Adolescent Sexuality: Kedoshim Tih'yu


Adolescence is, almost by definition, a difficult time. All the more so concerning issues of sexuality. Our kids desperately need our direction in this area, but too often we do not provide it. Teenagers experimenting with sex is hardly new, of course. And it need not be a source of concern. Most of us who went through the sexual revolution of the 60s grew up to be perfectly respectable citizens.

But what is happening now is radically different.

Today we have the Internet—which means that sexual material is more available to our kids than ever before. Popular culture, meanwhile, continues on its downward spiral, exposing us to ever more sexually explicit images. And in the midst of all this, our kids reach puberty a full two years earlier than they did a century ago.

And what is the result? 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. It means never having a healthy relationship and not knowing what’s involved in developing one.

In short, we are now witnessing changes that go far beyond sexual experimentation of the past.

Are our kids in our synagogues impacted by these developments? Of course. We see them struggling with these issues in our camps and youth groups, and on our Israel trips.

Our parents are concerned, but many don’t know how to be helpful. According to study after study, the communications gap is immense. Kids say that their parents don’t talk to them about sex, while the parents say that they do, regularly. And parents who are absolutely certain that their kids are not having sex are wrong about half the time.

That our kids need our guidance is indisputable, and they are puzzled by our failure to offer it.

The issue here is not the cold and clinical biological facts, which are generally available. The issue is the ethics of relationship and sexuality, which are not. Our kids want to know how sex relates to love and a caring relationship; how to deal with fears and temptations; what is permissible and what is not.

Our kids are frustrated by the combined failure of their parents and their synagogues to offer them practical help here. More often than not, hookups leave them depressed, confused and guilty. But very few of them see the synagogue as a place to go for support, or their Judaism as a source of comfort and direction. And they wonder why. Since we have told them again and again that Judaism is an all-embracing way of life, they expect that their tradition will have something to say about matters of such importance.

We can help them only if we speak plainly and apply the insights of our tradition to the real issues that they confront. For example, we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden. Since many of them will not marry for 15 years after the onset of puberty, it is unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults.. Still, we stress that the Jewish ethical principles that apply inside marriage apply outside of marriage as well.

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.

We are not naïve. We do not promote abstinence from all forms of physical contact. We talk about the kinds of sexual expression that teens who care about each other might consider. But we do take on the issues of oral sex and hooking up. We tell both boys and girls that sex is not about controlling or servicing the other. And we tell girls in particular that their worth is not defined by what they do for boys. For nearly half a century, the Reform Movement has dedicated itself to promoting the equality of our women and all women. But this is worth nothing if Jewish girls define their worth by how they please boys. A positive approach to sexuality must not rely on casual sexual encounters that leave girls feeling used and degraded and boys ending up numb to feeling.

Let us let our kids know that they can talk to us about the toughest issues that they face in their lives. Let’s tell them that we are not just going to discuss “options,” but that Torah has some real answers to offer. Let’s let them know that in a media-driven world that too often demeans women and makes a mockery of gentleness, Judaism offers a message of holiness and hope.


  1. Help adolescents understand that Reform Judaism does have something to say to them about their sexuality, including that:
    1. They are created “b’tzelem elohim”—“in the image of God,” and each and every one of them is unique, of infinite worth and entitled to respect;
    1. The guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is “Kedoshim tih’yu”—“you shall be holy,” which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God;
    1. In our tradition, both partners in a sexual relationship must be sensitive to the sexual needs of the other, and that in Judaism, no person ever exists to be a subordinate vessel to another; and
    1. We are creatures of God and holiness is attained through loving relationships, and that sex for its own sake leads to exploitation and hurt;

  1. Help parents understand that:
    1. Young people need parents who know how to listen, who teach them sexual responsibility and who are able to set firm limits;
    1. All children are the children of God; and
    1. Parents need to embrace their children regardless of sexual orientation and need to create a supportive home where they can reach their full potential; and

  1. Urge Congregations to:

    1. Make plans to implement the Union’s new six-session course for bar and bat mitzvah-age students in religious school during the 2006-2007 school year, and to anticipate a second course for incoming high school students (confirmation) for use during the 2007-2008 school year; and
    1. Think about the events they are hosting, being cautious to avoid or to unintentionally condone over-sexualized b’nei mitzvah celebrations that transmit the wrong values to adolescents.