1991 Standing Again at Sinai,
HarperSanFrancisco, SF ISBN 0-06-066684-6
From: Jewish Feminist God-Language and Feminist Spirituality
Jewish Feminist God-Language
When Jewish feminists first recognized the problems with traditional God-language, we responded to the hegemony of the omnipresent "he" by using female pronouns and images to refer to God. In what was probably the first article to deal theoretically with the issue of female God-language in a Jewish .context, Rita Gross argued that, "If we do not mean that God is male when we use masculine pronouns and imagery," there should be no objection "to using female imagery and pronouns as well ." Exclusively masculine imagery for God, she contended, tells us nothing about the deity, but it does say a great deal about an androcentric Judaism that regards female images as degrading precisely to the extent that it has degraded and marginalized women. Impersonal, neuter language for God is not a solution, Gross reasoned, for it prevents us from speaking to God, and at the same time permits us to hide our sexism behind abstractions. Jews, she said, must begin to address God as "She." "God-She" is not an addition to Jewish God-language, but applies to every aspect of God within the tradition.
Everything that has ever been said or that we still want to say of hakadosh baruch hu [the holy one, blessed be he] can also be said of ha-k'dosha baruch he [sic] [the holy one, blessed be she] and, conversely, 'God-She' is appropriately used in every context in which any reference to God occurs. "
In the same period that Gross offered a theoretical argument for female language, Naomi janowitz and Maggie Wenig were independently giving liturgical life to her assertions by producing a new feminist Version of the Sabbath prayerbook. While some of their prayers simply recast the English translation of the liturgy in female pronouns, others experimented more boldly with new metaphors, reimaging God in feminine form. The God that emerged from Siddur Nashim was partly the traditional deity in feminine garb and partly a more thoroughly transformed divinity. Addressed as the "blessed and glorified, exalted and honored, magnified and praised . . . Holy One, blessed is She," she was also a Mother birthing the world and protecting it with her womb:
Blessed is She who spoke and the world came to be.... Blessed is She who in the beginning, gave birth.... Blessed is She whose womb covers the earth. Blessed is She whose womb protects all creatures.31
Some of Janowitz and Wenig's liturgy has weathered well the more-than-a-decade since it was written, but ten years have also clarified the incompleteness of its explorations. The very accumulation of female pronouns in certain prayers is a glorious celebration of women's power that is rare in the culture and rarer still in a religious context. But while female imagery is important for many reasons, of itself it does not address the nature of God as dominating Other. Although changing pronouns and some imagery modifies and softens the traditional picture of God, it does not fundamentally alter the conception of a great potentate fighting for his/her people and ruling over the world. The God of Janowitz and Wenig is still a deity strong of arm, a savior of Israel who rescues her children from slavery and drowns Egyptians in the sea. Gross and janowitz and Wenig are wrong in assuming that any attribute applied to "GodHe" is equally well applied to "God-She." If the image of GodHe as dominating Other is part of a whole system of dualisms that includes the subordination of female to male, then introducing God-She into this system poses a fundamental contradiction that threatens to disrupt the system and throw it into question. Female pronouns and imagery inserted into otherwise traditional forms can only initiate a process of examination and discussion that needs to end in a more radical transformation of religious language.
The same ambiguous or initiatory status that belongs to experimental use of female pronouns and imagery belongs also to the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God in the mystical tradition. It is not surprising that, in seeking female images for God, Jewish feminists turned early on to the one developed image Judaism has to offer-the image of the Shekhinah as the indwelling presence of God. While in the Talmud and midrash the Shekhinah represented the manifest presence of God without any suggestion that this presence was female, in Kabbalism the Shekhinah became a feminine element in God alongside the masculine "Holy One, Blessed be He." The marriage between God and his bride Israel reflected in biblical sources was transferred to the inner life of God as a sacred union within the Godhead itself. The Shekhinah-bride was described in a host of images-princess, daughter, queen, mother, matron, moon, sea, faith, wisdom, community of Israel, mother Rachel-many, though not all of them, female in fact or association .35
While the image of the Shekhinah was an important constitscent of Kabbalism that gained widespread popularity, it was never incorporated into the liturgy as an accepted counterweight to the masculinity of God. Feminists have tried to use it precisely in this way, however, invoking the Shekhinah in a variety of liturgical contexts. Lynn Gottlieb, for example, replaces the traditional Bor'khu et Adonai (Blessed are you God [masculine]) with Brukha Yah Shekhinah (Blessed are you Shekhinah), a formula that has been used at many feminist gatherings. She also addresses God as Shekhinah in more fluid ways, naming variously the "the feminine presence/ She-Who-DwellsWithin."
