Sex Classes: 1926, 2011

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Yesterday, in the New York Times Magazine, Laurie Abraham profiled the graphic, frank and nonjudgmental Sexuality and Society class offered at Philadelphia's Friends' Central School. Abraham noted that "this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States."

Yet a look back at sex ed in earlier generations shows that some progress has occurred.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Sex Education for Children (1926)

"In early days," explains Rachelle J. Yarros, "many of the ancient peopje worshipped sex as they did other mysterious forces which they did not understand."

In the more modern Christian world, the same fear has led to asceticism, the basis of which is a feeling that the sex impulse is essentially evil and must be suppressed.

Let us be honest with ourselves and frankly ask this question: How many of us received from our mothers or fathers intelligent explanations of sex or reproduction ? You all know what falsehoods we were told and what chaotic ignorance existed in our minds...

...The more intelligent are beginning to realize the danger of complete ignorance and to feel the need of giving sex information to the child sometime, somewhere, somehow, but they fear that this knowledge, if given not "exactly in the right way" may awaken excessive sex curiosity and lead to disastrous experimentation... I wonder whether this is not simply another manifestation of our own sex taboo...

...The real problem of sex behavior among human beings arises primarily from the fact that they are ready to mate and may have the impulse to do so long before they are psychologically and socially fit. With animals no such problem arises, because they mate strictly according to impulse and pay the penalty, nobody registering the consequences. The human animal has evolved so far from this stage that the primary impulse of sex is not a satisfactory guide to behavior...

...As to the institution of marriage, which has more or less fostered certain ideals of sex relationship and greater protection and care for progeny, it, too, becomes a very important matter for the consideration of those who are interested in all phases of social hygiene. Some radicals claim that the institution of marriage is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. I am a radical myself and admit that all is not well in marriage, but am inclined to believe that the institution is not wholly to blame for the problems that now confront us.

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Halloween: What's a Jew to Do?

The traditional halakhic answer, finds Rabbi Michael Broyde, is: nothing. Well, maybe hand out candy. But certainly neither trick nor treat. As he writes (reprinted at MyJewishLearning.com):

Based on this [preceding halakhic analysis], in order to justify candy collection on Halloween, one would have to accept the truthfulness of any of the following assertions:

1)  Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2)  The conduct of the individuals "celebrating Halloween" can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3)  The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations con be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.

I believe that none of these statements are true... Applying these halakhic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations--which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume--is prohibited... The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one...

Writing for CLAL in 2000, David Nelson argues that American Jewry ought to create a new Jewish holiday in order to co-opt Halloween:

Halloween is such a strange time for many Jews. Rabbis, educators, and day school directors remind their constituencies constantly about how un-Jewish it is, how pagan and Christian it is, how we shouldn't participate... Meanwhile, these pronouncements are ignored by thousands of Jewish children who enjoy Halloween!...

...About 20 years ago, a friend and teacher of mine, Rabbi Everett Gendler, told me that in his shul they make "Ya'akov lanterns." At the time I chuckled and filed the tidbit away without further thought, but the time has come to dust it off and think it through. We Jews have a long history of borrowing customs and rituals from the culture in which we live...

...The Jewish quality of these rituals, objects and customs comes not in their uniquely Jewish origins, but in how we have adapted them to function as vehicles for uniquely Jewish meaning. So, for example, we borrowed a child's spinning top from our Christian neighbors in medieval Germany. On the four sides of the top were written abbreviations for instructions on playing the game: nicht - nothing, ganz - everything, halb - half, and stell - put. On our tops we wrote the letters in Hebrew: nun, gimmel, hay, shin. But they still provided a digest of the rules of the game. Then we transformed the whole thing into a vehicle of Jewish meaning - nes gadol haya sham - a great miracle happened there.

Can we perform a similar transformation on Halloween? It is, after all, a well loved holiday for many people, and would thus be a highly attractive means of communicating some Jewish message. Let's see what happens when we try.

Nelson lays out a possible vision of the new Jewish Halloween, which he entitles "Chag Or Habayit--the holiday of the light of home."

