We Can’t Afford to Wait Until 12th Grade: Sexuality Awareness in the Religious Community

We judge a society not only by what they talk about, but also by what they don’t talk about. This was the theme of an event on sexuality in the religious community, organized by Tzohar.

Rabbis belonging to Tzohar conduct Orthodox weddings throughout the country, with an emphasis on a meaningful, Jewish ceremony that will also appeal to secular couples. Tzohar also trains women to prepare brides in the laws surrounding ritual family purity before marriage. The event, attended by the wives of the volunteer male rabbis, female volunteers, and employees, included experts on sexuality and a dance performance. About 150 women attended.

The main speaker, Rama Ganzel, is a family and couples therapist and graduate of the sex therapy program at Bar Ilan University. She runs programs on sexuality in both secular and religious schools.

According to Ganzel, the concept of sexuality is foreign to many religious women. Sexuality encompasses much more than physical relationships between men and women. It includes medical and health concerns, sexual attraction, sexual identity, and sex roles—i.e. to what extent being male or female influences our interests and careers. Sexuality is also central to our social connections. While sexuality is positive, within the religious community it often comes up in negative contexts like sexual abuse or restrictions on contact with the opposite sex.

Ganzel claimed that the religious community avoids discussing sexuality because of a naturally conservative approach in religious education. 

One excuse for avoiding discussion of sexuality in religious high schools is to avoid “giving students ideas.” She said that teachers tend to make a calculation about whether there is a possibility that any girls in the class might be having physical contact with boys. They assume that the majority have no interest whatsoever, and don’t want to open up a can of worms. Ganzel argues, “It can’t wait until 12th grade to be discussed.” Sexuality is a topic for all ages and stages, not just as preparation for dating and sexual relations. Fortunately, she is seeing more openness on the topic, even within yeshivot for boys.

Ganzel also discussed the influence of Judaism’s conservative approach to language on sexuality education. Hebrew, known as the holy language, emphasizes speaking responsibly. We are taught to take responsibility for what comes out of our lips. The lips are seen as the channel between consciousness and control, and freedom. And the vaginal lips are seen in the same way.

The halachic sources of the middle ages, such as Maimonides, used euphemisms and veiled language as was common in that era. But in the entry on sexuality in Rabbi Abraham Steinberg’s series on halacha (Jewish law) and medicine, he points out that the Torah and Talmud speak graphically about sexual matters. 

For Ganzel, the role of education about sexuality includes the integration of the moral, religious, physical and spiritual. Having a healthy body image influences our own sexuality and that of our children. Education on sexuality, for both boys and girls, also includes developing a positive sexual climate at home. Ganzel emphasized education on social issues surrounding sexuality such as sex trafficking, abuse, and objectification as women, and respect for those with diverse sexual attractions and identity.

Ganzel concluded by urging the audience to address these issues in their schools and communities. She follows Rabbi Steinberg’s approach in her lectures and workshops.”Today, we have an obligation to discuss sexual matters openly.”

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