In a Manhattan Classroom, Judaism Meets the Facts of Life
Nearing his ninth decade, formal in vested suit and cufflinks, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein strode purposefully into a classroom of Ramaz High School on Manhattan's Upper East Side one recent Monday afternoon. He checked the presence and location of his 18 students against a seating chart. He chided one for arriving moments late.
Then he led off the discussion of the homework assignment. It consisted of an article from the national Jewish newspaper, The Forward, about a married couple who participate avidly in both synagogue and swinging. "Aren't these people just being honest?" Rabbi Lookstein asked. Five or six hands immediately shot up.
So began another day in Jewish Sexual Ethics, the course better known around Ramaz, even to its teacher, as "Sex With the Rabbi." For the last 23 years, since Rabbi Lookstein devised the class, he has taught it to every 10th grader to pass through Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox institution combining rigorous secular and religious curriculums.
"This is one of the most favorite things I do in the world," Rabbi Lookstein, 77, said in a recent interview. "I love the interaction with students — and being able to open their eyes to the way in which Judaism approaches the basic facts of life."
Over the span of 18 sessions, Rabbi Lookstein covers topics from infidelity to abortion, same-sex marriage to religious divorce, as well as the Jewish laws dictating family purity, or taharat hamishpacha. The readings range from newspaper articles to theological essays, and the discussion in the classroom is unrestrained.
Once, that is, the students get over the initial shock of listening to a gray-haired authority figure talk about menstruation or homosexuality or spouse-swapping. The slang name for the course plays on the incongruity.
"Like many other students in my class, I was pretty nervous about taking the course," said Oren Neiman, a 15-year-old sophomore who took the class this year. "I wondered if a world-renowned and extremely prominent Jewish figure would be able to create an atmosphere where sophomores in high school feel comfortable to openly and honestly discuss sexuality with him."
Anna Wagner, 16, a junior who took the class last year, recalled: "It takes time, for sure. But after the first couple of classes, we warmed up."
In the kind of prep schools Ramaz sees as scholastic peers, the notion of a required course covering sexuality might seem, if anything, irrelevant by 10th grade. We're in "Gossip Girl" territory here, after all. For an Orthodox day-school or yeshiva, however, the subject is a land mine that many principals, teachers and parents would sooner avoid than risk setting off.
And on issues far beyond sexuality — conversion standards, interaction with Reform and Conservative rabbis, even the degrees of kosher for lettuce and broccoli — the Modern Orthodox sector has spent much of the last generation on the defensive against an increasingly confident and assertive haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, faction.
So maybe it takes the unique position of a Haskel Lookstein to push the limits without being pushed back. As rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, he represents the third generation of his family to preside over its pulpit. His father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founded the Ramaz school, which covers all elementary and secondary grades.
"Am I playing on my stature to some extent?" Rabbi Lookstein asked rhetorically. "I guess the truth is that I am relying on the trust people have in me. I'm not worried about someone looking over my shoulder. But when I'm not able to do this class anymore, someone else will have to."
Rabbi Lookstein orchestrates the course in a manner that is at once scholarly and freewheeling. Rather than declaring moral absolutes, even where they exist in Jewish law, he plays the relativist to stir discussion. And his words fall on teenagers just at a hinge in their own sexual lives, a mishmash of Ugg boots and Hannah Montana backpacks, emerging beards and unruly cowlicks.
"What do these people think about sex?" Rabbi Lookstein asked the Monday class about the swinging Jews in the Forward article.
One girl answered: "They don't think it has anything to do with love. They think it's just fun."
Then Rabbi Lookstein said words that, while rooted in Jewish text and tradition, the students might have considered TMI (for the generationally challenged, that means too much information).
"Sex is fun," he said. "Sex is pleasurable, no question about it." He paused while the shock waves rippled. "But from the way you react to this article, it's something else. What's that something else?"
Responses poured forth. Sacred, special, holy, separate.
"It really has to do with relationships," Rabbi Lookstein said, summing up. "It isn't just something you do."
Two days later, with a different group of sophomores, Rabbi Lookstein talked about some of the obligations in a Jewish marriage, obligations that deal not with material support or safety but with sexual conduct. What does it mean to coerce a spouse into sex? Is it infidelity to fantasize about another woman while having intercourse with your wife? When is sex, even with your husband or wife, exploitative?
"The Ramaz that I've associated myself with," Rabbi Lookstein said in the interview, "prides itself on being open to all issues, to all views, while maintaining its Modern Orthodox stance. Nowhere does that get more difficult than in the area of sexual ethics.
"I keep saying to the students as we move along in the course, 'I believe there is a right and a wrong. But you're going to make a decision.' So it's better not to just come down on them with a heavy-handed moral absolutism."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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