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The OU Screws Up Sex Ed

Please abstain … from its advice!

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Hey, look, it’s the Orthodox Union’s “The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens.” Get your laughs out now, because the thing ain’t funny. (Okay, okay, the line, “Unlike dogs, lions or lowland gorillas, we can weigh our choices and control our physical urges,” is pretty funny, and the line, “Teens—especially girls—may need many things, emotionally,” is “funny” in the same way watching pregnant women smoke on Mad Men is “funny.”)

But the very same outdated and irrational religious puritanism that drove the site’s existence also renders it, um, impotent. For example, the lead article, “What is Abstinence?” is so afraid to use terms like “oral sex” that it fails to answer its own question. “We will simply define abstinence as refraining from sexual activity,” the site declares, “but we’ll leave it up to each person to determine for his or herself what constitutes sexual activity.” Apparently, when you take the sex and the education out of sex education, you’re left with nothing at all.

Former Tablet Magazine intern Dvora Meyers’s take, which grounds the site (which is a few months’ old) in recent attempts to withhold federal funding for Planned Parenthood, is worth reading in full. In the meantime, maybe it is time for the OU to join the 21st century. Or maybe at least the 20th?

The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens [OU]
Sex Ed, Orthodox Union Style [Unorthodox Gymanastics]

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Went to the site, had a look, came up with this conclusion-the fact that you and Dvora are going out of your ways to mock it with such derision says much more about the two of you than it does about the site. The site is light, not very exciting one way or the other, and gives a very positive message. So why does it cause you to get all excited and call Jews who advocate following halacha on sexual relations “puritans” and “irrational”? Maybe because you are intolerant of everything that doesn’t fit your cookie-cutter liberal viewpoint? You can give lip-service to respect for diversity and for the views of the Jewish community, but you give absolutely no respect to the views of a large, committed segment of the Jewish community giving a positive message to teens. Then again, why would you respect the views of a neanderthal puritan like me?

Alana Newhouse says:

LB needs to calm down, but I see how he/she may have misread you, MT. (Or, er, maybe not). For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an organization like the OU advocating that young Jews follow halakha. What I find objectionable about the site is that it cravenly uses fear — and not, say, arguments about the spiritual and religious benefits of leading a halakhically committed lifestyle — to do so. Which is why it may turn out, LB, that a bunch of the cookie-cutter liberal Tablet staffers actually appreciate halakha more than you assume — and maybe even more than the folks who put together that website.

Marc Tracy says:

I just think if they want kids to abstain from sex, they need to meaningfully define what abstinence is (I, for one, genuinely have no idea what exactly they are or are not talking about). And I think it is telling, in an important respect, that their ideology is the very thing that prevents them from being effective.

My liberal viewpoint makes room for genuine sex education that presents the full array of options and then can argue that for spiritual reasons–or even for fearful ones!–abstinence is the best course. This site doesn’t do that.

This website advocates against shaking hands. While Tablet editors and the OU can debate who has more respect for halacha, it is not okay that the OU dominates the JSU’s board, as the JSU is an organization that services the public school system.

This website is yet another example of why the Orthodox Union should have their grip shaken from the public school JSU clubs.


I personally find the OU’s site and its fear-based approach to sex education distasteful and wrongheaded. But the reporting here rubs me the wrong way. As I understand it, Tablet is meant to be a magazine of all Jewish thought and culture for the entire Jewish community. With such a constituency and mandate, basic fairness in reporting would require that you ask an OU spokesperson for a response to some of your good, tough questions. At least get a “no comment”.

Right now, though, the piece has the unfortunate feel of the reflexive Orthodox bashing (“even the 20th century”! Really?) that is far too common in lesser Jewish journalistic outlets which tend to substitute self-righteousness for suasion. One-sided mockery and derision is unbecoming of – and unusual for – Tablet, and I think that’s what some commenters here are reacting to.

(Such reaction is actually to your and Tablet’s credit – you typically set a high standard here, which is why the deviation is so noticeable.)

Alana, Marc-

I read your comments, and revisited the site. Marc’s piece did not say anything close to expressing the measured opinions you both give in the comments section. His piece was dripping with derision for an organization promoting halacha and trying to help teens control their sexual urges and make responsible decisions.

I personally did not follow their guidelines growing up (though I’m not necessarily proud of that), but I will certainly urge my children to do so. I work with college students, and they would by and large be much better off if they thought seriously about abstinence.

If there was a pill that made it impossible to get pregnant or contract an STD, I still would not want my children sleeping around. It can be very harmful emotionally, can confuse vulnerable teens, and can distort their view of sexual relations. It also detracts from the relations between man and wife. Beyond those practical reasons, anyone who takes Judaism seriously knows that its not appropriate behaviour for a people whose mission it is to maintain a special and holy relationship with God.

And if they use the word “masturbation”, I’m sure they’re not afraid of using the word “oral sex”. Their usage of the “base” system is somewhat juvenile, but for 14 year olds at day school it probably is effective.


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The OU Screws Up Sex Ed

Please abstain … from its advice!

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