Religion & Beliefs
Sex Is a Double-Standard in Yeshivot
Slut-shaming young women in Jewish high schools reveals hypocrisy masked as piety. Read More
Editor’s note: In protection of the author’s identity, her name, as well as the names of other people involved in this story and a few details have been changed.
From what my friends tell me, public school gossip moves a mile a minute. The news of a break-up is quickly overshadowed by rumors of another couple getting together. By the end of the day, several new stories have broken and everyone has forgotten about what was so scandalous at the beginning of the day. It isn’t like that in a Yeshiva high school.
I’m a normal high school girl who has not done anything out of the ordinary, certainly nothing so remarkable that it would even be a topic worth discussing if I wasn’t in the Jewish community. But you wouldn’t know this from the year I just had, with the level of backlash and name calling directed towards me.
Many people presume that the students who attend are model Jews being instilled with good midot (positive values). This simply is not the case. Take “Daniel,” who spread rumors about me when we were seeing each other, falsely claiming that I performed oral sex on him. The rumor spread quickly, across grades and schools, due to the interconnected nature of yeshivot (the downside of “Jewish geography”). Students at my school accosted the boy in question, asking him personally details about me and the time we spent together. Daniel told them his version of the story. When I ran into Daniel in person, he hid from me, but my friend overheard him saying that he wished to accost me and humiliate me. Daniel, as well as many of the boys in my class, keep kosher and shabbos but somehow has not grasped how hurtful lashon hara (gossip/evil speech) is.
Another romantic entanglement a few months later did not end much better. Although “Adam” most likely did not share the news that we were an item, his friends who met me most certainly did. I am a private person and I like to keep my romantic life separate from my academic life, but that was not possible in this scenario. With one text, a fairly good amount of people in my school knew, including one boy who told me that I was hurting my male friends who secretly wanted to date me and that he wanted to be invited to “watch the sex.” Not only was what he said to me disgusting, it also makes no sense. He condemned and encouraged the same behavior simultaneously.
The Torah says that to embarrass someone is to kill them. I’ve been thoroughly embarrassed by Adam’s friends. I worry about going into Kosher restaurants or playing hockey games against other schools. I’m constantly worried I’ll see someone who knows private information, real or false, about my relationships or who has called me “slut” or “whore” out of earshot, because I know so many students do. I saw a message on group chat where someone sent a picture of a girl with carpet burn on her knees (get it?), and one of the kids in the chat asked if it was a picture of me. Even though the relationship ended nearly a year ago, the gossip has yet to die down.
However, the rumors were not just spread amongst the students. A senior administrator at my school heard stories that I was involved with Adam and had attended a “dangerous” party he threw. “Principal Cohen,” as I’ll call her here, claimed that she had received this information from faculty at Adam’s school, even though Adam nor any of his friends had gotten into trouble. Principal Cohen then reported the unsubstantiated rumor about me partying to my mother.
When I asked my principal how she could call up my mother and spread falsehoods without asking me if anything was true, she said that it was acceptable because it was an out-of-school matter. If I had reported it to her, then she would not have been able to say anything to my mom. This statement is, of course, illogical. She expects me to tell her everything that happens in my life, on the off chance that maybe one day she’ll spare me from spreading rumors she’s heard. Principal Cohen is supposed to be an adult, yet she was also gossiping, wasn’t she? And although my mother and I are on good terms now, Principal Cohen’s actions temporarily damaged our relationship.
Principal Cohen also told me that anything that happens at any yeshiva will always be reported back to her and that I have “no privacy.” But it was not enough to her to just tell my mother. Principal Cohen would tell members of the faculty in my school about the rumor, destroying my reputation amongst beloved teachers who did not need to be privy to the details of my personal life.
It isn’t just me, though. The culture of slut shaming is pervasive in every Jewish school I have encountered. Girls who kiss more than one guy are immediately labeled sluts or worse. God forbid they have sex and like it. Because of the small Jewish community, gossip is not limited to just your school. I’ve heard stories about videos of romantic encounters jumping from school to school like lice, or compromising photographs that spread like wildfire. These rumors also never die. Jews in their twenties and thirties who have checkered pasts often find that it is nearly impossible for them to escape mistakes they made when they were young. This can have real repercussions, such as damaging potential marital matches.
I began thinking about the events of my annus horribilis (which I mostly try to forget) a few weeks ago when a friend who attended a yeshiva high school informed me that he had lost his virginity. He told me people were surprised, but most tended to have overwhelmingly positive reactions, commenting on how beautiful the girl he had sex with is and how proud they are of him. I had no reactions like that when I lost my virginity. I was asked if I was having a mental breakdown or informed my actions were slutty. And that was just what my supposed friends said to my face. Although there is a double-standard when it comes to sex for most people, not just religious Jews, it feels far more pronounced in the Orthodox world. A woman without her virginity has no chances of getting married, no future, and is damaged goods. A man without his virginity is the norm.
One story often told to young Jewish children is about feathers in the wind. A woman goes to her rabbi, looking to atone for the way her lashon hara has hurt people. The rabbi tells her teshuva is easy- all she needs to do is remove the feathers from a down pillow, wait a day and collect them. The woman does just that, and the next evening, returns to the rabbi puzzled. “Rabbi, I tried to do what you said, but I can’t collect all the feathers. They’ve spread too far and there are too many of them.” “Ah,” the rabbi replied. “It’s the same with lashon hara. Your words have more power than you could know. Once you let the feathers into the wind, there’s no telling where they’ll end up.”
As for the future, I’m not sure whether I will remain a member of the Orthodox community. Although I like many of the practices in religious Judaism, I hate the hypocrisy I have encountered. It’s not enough to prattle off Bible verses; you have to follow the basic tenets of Judaism: treating others as you would treat yourself, not humiliating people, and trying to limit hurtful speech.
Sophia Rosenberg likes baking and combating injustices in the world.
Image via Sophia Nicholas on Pixabay