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Taking Back Ownership of Women’s Sexuality in Judaism

Elana Sztokman is one of the most proactive Jewish feminist thinkers on the scene today. An award-winning author of three books on gender equality in the Jewish world, a PhD in sociology and a former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association (JOFA), Dr. Sztokman seeks the edge. This past spring, she inaugurated a course, Dynamics of Jewish Feminism, via webinar for a worldwide reach. Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler, Blu Greenberg and Letty Pogrebin were among the more than 30 distinguished panelists over the course of 8 weeks. Energized by the response,Szotkman has now embarked on a second course, DESIRE: Sex, Judaism and Feminism. Susan Reimer-Torn interviews her for the Sisterhood.

Susan Reimer-Torn: What made you decide to offer a webinar on Sex and Desire?

Elana Sztokman: I realized that almost all our feminist conversation lead to sex. We manage to dance around the issue. We do talk about slut-shaming, for example, or excessive modesty demands. But what are those really about if not owning women’s sexuality? Girls’ and women’s sexuality are some kind of communal property that needs to be purely maintained. When we talk about inequality in marriage and divorce and the agunah issue, it all comes down to cultural practices that see a woman as the property of a man — with all that entails. Talking about our own desires explodes that basic assumption. It lets women take back ownership of our sexuality, ownership of our bodies.

Are women prepared to speak about this?

The more I speak to women — and men — the more I learn that many people are struggling to make sense of really difficult messages about their bodies and their sexuality. This is not just in Orthodoxy. Throughout the Jewish world, people are trying to unlearn harmful ideas and create healthy relationships, first with their own bodies, then possibly with others. Sex is a key feminist issue and “coming out” about that is especially needed because it’s so far from public discourse. It’s terribly ironic actually. Sex is everywhere — in advertising, in sitcoms, in the media — but truthful and helpful conversations about what healthy sexuality looks like are few and far between.

Your most recent, acclaimed book is “The War on Women in Israel.” How do the issues that arise around intimacy relate to the larger socio-religio-political sphere?

The religious war on women’s bodies is entirely about sex and power. It’s about rendering women powerless out of fear of our sexuality. Everything we’re seeing today in Israel around religious attempts to control women — gender segregation on streets, signs everywhere for women to cover up, removing women from spaces like funerals, conferences, buses and planes — all of it comes down to perceptions of women as sex objects. That is at the core of everything.

What is the scope of the new course?

This is a five week course that’s about creating a space for people to talk back to their culture,and to articulate what they want for themselves. It supports people in reconnecting with their own passions and desires through openness, inclusion, acceptance, and sensuality. We are tackling orgasm, virginity, masturbation, BDSM, sex toys, sexual dysfunction and pain, sexual abuse, the sexless marriage, pornography, and also the Jewish-specific issues like ritual immersion around menstruation. Each week a different panel of speakers is interviewed on a particular set of topics. So it’s very interactive and live and dynamic.

How did you choose your expert panelists?

Talli Rosenbaum, a fantastic sex therapist and writer and researcher, collaborated with me in creating this course. I also read a lot and invited some of my favorite authors on these subjects. We have 16 speakers in all — including Talli Rosenbaum (my collaborator ), Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Dr David Ribner, Peggy Kleinplatz, Ayo Oppenheimer, Jessica Minnen, Rabba Melanie Landau, Idit Klein, and more.

How does technology make this possible?

The technology enables people from Australia, South Africa, UK, Israel, US and Canada to connect in ways that were never possible before. This helps community-building and reminds people that they are not alone in their struggles. The technology has created a virtual hand-holding circle.

How would you characterize participants’ responses so far?

Extremely receptive. Even after just one session, we are already in the midst of a few conversations that continue online. One is a discussion of whether Judaism is sex-positive. David Ribner and Peggy Kleinplatz shared an article they wrote which shows how Jewish texts encourage husbands to please their wives. The question is whether that message gets transmitted to people starting their sexual journeys.

Do you believe that the Jewish feminist movement – and feminism in general – have “put a kick in the ant hill,” disrupting certain assumptions and complacencies, exploding certain taboos? Does this make intimate life easier or more challenging for most people? Does it offer hope?

Yes! Feminism is definitely making waves. It’s an uphill battle for sure, and sometimes you feel like you’re going backwards. In Israel, the spread of religious radicalism and gender segregation can be very scary and disheartening. But overall, there is a feminist shift, certainly in areas of leadership and inclusion. But I don’t think the shift has significantly affected sexuality – that is, not yet – since the topic is still so unspoken in most places. But hopefully with courses like this, we can start liberating women sexually, helping them to find their deepest sources of passion.

What are the next steps?

I’m preparing to launch The Center for Jewish Feminism, an online home for women and men around the world engaged in Jewish feminist learning, community-building, spiritual empowerment and personal transformation. The Center will offer a wide range of tools – tele-courses, videos, books, one-on-one sessions, chat groups, and more – that provide compassionate and intelligent support for people engaged in feminist social change and spiritual healing and transformation. We have a whole menu of telecourses planned

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