Or: How to feel good about ourselves and about our bodies: Things they didn’t teach us at the Ulpana
Translated from Hebrew by Elana Maryles Sztokman
I decided to address this letter to girls, since I myself am a girl who learned in Ulpana (religious girls’ high school in Israel –EMS), along with other girls. However, I believe that boys who are graduates of the yeshiva high schools might also find this interesting.
I’ll preface this by saying that I have no intention of minimizing the importance of keeping the commandment of negiya (“touch” – the practice of not touching members of the opposite sex at all – EMS) and the commandment of modesty. I myself kept the commandment of negiya while I was at the Ulpana and I decided to continue that practice. However, from my experience, prohibitions and religious laws have already been discussed with you ad nauseum, along with a zillion reasons to keep negiya. Therefore, I will discuss things that they don’t teach you in homeroom class or in the course on “Family”.
One last point of introduction: There is a problem generally with the topic of positive sexuality. There are problems in our society and our culture in every social sector. These problems will obviously surface in the religious sector as well. It’s reasonable to think that in certain sectors, certain phenomena will be influenced by that sector’s particular value system, and it is reasonable to have this kind of discussion using the language and jargon of the sector. I certainly do not mean to imply that these problems belong only to the religious sector, or even that they are more common in the religious sector. Also, Jewish religion and law are not the source of these problems. Please do not read this as an attack on a particular sector or on halakha itself. Moreover, even if you are not an Ulpana graduate yourself, there might be some helpful insights here for you as well.
Sexuality is an important and healthy part of human life. You don’t have to be sexually active in order to feel comfortable with your sexuality. As in every area of life, everyone is different when it comes to their sexuality. There are those who don’t feel any kind of sexual attraction; there are those who think about it all day; there are those in between; there are those for whom it comes in time, later in life, or in cycles. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is like. Know that it’s normal. There is nothing wrong with what you feel or don’t feel sexually.
Moreover, most of adolescence is marked by sexual confusion, and what you felt yesterday will likely be different from what you feel today. That’s okay too. Do not rush to label yourself. Be curious. Again, in order to be curious and to know yourself and your sexuality, there is no need to be sexually active. It’s important first to know yourself, to identify your feelings, and to take an interest.
A very common feeling is guilt – guilt about sexual feelings, about sexual activity, and general guilt and anxiety about sharing.
Guilt is not a good thing. It is paralyzing and isolating, and it twists reality in a way that can negatively impact your decision-making.
So first of all, let go of your guilt. If you think you made a mistake, accept it and consider it an experience that can help you learn and grow.
Second of all, there is no reason to feel guilt about your sexual feelings. People are sexual creatures from the moment of our birth. Jewish law recognizes these feelings, which is why there are so many discussions and laws about it.
Find someone who you feel comfortable talking to and discuss these things. You can always change your mind and decide not to share anymore, and to find someone else to talk to.
Negiya is often presented as the be-all-and-end-all of Torah. A girl who hugs a boy may think, well, that’s it, she is no longer keeping negiya. This can lead to all kinds of religious and emotional crises, in which a girl may feel that if she is no longer keeping negiya. Or she might think that if she doesn’t think negiya is important, that affects her entire relationship to halakha.
I also have friends who told me that they were sexually abused or raped and felt that this meant that there is no reason for them to keep negiya anymore.
Sometimes it happens that we make a mistake – but that doesn’t mean that you have to continue to make that mistake. (I’m taking about a situation in which you don’t feel okay with what you did, but since you already did it, it’s out of your hands. You have every right to decide that what you did is not a mistake at all.) You have every right to say, “Hey, this thing that I did, I thought about it and decided that it’s not good for me. I don’t want to continue to do it. (And I’m not going to feel guilty for making a mistake because everyone makes a mistake sometimes.)”
You also have the right to say, “Just because I did one thing, it doesn’t mean that I want to do other things. Even if it’s really similar, it doesn’t feel good to me. So I decided that it’s not for me”.