Other feminists have also played with images of the Shekhinah, swearing, in the moving words of Rachel Adler, "I'll never again/ Pray against my own flesh.1137
There are obvious advantages to having a feminine element in God that is a firmly established aspect of tradition. Yet when the tradition is a male one-both with regard to Judaism in general and Kabbalism in particular-female images are apt to come with certain limitations. Two of the virtues of the image of Shekhinah from a feminist perspective are that it is an image of divine immanence and an image of God in nonhierarchical relation. It thus deliberately offsets the picture of God as dominating Other and at the same time fits in well with the general emphasis on mutual relation in feminist spirituality. The Shekhinah, as opposed to the totally unknowable Kadosh Barukh Hu (holy one, blessed be he), is precisely that aspect of God with which we can be in relation, and it is experienced in joint study, community gatherings, lovemaking, and other moments of common and intimate human connection. 38 These positive aspects of the image are tied to its shortcomings, however, for this immanent, relational element in God has never been on an equal footing with the ineffable, masculine Godhead .39 just as in the Bible, Israel is the bride of God, so the Shekhinah is the subordinate bride and consort within God. It is the feminine as the male understands that secondary aspect within himself, not as it is seen or experienced by women. And just as the bride Israel can also be whore and adulterous, so the Shekhinah is the ambiguous male projection of what woman can be-nursemaid, mother, bride, wife, but also wanton seductress, devouring monster, and bringer of death. 40 Like the use of female pronouns, then, the image of Shekhinah counterbalances the male nature of God and raises important questions without representing a full solution to the problem of traditional God-language. The Shekhinah is a usable image for feminists only if it is partly wrenched free from its original context, so that the tradition becomes a starting point for an imaginative process that moves beyond and transforms it. As step three, then, in seeking alternative ways of imaging God, feminists have begun to look for new symbols that resonate with tradition but also come out of and express women's experiences. While the image of Shekhinah begins to combine female metaphor with an understanding of God's power as immanent in the world, it leaves intact the traditional image of HaKadosh Borukh Hu (the holy one, blessed be he) in a way other feminist experiments seek to avoid. Attempting to link the reimagining of God to a new vision of community, feminists repeatedly choose metaphors that picture divine power not as something above and over us but in and around. God's power is not a power that dominates us, but one that elicits our power, meeting us in the shifting and changing forms of our lives. This open-ended quest for new imagery is in its early stages, with experiments taking place in quiet corners, passed on by word of mouth, and circulating privately.
Toward a New Theology of Sexuality
Rethinking the categories Torah, Israel, and God provides the basic theological foundations for a feminist Judaism. There is a fourth category, however, which-while not foundational to Judaism in the same way-from a feminist perspective, equally requires reconceptualization. This is the category of sexuality. Jewish attitudes toward sexuality figure so significantly in the construction of women's position within Judaism that, on the one hand, much of the ground we have traveled is newly illuminated from the perspective this topic affords, and, on the other hand, it is simply not possible to create a feminist Judaism without transforming attitudes toward sexuality. When Michael Wyschogrod depicts women as Israel's unredeemed flesh, or critics of female God-language link female images with fertility and sexuality, they are drawing on a long and deeply rooted history connecting women with sexuality in Judaism. 1 Women have been associated with sexuality in Jewish law and legend (Torah), and this association has been the chief manifestation of women's Otherness both in Torah and in the community of Israel. Women have been separated from the (male) community in public prayer because of their supposed danger as sources of sexual temptation. Identification of women with sexuality, goddesses, and paganism contributed to the emergence of male God-language historically and is strongly linked to contemporary opposition to female images. Yet, while attitudes toward sexuality intersect with each of the three major categories of Jewish thought, they do not fit neatly under any one of them, and so I have considered these attitudes only indirectly. My discussion of Torah, Israel, and God now complete, it be omes essential to turn to sexuality as a subject in its own right, looking at the ways in which traditional understandings of sexuality have undergirded women's Otherness in each of these other areas. In separating out sexuality as a special topic for consideration at this point, I mean to define the