The Passionate Torah

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

Edited by Danya Ruttenberg
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Passionate Torah
    Book Description:

    In this unique collection of essays, some of today's smartest Jewish thinkers explore a broad range of fundamental questions in an effort to balance ancient tradition and modern sexuality.In the last few decades a number of factors - post-modernism, feminism, queer liberation, and more - have brought discussion of sexuality to the fore, and with it a whole new set of questions that challenge time-honored traditions and ways of thinking. For Jews of all backgrounds, this has often led to an unhappy standoff between tradition and sexual empowerment.Yet as The Passionate Torah illustrates, it is of critical importance to see beyond this apparent conflict if Jews are to embrace both their religious beliefs and their sexuality. With incisive essays from contemporary rabbis, scholars, thinkers, and writers, this collection not only surveys the challenges that sexuality poses to Jewish belief, but also offers fresh new perspectives and insights on the changing place of sexuality within Jewish theology - and Jewish lives. Covering topics such as monogamy, inter-faith relationships, reproductive technology, homosexuality, and a host of other hot-button issues, these writings consider how contemporary Jews can engage themselves, their loved ones, and their tradition in a way that's both sexy and sanctified.Seeking to deepen the Jewish conversation about sexuality, The Passionate Torah brings together brilliant thinkers in an attempt to bridge the gap between the sacred and the sexual.Contributors: Rebecca Alpert, Wendy Love Anderson, Judith R. Baskin, Aryeh Cohen, Elliot Dorff, Esther Fuchs, Bonna Haberman, Elliot Kukla, Gail Labovitz, Malka Landau, Sarra Lev, Laura Levitt, Sara Meirowitz, Jay Michaelson, Haviva Ner-David, Danya Ruttenberg, Naomi Seidman, and Arthur Waskow.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-7738-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    Danya Ruttenberg

    THERE’S A FAMOUS story in the Talmud about a curious student who takes his studies past the point of what might generally be considered in good taste. Kahane, the yeshiva boy in question, hides under the bed of his teacher, deliberately listening in on the master’s lovemaking with his wife. He’s shocked by the way they chat and joke together during the coital act but tries his best to remain unnoticed. To no avail, however; in one dramatic moment, his presence—and chutzpah—are revealed.

    “Kahane, are you there?” his teacher thunders. “Leave now, because it is rude!” It is...

  5. I-It:: Challenges
    • 1 Sotah: Rabbinic Pornography?
      (pp. 7-23)
      Sarra Lev

      THE TEXT OF Mishnah Sotah is a form of literature that does not fit neatly in any one genre. It is not history, as it does not tell of an actual historical case, nor is it fictional narrative, since it functions as instruction rather than description or story. But although it is instructive, it is not an instruction manual or a law book per se, since it confesses to instruct on how to conduct a ritual that is no longer performed. When teaching this text, which focuses on the ritual to be performed when a husband suspects his wife of...

    • 2 Prostitution: Not a Job for a Nice Jewish Girl
      (pp. 24-35)
      Judith R. Baskin

      PROSTITUTION AND TRAFFICKING in human beings for the purpose of prostitution have been and continue to be ugly realities of human life. In this chapter, I focus on some portrayals of prostitution in biblical and aggadic (non-legal) rabbinic writings. These traditions oft en display a romanticized view of prostitutes—as long as they are not Jews. This double standard is evident in att itudes expressed about the “world’s oldest profession” and its practitioners in the Hebrew Bible and in the midrashic traditions of the rabbinic era.¹

      The Hebrew term for prostitution iszenutorzenunim;a prostitute is azonah....

    • 3 Divorcing Ba’al: The Sex of Ownership in Jewish Marriage
      (pp. 36-57)
      Bonna Devora Haberman

      THE JEWISH WEDDING is conceived both as a sacred act,kiddushin, and in terms ofkinyan, widely understood to be “acquisition.” These two aspects of marriage represent often incompatible realms of human experience. Many contemporary Jewish marriage practices compromise human dignity and well-being. Both in the invocation of wedding commitments and particularly in their dissolution, marriage practices range from the desire for sublime union of body, mind, and soul to behaviors that are utt erly profane—such as rape.

      The rabbinic Sages have long understood the biblical sources to determine that a man contracts Jewish marriage with a woman’s consent...

    • 4 The Sage and the Other Woman: A Rabbinic Tragedy
      (pp. 58-72)
      Aryeh Cohen

      WHAT DOES SEX stand in for in rabbinic literature, or in the more specific literature of the Talmud? Torah study is sex in BTEruvin54b. Indeed, Torah study is like having sex every night as if it is the first time.¹ Torah is the object of sexual desire. Ben Azai refuses procreative sex because of Torah-lust.² Rabbi Akiva procreates without sex—twenty-four thousand students in twenty-four years and his wife still at home.³ Torah study, then, stands in for sex, or, perhaps, it is sex. What, however, does sex stand in for? To ask another question, one posed by...

