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Friday, September 01, 2006

Jews and Sex

Sadly, the Daily Trojan has again misquoted me. I feel bad saying this because it was one of my wonderful students who inadvertently did it this time. Nevertheless, both the original article and my letter to the editor are here, followed by a "final word:"

Dear Editor,
Thank you for covering USC Hillel's "Sex in the Synagogue" event in Thursday's Daily Trojan. A caption under a picture misinforms your readership: “Rabbi Jonathan Klein said Judaism hardly looks down on sex.” What a strange impression that must give your readers! While the article describes several aspects of the event, it also creates a false impression of Jewish permissiveness surrounding sexuality that has confused several people.

While it is true that Judaism affirms that sexuality "is part of the divine plan," I was quoted as saying that we have "an obligation to emulate" the sexuality that is inherent within us. However, I do not believe that it is incumbent upon us to engage in sexual acts just for the thrill of it. Judaism does not teach that anything goes, or that sexual permissiveness is a core Jewish belief. The bible is filled with injunctions to the contrary, including prohibitions against incest, bestiality and, more controversially today, homoerotic acts (which is worthy of a separate discussion). I had hoped to teach that Judaism offers a sexual ethic, beyond a binary affirmation or condemnation of it.

Judaism teaches that sexual intercourse is indeed a holy act performed by people, who are created in the image of God. Some mystics even describe God's presence with sexual imagery, as mentioned at the event. However, as with other holy matters, sexual intimacy needs cautious, thoughtful exploration with a God-consciousness, not mindless impulsive activity. Throughout the ages, Jewish law has been guided by an understanding of human nature, not by an acceptance of our animalistic drives. For instance, as mentioned at the event, knowing that sex is tied to violent impulses, Jewish law explicitly condemns marital rape and demands consent from both parties, despite a biblical commandment to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (I was misquoted as saying "populate the earth"). Moreover, premarital sex is discussed by the various Jewish denominations and even by traditional sources in terms of larger cultural mores.

At Hillel, we recognize that students enter USC with one set of values and often leave with new views in a wide variety of areas, including their Identity and Independence, redefining their familial ties. Their relationship to matters of Intimacy is equally shaped during these influential years. Many will have their first sexual experiences, hopefully by choice but occasionally otherwise. We offered our "Sex and the Synagogue" program to help Jewish students know that ours is a religion that grapples with the very issues that are on their minds. The answers to life’s dilemmas are rarely simple. Your readers should know that Jews think sexual intimacy warrants verbal intercourse before being explored, not simple acceptance or rejection, an impression that the article does not fully convey. Thank you.

In Judaism, sex can be kosher
The USC Hillel program held a discussion about sex and Judaism yesterday.
Thea Chard

Issue date: 8/31/06 Section:

Media Credit: Zach Fox Daily Trojan
Let's talk about sex. About 20 students

took part in the lecture, where Rabbi
Jonathan Klein said Judaism hardly
looks down on sex.

