All about the beards and the bees

By Geoffrey Alderman, May 2, 2014

Were you as shocked as I was on reading the JC’s April 18 front page? Were you shocked for the right reasons?

I refer to the report about whether “sex” should be taught in state-funded Orthodox Jewish schools. To judge by the results of the YouGov poll commissioned by the JC, which formed the basis of the story, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Asked if such schools should be permitted to refrain from any form of sex education lessons, 82 per cent of respondents answered in the negative. Only nine per cent believed the schools should be given the freedom to drop lessons on sex.

Let’s suppose a different question had been asked. Let’s suppose respondents had been asked whether sex was in fact taught at all in state-funded Orthodox Jewish schools.

I’ll wager that more or less 100 per cent of respondents would have answered “no.” And I’m telling you now that more or less 100 per cent of respondents would have been more or less 100 per cent wrong. The fact of the matter is that the mechanics of human reproduction are taught in every Orthodox Jewish school, including those that don’t receive a penny of taxpayers’ money. The subject – sex – is taught, badly.

How do I know that the facts of human reproduction are taught in all these schools? In each and every one of these schools the sedra of the week — the portion of the Torah that will be read the following Shabbat in every Orthodox synagogue and shtibl – forms a staple of the curriculum. Here are just a few of the verses that are encompassed within that set text:

Adam knew Havva his wife, and she became pregnant. [Genesis 4:1]
The girl was good looking – a virgin: no man had known her. [Genesis 24:16]
If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual sickness… both of them shall be cut off from among their people. [Leviticus 20:18]
If a man takes a wife and goes in unto her, but later comes to hate her … and claims she wasn’t a virgin when they married … if her father is unable to produce tokens of her virginity … she will be stoned to death. [Deuteronomy 22: 13-21]

In the first example, we learn — and, more importantly, pupils of both sexes learn — that Adam’s wife conceived because he “knew” her. Does anyone reading this column think that Jewish children do not ask — and do not know — what this means?

Or that, in the second example, pupils do not grasp that a virgin is a woman whom no man has “known?” Does any of you suppose that inquiring young minds do not wonder why lying with a woman during her “menstrual sickness” is sinful? Or, more basically, what a woman’s “menstrual sickness” actually is, in this context? As to the fourth example, I grant that the verse might have been more explicit; but the phrase “tokens of her virginity” is explicit enough, is it not?

My point is simply this: the mechanics of the human reproductive system are taught in every Jewish school. Unfortunately, they are, more often than not, taught very badly.

In most Orthodox schools, sex education is not seen as a branch of the curriculum in its own right. The fact that it is integral to limudei kodesh [religious instruction] is deemed wholly sufficient for the purposes of education. Consequently, it is not taught by experts in “relationships,” but by those skilled merely in Bible reading.

In general, these no doubt otherwise worthy individuals haven’t a clue how to answer “awkward” questions, which they find more than mildly embarrassing. So the questions (what is a woman’s “sickness?” etc) are forbidden. Which simply means that young inquiring minds eventually find the answers, but not — alas — in the classroom.
It’s being suggested that rather than having to conform to the national curriculum in the matter of sex education, Orthodox schools that are currently state-aided could become academies instead.

While not wishing to court controversy by entering the debate about academies, I do nonetheless hope that this step will prove unnecessary. Goodwill on all sides should ensure that all Orthodox schools give sex education the centrality it deserves — and upon which no less a book than the Torah unequivocally insists.

Last updated: 8:45am, May 2 2014