While it once may have been possible to shelter our children from inappropriate exposure to sexuality, today it seems to be an impossible goal. Even parents who have made every effort to appropriately safeguard their family may find themselves unhappily surprised at what their child’s friends have exposed him to. In addition, outdoor secular media such as billboards, bus ads and newspaper covers portray disturbingly graphic images that force us to confront the fact that our children are being exposed to ideas and ways of life we may consider to be harmful to their souls and their mental health.
Furthermore, as we become more and more aware of the existence of sexual predators in our midst, and the terrible damage that survivors of sexual abuse experience, it is even more important for parents to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their children about sexuality. If children do not possess clear knowledge and age-appropriate understanding of the parts of their body and how they can be used or misused, they will find it difficult to protect themselves against those who seek to abuse them. We must find a way to inoculate our children by appropriately and respectfully exposing them to Torah ideas about sexuality and modesty, so that the first images and concepts that fill their developing minds are the proper ones.
In our tradition, there is great emphasis on modesty, which can cause some parents to be reluctant about discussing sexual matters with their children. Given the times in which we live, this would seem to be misplaced modesty as the risks that come with silence are great. Our children will learn about sexuality, if not from us then it will be from less kosher sources.
When parents do discuss these matters, they may find it hard to speak about them directly and find themselves resorting to hints and allusions. Indeed, the Gemara (Pesachim 3a) observes:
“One should always be careful not to allow an unseemly utterance from his mouth, for the Torah wrote an extra eight letters in order not to say an unseemly word. As the verse states (Genesis 7:2), ‘From the pure beasts and from the beasts that are not pure.’ [That is, the Torah could have said ‘…and from the impure animals’ instead of referring to them as ‘the-animals-that-are-not-pure.’]”
However, even this is not quite as it appears because there are numerous other verses where the Torah refers to the non-kosher animals directly as impure, and does not use the roundabout circuitous language of “the-animals-that-are-not-pure.” (For several examples, see Vayikra chapter 11.) The answer must be that the Torah only diverged from the direct terminology to teach us a general lesson – if all things are considered equal, one should choose refined language. Therefore, in the specifics of instruction, one should not sacrifice clarity or brevity for the sake of modesty. Thus in most verses, the Torah uses the direct phrase of “impure” (Tosafos, “Kol,” ibid: 3b.)
It’s important to note that there are differences of opinion in exactly how to apply this principle, (see commentary of the Ran, ibid.). However, it would seem that clarity about important matters such as educating our children about their responsibilities toward tznius and protecting them from sexual predators overrides the concern of improper language. Experience tells us that if children are not instructed in a clear manner about matters such as these, it leads to misunderstandings that can make them vulnerable to misinformation and exploitation.
As the Talmud tells us: “One should always instruct his student in a succinct manner.” (ibid 3b.) When discussing sexuality with our children, if we speak indirectly instead of in a straightforward manner, we risk their misunderstanding us, and picking up on a sense of unease and an unhealthy shame about an important and natural biological function. This can lead to unfortunate complications in their development, and leave young adults and newly married couples vulnerable to unnecessary anxiety and shame.
(To be continued)