The Morality of Abstinence Only-Sex Education

Sermon given August 23, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Often, after the High Holy Days, a congregant will ask me: Who tells you Rabbis what to talk about in your sermons? The question arises, when people who have attended services at various congregations speak to one another, and find that their Rabbis have offered messages on similar topics. My answer is always the same: Everybody tells Rabbis what to talk about in our sermons! The real question is whether any Rabbis pay attention to what they are told.

I am solely responsible for the topic of tonight’s sermon. Nobody asked me to talk about sex from the bimah of Temple Beth-El. I would venture a guess that some of you are hoping, despite the topic printed in your Order of Service, that I will not really talk about sex.

Seriously, the subject makes us squirm. We do have children in the congregation tonight. Thank God, we always do. We have guests of other faiths with us this evening. Blessedly, we always do. I ordinarily avoid topics that make people very uncomfortable. I am not eager to discuss a subject that might be inappropriate for such a diverse congregation with a variety of sensibilities.

So let me offer the following introductory comments: My sermon tonight will be about sex. My sermon will not be terribly graphic, and certainly not pornographic, but I do plan to speak frankly about Jewish sexual values. I will be mentioning the names of some sexually transmitted diseases. I will offer Reform Jewish perspectives on the morality of sexual activity between persons who are not yet married, views that are different from what one would hear in some other houses of worship, but which are echoed in many other synagogues and churches. I do not think it necessary for children to be removed from the Temple for this sermon, but if anybody does wish to leave now, or to take their children from the Sanctuary at this time, you are free do so.

I am addressing this subject, not because I am eager to stand on this pulpit and talk about sex. I am speaking about sexual values, because it is a matter of life and death.

Specifically, my subject tonight is “abstinence-only sex education.” The idea, lavishly funded by the United States government, is that teenagers should be instructed not to have sex, and should be taught nothing else about the subject. The rationale seems to be that teenagers will stop having sex, if their teachers will tell them the dangers of sexual activity. The proposition seems plausible. After all, teenagers have no business being sexually active. The risks are enormous.

We all know about AIDS, but HIV is only one of a host of sexually transmitted diseases plaguing our nation and the world. Chlamydia is spreading at epidemic rates. Syphilis and gonorrhea have not gone the way of small pox and polio.

The emotional pitfalls of teenage sexual activity are also serious. Young people can be badly scarred by having sex before they are ready. Unhealthy sexual relations during the teen years may hinder the development of healthy relationships in adulthood.

Most of all, teenagers should be abstinent, because teenagers have no business becoming parents. Certainly, we all know girls who got pregnant too young, and went on to happy, productive, full lives with normal, healthy children. And yet, the reality in America is devastating. Teenage pregnancy kills dreams. Teenage pregnancy leads to poverty and dependence on welfare. Teenage pregnancy too often ends girls’ education. Teenage pregnancy frequently results in a child who will become a teenage parent. Teenage pregnancies sometimes end with abortion, possibly the best choice among bad options, but almost always a tragedy.

Certainly, Judaism teaches teenagers that they should not engage in sexual intercourse. Responsible Jewish leaders, including the Rabbis and teachers of Temple Beth-El, encourage teenagers to be abstinent. Our instruction is founded in the traditions surrounding marriage.

In our faith, marriage is called kiddushin, a word that means “holiness.” I have often taught young people, as well as adults, that the standard for deciding whether a couple is ready to have sexual relations is kiddushin. Holiness must abide, for sexual relations to be appropriate. Kiddushin requires, among other important considerations, that there must be love between the partners. Their decision to engage in sexuality must be mutual. Both partners must be entirely faithful; the only holy sexual relationship is one that is absolutely exclusive. Significantly, in order for kiddushin to exist, the both partners must have the ability to make adult decisions. They are required to engage in open and honest conversation about contraception and health protection, with all proper precautions taken. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, couples who choose to have sex must be ready to co-parent, should pregnancy result. Incidentally, kiddushin, the holiness required in Reform Judaism for two people to have sex, does not require that they be of opposite genders.

