The Torah can teach religious schools a lot about censorship

The holy book shows us honesty is the best policy, writes Daniel Sugarman

July 04, 2018 08:53

A Charedi secondary school had been censoring images and descriptions in books the school deemed inappropriate, Ofsted has announced, surprising almost nobody.

“In science, pupils are not permitted to study animal or human reproduction,” the education watchdog said of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School.

“Leaders do not fulfil their statutory duty to provide sex and relationships education… photographs portraying men and women on the same page, for instance in a crowd, had been redacted.”

Some things never change.

I went to two all-male religious Jewish secondary schools and finished more than a decade ago.

In the first, which was considered to have a stricter Charedi ethos, pages of our biology textbook were glued together before they were issued to us.

I ended up leaving that school and going to a more relaxed one, where textbooks were left unscathed. But even there, there was no sex or relationship education whatsoever. As far as the syllabus was concerned, girls were a mystical species, like unicorns.

I have some extremely disturbing news for Charedi schools within our community.

It has come to my attention that there is a book available to our students, filled with some of the most X-rated material imaginable. And all the students are reading it. In fact, it’s part of the curriculum.

I was reviewing it over the weekend. There are a number of very helpful commentaries provided, just in case you missed any of the explicit nuances.

In one chapter, the book describes how a party of non-Jewish women set out to seduce a group of Jewish men. The leader of the women, a Midianite Princess by the name of Kozbi, took the fancy of one of the most senior leaders of the Jewish people, a tribal prince named Zimri.

“Behold! A man of the children of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman near his brothers in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire assembly of the children of Israel,” the book says.

In case it wasn’t clear what this means, the commentaries inform us that it means they had public sex. Very public sex.

At which point, we are told that Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, took a spear and executed the paramours in flagrante delicto. The commentary helpfully provides that extra bit of graphic detail; apparently, he gained access to the Casa Amor into which Zimri and Kozbi had moved, ran them both through the genitals with a spear, then lifted said spear, with the two transfixed like some gruesome shish-kebab, rammed it into the ground outside and left them there for everyone to see.

Does this sound like a book we want our children reading? Surely not.

And yet, every religious Jewish child does. After all, this is the Torah, at the end of the portion of Parshat Balak.

There’s plenty more where that came from: incest (Lot and his daughters), prostitution (Tamar and Judah); every sort of forbidden sexual relationship, including homosexuality and bestiality (helpfully read to all Shul goers on Yom Kippur day).

All-in-all, it sounds like it’s time to get those thick, black, heavy duty marker pens ready. There’s some urgent censoring to be done.

This may sound deprecating but I’m trying to make a serious point.

My primary school teacher would skip over the more “colourful” explanations written by Rashi, perhaps the best known commentator on the Torah. He describes semen as shooting “like an arrow.” The teacher would try to deflect our attention by saying “this bit isn’t very interesting.”

Children aren’t idiots. We all went away and looked at that Rashi. And all the others that the adults were mysteriously reluctant to teach us.

In primary school, the teachers had a point given our age and, with the way we had been raised, a frank discussion of these topics would seem unwise. 

But longer-term, censorship doesn’t work and I believe the Torah endorses that approach; honesty is the best policy.

The Torah is explicit precisely because it wants us to know how the world works.

At a certain point in one’s teens, religious schools need to engage with pupils and say: “There are these concepts in the world.

"This is how relationships work. This is what we, as Orthodox Jews, think about these issues. We don’t talk about them in a public setting, but you need to know about them, because ignorance hasn’t been an option since Adam and Chava (Eve) ate from the Tree of Knowledge.”

I am confident that Charedi schools have educators and Rabbinic leaders who can thread their way through a challenging landscape.

But if they fail to even make the effort, I believe that Ofsted will force the schools to act, which they will consider far worse.

These institutions have stalled for too long, and are running out of time. They need to make tough choices, and they need to make them now.

Daniel Sugarman is a JC reporter.

July 04, 2018 08:53

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