Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Passionate Torah

Danya Ruttenberg, ed., The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (New York: New York University Press, 2009). 320 pp. $19.95.

Postmodernism, feminism, and queer liberation have raised “a whole new set of questions with which to address our time-honored traditions,” Danya Ruttenberg says in her introduction to this collection of eighteen essays by diverse hands. The intention is to explore such topics as “queer sexuality,” masturbation, “female sexual empowerment,” prostitution, “inter-religious coupling,” monogamy, modesty, and “the erotics of sexual segregation” in hopes of finding “a new model of [Jewish religious] practice for the future.”

The hope is repeatedly disappointed. And the reason is that all of the answers to Ruttenberg’s new set of questions are provided by modernity and postmodernity. By addressing Jewish tradition, Ruttenberg and her contributors really mean that the tradition will just have to adapt.

A good small example appears in an otherwise useful survey of birth control and procreation by Elliot N. Dorff, an ethicist and ordained rabbi who has helped to decide such questions for Conservative Judaism. Observing that the Talmud “prohibits masturbation as ‘wasting of the seed’ (hashhatat zera),” he abruptly turns and announces without warning that “masturbation, which is harmless, is preferable to nonmarital sex. . . .” Dorff is a trained philosopher and perhaps the clearest thinker in Ruttenberg’s volume. The non sequitir escaped his notice, most likely, because the assertion that masturbation is harmless seems uncontestable to him. Medical science has established the fact, regardless of what the Talmud says.

And that is the point. When one of the most Jewishly learned contributors to The Passionate Torah disregards the Talmud, because the testimony of medical science is silently treated as superior to it in wisdom, the result is not to ask how “new ways of thinking” impact Jewish understanding, but rather to dress up in a quasi-Jewish vocabulary to talk about what literary intellectuals, academics, and the young always want to talk about—sex.

Judaism is not silent about sex, but its speech is consistent. It can be reduced to variations on a single refrain: Judaism is a sexual discipline, which is demanded of a Jew in order to sanctify the body. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains:

Disciplining the body, interfering with its pleasure-seeking drives, organizing them into a meaningful whole, and relating them to a higher frame of reference by refusing to yield to the powerful push of the flesh and by resisting the rush of primitive lust, are attainable only at a high price in terms of self-denial, self-despair and self-sacrifice. Desires unfulfilled, pleasure pursuits interrupted when attainment is in sight, and withdrawal from something fascinating are painful events.But to experience the pain and self-denial of a sexual discipline, Soloveitchik concludes, is to experience “the dynamics of holiness.”[1]

The language of sexual discipline is entirely absent from The Passionate Torah. Discussing a famous story in tractate Menahot in which a rabbi stops himself from bedding a prostitute when his tsitsit strike him in the face—the prostitute, moved by his restraint, converts to Judaism and ends by marrying him—Melanie Malka Landau says that “one way” to interpret the story is that “sex that began as ‘illicit’ becomes ‘holy’ within the appropriate framework.” But this is no guarantee against sexual objectification, she says. The truth is that “good sex” (her phrase) also depends upon “a deep recognition of humanity.”

A beautiful doctrine, but what are its consequences? Landau moves immediately to call into question the traditional Jewish conception of a husband’s obligation in marriage. “Male access to ongoing heterosexual sex from their partners is secured through the guise of a commandment incumbent on the male to pleasure his wife,” she writes, reversing the priorities of the tradition. Besides, she goes on, “the woman’s consent in sex is potentially ambiguous, perhaps because sex is construed as part of her husband’s obligation to her.” The deep recognition of humanity, in short, is a better guide to the sexually perplexed than Jewish law. And even when the law appears to promote “female sexual empowerment,” the opposite is probably the case.

