Elevate Difference

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

This new collection of essays, solicited from among the world’s most brilliant scholars of rabbinic literature, interpreters of the Torah, and professors of gender studies, is the first book I would recommend for those preparing to teach advanced courses in Jewish Studies. The essays range in tone from playfulness to fairly turgid exegesis, but the pieces are—without exception—bold, honest, and unabashed. They starkly confront the challenge of reconciling sexuality and spirituality from the perspective of those who study, worship, and identify with the Torah and the Talmudic tradition of critical analysis, while also maintaining active feminist belief and commitments to social justice that often seem to conflict with Jewish law, at least as it has been traditionally construed.

Each of the essays deserves more than the cursory notice possible here and would serve as ideal prompts for further (and badly needed) engagement on the nexus between religious law and the realities of living. A representative piece is Haviva Ner-David’s poignant essay “Reclaiming Nidah and Mikveh Through Ideological and Practical Reinterpretation.” The author confronts the subject of menstruation and its “impurity” as it arises first in Leviticus 15:19-33. The priestly and later rabbinical interpretation of this significant part of each month as a time of impurity for women, when they were denied access to worship in the temple, “reinforced the patriarchal power structure that gives these men their power.”

But rather than rejecting the law and rabbinic tradition, the author reinvents it. When she is in nidah (having her period), she finds herself naturally more “closed and self-absorbed,” so that the ritual immersion becomes a powerful transition to a state of greater openness. Further, she and her husband have negotiated the “distancing laws,” whereby intercourse during a woman’s period and the seven “white days” afterwards is prohibited, so that they make sense practically and spiritually in terms of their own relationship. Most profoundly, I thought, she has invited her husband to join her in the mikveh immersion, so that the ritual is a reinvigorating element in their relationship.

One of the shortest pieces in the book is similarly moving and frank, Rebecca T. Alpert’s “Reconsidering Solitary Sex from a Jewish Perspective.” She references Talmudic argument about whether the “punishment, to cut off a man’s hand, is a law or merely a curse.” For better or worse, the possibility that women masturbate seems not to have occurred to the Rabbis, and the author concludes simply and joyfully, “Self care is an important Jewish value.”

Equally provocative is Naomi Seidman’s semi-autobiographical essay “The Erotics of Sexual Segregation,” illustrating the point that the breakdown in traditional cultural segregation between men and women has “entailed a certain erotic loss.” The editor’s own essay “Toward a New Tzniut” is related in advocating a connection between subjectivity and eroticism, the self-love that grows out of claiming one’s own sexuality through a connection with the divine.

The book takes on the “queering of Jewish theology,” what the Torah and its interpreters say about having “good sex,” prostitution, divorce, and intermarriage. Wendy Love Anderson dares to explore “the Goy of Sex”—groan!—a brief history of Jewish-Gentile “boundary-crossing” sex. Sarra Kev interprets the Mishnah Sotah as rabbinical pornography: the Sotah is a woman accused of adultery and forced to endure humiliation and a sort of public rape before the gaze of the powerful men punishing her—and the literary gaze of the male students re-imagining this ghastly scene as part of their religious training.

This is a brilliant book, as well as an entertaining and moving one, with implications that extend well beyond the immediate project of Jewish-feminist exegesis.

Written by: Rick Taylor, August 21st 2009