We're all adults here. College is, if nothing else, a right of passage to adulthood. So let's talk about sex, shall we?Unfortunately it never seems to be that easy. For a generally forward-thinking society there are many implementations in order to prevent today's youth from thinking about sex, talking about sex and, of course, having sex. It's surprising that at an institution of higher education like USC, there is very little acknowledgment of a topic that seems to frequent most students' minds. "Sex and the Synagogue," a program put on by the USC Hillel Jewish Center, provided a venue to discuss sex in a comfortable and supportive arena yesterday afternoon."So much of the Jewish world understanding is affected by the Christian world," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Hillel rabbinic director, during the discussion he led. Klein reiterated that because there are so many different cultural and social values that exist side by side, especially in a melting pot such as Los Angeles, that people are often influenced by the beliefs and convictions of others. Sometimes this can cause intimidation and lead to an inability to discuss controversial topics, like sex, in an open environment.A large part of Klein's goal in leading this discussion was to "provide both a traditional view on things as well as (his own) personal perspective."Contrary to the mixed messages and beliefs that society seems to impress upon the masses, Judaism hardly considers sex to be controversial.Unlike the priesthood of Catholicism, one of many examples, that restricts sexuality among the clergy and leadership by requiring celibacy, Judaism requires it."If you look at the Jewish rabbinical leadership, you see encouragement of large families," Klein said."The Torah tells us to 'be fruitful and multiply, and populate the earth,'" Klein said. "And if God created us with the capacity to have sexuality in this world, then it is our obligation to emulate that.""Sex is holy," he said. "We are created with sexual desire because it's part of the divine plan."Klein began by establishing these ideals and thus adjusted the comfort level so that the participants, both men and women who ranged from freshman to grad students, felt free to ask intriguing and relevant questions without being obligated to uphold a standard of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.Topics covered varied from modesty, sexuality, marriage, premarital relations, homosexuality and bestiality, to mention a few.Klein provided documentation and commentary on many of the subjects, as well as the different interpretations that tend to apply to different sects and levels of observance within Judaism."It's true that college students have sex on the mind," said Sara Engesser, the Ziegler Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at USC Hillel. Since college students are sex-obsessed, the open environment provided by Hillel's "Sex and the Synagogue" program was conducive to students."It's really important for college students to see that Judaism is not just about old men sitting around arguing over Kosher law," Engesser said. "It has a place in our lives today ? while there are restrictions, Judaism believes that sex is a natural and healthy part of human beings."

In an era of Heidi Fleiss and Monica Lewinsky, Jews are sometimes portrayed as over-sexxed. Another troubling aspect of this program was the grief I faced as a result of the advertisement. Frum students questioned the merit of showing a picture of three women covered only by a tallis. I should have rejected this image when the flyer was generated by someone else. To be clear, the image doesn't offend me entirely, although it cheapens women. Leonard Nimoy, of all people, has created beautiful photographs of women decorated in t'fillin and tallit, some of them semi-nude. They are in a collection entitled, "Shechinah," and while they are slightly beyond my comfort zone, they are tasteful and reinforce the notion that human intimacy is tied to divinity. Had we used one of his images, perhaps I would feel better about what has transpired. However, I let a flyer get distributed which may have damaged Hillel's relationship with our more observant student community. I regret this immensely, and it has thrown me into deep thinking about the nature of pluralism and ensuring that all students feel welcome. Flagrant sexuality at Hillel, I am forced to admit, does not fulfill our mission statement, which calls on us to "offer a secure, inclusive and nurturing environment for all Jews who are part of the USC community." It may get us participants, but it can also offend students. We should have considered how this flyer would impact some students. Not all students think about sex all day, or at least I hope not!

On the other hand, some of the objections of the traditional students do not convince me. I do not believe that the image is offensive because a religious article, namely a Tallit, is utilized to create an effect. The Tallit's sanctity is minimal in comparison to sifrei Torah, t'fillin and mezuzot (STaM). Proof of this? People are buried in talleisim. Moreover, for the frummer yidden, they are not accustomed to seeing women in talleisim in general. Also, this program in and of itself, as I argue above, is a good one, of value, worth doing more than once a year. Students are going to hear about sex one way or another; wouldn't it be better for it to come with some guidance? Minimally, shouldn't they think about the impact of losing their virginity? If a student is gay, shouldn't they have some reflection with a tradition that doesn't define gay people as sinners but homoerotic acts as wrong, and also come to understand the many interpretations for why Judaism prohibited male-male anal intercourse in certain contexts?

Anti-intellectualism does not help our society to grow. A thoughtful, focused discussion on sex is both valid and necessary for the personal growth of our students, many of whom come with warped views based on their own history of abuse. Just this summer, I have heard cases of sexual abuse, including unwanted advances by men on men, a woman who had unprotected sex when the partner removed the condom without her awareness resulting in her pregnancy, and students experiencing relationship intimacy for the first time and being entirely unprepared emotionally for the encounters. Healthy, and I mean healthy, conversation on these topics is essential. Not black and white thinking, but real discourse. I hope some of my readers might add their own $.02 as well.


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