term in a particular and limited way. Sexuality as gender has been a central subject of this book. The neglect of women's experience, the normative status of maleness, the potential contribution of women's experience to the transformation of Judaism have been major ongoing issues. Now I intend to look at sexuality in its other significant sense: as the complex of attitudes and constructions around sexual orientation and desire, lovemaking and marriage, and as the social definition of licit and illicit sex. When sexuality is defined in these terms, a series of questions emerges that.can provide an agenda for feminist discussion of Judaism and sexuality. What is the relationship between Jewish understandings of women's sexuality and the persistent perception of women as Other? What is the connection between understandings of women's sexuality and the broader construe tion of sexuality within which women's sexuality finds its place? What is a feminist understanding of female sexuality, and what would it mean to transform Jewish attitudes toward sexuality in the context of a feminist Judaism? Examining these issues can make clear that women and sexuality have been a potent combination for Jewish practice and thought, a combination that intertwines with the themes of Torah, Israel, and God.
Female Sexuality and Women as Other
I have already suggested in my introductory critique of Judaism as a patriarchal tradition that the definition of women as Other in Judaism is closely bound up with perceptions of women's sexuality.2 Beginning in biblical times and continuing through the rabbinic era, laws concerning the regulation and control of women's sexuality were central vehicles through which women's Otherness was expressed and enforced. The biblical period saw the consolidation of the patriarchal family as the fundamental and normative unit of society, and women's sexuality was directed to serve the interests of this unit-interests identified with those of its male head. Women's sexuality, both as procreativity and source of licit intercourse, was seen .as their main contribution to the family, and that sexuality "was regarded as the exclusive property of [a womans] husband, both in respect to its pleasure and its fruit ."3 Biblical law concerns itself in great detail with the delineation and enforcement of male rights to women's sexuality, protecting against the violation of these rights with severe penalties. I have summarized some of this legislation briefly in the context of my initial critique of Judaism, but it requires closer examination in the context of this discussion.of sexuality. The laws concerning virginity and adultery provide the fundamental safeguards to male rights to a particular woman's sexuality. Ideals of virginity and marital fidelity are expressed in the Bible only indirectly through concern with their infringement, but such infringement is dealt with in the strongest possible terms. If a man married a woman and then accused her of not being a virgin, her father had to bring the "evidence of her virginity" (that is, the bloody sheets) before the elders of the town. If the accusation proved false, the husband paid his wife's father a fine and lost the right to divorce her. If the charges were true, the wife was stoned to death on her father's doorstep (Deut. 22:13-21). The girl who thus committed "fornication" while in her father's house violated both his rights and those of her future husband, defying her father's authority and robbing her husband of his exclusive claim to her sexuality. The laws against adultery, equally severe, are similarly formulated to protect male interests. Adultery as a capital crime in Israel was defined as sex with a married woman (Lev. 20:10). Unlike male sex with an unattached woman, which simply resuited in marriage, and unlike prostitution, which was tolerated though discouraged, adultery was punishable by death for both parties. The man who had sex with another man's wife stole from her husband his rights and his honor, while the wife violated her primary responsibility to her husband, giving away what belonged only to him. So serious a crime was adultery that the man who even suspected his wife could subject her to the ordeal of the "waters of bitterness" (Num. 5:11-31), a complex and humiliating ritual that was supposed to "prove" her guilt or innocence. If the wife was found innocent, her husband suffered no penalty for his unwarranted jealousy. There was no parallel ritual for the husband of a suspicious wife, for his infidelity was a crime only if it violated another man's prerogatives. Laws such as these establish the boundaries of communal norms, defining expected behavior by punishing its violation. The importance of control of women's sexuality within the patriarchal family also emerges, though, in legislation and biblical narratives dealing with normal family matters. The law of levirate marriage, for example, required a childless widow-unless released-to marry her deceased husband's brother (Deut. 25:5-10), thus regulating women's remarriage for the sake of the continuity of the dead husband's line. This law fit easily into a system