Let’s Talk About Sex

A New Anthology Explores What the Torah Has To Say

By Rachel Barenblat

Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism
Edited By Danya Ruttenberg
New York University Press, 320 pages, $19.95.

Jewish attitudes about sex and sexuality span a wide spectrum. For liberal Jews, sex and religion may seem unrelated; for those who follow the family-purity laws, the relationship between sex and Jewish tradition may seem set in stone. But neither of these stances takes the whole picture into account. Judaism, as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes in the introduction to “Passionate Torah,” is both an earthy religion of the body and a distressingly patriarchal institution. “Jewish sexuality,” she writes, “is nothing if not complex.”

Kurt Hoffman

In the past few decades, postmodernism, feminism and queer liberation have changed the way sexuality is understood and discussed across the board. “Passionate Torah” brings all these to bear on the Jewish conversation about sex.

Taking a page from Martin Buber, Ruttenberg organizes the anthology into three sections: “I-It: Challenges,” “I-Thou: Relationships” and “We-Thou: Visions.” The essays focus first on problems, then on connections and finally on visions of the future.

Anthologies can seem like grab-bags. This tripartite organizing principle helps give “Passionate Torah” coherency, but the tone of the essays still varies. On my first reading, I found this frustrating; on my second read-through, I decided it was a plus rather than a minus, because it offers readers a variety of ways in. This is a book best read in small doses.

Sarra Lev’s exploration of Tractate Sotah (a tractate of Talmud that explores questions of female infidelity) subjects it to the scrutiny of film theory, particularly the theory of the gaze, and pushes the reader to grapple with the question of whether Sotah constitutes rabbinic pornography. (Short answer: Sure looks that way.)

Scholar Wendy Love Anderson notes that rabbinic Judaism tended (and arguably still tends) to see boundary-crossing sexual relationships “as indicative of systemic moral failure.” Suddenly, the anti-intermarriage rhetoric of mainstream American Judaism makes a new kind of sense.

For me as a rabbinic student interested in gender, sexuality and our communal boundaries, this is fascinating material. For someone who isn’t as invested in wrestling with the texts, or in these particular questions, the essays might not hit home.

By the same token, Forward columnist Jay Michaelson’s essay “On the Religious Significance of Homosexuality” explores kabbalistic understandings of masculinity, femininity and the divine. If you already enjoy stretching your brain into the acrobatics of classical Kabbalah, this essay is for you. If you don’t, you may find yourself skimming until you reach his closing assertions about why sexuality matters.

The more personal essays are more universally accessible. Rabbi Haviva Ner-David offers an interpretation of the traditional categories of tumah (ritual impurity) and taharah (ritual purity), reflecting on how she relates to her own oscillation between the two states.

“This is especially compelling for me when I am trying to conceive,” she notes. “When my period comes, I turn inward… I need my space to grieve, and that is what I get — days and days of tumah space.” And then, when the time comes to return to taharah, the mikveh immersion allows her to wash away the grief. This may not inspire me to take on the family-purity laws, but it offers me a new way of understanding them.

My favorite essay in the anthology is probably Ruttenberg’s ”Toward a New Tzniut,” which explores questions of body and modesty. Many women today see traditional modesty laws as a patriarchal attempt to control women’s bodies and thereby our sexuality. Ruttenberg puts forth a case for a more nuanced understanding, though she’s conscious of tzniut’s problematics.

On her first day of rabbinic school, she writes, a male colleague ran his finger up her arm and noted that she’d better cover up. (That the gesture itself is a creepy sign of unconscious male entitlement to women’s bodies doesn’t escape her, but she doesn’t dwell on it.) Classical texts argue that it’s a woman’s job to protect men from her potentially arousing form; can these arguments be redeemed or reclaimed?

Ruttenberg argues that we should dress with awareness that we are “subjects” rather than “objects.” There’s a difference, she writes, between “I’m going to wear this shirt to the bar so guys will think I’m desirable” and “I’m going to wear this shirt because I feel beautiful in it.” In the first case, the woman is an object; in the second, she is a subject, erotic and whole. The difference lies in intention. For Ruttenberg, selfhood, subjecthood and connection to the erotic and the divine trump the spiritual value of modesty, though ideally the two sets of values can come to coexist.

If any of this startles you into thinking, “This isn’t what I expected,” the book is doing its job. These essays were chosen to expand the reader’s sense of what Judaism has to say on the subject of sex. Our understanding of Jewish sexuality needs to become as complex as the realities are. And as our understanding evolves, we become aware of new questions to pose to the tradition.

Rachel Barenblat, an ALEPH rabbinic student, holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.