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Reviewed by:
  • The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism
  • Jessica Rosenberg
The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Danya Ruttenberg. New York and London: New York University Press, 2009. 294 pp. $19.95.

What is Jewish sex? How has it been framed in the classical texts and how might Jews re-envision it in the twenty-first century? Rabbi and scholar Ruttenberg sent out a call for responses to these questions, and the result is a sometimes provocative work that contains an amorphous mix of genres. The Passionate Torah is organized around a quasi-Buberian schema. The first section, "I-It" identifies challenges that stem from traditional texts and their perspectives on sexuality. The second section, "I-Thou," treats contemporary interpersonal relationships. The book's final section, "We-Thou" is dedicated to potential ways that committed Jews may use Jewish values to create meaningful sexual ethics. Most of the pieces in all three sections engage directly with traditional texts, and use them to illuminate issues from divorce to pre-marital relationships to transgender Jewish identity.

The first section contains the most sustained textual analysis and some treatments of its subjects that are basically academic. Among its more successful articles is Esther Fuchs's "Intermarriage, Gender, and Nation in the Hebrew Bible," which raises new possibilities in postcolonial studies of the Bible by viewing Israelite women not as ancillary versions of Israeli men, i.e., solely as colonizers of "foreign" peoples within the Biblical narrative, but as sites of contestation over nationhood. She argues that the status of Israelite women vis-à-vis the nation requires them to be sexually suppressed in the service of boundary creation. Exogamy is an option for Israelite men, with the concomitant portrait of "foreign" women as both desirable and frightening, but desire and true choice are foreclosed for Israelite women. Sarra Lev and Aryeh Cohen also provide fascinating essays, close-reading Rabbinic texts to explore the parallels between the Sotah narrative of the suspected adulterous wife and pornography, and the erotic relationship the Sages share with Torah, which may complicate or preclude real-life erotic attachments. Both are excellent examples of the turn to literary study in the field.

The second and third sections of the book deal more overtly with the connection between Jewish religious commitment and sexuality. Some of the articles [End Page 174] raise important questions and present genuinely novel alternatives to dichotomous good/bad, kosher/treyf views of sexuality. Sara Meirowitz breaks the silence about pre-marital sexual practices among young observant Jews and the concerns that surround them. Haviva Ner-David provides a feminist analysis and reworking of the laws of niddah, drawing on her experience as both a married Orthodox woman and a halakhic decisor. Jay Michaelson rereads the foundational triad of God, Torah, and Israel in light of queer sexualities. Both Ruttenberg's own article, on the potential for understandings of modesty that alter its meaning from an ethic of sexual danger to an ethic of sexual care, and Naomi Seidman's piece about the homoerotics of same-sex communities, will at the very least provoke intense comment among feminists. In particular the place that Ruttenberg chooses to draw the line between self-expression and exploitation seems open to interpretation and debate.

But there are also several ways in which the book's personal/academic fusion creates tension and a fragmented feel. It is unclear for what audience the book is intended. Some pieces spend too much time discussing background information that would be familiar to Jewishly educated readers, while others presume technical knowledge. Some are outright halakhic responsa, and others more like personal essays. Given the prescriptive nature of many of the articles, the book would have strongly benefited from another perspective on abortion to balance Elliot Dorff 's, which provides certain halakhic views on abortion choice that are contentious.

Finally, the quality of the articles varies widely. Pieces like "Good Sex" and "The Goy of Sex" float over the surface of issues that deserve more lengthy treatment. Some articles may simply fail to be persuasive to large swaths of the Jewish audience, including aspects of Laura Levitt's critique of Judith Plaskow. Levitt's argument, that Plaskow...


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pp. 174-176
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