    • 5 Intermarriage, Gender, and Nation in the Hebrew Bible
      (pp. 73-92)
      Esther Fuchs

      THE BIBLICAL REPRESENTATION of “foreign” women has been the object of intense inquiry in recent years.¹ Initially feminist criticism highlighted the condemnation and stigmatization of national outsiders, such as Potiphar’s wife, Delilah, and Jezebel, and linked it directly or indirectly to biblical patriarchal and ethnocentric ideology.² Cheryl Exum, for example, notes: “The negative image of the foreign woman is a given in the Bible; it is simply assumed, and exceptions like Ruth only prove the rule. Proverbs warns the young male repeatedly against her.”³ Danna Nolan Fewell criticizes Ezra-Nehemiah’s objection to marriage with foreign woman, linking it to sexism and...

    • 6 Good Sex: A Jewish Feminist Perspective
      (pp. 93-104)
      Melanie Malka Landau

      WHEN WE THINK of “good sex” we think of sex that feels good and gives pleasure. Some less affected by advertising and popular culture may think of sex as acts between humans that create connection. But we know that sexual relationships are not only between two atomized individuals but are located within a complex set of contexts and relationships. If good sex is about sex within an ethical context, then good sex from a feminist Jewish perspective has its own set of questions to account for. This chapter asks: How can we make sex holy as feminist Jews while grappling...

  6. I-Thou:: Relationships
    • 7 The Erotics of Sexual Segregation
      (pp. 107-115)
      Naomi Seidman

      JERUSALEM IN THE late 1980s was full of American Jewish hippies discovering messianism or existentialism or both, vegetarian spiritual seekers who heard personal messages in Bob Dylan’s songs, bearded graduate students working for years on dissertations in Kabbalah, yoga students who spent an hour a day on their heads. I lived in a small apartment in Nahlaot, with the only phone among my circle of friends. Parents would call from Pittsburg or London or Flatbush, and I would relay messages to their sons and daughters.

      On the Purim of my second year in Jerusalem my friend Menahem took me along...

    • 8 Reclaiming Nidah and Mikveh through Ideological and Practical Reinterpretation
      (pp. 116-135)
      Haviva Ner-David

      THE TRADITIONAL JEWISH approach to heterosexuality encourages giving and receiving sexual pleasure, but only within certain boundaries. Once one complies with these restrictions, sex is not only allowed but is amitzvah,a Divine commandment. For instance, sex between certain partners, such as sister and brother, father and daughter, or a man and woman not married to each other, is forbidden. Once a heterosexual couple is married, however, sex is obligatory. Nevertheless, even within the marital relationship, sex is not permittedallof the time.

      In the book of Leviticus, we are introduced to a complex set of laws regarding...

    • 9 The Goy of Sex: A Short Historical Tour of Relations between Jews and Non-Jews
      (pp. 136-151)
      Wendy Love Anderson

      IN HIS FAMOUS Hebrew-English Torah edition of 1936, Rabbi Joseph Hertz quotes approvingly from his countryman Morris Joseph’s 1903 work,Judaism in Creed and Life:“Every Jew who contemplates marriage outside the pale must regard himself as paving the way to a disruption which would be the final, as it would be the culminating, disaster in the history of his people.”¹ As Hertz realized, Joseph spoke for normative rabbinic Judaism when he depicted marriage and sexual relations outside Judaism as “outside the pale,” destructive to the future of the Jewish people as a whole, and historically unprecedented. Since 1990, when...

    • 10 A Jewish Perspective on Birth Control and Procreation
      (pp. 152-168)
      Elliot N. Dorff

      The American and Jewish sides of the identity of American Jews complement each other in, for example, their mutual concern for individuals, education, and the rule of law (even over heads of state), although the two traditions come to those stands for different reasons. At the same time they disagree in ways that directly affect their views of sex, birth control, and whether married couples are obliged to have children—and how many.¹

      Specifically, in the American way of looking at things, I own my body. I may therefore use it in any way I wish, as long as I...

    • 11 Not Like a Virgin: Talking about Nonmarital Sex
      (pp. 169-181)
      Sara N. S. Meirowitz

      “DON’T WORRY, YOU can still marry akohen.” Thus spoke my wellmeaning college boyfriend as part of our seduction ritual. I was twenty years old and wrestling with “going too far” in my first serious relationship, shouldering the baggage ofyeshivaday school and overzealous safesex education. We were bending over theShulchan Aruchvolume of codes in the library, with hormones and Torah stories cascading through us in equal parts, as thisfrum-from-birth boy tried to calm our guilt over wanting to have sex by appealing to Rabbi Yosef Karo. “In this day and age,biyah¹ (sexual intercourse) doesn’t...

