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Beyond Guilt & Shame: Articulating a Modern Orthodox Ethic of Sexuality

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz
February 18, 2021

Speak about sexuality in a halakhic context, as we do in 10th grade Beit Midrash and health classes, and the conversation inevitably turns to guilt and shame. Teaching our students about the halakhic strictures around sexuality while acknowledging our physical natures and desires, and honestly confronting the challenges of living out these halakhic demands in the modern world, mean that we have to talk about the reality that most–all?–people fall short of those demands at some point. And that leads us to talking about the guilt and shame that for so many accompany that falling-short.

This isn’t just a topic in our classroom teaching and discussion. In reading the work of researchers who have studied sexuality in our community; in speaking with educators who address these issues among emerging adults; in my own experiences speaking about these issues on numerous college campuses; the conversation always, always comes back to guilt and shame. Some find the guilt and shame around sexuality consume them and damage their emotional wellbeing. Some find that the guilt and shame negatively color their subsequent marriages and intimate relationships. And some, in seeking to avoid the source of guilt and shame, leave Orthodoxy entirely.

In developing our beit midrash and health curricula, we devoted substantial time to addressing, and working to mitigate, that guilt and shame and their destructive effects. We think carefully about the messages that we give our students, trying to pull off the tricky balance of maintaining fealty to the demands of halakha while communicating understanding about the challenges of meeting those demands, and delivering positive messages about sexuality generally.

In the broader Orthodox community, there are thinkers and teachers working to communicate messages that reaffirm the possibility of connection to God and religious growth even from a place of sexual sin. Rabbanit Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, in her doctoral dissertation which is essential reading on this topic, draws upon the teachings of chasidic masters to frame sin as an integral part of a person’s religious trajectory, and even necessary for religious growth. And from the work of independent scholar Dr. David Landes z”l, I learned that a central theme of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s spiritual teaching to young men at Yeshiva University, where he serves as mashpia, is reaffirmation of God’s love even in the face of sexual sin or shortcoming. (Rabbi Jonathan Kroll subsequently drew my attention to a long series of shiurim that Rabbi Weinberger has delivered on this topic which can be found on yutorah.org.)

But in some recent conversations, with both high school students and the young professionals of the Siach Graduate Fellowship, we’ve encountered a different conversation. They were still talking about the demands of halakha, and acknowledging the ways in which they fell short of them. But that honesty just was not accompanied by concomitant feelings of guilt and shame.

I hasten to add that that is a qualitative impression. We haven’t done a study or tracked Orthodox teens’ evolving attitudes towards sexuality over the years. (Now that we have done such a study, in the area of substance use, we are aware of the vast gulf between our subjective impression, and rigorously-collected and -analyzed data.) Nevertheless, this seems noteworthy, new.

If we are going to engage with the teenagers and young adults of our community where they are, if we are going to teach Torah values in this essential area, we need to try to understand this development, and think about how it should shape how we teach and communicate in these areas.

So how do we account for the changes that we (anecdotally, incrementally) are seeing?

Let’s set aside “kids-these-days” handwringing about how these teens and young adults are unserious as Jews, usually in comparison to some imagined past when all students were on board with the program and committed. Kids these days aren’t worse. They are knowledgeable, thoughtful, religiously engaged. But they are the products of the time in which they live, the culture from which they have emerged–as was every other generation before them. And if we are going to educate them effectively, and help them find meaning in and connection to Torah, it is not going to be by telling them, or thinking, how much better we were at their age. It doesn’t mean we have to concede to where they are, either–but we need to understand where they are, and consider what messages they need to and can hear in order to grow.

So setting general yeridat hadorot (decline of the generations) arguments aside, what explanations can we posit for the apparent reduction in guilt and shame around sexuality, and specifically of the ways in which individuals’ behavior in this area falls short of halakha’s demands?

One answer might be that they simply do not grant halakha’s right to legislate in this area–that in the area of sexuality and intimacy, the halakha has no right to dictate what we do, or don’t. This would be understandable as an incursion of an individualistic Western ethos into our community. Interestingly, though, I don’t find that our students think this way. They aren’t saying these laws are presumptively illegitimate, and can be ignored. Instead, through their lack of shame, they are communicating some things that are more interesting.

First, they are communicating that our attempt to give students a healthy appreciation of their bodies, and of the normal ways human bodies experience and enact sexuality, has been very successful. Our students hear that sexual feelings are healthy and normal, that the sexual actions that result from those feelings, even if they are not halakhic, do not automatically yield dire physical and emotional consequences. Abandoning the “scared straight” approach has many advantages, and one follow-on effect (I imagine some of my readers will see this as a clear advantage, and others as a disadvantage) is that it leaves students less ashamed and frightened of their own sexual transgressions.

Another reason students might feel less guilty is that they are persuaded by an ethical critique of halakhic strictures, whether it is the demanding expectations of halakha for single adults, or the restrictions in the realm LGBTQ sexuality. The halakhic expectations of no sexual activity at all in the absence of a halakhically-sanctioned sexual outlet may not reflect our students’ ethical values–they may even seem unjust–and so our students might feel less guilt and shame in transgressing them.

And finally, outside of the realm of philosophy and in the realm of lived experience, there’s the sense that these halakhot are simply not realistic in a community in which men and women pursue advanced education and career opportunities, while seeking to establish relationships based on romantic love and extended premarital dating. Having grown up in a community in which these halakhot were much more broadly honored, I know that observing these halakhot is indeed possible–but in a context that encourages a younger age of marriage, places less focus on education and professional advancement, and generally has much shorter dating periods. I chose the graduate school I would attend based on its proximity to Brooklyn and my ability to date from there. To our students, factoring shidduchim into a choice of graduate school would seem incomprehensible, if not laughable. So I do know that under circumstances that prioritize it, this can be done. But in our lived version of Modern Orthodoxy, it is a heavy lift. And some of our young people may have decided that it’s so un-do-able that they need not feel all that bad about not doing it.

The implications of this for our education are enormous. Speaking to students who recognize that they are falling short of halakha’s demands in the area of sexuality, but are not deeply discomfited by that, requires a different approach than one that seeks to mitigate the shame and guilt that we assume to be wracking our students. We need to further develop ways to speak to students about the value and meaning of the Jewish sexual ethic; about what it means to feel committed to and obligated by an aspirational set of values, even if we can’t always realize them; and how to navigate honoring a set of halakhic norms that is countercultural in our contemporary world.

There is no minimizing the challenge of that. And yet for all of the difficulty of doing that, for all that we and others struggle to articulate an ethic of sexuality that resonates in the contemporary world and to inculcate a commitment to practice that so departs from societal norms, there is deep meaning and value in working to frame and communicate halakhic values rooted in healthy appreciation of human sexuality and a commitment to religious growth. Rejecting the sometimes quicker, but often dangerous, motivators of guilt or shame to elicit compliance, we instead must develop a religious language for our values, our aspirations for our students, and our relationships to God to frame this conversation.

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz

Dr. Schwartz serves as Associate Principal, General Studies at SAR High School, and as a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She earned her Ph.D. in the history of science from Princeton University.

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