Sex, Gender, & God

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow (August 2009)

Theology matters. The ways we understand God have deep effects on how we understand and shape the world.

The recent publication of two books -- one called The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg; the other, New Jewish Feminism, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein -- invite, even incite, us to renew both our metaphors for God and our behavior in the world.

Though, both, obviously, focus on Jewish thought and practice, what they have to say is relevant to other religious traditions with a long patriarchal history. Both are anthologies, with articles from a wide variety of writers, scholars, rabbis.

In the past generation, four streams of new or renewed theology have transformed the future of Judaism and religion generally.

1) In the spring of 1973 and again in 1974, women from Network, the North American arm of the World Union of Jewish Students, with a very strong input from women members of the New York Havurah and Ezrat Nashim, called together a conference of Jewish women interested in addressing and transforming the relations between women and men in Jewish life and in Judaism. (In 1974 the conference also included men.)

In both conferences, many more people took part than had originally been expected. From that beginning has emerged an astonishing flowering of feminist Judaism in theology and the naming of God/dess; in midrash and prayer; and in the role of women in shaping the present and future of Jewish life. Judith Plaskow's Standing Again at Sinai was the broadest feminist reexamination.

(2) In the late '70s and early '80s, what had been the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah were brought to wider and wider circles of an awakening Jewish public by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In particular, people began to absorb and use the teaching that God unfolds into the universe through Four Worlds of reality -- Spirit, Creative Intellect, Relationship, and Physicality - and through Ten "emanations" or Sphirot that balance and unite with each other. Among these complementary Sphirot are overflowing loving-kindness, rigorous boundary-making, and so on. Increasingly, these teachings encouraged people to search for these aspects of God within themselves and in society.

(3) In 1983, The Shalom Center, soon joined by Shomrei Adamah, began to develop both theology and practice of Eco-Judaism, One of the elements of The Shalom Center's theological work was the reframing of "YHWH" away from the God-name "Adonai/ Lord" that had become habitual, or the name "Eternal" as an occasional alternative. From pronouncing the four letters with no vowels, we encouraged understanding "YHWH" as the Breath or "Interbreathing" of all life. We encouraged as an oral substitute for "YHWH," the use of "Yahh" as in "Hallelu-Yahh," rather than "Adonai" or "Lord."

In our generation, we suggested, the Interbreath of life is in deep peril and the primary embodiment of the Interbreath ---- the mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is the result of the interbreathing of animals and vegetation --- is increasingly out of balance and is bringing on us the great climate crisis. It endangers the web of life on our planet more urgently than any event of the last 65 million years. So the Name of God that speaks most deeply to many of us --- - not just the word but the Reality --- - is in most danger from human mal-behavior.

(4) During the 1990s, the rebirth of Jewish meditation - led by Rabbis Rachel Cowan, Jeff Roth, David Cooper, and Eshet Hazon Shoshana Cooper -- helped renew one strand of Hassidic theology. That was the sense that the world is God wrapped in robes of God so as to seem material, and that the job of human beings is to disrobe the world and reveal that we and all the world are God. Rabbi Arthur Green's book Ehyeh also brought this approach forward.

These four strands of new or newish theology are being woven into a fabric that may make up the future of Judaism.

The publication of The Passionate Torah and New Jewish Feminism has for me renewed some of these explorations.

Before I begin, full disclosure: I have an essay in the Ruttenberg book, a fact that probably heightens the appreciation of it that I would have had regardless. Equally important, I do not have an essay in the Goldstein book, all but one of whose authors are women. That fact raises for me questions that go beyond my appreciation for the book. I will raise those questions later; in the meantime, I learned from both books; I strongly recommend them both.

The Passionate Torah deliciously explores 18 aspects of sex in Jewish tradition, usually with eyes and ears akimbo. One essay, for example, looks at a passage of Talmud on sotah --- the woman suspected of adultery where there is no empirical evidence to convince a court whether her husband's jealousy is based on fantasy or fact. The Torah prescribes a trial-by-ordeal with emotionally traumatic practices to divine the judgment of Heaven.

The Mishnah -- that law code from the period in which Rabbinic Judaism was emerging -- does something quite peculiar: It reports that the use of the sotah ritual has been abolished, and it then reports in relishing detail an even more sexualized and even more humiliating version of it than the Torah's. Sarra Lev treats this passage as pornography -- for it tells a fictional story of sexual humiliation of a woman where the event no longer happens (if it ever did) and the purpose of the telling is not a guide to action but the education - or edification - of the male readership.

This is only one example of the insight and intelligence that Ruttenberg and the authors bring to this collection, whether addressing marriage, prostitution, masturbation, the prohibition on sex during and after menstruation, sex between Jews and others, birth control, physical androgyny, sexual modesty, homosexuality, non-marital sex, the nature of sexual desire, and even the future of sex if the Song of Songs were taken not only as a mystical poem but as a guide toward a new sexual ethic and a new ethic of relationship between the earth and humankind.

All the articles are rooted in a feminist sensibility as well as familiarity with Jewish sources, and all express a critique of patriarchal Judaism --- especially interesting since four of the authors are men. Several of the articles (especially Jay Michaelson's and Elliot Rose Kukla's) point toward a Judaism that not only in regard to sex but in other aspects of life is not consumed by bipolarity - male/female, Jew/Gentile, married/unmarried, pure/defiled, kosher/treyf -- but instead sees a rainbow of possible roles and values. The book as a whole, by raising to discussion and often to value so many facets of sexuality that have been hidden or rejected, points toward a spectrum of values --- not on/off. This itself points toward a major change in Jewish theology and practice.

The presence of male authors in Ruttenberg's book is especially interesting in the light of their absence from Goldstein's. The first essay in New Jewish Feminism, by Judith Plaskow - one of the earliest, wisest, and most influential of Jewish feminists --- suggests that it is time for feminism to include the teachings and learnings of men as well as women. But the book does not embody her vision: of 39 authors, all but one are women.

That one essay is about the absence of men from contemporary liberal synagogues. That the one essay by a man is not only about men but about their absence is almost a parody of the old patriarchy. Here women talk about every aspect of Jewish life and thought, and one man talks about men. A generation ago men would have talked about every aspect of Judaism, and perhaps one woman would have been allowed to address the absence of women from the story.

The range of what the women discuss is formidable. Not all of it is what I would have called feminism --- for example, there is a whole section on the sociology of women's roles in the various denominations. What most characterizes the book is that it is a collection, available for dipping whenever the mikveh beckons, almost always with an interesting under-water vista.

Ruttenberg's book is like a river with a swift current flowing into the future.

Swim into them both, and rejoice!


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