The Modern Orthodox Jewish community in Israel seeks to combine commitment to
Jewish law with membership in secular society. This community therefore experiences tension
when transmitting traditional norms of conduct which are in conflict with contemporary norms
of behavior. The tension is particularly acute in the area of sexuality, because the community
permits intermingling of the sexes in formal and informal frameworks while forbidding any form
of pre-marital sexual activity.
This study explores how Modern Orthodox Israeli teenage girls understand sexuality,
both in their tradition and in secular Israeli culture, exploring contradictions between the two.
Baseline information was gathered via in-depth interviews from a class of tenth grade girls
concerning their personal norms as well as their knowledge and attitudes in the area of sexuality.
Utilizing a classroom-based intervention, participants were given a course of fifteen classes in
“Life Values and Intimacy” education. In follow-up interviews, the impact of the course on their
norms, as well as on their knowledge and attitudes was assessed.
Principal Theoretical Guidelines Sexuality and SocietyThe traditional objectivist approach to human sexuality employs physiological descriptions in order to measure and analyze the objective phenomenon of human sexual
behavior. This approach locates sexuality primarily in the body. In contrast, the constructivist
approach to human sexuality defines sex and sexuality as a product of external social forces such
as social status and political power. Foucault’s work showed the limitation of an objectivist
approach and in its place defined sexuality as a domain of nature controlled by social powers.
Feminist researchers, building on Foucault’s ideas, view human sexuality as a social and political
construct focused on the preservation of patriarchal schemes and gender differences.
Recognizing that human sexuality is a culturally entrenched construct underscores the need to
produce sexuality education materials tailored specifically for the Modern Orthodox community.
This has become increasingly necessary with the heightened sexualization of the majority culture.
Transmitting traditional norms in areas of modesty, sexuality and relationships for the Orthodox
community requires an approach that engages modernity while remaining deeply rooted in the
Sexuality Education Requires a Moral Context Early proponents of sexuality education programs claimed to be offering value-free
sexuality education. However a gradual consensus emerged that the idea of value-free sexuality
education was false. One could not teach about sexuality, even in the most factual way, without
conveying judgments about the morality of sexual activity. Assuming that sexuality education
cannot take place in a moral vacuum, the question of an appropriate ethical framework became
important for sexuality educators to address.
The essential debate concerning moral education revolves around two positions – the
moral development approach, represented most notably by Kohlberg, and the directive approach
of Character Education championed by Lickona. Kohlberg’s approach identifies certain
principles of justice and fairness as representing the pinnacle of moral maturity. Students
participate in open-ended discussions of moral dilemmas in order to determine and justify moral
conclusions based on the principles of justice and fairness. Kohlberg emphasized the importance
of the process of moral reasoning and the need for actually experiencing moral dilemmas to
further moral development. The Character Education approach argues that children need to be
taught right from wrong and will not necessarily arrive at mature moral sensibilities without
direct instruction. These two poles are reflected in the variety of Jewish approaches to moral
education including the Autonomous approach which encourages thoughtful, autonomous
decision making, the Normative-Prescriptive approach in which traditional values are transmitted
by knowledgeable educators and the Deliberative approach in which the student plays an active
role in determining conclusions about behaviors. A novel approach to moral education is offered
by Thomas Green in Voices: The educational formation of conscience. He describes his
approach for “members of an already formed moral community concerned with the task of
improving that life and preserving it in the next generation”, which aptly describes the Modern
Orthodox community and therefore will be adopted for our research purposes.
Green defines conscience as “reflexive judgment about things that matter.” Central to his
thesis is the idea that the primary goal of moral education is to develop a person’s capacity for
“self governance” based on the acquisition of social norms. In his formulation, norms are
defined as paradigmatic rules of conduct which prescribe how people think they ought to
behave, even when not necessarily behaving so. Green delineates ascending levels of
commitment to a particular norm: accordance, compliance, obedience and observance. He sees
the development of a sense of prudence, doing what is right in the service of self-interest, as a
critical step towards mature conscience. Green also broadens the scope of what we view as
moral activity to include the individual’s desire to achieve excellence in the execution of a
Drawing insight and inspiration from various voices of conscience a person is
expected to take responsibility for his own moral life. These voices do not always agree but
exhort the individual to different, sometimes contradictory ends including excellence in craft,
loyalty in membership, and sacrifice to duty. I utilized Green’s approach to moral education to
analyze and understand the ways in which participants acquire norms – “normation” in Green’s
terms. Through this analysis, I was able to present conclusions about the process of normation
to Jewish laws associated with sexuality such as shemirat negiyah and modesty. I further used
Green’s ideas to suggest educational directions for curricula in these areas.
