Virtual Talmud

Regular readers of VT may have noticed my absence from the blog the past couple of weeks – but it has been for the most wonderful of reasons: my wife and I have been extremely busy as we have welcomed our new son, Adir Hanan, into the world. He is a complete miracle and has been warmly embraced into our family by his loving older brother and sister.

Now this may sound like a strange lead-in to the subject we’re taking up this week–the Orthodox Union’s brand new website pushing an abstinence-only approach for Jewish teens. The site is filled with the same dubious health claims that the Christian abstinence movement has been making to support its agenda, with a sprinkling of Jewish perspective. Taken together, this makes for a rather unappealing (and possibly irresponsible) mix that is unlikely to convince anyone to abstain. Why irresponsible? Because many abstinence-only programs and curricula provide misleading information, don’t lead to lower rates of abstinence in participants, and can increase pregnancy and the spread of disease by discouraging use of contraceptives. In hopping on the increasingly-discredited abstinence bandwagon, it’s unclear if the Orthodox Union is actually trying to help teens or if it just wants a stake a claim in cyberspace to the moral high ground.

Now what does all of this have to do with our new son? In Jewish thought sex is generally regarded as a natural and loving act that is not disparaged as it is in some systems of belief. The Song of Songs–at root a celebration of physical love–is a part of our canon, and Rashi claims that the first sexual act (Gen. 4:1) took place while Adam and Eve were still in the Garden of Eden, denying any association between sex and the Christian concept of original sin. The Talmud (B. Yoma 13a) states that the High Priest was required to be married, which is in direct contradistinction to religious traditions that associate sanctity with chastity. Sex is, after all, a necessary ingredient for building a family and the family unit has always been the fundamental building block of Jewish life.

There is no question that sex can also be destructive and that teens are often not emotionally equipped to make healthy choices. But the way to encourage better choices isn’t to present distorted information. Instead, it is to articulate a coherent vision of loving relationships that will encourage young people to respect one another in all aspects of life, and not to single out sex in an effort to turn it into something disgraceful or to make sexual urges and desires something to be ashamed of. This is hard work and is much more complex than a website can handle. Let’s hope we can find a way to affirm healthy choices and responsible relationships without demonizing our very human, and necessary, sexuality.

Read the Full Debate: Should We Teach Abstinence to Teens?

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