Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream


Look good? You can read about it at the Kosher Blog. (I'm not in the mood to cross-post.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Tucker Teshuvah

or Theology and CJLS Politics

In my last post on the CJLS teshuvot on homosexuality, I tried to show that the Jewish legal tradition, rigidly conceived, does not reflect a hierarchy of sexual values with which many contemporary committed Jews can identify.

Fleurdelis28 had an excellent response, but Blogger was being a meanie that day, so she sent it to me by e-mail. Here's a snippet:
[A]ll those nice values we want to call Jewish may be much more evident in the narrative of the Bible than in its laws themselves. In spite of a radically different social context, there seem to be a lot of couples who do substantially love and respect each other, and when they aren't honest with each other, things don't go so well. . . .Avraham's and Yaakov's situations illustrate nicely why polygamy, though acceptable, is not such a great arrangement emotionally (even when it was your wife's idea in the first place). . . .Whatever you think is going on in the Song of Songs, it's clearly not about the relationship you'd expect from the worldview of the laws stated in the Torah. I don't have the time at the moment to go poring over the rest of the Tanach -- granted, a rather heterogenous narrative -- but I think by and large things go better for the sort of couples that do behave in accordance with those values you cite.
Yes, the Bible is quite heterogenous, but fleurdelis28 makes an important point: Biblical narratives often temper, or even undermine, the apparent thrust of biblical legislation. This is true of the rabbinic tradition as well, which consists not only of legal texts, but also of aggadah (narrative). And in fact, this very issue -- the often fraught relationship between Jewish law and Jewish narrative, including the narrative that modern Jews continue to live and create -- is one of the centerpieces of Gordon Tucker's argument for the normalization of Jewish gays and lesbians.

Fundamental to Tucker's teshuvah is the premise that the Torah is not the infallible word of God. He writes:
The deeper consequence of our theology, is that the Torah (and a foriori subsequent expressions of religious law) is not a record of commanding utterances from God, but rather a record of the religious quests of a people, and of their understanding of how God's will commands them. The long-standing -- and understandable -- tendency to divide up religious literature into halakhah (law) and aggadah (narrative) has thus always been a mistake. The law is given cogency and support by the ongoing story of the community that seeks to live by the law. . . . The ongoing, developing religious life of a community includes not only the work of its legalists, but also its experiences, its intuitions, and the ways in which stories move it. This ongoing religious life must therefore have a role in the development of its norms, else the legal obligations of the community will become dangerously detached from its theological commitments. (P. 19; emphasis in original)
My sentiments are with Rabbi Tucker, but I wonder whether the "enhanced" Halakhic* system that he advocates can practically be put into effect. Can we maintain a commitment to halakhic precedent on a daily basis while making exceptions when our consciences demand that we do so? Even if this is possible on an individual basis, is it really possible on a communal basis? And if so, what is to be the role of the CJLS in this process?

This brings me to an interesting point regarding CJLS politics. While Gordon Tucker is not the first to advocate this sort of reimagined halakhic system, he is, as far as I know, the first to do so in the context of the CJLS. Apparently uncertain what to do with his unconventional teshuvah, the members of the CJLS labeled it a takkanah (which I usually translate "rabbinic injunction," but perhaps "amendment" is more appropriate in this context). According to the CJLS's recently relaxed rules regarding takkanot, a majority of votes (13) is required in order for a takkanah to pass, as opposed to the six votes required for an ordinary teshuvah. (From what I've observed, there are normally a large number of abstentions.) The Tucker paper received seven votes in favor, which means that it failed to earn CJLS approval only because of its takkanah status. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Tucker argued against the paper being considered a takkanah, maintaining that historically, the term was reserved for legal innovations that derived their authority from that of a particular Rabbi. This teshuvah, in contrast, "does not seek any extraordinary authority [nor does it] seek to create an unchallengeable innovation" (p. 3). Notwithstanding the semantic point, I think that the members of the CJLS were correct in recognizing that the teshuvah does demand something extraordinary, namely, to alter the parameters of halakhic discourse in such a way as to change the very role of the CJLS as a judicial body (even if it does operate in a merely advisory capacity). In effect, this paper is neither a traditional teshuvah nor a takkanah, but a recommendation for changing the entire system by which teshuvot are written. It hardly seems self-evident to me that such a document should require a mere six votes to pass.

That said, the approach to halakhah advocated in this essay is closer to my own ideas about Judaism than the more traditional approach of Joel Roth,** and I daresay that the same is true of a large proportion of Conservative rabbis, not to mention laypeople. Perhaps it should be given more of a voice in the CJLS.