These suggestions may sound tongue-in-cheek, but I intend them as a challenge. We who live in an open society, who no longer must fear the Evil Others among whom we live, must now begin to think through what elements of the ambient culture can enrich us. I am honestly not sure if I'm ready to carve a Ya'akov lantern, but I'm certainly willing to consider it. Are you?

You may agree or disagree with Nelson's argument, but it seems to me that his analogy linking medieval cultural fluidity with the modern design of a new holiday fits well into the conceptual model explained by one of my favorite quotes, from Harvard Biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson, on page 7 of this book:

The suppressed or forgotten past provides precedents helpful in dissolving the current consensus: historical criticism is invaluable to the venerable liberal (and, in my view, illogical) argument that the inevitability of unwilled change legitimates willed change, that the historical reality that the tradition was, de facto, always changing validates, de jure, contemporary efforts to alter it.

Whatever traditions you do or don't alter, have a happy Halloween... or, if you're a traditionalist, have a happy but altogether normal day on the 31st.

Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

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From the J-Vault: 41,000 Glasses of Milk

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Since this week Jews will celebrate Shavuot by eating cheesecake and other dairy delicacies, there is no better time to enjoy this gem from the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.

This week, from the J-Vault: Penny-a-Glass Milk Station (1914)

"It was found," wrote Philip L. Seman, "that there were many puny children that were brought by their mothers to enjoy the free open space that the [Chicago Hebrew] Institute offers the neighborhood, by means of its park and playgrounds, and to whom the opportunity of procuring such milk would prove a great service."

Besides this, the sale of milk tends to counteract the desire on the part of the younger children to purchase from the filthy wagons that are stationed near the entrance of our grounds the cheap and much-adulterated, therefore, very harmful, so-called ice cream and scrape ice balls, generally saturated with chemically colored flavors...

...One need only watch the lack of care given the average infant in the congested districts of any large city, because of the lack of knowledge that the mother has of the danger of not properly looking after the child's feeding for the first two years of its life, to see the enormous amount of good (if from no other point of view than this alone) our milk station is bound to do...

...The milk station, which has now been operated a little over a month, has grown to proportions beyond even our own expectations. We have sold over 41,000 glasses of milk the first month...

...We found many persons taking advantage of the sale of the milk and crackers, and regularly making at least one meal a day on this splendid substitute, especially during the hot summer months, for meat and other heavy foods.

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Chag Shavuot sameach!

 

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San Fran Circumcision Ban: Cutting Down on Cutting

Circumcision

Despite all the demonstrable health benefits of circumcision, San Francisco will vote in November to decide whether or not to ban circumcision in the city, without any sort of religious exemption for Jews and Muslims.

The JTA Archive's blog takes a fascinating look back today at JTA articles from the 20th century on the topic of circumcision. With a hat-tip to our friends at the JTA, and a reminder regarding the old adage about imitation and flattery, here is our own round-up of a few circumcision-related BJPA holdings, all of them from the past three decades:

Perhaps the real motivation for the San Francisco circumcision ban is precisely to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities in opposition... Or not.

From the J-Vault: Kids for Peace

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The year was 1915, and the Great War (World War I) was devastating Europe. An ocean (and then half a continent) away, The Chicago Hebrew Institute decided to enlist their Sabbath and Sunday school students to promote the ideal of peace.

This week, from the J-Vault: A Peace Movement Among Children (1915)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, Philip L. Seman used terms for his school's initiative which, in modern times, would be criticized as an unacceptable form of indoctrination of the youth:

The children of the Peace Society are recruited from various classes conducted at the Institute, particularly from the Sabbath and Sunday school. The main effort is to saturate the children's minds and hearts against the horrors of war, and in favor of universal peace. At a recent meeting of the teachers of the Sabbath school, we have made clear that the teachers, in instructing the children in Bible history, should underestimate the heroism, too often made much of in the Sabbath schools, regarding the wars the Hebrews fought in early days, and to draw ethical lessons in favor of peace. In other words, our teachers were instructed, not as has been the fashion heretofore, to encourage young Judea to emulate the militarism of the Maccabees, but rather to hope for the realization of the human peace prophecy of Isaiah.

Read more...

Browse the BJPA for publications on War and Peace, or search for "indoctrination".

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