PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION : Sex and Sin: There Is a Difference : Abstinence is hardly the height of moral behavior; our kids need guidance for real situations.

Michael Gotlieb is the rabbi for Temple Judea in Vista.

The Vista school board in northern San Diego County has adopted a new curriculum on sexual values, called Sex Respect, which teaches abstinence and restricts information about birth control, masturbation, abortion and sexually transmitted disease. It will be implemented this summer in Grade 7, and the board will vote April 21 on whether to extend it through Grade 11.

To their credit, those who advocate this proposed sex-education curriculum believe that human sexuality is a serious issue for educators. The problem is, Sex Respect does not address the many consequences and responsibilities that come with an active sex life and so leaves our youth woefully uninformed.

The theme of the new curriculum is that men and women should remain chaste before they marry, that sexual relations in any other context are immoral.

As a rabbi and teacher who has worked with countless young people, I feel qualified to offer a different view:

Premarital sex between consenting individuals is not immoral; premarital sex is unholy. The difference between the two is significant. I do not want people who engage in premarital sex to think that they are committing a grave sin. The Hebrew Bible is virtually silent on this issue, but it certainly does not label premarital sex a sin. You will not find explicit reference to relations between unmarried individuals who engage in sex among the prohibitions of the Bible. Sexuality becomes a moral issue when trickery or deceit is employed. Incest, rape and acquaintance rape are indeed sinful.

I recoil when a person is described as "moral" because of their chastity. A far more significant question would ask if that person cheats on income taxes or gossips maliciously or acts in other ways with total disregard for fellow human beings.

At our most basic level, we humans are animals; we have animal impulses and drives. We communicate, we eat, we relieve ourselves, we tire, we sleep--and we have sex. Ultimately, what makes us human is our ability to transcend our animal composition. What makes us human is our ability to channel and curb our God-given impulses in such a way that elevates the human spirit. Sexuality is one in a series of healthy life forces. When we eat with dignity, when we communicate to each other with respect, when we acknowledge the normal healthy function of our bodies, our animalistic foundation transforms itself and becomes human.

From a religious perspective, sex becomes holy exclusively in the context of marriage. That is something radically different than labeling it immoral when it is performed out of wedlock.

Abstinence until marriage is an ideal and the basic approach to sexuality that I would advocate as a rabbi. It is not only by far the best form of birth control, it elevates sexuality and makes it sacred. But honestly, do we provide a service to the generation growing up in the 1990s when we withhold from them explanation about other forms of birth control or open discussion of masturbation, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases?

What is the motivating force behind the advocates of Sex Respect? I am curious to know if the issue is age or the sexual act itself rendered outside the context of marriage. I think we can agree that 13-year-olds who engage in sexual intimacy leave us both pained and bewildered. But are we faced by the same dilemma when 21-year-olds have a premarital affair? If we say the issue is age, the inference is that not all premarital sexual encounters are equally wrong. Once we agree to the possibility that some premarital activity is not "sinful," the issue becomes one of moderation and balance.

We render a terrible disservice to our children by withholding vital information on sexuality from them. Concerned adults must push for a curriculum that teaches and empowers adolescent boys and girls, in an age-appropriate way, so they may choose a sex ethic wisely. Everything in life comes with trade-offs. By not teaching our children all they need to know about sexuality, in the controlled environment of the classroom, they will learn about sex for themselves in an environment that may be less than ideal, at a time in history when the stakes are great.

Be it through television and movies or magazines, or through uneducated, unprepared encounters on their own, our youth will happen upon expressions of human sexuality. Therein lies the deficiency of the Sex Respect curriculum. It is inevitable that from the onset of puberty, human beings will discover their own sexuality. So, while we still play an important role in the development of our children, why not teach them about sex in an open, sensitive way? Given the gravity of the matter, to do otherwise is both immoral and sinful.

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