Sexuality Education: A History
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, sexuality education has been the subject of
much debate in the United States and the approach to education in this area has undergone
significant evolution. When programs did not succeed in curbing the rising rate of sexually
transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, new approaches were explored. Four generations
of sexuality education programs can be identified in the United States, which reflect changing
The first generation of sexuality education programs was developed in the 1970’s.
Educators provided information about sexual behavior, contraception, and pregnancy, as well as
the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. It soon became clear that providing
information was not sufficient to change behavior. The second generation of sexuality education
programs developed during the early 1980’s focused on decision-making and values clarification
exercises in an effort to better equip students to make healthy, thoughtful decisions about sexual
behaviors. Teen pregnancies and cases of teenage sexually transmitted diseases continued to rise.
The third generation of sexuality education programs developed in the 1990’s was known as
“Abstinence-only” programs, which taught that the only safe policy to protect against sexuallytransmitted
diseases and teenage pregnancy was abstinence. In response to abstinence-only
policies, a fourth generation of programs known as “abstinence-plus” approaches or
comprehensive sexuality education, were developed which present abstinence from sexual
activity as the method of choice for adolescents but also include a comprehensive discussion of
contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and other sexuality issues like homosexuality. As
part of this fourth generation, a task force in Cleveland, Ohio developed a set of guidelines
known as the “Life Values Curriculum: Health Education for the Jewish Day School.” These
were rooted in the guidelines for sexuality education developed by the Sexuality Information and
Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). They followed the recommendations of
SIECUS for comprehensive sexuality education with substantial modifications to fit the needs of
the Orthodox school community. Based on the Life Values Curriculum guidelines, I developed
The Life Values and Intimacy education curriculum, a classroom ready set of materials for grades
three through twelve. The intervention employed in this study selected materials from this
Family Life Education in the State Religious School
Ulpanot were the first religious schools to teach any form of Family Life education in the
upper high-school grades. Content focused on women’s roles and the centrality of the home for
the religious family and classes were based on Jewish law and Jewish philosophy. The Unit of
Sexuality Education in the State school system was established in 1973. Later, (in the late 70’s)
“The Unit for Family Life Education” was established in the State religious school system. The
term “Family Life Education” reflected the ambivalence surrounding the Unit and the underlying
philosophy that the central purpose of these classes was to promote life values which focus on
the family, rather than on sexuality. Religious educators recognized the need for a religious
response to the increasingly permissive nature of society’s attitudes to sexuality but were still
hesitant to teach about sexuality in religious schools. They chose to focus on family as a guiding
principle of Family Life education curricula in the State religious schools, and avoided addressing
issues of sexuality.
While Family Life education officially became a subject taught in Israel’s State religious
school system in the 1980’s, it has never been widely taught. In those schools which do teach it,
courses generally occur only in the upper school grades and almost exclusively in girls schools. In
many schools the emphasis in these classes is on forming a girl’s character in preparation for life
as a wife and mother, in order to perpetuate traditional gender roles rather than to help her
negotiate her present dilemmas relating to sexuality, modesty and relationships. In schools which
are geared towards matriculation in “Family and Intimacy”, courses focus on texts dealing with
laws of marriage and divorce. They generally present traditional gender roles and offer little, if
any, sexuality or relationships education. Attempts to implement courses based in alternative
materials have been unsuccessful.
However, in 2005 the Unit of Family Life Education published
a comprehensive volume of curricular materials for the State Religious schools. The volume is an
important response to the need for Family Life education materials developed specifically for the
Modern Orthodox community. However, it is not fully comprehensive, omitting important
topics such as homosexuality, pornography, internet usage and shemirat negiyah. No assessment of
the new curriculum has yet been published. Choosing a Philosophy of Sexuality Education
In her study of Family Life educators in the State religious school system in Israel, Samet
distinguishes three common approaches to sexuality education within the religious community:
silencing, post facto, and proactive. Silencing is by far the most common approach, and
maintains that religious teenagers are not aware of their sexuality and any attention to the subject
is unwarranted stimulation. The post-facto approach views teaching about sexuality as a
necessary but unfortunate response to the contemporary reality. Ideally, students should remain
innocent until such information is needed before marriage.
However, students’ exposure to majority culture leaves religious educators with no choice but to formulate a Jewish response to
counter the information they receive from their surroundings. In this approach, only minimal
education should be provided. The third approach is educationally proactive and views Family
Life education as a vital part of adolescent education. It emphasizes a positive approach to
sexuality from within a perspective of Jewish law, rather than focusing on all that is forbidden.
The Life Values and Intimacy Curriculum is rooted in the proactive approach and expands it into
a comprehensive curriculum which addresses related topics such as decision making, self-esteem,
and communication skills.