in which entry into and dissolution of marriage were generally under male control, ensuring a stable family within which a man could beget male heirs. Women were "given" and "taken" in marriage (Gen. 11:29; 29:28), a giving they might sometimes object to (Gen. 24:58) but could not actively choose. The law in Deuteronomy pertaining to divorce (24:1-4) similarly placed initiative in the hands of the husband, allowing him to write his wife a bill of divorce and send her from the house. While biblical law sought to provide a durable context for the procreation of children, narrative accounts amplify and clarify the importance of (male) offspring as a woman's contribution to marriage. "Give me children, or I shall die," cries Rachel to Jacob (Gen. 30:1), an entreaty echoed by many another barren biblical wife. Three of the matriarchs offer their husbands concubines to bear in their stead, either to save the women from childlessness or to increase the offspring in the marriage (Gen. 16:1-3; 30:3-9). And although women appear in many roles in biblical stories, it is a very rare woman who is not identified as the mother of a son. While biblical narratives provide small hints of women's experience within the framework of families regulated by patriarchal law, biblical treatment of sexuality is for the most part utterly lacking in women's perspectives. Not only is the Bible uninterested in the reactions of a raped girl married to her attacker (Deut. 22:28-29) or the feelings of a wife accused of adultery by an unfaithful husband, it does not acknowledge the existence of such points of view. If women's Otherness consists in being named as objects in a male-constructed version of reality, then texts on sexuality provide the core for the projection of woman as Other. This is not to say that women's sexuality is the "cause" of their Otherness. In theory, it is equally possible that women's capacity to bear children would be an avenue to social prestige and control, so that the devaluation of women's sexuality itself requires explanation. It does seem, however, that the desire to control female sexuality is the chief source of male anxiety about women and thus also the source of the central vocabulary and symbolism for the construction of women's Otherness . 5
The anxiety about female sexuality that hovers about family legislation is also manifest in biblical taboos surrounding menstruation and childbirth, both of which were disqualifiers for participation in the sacred. A woman with a normal menstrual period was unclean for seven days, during which time she was barred from approaching the divine presence in the Sanctuary or the Temple . 6Childbirth excluded her from the sanctuary for thirty-three days in the case of a male child, sixty-six days in the case of a female (Lev. 12). While the menstrual taboos are part of a host of regulations concerning the bodily discharges of women and men, the effects on religious practice of a week's uncleanness were necessarily far more significant than those of the day of uncleanness associated with seminal emission. Although it is wrong to impose modern notions of dirtiness or moral failure on the biblical conception of impurity, it can only further signal women's Otherness that the periodic bleeding associated with the normal functioning of their sexuality left women unable to participate in sacrificial ritual for a significant proportion of their adult lives. The strong taboo against sex with a menstruant, mentioned elsewhere in Leviticus (18:19), further underscores the character of menstruation as source of defilement. The biblical construction of women's sexuality as a locus of both Otherness and social control is not simply maintained in rabbinic sources but vastly expanded. Five of the seven tractates in the Mishnaic order of Women are devoted to laws surrounding the formation and dissolution of the marital bond-that is, to points of transition at which a woman leaves the home of one man to take up residence with another. A woman's departing her father's house to marry or returning to her father's house upon divorce or widowhood entails a transfer of person and property that is potentially disorderly and disruptive. The function of the law is to sanctify these critical moments and thus render them orderly and normal . 7But while the explicit content of Mishnaic law on women concerns betrothal, marriage contracts, divorce, and death, the underlying danger it addresses is that posed by women's sexuality. Jacob Neusner argues in his extensive work on the Mishnah's system of Women that though the subject of sexuality is scarcely mentioned, "it always is just beneath the surface." The Mishnah assumes that girls will marry at puberty, and that long before, their potential sexuality is problematic. All women's sexual deeds have public consequences, economic results, in the transfer of property from one man to another.
The goal and purpose of Mishnah's division of Women is to bring under control, and force into stasis, all the wild and unruly potentialities of female sexuality, with their dreadful threat of uncontrolled shifts in personal status and possession alike.
