Sex and the Chosen People: Be Fruitful and Multiply, Etc.

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism
Danya Ruttenberg, editor
NYU Press, 2009

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has spent much of her career writing about Judaism. Her first book, Yentl’s Revenge (2001), is a collection that features young women writing about how they have reconciled their faith and their feminist beliefs, and explores topics like marriage, body image, transgender theory, and environmentalism in order to redefine Judaism for a younger generation of women.

Ruttenberg followed up Yentl’s Revenge last year by releasing a spiritual memoir about her own coming of age journey: Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. From the decision to be an atheist when she was 13 years old to her ultimate, though somewhat reluctant, choice to become a rabbi, Ruttenberg’s story shows the ways religious practice is complicated yet valuable for its complexity. This month she will release a third, perhaps more controversial, book entitled The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism.

Like Yentl’s Revenge, The Passionate Torah is an anthology. The book’s contributor list includes “some of today’s smartest Jewish thinkers who explore a broad range of fundamental questions in an effort to balance ancient tradition and modern sexuality.” The Passionate Torah aims to “bridge the gap between the sacred and the sexual.”

I recently spoke to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg about the challenges of bringing new perspectives on sexuality and feminism to the forefront of Judaism.

I went to my first Passover seder this year and was interested to learn that part of the tradition includes theological argument! Do you see this book as a continuation of that tradition of debate?

I absolutely see this book as engaged in the classically Jewish art of not only argumentation and debate, but intellectual experimentation. There are about 5,000 disagreements recorded in the Talmud, and only about 50 are resolved on the page. The sense that there are multiple ways to see every issue is an important aspect of the Jewish tradition. This is part of why the anthology has so many different, often competing voices: it’s meant to be a place for discussion and debate, and there isn’t the presumption that everyone will agree, even a little bit. More than that, often what you see in these “arguments” is that one or both parties are experimenting with ways to approach the issue. One sees, in the Talmud and midrashic (homiletic) sources, the rabbis basically riffing, or jamming. You know, “What if we thought about it this way? Hey, what would happen if we thought about it this way?” That’s really the spirit of The Passionate Torah—a playground of sorts, a way of experimenting with the questions and issues at hand in the hopes that something new and exciting will result.

The academic tone of this book is a pretty big departure from your two previous books, a personal narrative anthology and a memoir, respectively. What prompted this shift?

I think the material itself demanded a more rigorous approach. I wanted to take a good, hard look at what is, and what could be, in terms of Jewish thinking about sex and sexuality. In order to do this, I needed people who absolutely knew their stuff, who could bring out the big guns both in terms of Jewish text and tradition, but also in terms of innovative thinking about gender, sex, and sexuality, who could marry a number of different lenses to create something new. It’s not a strictly academic work by any means; it’s meant to be accessible to people with all sorts of (and no) Jewish backgrounds—hence the glossary in the back. But yeah, there are footnotes.

For someone not well-versed in Jewish feminist theory, how transgressive or radical are these essays?

Some of them push the envelope, to be sure. Sarra Lev’s suggestion, for example, that we read part of the text known as the Oral Torah to some (specifically, the Mishnah from tractate Sotah) as pornography is sure to ruffle a few feathers, and Naomi Seidman’s piece is sure to provoke in a different direction, suggesting that the segregation of the sexes found in traditional/Orthodox Judaism (and reviled by many Jewish feminists) is a site of profound, unarticulated homoeroticism. Laura Levitt makes a Jewish case against marriage, and possibly monogamy. Jay Michaelson suggests that queerness should implicate everyone’s theology, and Elliot Kukla looks at the ways in which classical rabbinic literature was surprisingly encouraging of intersex love relationships. There’s definitely plenty that, I hope, will challenge readers on a lot of different levels.

How did you choose these essays for this collection?

I wanted pieces that were saying things that I haven’t heard said before, that were making a new case or asking us to rethink our old ideas in some sort of surprising way. I wanted pieces that were simultaneously respectful of the tradition and felt entirely empowered to critique it. I wanted pieces that might offer us some sort of insight for the ongoing project of building a Judaism that, while rooted in history, can grow and change and both continue to challenge us and reflect our highest values. I wanted essays, in other words, that kicked my own butt a little bit.

I found the story of Rahab quite interesting (as did many of your contributors—quite a few of them utilize it in their analysis). Who would have thought that Pretty Woman had its roots in Judaism? Why is this such a compelling story?

The tale of a gentile prostitute who hides Israelite spies so that they can conquer the land is pretty ripe for reading, isn’t it? It has, over time, evoked so many different tropes: the hooker with a heart of gold, the righteous gentile, the redeemed ‘fallen woman’, the colonized woman colluding with her colonizers, etc. According to some midrashim (rabbinic homilies), she converted to Judaism; so there she is portrayed as the woman who went from the depths of depravity to the heights of piety. Her foreignness and her sexuality are exoticized, feared, deplored, considered titillating. There’s a lot to say, and so much of what has been said by the rabbis is so deeply troubling that there remains, for us, plenty more to say.

