I went to a really interesting lecture/panel discussion last night, sponsored by Limmud,a Jewish educational organization based in the U.K. and offering annual conferences in a number of places, including one in the Catskills in January. The panel was called Judaism and Sexuality: Starting (or Continuing) the Conversation. Judith Hauptmann, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a leading Conservative Jewish feminist thinker, moderated. The panelists were:
- Steve Greenberg - an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, he's featured in the film "Trembling Before G-d" and he wrote the engaging and insightful Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
- Jennie Rosenfeld - the director of Tzelem, an institute within Yeshiva University whose goal is to develop and disseminate educational materials on sexuality for use within the Orthodox Jewish community and reflecting community values
- Jay Michaelson - according to his website Jay is a writer and teacher whose work focuses on the intersection of Judaism, sexuality, spirituality and law.
All were really interesting and enlightening speakers, and all three came from somewhat different backgrounds and viewpoints, so they complemented each other well.
The panel began with Hauptman asking the panelists to say what they think the important questions are in issues of Judaism and sexuality. Michaelson said that he sees two salient questions:
- Do we want a Jewish sexual ethic? He pointed out that Judaism traditionally views sex as something very powerful and sacred, and also something very carefully regulated. For those of us who reject the traditional halakhic regulations, is there value in developing
new regulations, new ethics, that are specific to sexuality and specifically Jewish? Or is it enough to apply Jewish ethics that regulate other aspects of human interaction or sexual ethics that aren't specifically Jewish?
- How can we integrate tradition and text with a gay identity and homosexual expression?
I thought they were both really intriguing questions, worth thinking about.
Rosenfeld said that, as a heterosexual Orthodox woman, she was coming at the issue from a somewhat different angle from her gay male co-panelists. She has focussed her career primarily on Orthodox singles. She asks: what does it take to develop a relationship that could lead to marriage and how can those who wish to include sexual expression in that development reconcile their behavior with halakhah? She expressed concern about the lack of education on sexuality (I took her to mean heteronormative sexuality, although she didn't explicitly say so) in Orthodox schools. Beyond that, she asked how we can make our sexual lives Jewishly meaningful.
Greenberg's presentation was the most text-based of the three. The program had been billed as accessible to a general audience and Hauptmann consequently kept reminding him to translate Hebrew or Aramaic terms he used. He talked about the biblical concept of "pilegesh" or "concubinage" and how it might be applied to non-marital sexual relationships in current times. He talked about the two strains in Jewish texts concerning sexuality - expressive and constraining - and discussed the role of each.
Both Greenberg and Rosenfeld are fairly conservative in their sexual views (as strange as that term sounds when referring to an openly gay man), seeing the "holy" uses of sexuality as limited to a committed relationship (Greenberg) or a marriage (Rosenfeld). They talked mostly about how to expand traditional views of sexuality within Judaism to accept such issues as same-sex couples and heterosexual couples who choose to have sex before marriage. Their focus was on working within tradition and perhaps tweaking it somewhat to be more inclusive. Rosenfeld expressed concerns that Greenberg's approach was overly legalistic, and said that she found that to be a failing of the rabbinic approach to these issues in general. She expressed a desire for a more emotion-based approach but had a similar view of the goal: strong, committed couples relationships that are sexually and spiritually satisfying.
Michaelson, the only one of the three who is not a practicing Orthodox Jew (although he was raised Orthodox), was a little more out there in terms of his views on sexuality. He was the only one of the three to see sex as having a variety of functions in people's lives and not to be limited to committed couples. He talked about the potential for spiritual experience in anonymous sexual encounters, for example, and at times seemed to be flirting with Greenberg in an amusing way (albeit apparently somewhat unsettling to the rabbi). At one point Michaelson asked the audience to perform a "thought experiment." We were all asked to raise our hands if we thought that it was ethically acceptable to have sex under a variety of circumstances, ranging from a heterosexually married couple who observes the laws of taharat hamishpachah (I don't think anyone objected) down to anonymous sex in somewhere other than a bedroom (very few hands were raised). The movement of hands up and down as he presented 8 or 10 different scenarios showed that the audience was at least as varied in its views of sexuality as the panelists.
Questions from the audience ranged from use of mikveh outside of marriage to whether Orthodox upbringing is damaging to sexual identity and development to how to stay in touch with the sacred during sexual activity. It was a thought-provoking and entertaining evening.