A situation so dangerous to the "stable, sacred society of Israel" required serious and extensive reflection and regulation, regulation that would hold the anomalousness of women in stasis by assigning them to some man's domain.8 Much rabbinic legislation concerning marriage and divorce simply extended and elaborated laws already laid down in the Bible. In these areas, rabbinic anxiety about control of women's sexuality differs from the biblical in volume but not in kind. There was another area of regulation of women's sexuality, however, that is wholly new to postbiblical literature. This concerns intricate laws of female modesty, careful management of women's public conduct, and the elaborate control of social relations between the sexes. While the prophet Isaiah castigated "daughters of Zion" who walked "with roving eyes,/ And with mincing gait,/ Making a tinkling with their feet" (3:16), there is no attempt in the Bible to control women's adornment, movements, or general public bearing. The case is quite otherwise with rabbinic sources. Numerous aggadic sayings implying the danger to men of women's sexual attractiveness find concrete expression in legal material seeking to regulate women's public self-presentation. Laws of modesty, for example, required that women keep their bodies covered. A husband could charge his wife with misconduct if she bared her hip, leg, shoulder, arm, or chest in public. Display of hair by women was considered an act of immodesty-so much so that a man was not to recite the She'ma in the presence of a woman whose hair was showing. At the same time that rules of modesty circumscribed women's dress, other laws protected against private flirtation and immorality between the sexes. Mutual engagement in entertainment or merriment was considered an invitation to immoral conduct, as was indulgence in small talk or repart6e. Indeed, it was considered improper for a nonfamily member to greet a woman, even through her husband. Laws of chaperonage firmly forbid any private meeting between a man and woman, whatever the purpose and whoever gave consent.9 While this legislation naturally affected men as well as women, its aggadic rationale was always to protect men from the temptations posed by women.10 It is not surprising, given the fear of women's sexuality reflected in these sources, that rabbinic attitudes toward women's sexual functions took on an increasingly negative cast. In Leviticus, the laws surrounding the menstruant (niddah) pertain primarily to ritual impurity. After the destruction of the Temple, other sorts of impurity legislation fell into disuse, and the laws of niddah were transferred to the realm of family life and sexual taboo. Already in the late books of Ezra and Ezekiel, niddah had become a metaphor for moral impurity and debasement.11 This hostility toward female sexuality grew and was elaborated in the rabbinic and medieval periods, as terms like bet hatorfa (place of rot) were used to designate the uterus and prophetic passages filled with sexual disgust became the basis for legal exegesis. 12 As other sorts of impurity became increasingly irrelevant, the laws of niddah were developed and strengthened. From an original seven days, the period of forbidden intercourse was increased to the actual period of flow plus seven days, with detailed rules guiding women in selfexamination. Other laws restricted the nonsexual interaction of husband and wife during this period so that certain ordinary signs of intimacy were suspended. Superstition and custom further served to amplify the uncleanness of the niddah. In many communities, women-apparently sometimes on their own initiative-refrained from entering the synagogue during menstruation, did not recite God's name, and did not touch or even look at the Torah scrolls. 13 A menstruant passing between two men was said to slay one of them at the beginning of her period, and at the end, to cause strife between them. "The glance of a menstruous woman poisons the air.... She is like a viper who kills with her glance. How much more harm will she bring to a man who sleeps with her?"14 Whether women's enlargements of the restrictions surrounding niddah represented internalization of such attitudes or the attempt to use them to their own ends, the available sources allow us no more than a guess.
