portion Kedoshim teaches that becoming holy means using our sexuality with great care. Even concepts that might not be relevant in contemporary praxis can prove fertile ground; after all, if the mishnah in the talmudic tractate Kiddushin suggests that a couple can be betrothed through the sex act, what does that tell us about the kinds of lasting, complicated bonds that are created when we come together?

Of course, teaching about the specifics of Judaism and sex can also be instructive and help us pass on our tradition even as we challenge the sexism or homophobia within it.

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Danya Ruttenberg is in her last year of rabbinical school at the Zeigler School of American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles. Editor of Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press) and a forthcoming anthology on Judaism and sexuality (NYU Press, 2009), she is the author of the forthcoming Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press, 2008). 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. This is part of how we learn to love one another and to serve God.

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