More on the topic of responsibility and choice later on.
In terms of halakha in your life, just because you decided to let go of one commandment doesn’t mean that you must now give up the entire Torah. (Maybe you actually do want to give up on the entire Torah, from a place of knowledge and personal responsibility, but here, too, as long as you are responsible and aware that your life is your own, there is no room for guilt.) It is hard being Jewish. When it comes to some commandments, we don’t even feel how hard it is anymore – how hard is it really to keep kosher in Israel? And Shabbat may be annoying sometimes but, you know, there are Shabbos clocks and hot plates and nobody is going to fire you for not working on Shabbat. But negiya is an area that is still very hard. You have to decide how to deal with it.
Your relationship with God is yours and yours alone. Nobody can tell you that you’re not religious because you don’t keep negiya.
Because of the (I believe extreme) preoccupation with prohibitions in religious education, nobody talks to us about healthy sexuality.
The topic of modesty comes from a place in which you see the person as a person and not just as a body. But sometimes this excessive preoccupation with the issue has the opposite effect in which a woman is measured according to the length of her skirt.
Remember, your body is yours only, and only you get to decide what to do with it.
This connects with the issue of taking responsibility. There are situations in which we feel that we lost control. We say “Yes” once and now it’s as if it’s no longer under our control to decide what to do.
Take your time – as much time as you need – to think about what you want and what you don’t want.
For example, let’s say you’re about to enter a situation in which you’re going to be around boys a lot, something that you’re not used to. Take some time to ask yourself: Am I going to keep negiya? Yes? So what do I consider okay and not okay? Is shaking hands okay? And what about a hug? Maybe as long as it’s clear that there is no sexual attraction, it’s okay? Maybe it doesn’t matter? What is good for me? How will I make sure that I’m in control? And what if a boy wants to touch me in a way that is not okay with me? Maybe in this situation I should be even more careful to keep negiya, and maybe in other surroundings I can be less so? What feels right to me and comfortable? And so forth.
Remember that at any time and in any situation, you have the right to reconsider, to take a moment to check in with yourself, and even change your mind. Don’t do anything without being aware of what you’re doing.
Sometimes a girl who keeps negiya will purposely enter a situation in which she is not in control, so that she won’t feel guilty later (e.g., getting drunk). Rather than do that, check in with yourself. What do you want or don’t want? Be conscious and aware and responsible, and then there will be no room for feelings of guilt.
There are problems in world culture in the area of sexuality. Women are presented as objects, people are not always seen as people, sexual assault and rape (of both boys and girls by both boys and girls) is unfortunately a common phenomenon.
A good Ulpana girl is sometimes unprepared to deal with this world. Don’t let your innocence put you in danger. Remember that you and only you decide about your body. You have every right to say, “No”, even if initially said, “Yes”. Rape does not always involve physical violence. Sometimes it’s persuasions and manipulations. Sometimes it’s under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes it’s someone you know and trusted. It can even be your partners – just because he’s your boyfriend, that doesn’t give him exclusive authority over you and your body.
(In case you have been assaulted or raped, know that it’s not your fault. Find someone who you feel comfortable talking to. If you feel alone, there are hotlines and internet chat rooms where you can safely share.)
Always relate to yourself and to others as people. We are all complicated, and we all have feelings. Relationships involve two people, not just you. It’s important that everyone relate to each other as people and not as objects that are here to satisfy our needs. Be aware of the physical and emotional needs of the other person, and make sure that the other person is self-aware, too.
Again, since the only mention of sex in religious education is with the word “forbidden”, we have no idea what it means to have a healthy sex life – physically and emotionally.
We’ve already discussed control over your own body.
The consensus among girls is that, “The first time really hurts and it’s full of blood and only he enjoys it.”
So, no. It’s not supposed to be that way. If you want to have sex, first learn about the physically side. Learn about “foreplay”, learn about your body and about the male body. Only enter this situation from a place of knowing. (Sex is not just vaginal penetration; there are all kinds of “stages” and ways to have sex. Think about what you want and don’t want – physically, emotionally and halakhically.)
