Gender and Sexuality for Teens: A look at Reform Judaism’s new curriculum

  • by: Wendy Grinberg

Wendy Grinberg is Associate Director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning.

What does general culture tell boys and girls to think about themselves and about the other? What can Judaism contribute to a reorienting of these gender images? Wendy Grinberg presents a curriculum initiative from Reform Judaism.

Gender can be understood in light of the teaching of Pirkei Avot 3:15:“All is predetermined, yet free choice is given.” Our sex is given to us at birth; what we have the freedom to choose is the way we will define our gender, the characteristics that determine our masculinity and femininity, our roles as Jewish men and women. Given the continuous status of Jewish men as scholars and leaders in our history and tradition, I find it hard to argue that Jewish boys and men need a special advocacy in Jewish settings, although this is a popular argument in the liberal Jewish community with echoes in the secular world of education. However, what we can offer our boys and girls is the opportunity to question and challenge the definition of what it means to be a Jewish man or woman.

In a recent article about the role of gender in the giving of the Torah recounted in Parashat Yitro, Jewish Women’s Archive founder and director Gail Twersky Reimer sites a midrash that explains it is not God who speaks in gendered language (“Do not go near a woman”), but the human ear of Moses that listens that way. She writes: “While the midrash recognizes that the adult will experience Revelation and hear Torah differently from the child, it also suggests the possibility that today’s child (a child growing up in a culture that takes gender issues seriously) is likely to hear Torah differently from his or her own father and mother, and certain to hear it differently than his or her grandparents. Understanding of Torah changes over time, over a lifetime and over historical time.” (“Midrashic Clues for a Gendered Reading of Matan Torah,” Torah at the Center, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 6-7). Our understanding of gender has changed over time, and the way we perceive the roles of men and women may be different than the way our students perceive those roles. As our understanding evolves, we can and should explore these issues with our students in the context of a Jewish classroom. We can do this by embracing both the messages of our tradition and a modern sensibility about how we can define ourselves as men and women.

The premise of the Reform Movement’s Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships and Sexual Ethics curriculum is that our bodies and our sexuality are gifts from God, gifts that come with a grave responsibility. The models we choose to emulate as Jewish men and women have lasting repercussions on a personal, community and historical level. While during adolescence messages about gender identity are particularly impactful on developing teens, questioning our assumptions and stereotypes about gender at any age is an important first step in liberating ourselves from unrealistic ideas and in helping us to find the definitions that work for us. The issue of defining gender is not to be taken lightly. Research has shown that one of the root causes of homophobia as well as depression among homosexuals is the failure of one’s true feelings and instincts to match stereotypes of what one “should” be and feel. Helping teens to get in touch with this concept will allow them to broaden their thinking and challenge their assumptions when confronting their own and others’ gender identity and sexual expression.

The first lesson in the high school module of Sacred Choices (to be published later this year) teaches teens to evaluate the messages they are getting about gender and offers an alternative Jewish voice. There are many sources of stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity. In this lesson, entitled “Be a Man (Who Reveres God) and Act Like a Lady (of Valor),” through the exploration of Jewish texts that portray admirable qualities of men and women that are different than the ones in the contemporary media, students address three questions:

  • What are the components of masculinity and femininity according to popular culture and the greater society?
  • What Jewish models provide alternate definitions?
  • How does my own understanding of sexuality and gender match up with those messages?

The lesson begins with students responding to the statements “Be a man!” and “Act like a lady!” The students then investigate images of men and women from magazine advertisements, becoming aware of the images to which they are routinely exposed. In the environment of the Jewish classroom, they are asked to challenge these messages and are safe to question them. How accurate are these portrayals? What are some positive and negative effects of different portrayals of men and women in the media? Do the students feel able to live up to these images? Do they feel they have to or want to? An optional expansion activity involves using lyrics from popular music. Teachers may choose songs, videos, movie clips, or visual art that represent the contemporary struggle with defining gender or choose contrasting songs that portray men and women in a stereotypical and objectified way.

