An anonymous story in the Yeshiva University Beacon has caused a scandal with its depiction of a premarital sexual encounter. The piece was so controversial that it's led to the resignation of an editor and a schism between the newspaper and the university.
By secular standards, "How Do I Even Begin To Explain This" is pretty tame. It tells the story of a young Orthodox man and woman who are not married, and who meet in a hotel room to drink beer and have sex. Here's how the author describes the sex itself:
My partner in crime improvises with the room key as a bottle opener and we gorge ourselves on Stella Artois and cable television. In between swigs, I glance over at him; my cheeks are flushed and my head feels lighter with every drop. Making him think I'm farther gone than I actually am helps me shut off my conscience when I kiss him hard on the mouth. That little pest of a conscience is screaming again when he starts taking off my dress, so I shut her up with a last gulp of beer.
As soon as my bra hits the floor, the voice is gone.
Between the fumbling, the pain, the pleasure, I convince myself that I've learned how to make love.
It's not very explicit, but the reaction to the piece at Yeshiva University was "very negative," according to Dena Shayne, the student council president of the university's women's college. One student told the Wall Street Journal that the story "contribute[d] to a sense of a moral degradation," and that if it had been written "in either a theoretical way or a less graphic way, it would definitely be much more acceptable." Shayne says that the negative feedback from students convinced her she had no choice but to withdraw the funding the college provided to the paper (it was only $500). Beacon co-editor Toviah Moldwin has also announced his resignation. He writes,
I have experienced a great deal of internal conflict about the many editorial dilemmas with which I am confronted on a regular basis as an editor of a publication of this nature, especially when I see both sides of an issue, and recent events have amplified these difficulties significantly. The publicity surrounding this incident was a result I neither desired nor anticipated, and I fear that some of this publicity may have put YU in a negative light. I have thus become uncomfortable remaining at the forefront of The Beacon, though I still firmly believe in The Beacon's mission of promoting dialogue within the university community.
He also notes that the paper has "decided to part ways from the university" — a message on the Beacon's homepage confirms that "In light of recent developments, YU and The Beacon have agreed to separate. Over the next few days, we will update the site to reflect these changes. The Beacon will continue to publish as always." Yesterday, editor-in-chief Siri Lampert issued an explanation of the paper's decision to publish "How Do I Even Begin." It reads, in part,
This article does talk about sex. Yes, sex. And the premarital kind, too. Yes, this is assur (a sin according to Jewish law). No, we don't encourage or promote the act of premarital sex. However, it happens. It happens in our community, and we as a community prefer to pretend it doesn't happen. This much can be ascertained by the amount of comments objecting to a public discussion of a Stern woman having sex. The only way we can address the issue in any way — to fix it, to make sure it doesn't happen, to make sure if it does happen, protection is involved, etc — is to talk about it. That is why we posted the article — so people would talk about it. And talk they did.
Indeed, a number of commenters on the original article write that they appreciate the chance to talk about issues surrounding premarital sex. Scott Kalmikoff notes that observant Jews who feel guilty about premarital sex may also feel very alone:
So many people [...] feel like they have no one to turn to in a time of need. Could we really turn to our Rabbis, our "friends", or parents if we had this problem? The hurtful and nasty comments that people are posting are part of the reason that people feel like they can't reach out to anyone.
At the end of "How Do I Even Begin," the narrator tries to confide in her cousin about her recent assignation. Her cousin says only, "now you have to learn from it." The piece concludes with the line, "The only thing I learn is how to do the walk of shame the day after." The narrator seems like she could have benefited from the opportunity to talk openly and honestly to someone about her sexual experience, even if she decided not to repeat it. Hopefully the publication of the story will give more Yeshiva University students that chance.
I asked Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism for her thoughts on the controversy. She wrote,
It's pretty unusual for the issue of premarital sex to be discussed in an Orthodox publication. There are certainly people (and I have only anecdotal information on this, no statistics) in the Orthodox world who engage in premarital sex, but it's a complicated, loaded issue. The ideal of a woman coming to the chuppah (wedding canopy) a virgin is still held very much as the ideal in a lot of circles. And yet, the tefillin date (in which the male brings his tefillin—phylacteries—on the date so that he can pray with them in the morning, after he stays over) is no myth. I think the Orthodox establishment is afraid to discuss premarital sex openly, lest even having the conversation be understood as condoning it. [...]
I think this current scandal could be a great opportunity for the Orthodox world to take on something that's generally been cast as somewhat taboo, to talk about how they think about the ideal, what people really do, what factors merit discussion (for example, should the fact that people are getting married later and later, and thus have more single years after puberty factor into the conversation?) and what 21st century religious Jewish sexual ethics should look like. I'm not Orthodox; I can't tell the community what it should or shouldn't ultimately think or decide, but I do think that there are possibilities inherent in this conversation, and that it's a great opportunity for a frank discussion.