Thursday afternoon, I was still in Houston, so I got to sit with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and discuss the speech he was preparing to give today at the biennial of his movement. "It's about sex," he smiles: "High school students should not be having sexual relations." This is the message he starts with this year. It is very urgent, he thinks.
But first things first - the most revealing sentence I find in the speech is a more general statement one can read as a key to the Yoffie state of mind these days: "The problem for our synagogues may be," says Yoffie, "that we are not very good at saying 'no' in Reform Judaism... In the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word 'forbidden'." This, he believes, should be changed somewhat. A more restrictive movement, more demanding, more - should I dare say - conservative movement, is the one Rabbi Yoffie envisions. If you were a politician, I tell him, one would apply to you the overly employed phrase "mugged by reality." The do-whatever-you-want approach just doesn't work for a movement that needs members to be committed. So you basically ask the congregation to do more: study more, go to Israel more, practice more. Yoffie smiles again. He has a nice, gentle, smile. But listen to what he has to say to the youngsters of the movement, and listen seriously:
"A growing number of middle school students are sexually active, and oral sex is both prevalent and widely accepted. Most striking of all is a social ethic known as 'hooking up' that severs sex from any pretense of a relationship. 'Hooking up' can refer to different kinds of physical contact, but it always means a casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounter. It means getting physical without getting emotional... the Union has created a six-session course for bar and bat mitzvah-age students in our religious schools... we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden. Since many of them will not marry for fifteen years after the onset of puberty, it is unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults? On the other hand, we say in the clearest possible way that high school students should not be having sexual relations. Our teens are not adults. They are beset by tension with parents, pressure from friends, a desire for approval, and an uncertain sense of self. This means that students in high school are not yet ready for the loving, mutual relationships that make sex an experience of holiness."
Unrestricted-hippie-liberal-permissiveness? Maybe it's the wrong movement for you. Being reform doesn't mean one needs no rules, so Yoffie says.
I’m really happy Rabbi Yoffie has finally addressed the issue of teen sexuality. It is an issue that is not often discussed in public forums. It is interesting to note that the Rabbi does not prohibit, sex before marriage, just sex at school age. It is also interesting to notice his awareness that it is time for the Reform movement to say “no” more often.
From an orthodox perspective, I think this issue is just as relevant in frum communities. Teenage kids who wear kippot and long skirts are not necessarily
shomer negia. There has been a suggestion of allowing orthodox people before marriage to visit the mikva after sexual relationships. The question is, would you prefer someone violate the non-biblical prohibition of sex before marriage, or the biblical prohibition of not visiting the mikva. Tough question.