Torah and Taboo

Reinventing Jewish sexual ethics

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (NYU Press, $19.95) is a “playground,” in the words of editor Danya Ruttenberg, for exploring and re-imagining a contemporary sexual ethic based in the Jewish tradition. The anthology derives from Ruttenberg’s premise that “as much as Judaism has to teach us about sexual relationships… from our contemporary perspective, its teachings may feel uncomfortable or deeply challenging.” None of the thinkers who contributed to the book shy away from critique. They uncover and deconstruct misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, pornographic, and xenophobic outlooks found in the Jewish texts we have inherited; still they honor the very same tradition as a source for reconstructing a contemporary, healthy sexual ethic.

The voices in The Passionate Torah are articulate and refreshingly diverse. The first third of the book delves into Jewish sources in an effort to reveal the sexist underpinnings of many Jewish institutions: Sarra Lev analyzes the pornographic elements of the Biblical sotah ritual (in which the Temple priest tests a woman suspected of adultery by ripping her clothes and uncovering her hair, thus playing into a reader’s — or listener’s — prurient interest in the punishments themselves); Judith Baskin explores prostitutes in Jewish stories. And Bonna Haberman deconstructs the institution of Jewish marriage and its power as a national symbol in light of its concepts of ownership and gender-power differential.

Later contributors suggest ways to revamp Jewish law, institutions, and even theology. Many breathe new life into old concepts, while others are willing to oppose and eradicate antiquated ideas. Haviva Ner-David proposes ideological and practical ways to transform niddah rituals. Elliot Dorff defends the traditional value of confining sex to marriage, with minor adjustments, while Sara Meirowitz and Laura Levitt not only question Dorff ’s assumptions but challenge the societal expectation for marriage altogether. Levitt defines her vision of a healthy and spiritual erotic ethic as “radical mutuality, not tied to either monogamous marriage or longterm partnership.”

Many of the contributors have academic backgrounds, and they do not always wear their learning lightly. The articles are often complex, quoting rabbinic texts and works of gender theory. (The glossary of Hebrew terms will be useful for many readers.) The perspectives they offer reflect the influence of such works as Judith Plaskow’s The Coming of Lilith and Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism, both of which endeavored to construct a feminist sexual ethic based on re-readings of rabbinic texts.

Many articles here urge readers to tap into a deeper, more personal set of standards that resist concrete definitions. In Ruttenberg’s essay on modesty she questions the efficacy of rules about skirts or sleeve length, suggesting instead self-knowledge and “intention” in choosing one’s dress. She argues that clothes “must enable her to feel the quiet but always pulsing connection to a sense of internal sacredness and to God’s Godself.” Likewise, Elliot Rose Kukla (the first trangender person ordained as a rabbi) encourages people to think differently, ending his article with the inspiring note that “every Divine Creature is entitled to be seen, loved and desired.”

Alieza Salzberg teaches rabbinic literature and creative writing in Jerusalem. She is working on a Master’s at Hebrew University and researching virginity in rabbinic literature.