* Tucker recommends using a capital "H" when referring to this more expansive type of Halakhah (p. 20). I am finding this a bit difficult to get used to, since a Reconstructionist rabbi I admire refers to a similar phenomenon as "halakhah with a small 'h'."

**See pp. 28-31 of the Roth Teshuvah for a critique of Tucker's approach.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I'm in a Book!

It's not exactly what I was hoping I'd first use that line for, but why be picky? Here's the cover:

And here's the official description:
Best Recipes from the Jewish Blogosphere

These recipes from the Jewish blogosphere aren't just the same old kugel. Pareve, milchig and fleischig selections range from "almost healthy" sufganiyot to "Eyes of Haman" Purim bread to instructions for successful kosher potlucks. All recipes include URLs for the original post, and links to other Jewish blogs are on the back page. Treat your friends and relatives to this unique inexpensive Hanukkah gift which they will appreciate long after the holiday is over.

So, you may be wondering, why didn't I post this before Hanukkah? Well. . .it's a long story. Anyway, you can still buy the book before Tu Bishvat! (What, you never heard of the ancient tradition of giving Tu Bishvat presents?) It's only $4, and it includes a wonderful recipe for flourless honey pecan cake.

Click here to order

(Cross-posted to The Kosher Blog)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Jewish Sexual Ethics

It's been over a month since the CJLS released their teshuvot on homosexuality, and those of you who care are probably wondering why I haven't yet posted any comments. The primary answer is that DH and I (all right, mostly DH) have been working through the halakhic sources utilized in the teshuvot, and some of them are very complicated.

I've realized, however, that before commenting on the nitty-gritty legal issues, it's probably worth saying a few words by way of introduction. In this post, I'd like to address a question that I've raised before, namely: what are the essential Jewish values in the realm of sex and relationships, and where do they come from?

Michelle Shain offers some of the most articulate criticism of the Dorf/Nevins/Reisner teshuvah* that I've seen from a Conservative layperson:
These authors and the ten rabbis who voted with them on Wednesday, have chosen to ignore divine will as expressed by centuries of clear and uncontested halakhic jurisprudence, in favor of a 21st-century American value.

This is actually a reasonable characterization of the teshuvah. But then, it's worth examining what the Torah and all those centuries of halakhic jurisprudence have to say about sex and relationships in general. Contemporary Jewish leaders who address these subjects typically stress such values as honesty, fidelity, and mutual respect.** At the very least, they mention monogomy: sex is supposed to occur within a committed, sanctified relationship between two adults. One could make a reasonable argument that these values are promoted in our textual tradition, but as far as Jewish law is concerned, strictly speaking, they are barely on the register. Premarital sex may be considered licentious behavior, but it is not strictly prohibited as long as the laws of menstrual purity are observed. [See CORRECTION below.] On the other hand, if a married couple that has sex without the woman visiting the mikveh, the man, at least, is liable for karet, the most severe penalty in halakhah. Extra-marital sex is prohibited for a married woman, but a married man who has sex with a single woman has not transgressed the letter of the law. True, polygamy was outlawed for Ashkenazim by Rabbi Gershom ben Judah around the year 1004 CE, but that was merely a takkanah (rabbinic injunction), and it was set to apply for a mere 1000 years (you do the math). The Torah does not prohibit pedophilia or even rape per se -- the penalty for sex with a virgin is compensation for her depreciated value, either monetarily or by taking her as a wife.

So I ask again, what are Jewish sexual ethics, and where do they come from? To suggest that they do not come from the Torah or from the halakhic tradition would seem to be a recipe for chaos, but I'm not sure that we can honestly assert the contrary.

[CORRECTION: As Mar Gavriel points out in this long and intricate post, pre-marital sex is probably prohibited rabbinically, if not midde'oraita' (that is, according to the rabbinic understanding of Torah law), at least in situations that cannot be defined halakhically as pilagshut (usually translated "concubinbage.") My point stands, however: the penalty for marital sex without mikveh use is unquestionably more severe than the penalty for premarital sex with mikveh use. This is not consonant with the hierarchy of values to which most of us are accustomed. I will discuss this further in the near future, God willing.]

*In case you missed it, the teshuvot are here. The press release on this page offers a summary, although its characterizations of some of the teshuvot are somewhat misleading.
**See, e.g., Elliot Dorff's Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations, quoted at length on pp. 37-38 of Leonard Levy's teshuvah, "Same-Sex Attraction and Halakhah."