Jewish Attitudes Toward Sexuality
Rules of modesty and perceptions of the niddah lead us from consideration of female sexuality to examination of Jewish attitudes toward sexuality more generally. The concern to safeguard the relations between the sexes that characterizes the laws of modesty, and the palpable disgust that marks certain exchanges about niddah, are necessarily entangled in broader beliefs and feelings about the nature of sexuality. The relation between Jewish attitudes toward female sexuality and sexuality per se is an extremely complex subject, one on which the evidence is often confusing and conflicting. As one commentator on the issue suggests, every attitude toward sexuality from the freest to the most inhibited is found somewhere in Jewish writing.1-5 In trying to capture the Jewish stance or stances toward sexuality and relate them to attitudes toward women, it is necessary to find a path through contradiction and ambivalence, avoiding elevating o'ne side of ambivalence as truer or more fundamental than the other. 16 Some of the contradictions in Jewish attitudes toward sexuality can be accounted for by historical changes and developments. Early biblical literature, for example, while it is concerned to harness women's sexuality to the needs of the patriarchal family, shows little general anxiety about heterosexual sex. Sexuality was accepted as a natural part of human life; the relations between the sexes were relatively easy and open; except for practices associated with or projected onto paganism, there is little preachment about or denunciation of specific sexual behaviors. The postexilic period, by way of contrast, was far more repressive. Social and political upheavals generated a new pessimism about the world that expressed itself in growing concern about human weakness and sinfulness. As easily corruptible creatures subject to the lure of sexual temptation, human beings had to be on guard against even seemingly innocent contacts between women and men. In this atmosphere, women's sexuality also came to be seen with a new negativity; women were perceived as temptresses, beguiling and ensnaring men.17
Since the rabbinic period incorporated both of these conflicting attitudes toward sexuality, however, the contradictions in Jewish understandings of sexuality cannot be explained simply by reference to historical development. Rather, these contradictions are held together in the mainstream expression of Jewish attitudes toward sex. The heart of the Jewish ambivalence toward sexuality is roughly this: The sexual impulse is given by God and thus is a normal and healthy part of human life. Sexual relations are appropriate only within the framework of heterosexual marriage, but within marriage, they are good, indeed, are commanded (a mitzvah). Yet [email protected] within marriage-also requires careful, sometimes rigorous control, in order that it not transgress the boundaries of marriage or the laws of niddah within it. This oscillation between affirmation of sexuality and anxiety about control expresses itself in a number of ways, in part through the very naming of the sexual impulse. The rabbis called this impulse the yetzer hara-the evil impulse, and yet at the same time acknowledged its necessity to the creation and sustenance of the world. According to one rabbinic midrash, the rabbis of the Second Temple period caught hold of the yetzer hara and imprisoned "him" for thirty days. During that period, not a single egg was found in all of Palestine. Finally, they just blinded him in one eye and released him, fearing that if they killed him the world would be destroyed. "Were it not for the evil impulse," said Rabbi Nahman b. Samuel, "man would not build a house, or take a wife, or beget a child, or engage in business."18 Such midrashic expressions of ambivalence find concrete manifestation in the moral realm in the tension between legal statutes that are relatively permissive (always within the boundaries of marriage) and ethical standards that tend to be much more restrictive, even ascetic.19 An excellent illustration of this latter tension is provided by the laws of onah, which regulate a man's sexual obligations to his wife. These laws are based on the assumption that women, like men, feel sexual desire, but women are more passive and hidden in the expression of their sexuality and less free to initiate sexual activity. This being the case, it is a husband's responsibility to approach his wife, both at regular times prescribed by law, and when he suspects she might wish itfor example, when he is about to go off on a journey. The frequency of onah is adjusted to a man's profession: camel drivers are obligated to perform onah once a month, laborers twice a week, scholars once a week. A man may not change his trade to one that would reduce the frequency of onah without his wife's permission, and a woman's prenuptial agreement to forego these rights is not considered binding. The mitzvah of onah, moreover, pertains not just to the number of times a man has sex with his wife, but also to the quality of their relations. A man is expected to rejoice with his wife. He should therefore never force himself on her or initiate sex when they are angry with each other, but should speak words of tenderness to her and seek to give her pleasure.20 Within the framework of a male-defined system, the laws of onah represent a remarkable concern with and accommodation to female sexuality as well as appreciation of sexuality generally. The laws are formulated from the perspective of women's gratification (of course, as men perceived it), and they represent an understanding of marital sex as more than procreational. Having children is one primary purpose of marital relations, and men (again, the laws of sexuality are