Halacha Date: 18 Iyar 5771 May 22 2011
Question: May one send his sons or daughters to youth programs where boys and girls are taught together, for some say this is not something that is prohibited according to the letter of the law and thus, when there is a pressing need, one may be lenient, or is it something that is truly prohibited and there is no room for leniency even in pressing situations?
Answer: The Mishnah in Tractate Sukkah (51a) states: “Whoever has not seen the celebration of the drawing of water (which was celebrated in the Bet HaMikdash during the holiday of Sukkot) has not seen a real celebration in his life.” The Mishnah goes on to describe the celebrations and dancing that would go on there. Then, the Mishnah states as follows: “On the night following the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, the people would descend into the women’s section and they would establish there a great establishment.” The Mishnah explains the entire procedure of festivities that would go on where pious and righteous men would dance merrily with torches of fire in their hands while reciting words of song and praise, and the Leviyim would play the musical accompaniment with their violins, harps, cymbals, and trumpets.
Regarding the “great establishment established there”, the Gemara (ibid, 51b) inquires as to what this establishment was. The Gemara answers: “Rabbi Elazar said, they established that the women should be seated above and the men below” so as not to result in frivolous behavior. The Gemara then questions how it was permissible to make changes to the structure of the Bet HaMikdash by building the women’s section higher than the men’s section, does the verse not state in Chronicles, “Everything was written based on what Hashem has bestowed upon me,” meaning that the Bet HaMikdash was built only according to the parameters which Hashem commanded Gad the Seer and Natan the prophet? If so, making a change to the structure of the Bet HaMikdash is a sin, even if it is necessary to do so!
The Gemara quotes the answer to this question by one of the early sages of the Amoraic era: “Rav said, they had found a verse from which they learned [that making such a change in the architecture of the Bet HaMikdash is necessary], as the verse in the book of Zecharia states, ‘The land shall eulogize, each family on its own, the family of David’s household and their wives alone.’ The Sages understood that certainly if at a time that people are dealing with eulogy and grief and the evil inclination does not have control the Torah commands [the men and women to be separated from each other and the grieving must be] men separately and women separately, how much more so during the celebration of water when it is a time of jubilation and the evil inclination does have control that there must be a separation between men and women.”
We can see clearly how much importance our Sages gave this matter, that when men and women stay in a set place for a prolonged amount of time there must be a separation between the men and the women, so that it does not lead to sin. All this applies in settings such as synagogues, houses of study, schools, or youth centers; however, regarding family occasions, where it is certain that no sin will result, some say that there is no obligation to make a partition between men and women.
Thus, the accepted custom of all Jewish communities is that a partition is erected in the synagogue between men and women so that do not come to sin. Only during the last century or so did some liberal congregations in the United States start to become lax about this matter. Hagaon Harav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l waged a war against them and passionately went on a campaign to publicize the extent of the prohibition upon all facets of the Jewish nation to do so (i.e. not to have a partition between men and women) and that no one should dare breach this fence.
Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef Shlit”a deduces from here that Halachically, boys and girls may not be permitted to learn together in school or play together and he brings (in his Responsa Yabia Omer Volume 4, Even Ha’Ezer Chapter 4) the words of Rabbeinu Yehuda HaChasid who writes the in his Sefer Chasidim, “Do not mix boys and girls together, lest they come to sin”, after which he continues to bring proofs to this from the Prophets and the Scriptures.
Therefore, those who conduct mixed youth programs at a time when the boys and girls would have otherwise been separate, are committing a grave sin by doing so, and the blame for the sins of these children and anything that comes out of them as the years go by is on these organizers and those who support them.
This that some claim that if boys and girls get used to being together from a young age then they will not come to sin, reality has proven this notion wrong, and in all coeducational schools or youth programs it will be hard to find even one person who has been saved from sin or from thoughts of sin which are considered more severe than the sin itself. This thing is in completely against all of the codes of modesty that our ancestors gave up their lives to protect.
Approximately forty years ago, members of the Mafdal (an Israeli party) wished to found a coeducational high school in the city of Netivot. The holy Gaon, Harav Yisrael Abuchatzera zt”l (the Baba Sali) stood up against them with the help of the Rabbi of the city, Hagaon Harav Refael Khedir Saban zt”l and together they publicized through announcements and advertisements that whoever cooperates with the founders of the school shall be ostracized from the community, for he will be considered a “breacher of the fence”. Harav Yisrael Abuchatzera zt”l then turned to Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef Shlit”a for help with this matter, at which point Maran Shlit”a affixed his signature as well to the posters delineating the prohibition involved in this matter. Whoever saw the signatures of Harav Yisrael Abuchatzera zt”l and Maran Shlit”a affixed to these notices would immediately tremble with fear; thus was the plot of those who tried to breach the fences of holiness foiled (This incident is recorded in Sefer Ma’or Yisrael-Derashot, page 294).
Nevertheless, there were instances where Maran Shlit”a was lenient in this matter regarding very young children to open a mixed classroom for them when there was indeed a pressing reason to do so, for instance, where all of the educational institutions in the area were irreligious and in order to facilitate the opening of a religious school there was no other option but to open a mixed school, for if not there would not be enough students registered to fill the classrooms. In such a situation, Maran Shlit”a writes that there is room for leniency since the children are very young and not yet susceptible to the lures of the evil inclination. However, if the children are over the age of nine, he writes that it is forbidden under any circumstances.
Every individual situation must be dealt with using wisdom and judgment for there have been certain places where Rabbis have chosen the “lesser of the two evils” and have permitted opening a coeducational school rather than have the children go learn in non-Jewish schools. In such situations, one should surely seek the counsel of the leading Rabbis of the generation so that they may help him find his way in stormy waters.