The lesson then turns to some texts that have a long tradition as portraying feminine and masculine ideals. Proverbs 31:10-31, commonly referred to by its first words Eishet Hayyil, “A Woman of Valor,” is traditionally read by a man to his wife at the Friday night Shabbat table. In Mishkan T’filah, The Reform Movement’s prayer book, this selection appears along with Psalm 112; Proverbs 31 is to be read in praise of a woman and Psalm 112 in praise of a man. As we begin to help students to filter messages through their own healthy skepticism and to hear their own inner voice, we ask them to analyze the list of traits from Jewish tradition and add their own values as well. In small groups, students discuss the following questions:

  • According to these texts, what are praiseworthy qualities in a woman or man?
  • How do these qualities compare and contrast to the lists you came up with at the beginning of the session, in response to the ads and the comment “Act like a lady” or “Be a man”?
  • With which qualities do you agree or disagree? Which surprise you? Which seem most important? Are there any you would change or add?
  • What real or fictional person do you think of when you read this description? Describe her to the group. How is the person you are thinking of a “real woman” or a “real man” in your opinion?

The final question is meant to get students thinking about the constructive images of men and women which the students already hold in their minds. We want to bring positive role models to their conscious awareness. In addition to the ideal images portrayed in the Jewish texts they’ve studied, we assume that most students do know adults they admire, and that those adults exhibit much different qualities than the ones portrayed in the media advertisements or in pop culture. By placing these images side by side, we hope the students will be able to mentally challenge the negative and stereotypical messages and replace them with more realistic and admirable images.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Director of Curriculum and Congregational Support for the Union for Reform Judaism Department of Youth Programs and director of the Sacred Choices curriculum project has piloted this lesson several times. She reports that when having taught this lesson, the students do in fact make these shifts in their understandings. At the beginning of the lesson, when looking at “ideal” images of men and women from media and pop culture, student descriptions of qualities being portrayed generally center around physical traits (thin, nice hair, fit body, etc.), materialistic traits (name-brand clothing, fancy jewelry, owning all the right electronic gadgets, fast car, etc), or stereotypical gender roles (he can fix things, she cleans the house, he is strong, she is quiet, etc.) At the end of the lesson, when asking the students to consider qualities portrayed by “real” men and women they know, admire and wish to emulate, they often describe individuals of true character. “I want to be like my mom, who is honest and always encourages me to tell the truth.” “I admire my uncle because he has integrity and stands up for what he believes in.” “I believe a real woman is someone who accepts her body for what it is, and doesn’t feel she needs to be as skinny as those models in the fashion magazines.”

For the performance task, students are given props around which to create an advertisement, this time using a positive and constructive portrayal of a man or woman. After the students create, present and discuss their ads, the teacher concludes that that there is no “one way” to be a man or a woman. We are all people, and there are similarities and difference among all of us. By becoming aware of stereotypes, we are free to challenge them. By learning about the positive portrayals of men and women in Jewish tradition, we have solid role models to emulate in the face of the flimsy or shallow images portrayed in the media.

Our tradition embraces the diversity of humanity. While the Torah gives us two options for the dynamic between men and women in the story of Creation (Bereishit 1:27 and 2: 22), the sages of the Talmud expand our understanding. We are taught in Sanhedrin 37a, “If a person strikes many coins from a single mold, they all resemble one another. God made all people in the mold of the first human being, yet no two people resemble one another.” We need an approach to education and to Judaism that responds to the vast diversity between men and women as well as among them. Our experience is not a binary one, with men resembling one side of a coin and women the other. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in this year’s commentary on Bereishit, citing the verse above from Sanhedrin, “The single most important ethical truth about persons is that none is substitutable for any other. As persons, we are unique. … This is what gives human life its dignity and sanctity.”

It is incumbent upon teachers to do the same kind of reflective exercise in their teaching that our students do in this lesson. What kinds of messages do we hear or say about the boys and girls in our classes? As teachers looking for the best ways to reach our students, we may be tempted to rely on generalizations about the way boys and girls learn. For example, do teachers commiserate about classes with behavior problems that are dominated by boys? Are assumptions made that certain kinds of learning activities will appeal more to girls than to boys, and if so, how is this limiting our students’ opportunities for learning and expression? When we take the time to get to know each of our students, their strengths and interests, we are best able to help our students self-actualize as Jewish men and women.

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