Similarly, think about contraception and preventing STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). It is true that condoms are halakhically problematic. But if you’re already at the stage in which you decided to have sex, you should at least be properly protected.
Sex is an important thing. Even if you decided not to wait for your wedding, it is still really important to wait until you’re emotionally ready, in good relationship with someone you trust, and that you both know what to do more or less (in terms of contraception, STDs, how not to hurt you, etc), an approach it with maturity. Talk about it first, decide together what’s good for you, and make sure that the it comes from a place of mutual agreement.
Now, let’s say you had sex and then decided you don’t want to anymore. It’s not for you – maybe emotionally or maybe halakhically. It is your right to refuse to do it again. You are allowed to say “No” even if you previously said, “Yes”. You are allowed to change your mind, and you don’t need to explain or even fully understand yourself why you changed your mind. Trust your gut instinct. Always listen to yourself.
In terms of your attitude towards halakha, just because you slept with someone it doesn’t mean that you need to get married. It doesn’t mean that you’re “damaged goods”. It doesn’t mean that you’re not religious anymore. It just means that you had sex.
In the class on “Family”, the teacher takes out a tomato and explains why it’s important to wait until you get married:
Our tomato sits in the market – shiny, juicy and firm. But, oh no! Everyone touches it and touches it and puts it back, and at the end of the day, the tomato is no longer smooth and juicy. The tomato is shriveled and unappetizing, and now nobody will want to eat it.
My dear girls, you are not tomatoes.
You are not here to satisfy others’ needs. You are not sitting on a stand in a market waiting to be touched and then purchased. You are people! You have something more than shiny skin and the juiciness of a fruit!
There is nothing mystical or exalted in virginity. There is no such thing as “losing your virginity”. When someone has sex for the first time, do you know what changes? Nothing! (I’m not saying that sex isn’t an incredible thing. Of course you should feel closer to your partner, and hopefully they will know what to do, and you’ll feel really great physically and spiritually).
There are many reasons – some of them very good – to keep negiya. But the claim that if you touch someone before your wedding that you are no longer worthy and nobody will want you – that claim is completely nonsense.
Did you learn this halakha? What about the story about the woman who merited righteous sons because the walls of her house never saw a hair on her head?
Okay, so I’m not here to dismiss halakha. I am here to tell you that it is okay and even recommended for every single girl to feel comfortable with her body. Modesty is an important value. As I mentioned, it comes from a place of appreciation for the woman, from the idea that what is important is what’s inside, wellsprings of holiness, etc. All that is well and good. But let’s talk about the situation in which you are alone with your body. You’re talking to your friends at a pajama party, or at a shabbaton, where you always end up talking about boys, periods, your bodies. Time and again I am shocked to learn that there are girls who are disgusted with their bodies. They think that when they get undressed, they are disgusting, ugly, strange. The truth is, I had times when I felt those things about myself, too. (“What ugly boobs. Sure, under the shirt it’s nice, but just like that – weird, no?”)
This issue also relates to our periods. There are girls who feel gross about their bodies every month. That they are impure, that the blood is revolting and they should just have to touch their bodies as little as possible. I have had many conversations with girls who were afraid of tampons. Who didn’t really know what was going on “down there”. This is not a healthy attitude.
We were all created in the divine image. Our bodies are amazing, special and perfect. And they are ours for our entire lives. We spend the most time with our bodies, it’s true. We should get to know our bodies a little, to feel comfortable with our bodies. It takes time. And there are different ways to get acquainted with our bodies. It’s really important and really healthy. Even without talking about sexuality.
Maybe there is a value in being completely dressed under the blankets. But I know for sure that there is a huge value in being alone in the room, naked, and feeling good about yourself – lock the door and pose in front of the mirror. Dance in your underwear to good music. Stand in front of the mirror and say to yourself, “Wow, you’re truly amazing!”
For comments and responses about positive sexuality, write to Tiferet Shacham at