Thursday, October 20, 2005

Troubling Texts I: The Sexual Prohibitions

This year, I was asked to speak after mincha, the afternoon service, on Yom Kippur. Although it immeditately occurred to me that I should speak about the mincha Torah reading, with its discussion of sexual prohibitions in general and homosexuality in particular, I remained so ambivalent about the subject matter that until the very moment that I stood at the bima, I was seriously considering ad-libbing something about Jonah.

Even after receiving generally positive feedback, I wonder whether I did the right thing by raising such a controversial subject on Yom Kippur, rather than offering a few simple words on teshuva, or a pep-talk for the final service of the day. Maybe you should tell me. (Be honest, but please, no badmouthing.)

Here are a few excerpts:

There has been a great deal of emphasis lately, in the political arena as well as within the leadership of the Conservative movement, on the verse reading “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is abhorrence” (Lev. 18:22). But really, the entire framework of the Torah reading is problematic. Many of the regulations in it are based quite explicitly on the idea that women are the sexual property of men. We read, “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father” (Lev. 18:8); in other words, you, male reader, may not have sex with your father’s wife, whether she is your biological mother or not, because her nakedness, her sexuality, belongs to your father. Because most of the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are based on this principle, we don’t have any discussion of many of the more pressing issues in contemporary sexual ethics.. . . The premise of the text is that men can have multiple sexual partners and women can have one, and that sexual relations are problematic primarily when they involve a woman who belongs to another man.

The discussion of homosexuality in the Conservative movement has, to a large extent, I think, sidestepped some of the most fundamental questions that this chapter raises. To what extent is the Torah a product of its historical context, and to what extent is it timeless? Conservative leaders generally agree that Judaism allows human beings a good deal of interpretive license with the Torah, but there is much less agreement on the limits of that license, or on whether there even are limits. This is because there is no consensus on the even more fundamental question of the nature of the Torah’s authority. Is it the direct word of God revealed to human beings? Is it God’s word interpreted by human beings through the prism of their own experience? Or is it a noble, but ultimately flawed attempt by humans to figure out what God’s will might be? These are crude articulations of complex theological ideas, but I think that it’s important to articulate them even in this very crude form, to convey some sense of the range of positions held by people who consider themselves Conservative rabbis.

I also think that, however we approach these issues, egalitarian communities such as this one can’t in good conscience take the prohibition against sexual intercourse between men at face value. Both its context and its wording strongly suggest that the prohibition is fundamentally about maintaining the boundary between male and female, and that is a boundary that we routinely transgress in our religious practice. Whatever our perspectives on the fundamental theological issues I mentioned earlier, the fact that we’re here indicates that we all believe, on some level, that although the disparity between the status of male and female was quite conspicuous at earlier stages of the Jewish religion, it is ultimately unjust to perpetuate that disparity. . . .

I’m not going to make a halakhic argument. . . but I would like to discuss what I think is an interesting exegetical and philosophical approach to this prohibition.. . . This interpretation is advanced independently, in different ways, by the Reform feminist theologian, Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism and by the gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, in Wrestling With God and Men. Both authors see this law as fundamentally prohibiting men from turning other men into women. It is a reading that actually fits the wording and context of the verse very well, and it explains why the Bible doesn’t prohibit lesbian sex. In a society in which men have a higher status than women, sexual intercourse between men disrupts the social order in a way that sex between women doesn’t. It degrades one of the partners by turning him into a woman.. . . So there is a concern for justice here, a concern that men not “declass” or degrade one another, just as there is a concern fro justice behind the prohibition against sleeping with another man’s sexual property. It isn’t the inclusive justice that we would demand today, but it is a concern for justice nonetheless.

Adler and Greenberg both go a step further in their readings of this verse to suggest that we bring it up to speed with our contemporary sense of justice by employing a rabbinic exegetical principle called ribuy, or “expansion.” Rabbi Greenberg specifically focuses on the word 'et, which can function either as a direct object marker or as a preposition meaning “with.” For the ancient rabbis, 'et was code for a missing element. And from a contemporary perspective, it seems clear what missing element should be read into this verse: not only is one forbidden to degrade a man sexually, but one is also forbidden to degrade a woman sexually. It’s a clever reading; clearly on the original meaning of the verse, but not entirely out of keeping with it, either. In a way, it’s a natural extension. As Adler writes, “what makes the Torah sacred is not that it has one fixed eternal meaning, but that its meanings are inexhaustible" (p. 1256).

I went on a bit after that about the importance of sexual boundaries in the modern world and the relevance of the topic to Yom Kippur, but this post is long enough already, so I'll leave all that out. What I'm chiefly wondering is, did I take "questioning the fundamentals" too far, consdiering the context? Is this an appropriate approach to text and tradition for a traditional egalitarian community? Should I lay off this topic already?

Next in this series: A d'var torah on Qohelet.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"7" Meme

Right here.

On Turning Around

I have several explanations (excuses?) to offer for this long hiatus. One is the start of the academic year. Another is preoccupation with holiday preparations, and the interference of the holidays themselves. A third is my recent activity on Kosher Blog.

Yet another reason for my failure to blog is that I've been trying to write about teshuva (repentence, or more literally, "turning back"), and that isn't easy. Everything I've come up with has either been too personal to post on the internet or too trite to be worth writing at all. Instead of blogging, I've scribbled in my dead -- I mean, paper -- journal, prayed (half-heartedly, as usual), whined, and cried a little. And I'm still not sure where I stand.

In addition to the holidays, a good deal of my energy lately has been focused on a weight-loss program, called, coincidentally, the "Turn-Around" plan. I've had moderate success in spite of this month's feasting and fasting (equally problematic, from a weight-loss perspective), and that has lead me to wonder whether I might be able to apply dieting principles to other areas of life, to overcome the various obstacles to the changes I'd like to make.

As difficult as weight loss can be, however, I've found that it isn't nearly as hard as teshuva, especially for someone who's approach to yiddishkeit isn't purely halakhic. Changes in my body are more easily quantified than changes in my soul (I use the term loosely). How can I measure improvements in my relationship with God and my relationships with others? I know they're not as healthy as they should be, but what can I do to change that? There's no simple formula, like "eat less, exercise more."

According to one tradition, beynonim, those whose actions in the preceding year tip the scales neither on the side of good nor on that of evil, have until Yom Kippur to earn a favorable verdict. Though the beynoni's sentence is "sealed" on Yom Kippur, it is finally "delivered" only on Hoshana Rabba, until which point the Almighty may still render it void. Since I never finish anything on time, I like to think of this tradition as offering me an "extension," a chance to make some of the changes I wanted to make by Yom Kippur but didn't. Most of these changes are somewhat amorphous and therefore difficult to implement, but at least I can spend one more week focusing my energy on making them happen. And, since we don't have a Sukkah in which to entertain guests, this time I won't be preoccupied with pot roast.

As a final note, I'd like offer my apologies to anyone I've hurt or offended, either in person or on the web. May we all earn a favorable verdict.