    • 12 Reconsidering Solitary Sex from a Jewish Perspective
      (pp. 182-190)
      Rebecca T. Alpert

      WE LEARN A lot about something by examining the words we use to describe it, where they come from, how they sound, what they evoke. Things related to sex usually have many descriptive terms, and the act of stimulating our own genitals for sexual satisfaction is no exception. I use the term “solitary sex,” but there’s also the slightly more sexy technical term “autoeroticism” and the many slang terms that may also come to mind (I’ll spare you the list, but you can look it up). The most common English word to describe these acts is, perhaps, “masturbation,” from the...

  7. We-Thou:: Visions
    • 13 “Created by the Hand of Heaven”: Sex, Love, and the Androgynos
      (pp. 193-202)
      Elliot Rose Kukla

      The first time I read this text I was stunned because the question was notifthe androgynos could marry buthowthe androgynos marries. Not only is a person who is neither male nor female allowed to be a fully sexual being worthy of companionship in Jewish sacred texts, the androgynos ispresumedto be one. The inclusion of transgender and gender nonconforming people within loving relationships, and community and family life, is still a hotly contested issue in the twenty-first century, but the Rabbis of the Mishnah writing in the first century CE were merely debating the details!...

    • 14 Toward a New Tzniut
      (pp. 203-211)
      Danya Ruttenberg

      ON MY THIRD day of rabbinical school, a male colleague ran his finger slowly up my arm to my shoulder and said, in a voice that was somewhere between flirtatious and downright creepy, “You’ll be wanting to cover up, then.” I was dressed in a tank top—a sleeveless T-shirt—and a skirt. Where I came from, upper arms were not considered obscene. This, then, was the beginning of my formal religious education.

      Much is made abouttzniut(modesty) in contemporary religious Judaism, particularly in Orthodoxy. Althoughtzniutis a broad concept that traditionally addresses many different ways that a...

    • 15 On the Religious Significance of Homosexuality; or, Queering God, Torah, and Israel
      (pp. 212-228)
      Jay Michaelson

      WHY DOES GOD make some people gay? Notwithstanding the rhetoric of denial prevalent in some religious circles, sexual orientation is known—by those with firsthand experience and by scientists who study it—either to be genetically determined or so deeply developmentally ingrained as to be fundamentally unchangeable.¹ The reality of gay and lesbian identity thus presents a theological, as well as existential and political, question.

      For many people, the question is only relevant because of the alleged prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (as well as Romans 1:26–27, 1 Cor. 6:9–11, and Tim. 1:8–10). Theologically it seems...

    • 16 ῌeruta’s Ruse: What We Mean When We Talk about Desire
      (pp. 229-244)
      Gail Labovitz

      THE WEB SITE bills itself as “The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens.”¹ It is sponsored by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, and carries the slogan “NCSY says kNOw.” Teens of both genders are invited to learn the risks of sexual activity outside marriage, to consider Jewish sources that speak to the question of restraint over one’s urges, and to explore strategies for maintaining sexual abstinence.

      How does the site suggest Jewish teens do this? Among the items listed on a page providing “Advice for More Successful Abstinence” is the...

    • 17 Love the One You’re With
      (pp. 245-258)
      Laura Levitt

      WHEN I FIRST considered contributing to this volume I was haunted by the relationship between the two texts of which the epigraphs to this chapter are taken, and to the work of two unlikely writers: the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow and the Jewish social ethicist David Novak. The passage from Vayiqra Rabbah comes from Novak’s book,Jewish Social Ethics.Ten years ago I referred to this particular rabbinic narrative and Novak’s reading of it in my account of Judith Plaskow’s groundbreaking feminist theology of sexuality.¹ Plaskow’s work and Novak’s book still remain a peculiar pair, precisely because Plaskow relies...

    • 18 Eden for Grown-Ups: Toward a New Ethic of Earth, of Sex, and of Creation
      (pp. 259-266)
      Arthur O. Waskow

      TWO MYTHIC TALES—the Garden of Eden and the Song of Songs—are the Hebrew Bible’s richest, deepest explorations of the place of people in the world and the relationships of human beings to the earth. The first is a tale of the painful awakening of the human race from an unconscious infancy into a tense adolescence and the drudgery of adulthood, and the second can be seen as a vision of that adulthood renewed, refreshed, made fully playful and conscious at the same time. The Song of Songs is Eden for grown-ups.

      From one standpoint, the story of Eden...

  8. Glossary
    (pp. 267-276)
  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 277-282)
  10. Index of Sources
    (pp. 283-289)
  11. Subject Index
    (pp. 290-294)