Recent articles in the Forward have raised the issue of Orthodox Judaism’s so-called repression of sexuality. Although I thought the articles were not particularly respectful of Orthodoxy’s moral codes, they do indeed raise a point. Arguably bad mannered, they are undoubtedly on to something.
This past summer, an article in The New York Times, presumably overlooked by many Orthodox Jews, examined the propriety of allowing teenage children to be sexually active at home. The author, who admits to being childless, suggests that the ideal attitude of parents be a “well-mixed cocktail of caution and tolerance.”
Continuing the conversation, the online magazine Slate lent support for a suggestive approach by reporting how Dutch parents enjoy more open dialogue with their children about sex than American parents do, all while “demonstrating acceptance and respect for their kids’ relationships.” Such parental candor is proposed as grounds for the low rates of teenage pregnancy in the Netherlands.
The discussion is not irrelevant to Orthodox Jews. While they will probably not consider in-house licentiousness — and I am not suggesting they should — having more open dialogue with children about their personal lives may help to promote more fruitful relationships. When it comes to sex, acceptance and respect are said to correlate with safer, healthier lifestyles.
Showing young people that we trust them to act responsibly seems to increase the likelihood of their responsible behavior. Allowing sex at home need not be a green light for promiscuity but can be a red light for undeclared, unpredictable, unsafe activity. Permission sometimes helps to prevent.
For Orthodox Jews for whom premarital sex (and even masturbation) is forbidden, the mere mention of sexuality is almost equally taboo. While some secular counterparts, too, may be prudish, devout parents’ inhibitions are complicated by immovable religious mores. With procreation a positive religious act, explicit regulations govern its procedure. The line between inappropriate words and less appropriate deeds is thin. Seeing themselves as Jews first and parents second, some Orthodox fathers and mothers propagate ignorance and insecurity by avoiding the conversation entirely. With no consent for action, many Orthodox teenagers have no vocabulary even for talking about sex.
And such diffidence is not limited to sex. For those occupied with the study and implementation of Jewish ritual law, interpersonal dialogue often centers on matters of the soul. Orthodox parents invest much of themselves in communicating their values, sometimes at the expense of engaging their children’s more earthly inclinations. Some parents are at a loss to identify common interests with their offspring, hesitant to initiate discussion about topics deemed profane.
Amid the clamor of passionate communities, some Orthodox youth cower in silence and disgrace. Lost in the quiet are ordinary human concerns unrelated to religious crimes and misdemeanors. While some parents successfully hew relationships from religious tablets, others overload children with their weight, failing to provide support for life’s inherent burdens. In those families, religious particulars distract from everyday parenting, and children are left to negotiate normal fears and worries alone.
Parents disinclined toward frank communication with their children are not easily convinced of its virtue. What is intuitive to some is unthinkable to others. In the end, straightforwardness may be the antidote that parents need for their children’s high-risk explorations.
Having parents to help process their curiosities and fears can allow children to develop the character needed to make respectable choices. Having parents to help process their shame can allow children the courage needed to learn from their mistakes.
Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes that “when children feel safe enough to tell parents what they are doing and feeling, presumably it’s that much easier for them to ask for help. This allows parents to have more influence, to control through connection.” Now what parent wouldn’t be thrilled with that?
It is time for Orthodox parents to initiate appropriate dialogue with their children, to consider alternatives to misinformation, guilt and shame. Talking about sexuality need not be indecent, immoral, unseemly or rude. Talking about sexuality can be respectful, informative and empowering. Talking about sexuality can be proper, sensitive, polite. It is time to consider the profound effects of silence, to instead make use of our sensitivity, modesty and courage. It is time to be candid and honest. It is time to talk.
Mendel Horowitz is a rabbi and family therapist in Jerusalem, where he maintains a private practice working with adults and children.