Many of your contributors also write about the oppressive nature of marriage rituals and expectations. How are Jewish women re-scripting marriage away from this dynamic?

There’s a lot of exciting work being done right now around marriage, as more and more feminists (women and men) look at the harm done by the traditional dynamic in Jewish divorce (which relies on the husband’s willingness to divorce and can leave a woman trapped in the marriage), as well as many of the ways that the Jewish wedding ceremony itself inscribes inequality from the get-go.

There are a lot of organizations advocating for the rights of women in divorce, and pushing for various kinds of prenuptial agreements that can mitigate any future problems. There are people rethinking the ceremony itself, to rewrite what happens under the wedding canopy in a way that’s egalitarian and reflective of the values of those getting married: there are egalitarian wedding contracts, new liturgies, and reinvestigations into the sources to see what kinds of untapped possibilities might be lurking in our sacred texts. It’s actually a very ripe time, now.

Rachel Adler famously addressed some of this in her book Engendering Judaism, and I happen to have put in some of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen online.

This discussion of marriage practices is especially interesting given the current movement by states in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage. Is this a fortuitous coincidence or a reflection of a larger cultural shift?

Both, probably!

How do technological advancements complicate Jewish teachings about sex and procreation when sexual intercourse is no longer necessary for a woman to produce a child?

Well, of course, there are so many more possibilities today in terms reproductive technology than the Torah, Talmud, or our medieval and early modern codes could have imagined! Certainly, some things possible in our world had been sufficiently anticipated by earlier Jews that we have a basis for discussion; there were forms of birth control mentioned in the Talmud, for example. And there are even intimations of the questions raised by, say, in vitro fertilization.

One ancient text asks about the status of a baby conceived when the mother bathed in a bath in which sperm was left behind! (This was almost surely not a case based in fact, as it’s a very challenging biological reality, but the rabbis often played with theoretical cases and this one likely pointed to feelings about the bathhouse as a place of licentiousness—or perhaps it was a story that could enable a pregnant young woman to keep her virtue intact.)

More often, we’re left to think about new technologies in light of more general Jewish principles: the value of “being fruitful and multiplying,” for example; the value of saving a life; of putting health (even mental health) first; and so forth. We then have to weigh the different factors at hand to make sense of new technologies, both generally and, in some cases, the specifics of a particular person’s situation.

What role does a rabbi play in sex education?

I think a rabbi’s job is to help connect the technical stuff that people should hopefully be getting elsewhere (about biology, safe sex, etc.) to our lives, our hearts, and our ethical sensibilities. We need to learn to live in relationship with ourselves, with God, with those in our community, our families, and, of course, our intimate relationships. It’s just another part of our lives that demands we figure out how to engage one another with kindness, ethics, and holiness; and hopefully rabbis can be part of that discussion.

Do you find modern day ‘American culture’ at odds with ‘Jewish culture’ in terms of sexuality?

I find it difficult to presume that either American culture or Jewish culture is entirely monolithic. There are many different streams, many different conversations happening all the time! That said, I see in the broader secular culture, often, the presumption that sexuality is an item to be bought, sold, or bartered—think of the way it’s used as a tool in advertising, or by celebrities, or in the culture of hookups found on college campuses.

Judaism demands not only that we engage our heart and soul in our sexual lives, but that we be fully present with our partners, that the sexual act involves all of us (heart, soul, mind, body) involved with all of them, that we see ourselves and others as created in the Divine image and that sexuality is a vehicle for our relationships with the Divine the way everything else is. And yet, despite the stereotypes of religious attitudes toward sex as puritanical, Judaism encourages us to have healthy, frequent, vigorous, even experimental sex lives! There’s a real value placed on pleasure.

What role does feminism play in changes occurring in modern-day Judaism?

It’s been said that feminism is the single biggest contemporary threat to Judaism, and I think that’s true. I also think, more to the point, that feminism (and, I’d argue, queer- and trans-liberation) has the ability to save Judaism, to help it return to our highest ideals. Religion can and should help us to live our greatest aspirations, and any time that it fails to help us, individually and as a community, live out our potential in the greatest possible way, it fails us. Feminism has asked vitally important questions of Judaism and Jewish life, and its ability to respond to those questions has helped it to grow—not only to remain relevant (which is a pretty unimpressive goal, really), but to continue the process of unfolding Torah, of uniting Heaven and Earth.

The great 20th-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that God’s revelation to us is ongoing, and I count feminism, and feminism’s impact on Judaism, as part of that.

In other words, the religion we have today and the questions that define it are very much a result of the feminist revolution, and I think Judaism is, as a result, stronger, better, and more able to help us engage the sacred than it’s ever been.