Contrast this to the views of the Orthodox thinker Eliezer Berkovits, whose sexual ethic parallels Landau’s to a striking extent. Berkovits founds his conclusions upon the principle that “man is not an animal,” a “Jewish affirmation that cannot be given up without surrendering Judaism itself.” Because sexuality is not merely biological, it is not to be rejected; but because it is also biological, it has the power to turn a man into an animal. In that case, “[i]t is not what man does,” Berkovits writes, “but what is happening to man.” The danger is not simply that the partner will be objectified—that the sex act will become, in Landau’s phrase, a “power play”—but that man will become the object of his lust. Animal sexuality is a “pointing from genital to genital”; human sexuality is a “call from person to person.” For Berkovits, though, the drama of sexuality does not end there. Persons are called to persons, but Jews are also called to God. Sex is not merely “a deep recognition of humanity,” but also a mitsvah. He tells the same Talmudic story as Landau, but his conclusion is utterly different. After the rabbi marries the ex-prostitute, the mitsvah of wearing tsitsit is “fulfilled, not only in ritual observance, but also in recovered personal dignity.” Human sexuality deepens one’s obligation to God.[2]

Ruttenberg’s own contribution to the book is an attempt to reconceive tsniut (“modesty”) so that it no longer involves either hypocrisy or “the absolute erasure of female potential.” The argument is grounded in the ideas of the feminist Audré Lorde, who “defines the erotic as that which embodies the deepest and most fundamental connection to the self. . . .” Lorde is treated as a source whose authority equals the Talmud—which Ruttenberg then quotes, but not in a way that is indispensable to her argument. Her prooftext is feminist theory, not the Torah.

She concludes that “true modesty involves a subjective connection to the erotic,” and thus its definition must be placed “in the hands of each individual.” But this is incoherent. Ruttenberg is not talking about tsniut, but self-expression. For modesty is not yet another means of establishing personal autonomy; it is a matter of social and communal concern. It is the price for entering into a community where one’s individual standards are submerged in the mutual agreement to treat one another as fully deserving of respect and welcome, or separating oneself from the community to pursue one’s subjective connection to the erotic.

The book is at its best when the contributors stick closely to Jewish texts. Gail Labovitz, for example, gives a reading of Kiddushin 81b that turns the traditional interpretation on its head, making a rabbi’s wife into a “legal guerilla” and a model for feminist sexual ethics. She does not belabor the last point, however, recognizing that hers is only one reading “among several possibilities.” Rather than twisting the story further to press it into the service of practical reform, she permits her interpretation of the text to stand on its own. In similar fashion, Judith R. Baskin provides an entertaining survey of biblical and rabbinical texts on prostitution. Only in her closing sentence does she turn to the question of practical consequences. At their best, the contributors’ textual interpretations can be enjoyed by ignoring the utilitarian recommendations that grow out of them.

A common error throughout the book is to assume that Jewish ritual must be reinterpreted to make it available to a new generation. How can anyone expect young women to practice sexual separation from their husbands during menstruation if the laws of niddah suggest they are unclean? The error here is to confuse belief in with belief that. A believing Jew guards the mitsvot out of belief in the God who ordained them, while not permitting his occasional disagreement—his inability to believe that they are universally true—to interfere with his obedience. The performance of a mitsvah is not symbolic, but intrinsically meaningful; it does not require an extra layer of interpretive validity to validate it.

None of the contributors to The Passionate Torah comes out of Orthodoxy, and the first language of most is postmodern theory. Small surprise, then, that their primary goal is not for Jews to recover the mitsvot, but (in the words of Haviva Ner-David) to “reevaluate their implementation of these laws.” Ner-David recommends, for example, that a couple “celebrate” the wife’s menstrual cycle by going to the ritual bath together so that both might immerse themselves, one after the other. Again and again, the question in this up-to-the-minute book is not how contemporary Jews might serve God through observing his commandments, but how the commandments might be reinterpreted and revised to serve the sexual needs of contemporary Jews.

[1] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Redemption of Sexual Life,” in Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships, ed. David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky (New York: Toras HoRav, 2000), pp. 73–104.

[2] Eliezer Berkovits, “A Jewish Sexual Ethics,” in Crisis and Faith (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1976), pp. 41–82.