However, if kiddushin does not exist, if holiness does not abide in the relationship, Judaism requires abstinence. If there is no love, there is no kiddushin; abstinence is required. If there is not full mutuality in the decision to have sex, abstinence is required. If both parties are not fully faithful, abstinence is required. If either party is not adult, abstinence is required. If the couple does not discuss and act upon decisions about contraception and health protection, abstinence is required. If the couple is not prepared to become parents together, abstinence is required.

At the same time, Judaism proclaims another law. The greatest mitzvah, the highest commandment in Judaism, is pikuah nefesh, saving a life. We are obligated to set aside the performance of other good and positive deeds, and even to perform a host of negative ones, if we are able to save a life in the process. Therefore, we are religiously enjoined to teach the life-saving benefits of contraception, even to those young people who should be abstaining from sexual relations. Yes, we must teach abstinence. Yes, we must provide medically accurate sex education.

“Abstinence-only sex education” kills.

Let me explain. Imagine a teenage girl, in a federally-funded “abstinence only sex education” program in her public school. She raises her hand and says: “I understand that the best way to protect myself is abstinence, but suppose that I do have sex; how can I protect myself from getting chlamydia or gonorrhea or syphilis or HIV or pregnant?” The teacher’s legally-mandated response is that only abstinence will work. The instructor may only discuss contraception by describing various methods’ failure rates. Sadly, though, these teachers may not mention the rampant failure rate of abstinence. One night, our “abstinence-only” student may get drunk, and let down her guard. Perhaps she makes a whimsical, albeit foolish and immoral, decision to have a one night stand. Maybe, despite all of her teachers’ pleas, she and her long-term boyfriend will decide, after much discussion and consideration, that they are ready for a sexual relationship. If so, her so-called “sex education” will have failed her, by not having taught her how to keep herself from getting chlamydia or gonorrhea or syphilis or HIV or pregnant. “Abstinence-only sex education” kills. It is absolutely immoral.

In my experience, young people do not always do whatever their teachers, or even their Rabbis or preachers, tell them. And yet, I do think that we adults have a responsibility to tell our youth what we believe. Young people do listen to the adults they respect. We must tell them the truth. We must give them the information they need. We must not naively convince ourselves that they will refrain from sexual activity, just because they should. But we must also communicate a clear moral message. Here at Temple Beth-El, we do teach our Confirmation students about kiddushin, and therefore about abstinence. We also give them medically accurate information about how to protect themselves if they choose to have sex anyway.

Living as we do in a pluralistic society, the messages of different faiths vary. Judaism teaches that sexuality is a beautiful, natural part of life. Even those who would argue that Judaism permits sexuality only within marriage would acknowledge that Jewish tradition regards human sex drives as normal and healthy. Procreation is not the only purpose for sexual relations. In fact, traditional Jewish marriage law requires a husband to satisfy his wife’s sexual needs. (Interestingly, the wife has no such obligation to her husband!) Sexuality is understood to play a role in enhancing the relationship, even if we are not intending to be fruitful and multiply at the time.

We Jews realize and respect that other faiths’ teachings are different from ours. And yet, we should be outraged that, in our public schools, our young people’s lives are imperiled, because of religiously-motivated, federally mandated sex education that does not teach our kids how to protect their lives when they act irresponsibly. We certainly do not expect our religious convictions about appropriate sexual behavior to be taught in government-supported programs. That’s our job in the Temple. We suffer no delusion that our views possess some kind of inherent, objective superiority. But we may not stand idly by, while extremists, who think they are right, exercise their undue influence on the current government to kill young people with sexual ignorance in the name of abstinence.

Yes, we must talk about sex. Even if the topic makes us squirm, we must confront it. Even if we know that our views differ from one another, we must share them. And especially, even while we have absolutely no desire to see our own particular religious beliefs codified in American law, we must make clear that we do hold strong values about sexuality, and about abstinence.

Let America know: We will not cede the moral high ground on sexual matters to those who would put the power of the state behind their own particular religious teachings.

Let America know: protecting our young people from disease and from unwanted pregnancy is not just a Jewish teaching, it is the highest American family value.

Let America know: “Abstinence-only sex education” kills. May America choose life.

Amen.