addressed to men) are required to be fruitful and multiply-that is, have at least two children. But onah is an independent value, a commandment alongside procreation that applies if a woman is pregnant, barren, or past childbearing age. These "sex-positive" values associated with onah in its legal aspects, however, are sometimes modified or compromised by accompanying ethical discussion. Both the Talmud and postTalmudic thought reflect some conflict about whether the times prescribed by onah are a minimum or a maximum. While some authorities see onah as the rabbis' guess as to the minimum a woman would want, others feel onah should be taken as indicating the outer limits of sexual relations. Similar debate applies to the quality of onah. Some authorities are willing to permit any erotic play or sexual position that a couple finds enjoyable, but others are highly suspicious of foreplay and also of postures for intercourse other than the standard "missionary position." Although the lenient attitude is enshrined in halakhah, many rabbis and commentators adjured Jews to follow a stricter standard than the law permitted. The tension or even contradiction between a permissive halakhah and restrictive or ascetic ethic is clearly expressed in the work of Maimonides, who acknowledged the latitude of the law but counseled the pious to limit sexual relations and to direct themselves to contemplation .21 The issue at stake in this debate on onah is not the legitimacy of female pleasure, but the boundaries of reasonable male sexual expression. Male desire is presupposed as an ever-present reality that must be controlled by the legal system. Whether this control is best achieved through abstinence or through moderate enjoyment of what is permitted is a matter for ongoing discussion among rabbinic and medieval authorities .22 The tensions and ambivalence surrounding marital sexuality are further deepened by the fact that marital relations are ruled not simply by onah but by the laws concerning niddah. Restriction of sexual intercourse to the period when the woman is "clean"-that is, has waited for seven days after menstruation and then gone to the ritual bath-means that for up to fifteen days or more every month, sex is simply forbidden. The laws of onah apply, then, to only about half of a couple's married life, while the rest of the time sex is equally illicit within marriage as outside it. Legal safeguards against arousal must thus be built into the framework of marriage to ensure that even here there is no violation of the boundaries of the permitted. The resulting rhythm of marital sexuality is closely regulated by prohibitions and prescriptions, a fact that indicates the extent to which rabbinic treatment of sexuality put a premium on control. 2-1 If even the marriage relation is subject to sexual immorality, outside its boundaries lies a whole realm of licentiousness and transgression that has to be carefully guarded against with welldefined restraints. In this realm especially, what the law does not specify, ethical standards demand and elaborate, supplementing legislation with a clear moral code. Thus, for example, while there is no explicit prohibition of premarital sex in Jewish law, the whole tenor of ethical discussion limits sexual expression to the marriage relationship. In the Talmud, sexual relations between the unmarried were assimilated to harlotry, and the later codes prescribed public flogging for such improper behavior.24 Incest, adultery, and male homosexuality, listed in the Bible as sexual transgressions (Lev.18; 20:10), remained serious sins in Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature. Adultery is addressed most extensively by the halakhah, presumably because it was the most common violation. Rabbinic legislation on adultery closely follows the inequalities of biblical law, ruling that a woman who commits adultery must be divorced by her husband and is forbidden to marry her lover. Though ethical expectations were stricter than the law, married men, on the other hand, were legally free to have other sexual relations, provided the woman involved was single. Incest and homosexuality, although major offenses, were regarded as rare in Israel and therefore received less halakhic attention.25 The rabbis built a fence around the biblical laws of incest, forbidding certain secondary relationships that might seem to violate incest prohibitions. Male homosexuality was condemned as to'evah (an abomination) by the tradition, but Talmudic references to it are few and far between and indicate no knowledge of homosexual orientation in the modern sense. Lesbianism, because it involves no intercourse and no "wasting of seed," was a less serious offense, a rebellious and condemnable act that brought no legal penalty.26
In the case of all these behaviors, however, whatever the degree of prohibition, prevention was considered a better course than punishment, and so all were surrounded by social and legal restraints. Numerous restrictions controlling social mingling of the sexes were buttressed by the constant watchful eye of the community, a watchfulness more potent than the law in conveying expectations of moral behavior .27 Though Jewish attitudes toward sexuality are often contrasted favorably with Christian asceticism, one might argue that the energy the church fathers devoted to worrying about sexuality, the rabbis devoted to worrying about illicit sexuality-and with similar implications. While the desire to extirpate the sexual instinct is certainly not the same as the desire to channel and control it, both lead to a consuming focus on the difficulty of containing male sexuality, the lure of female sexuality, and strategies for circumventing sexuality's attraction and power .28
Thus every area of illegal sexuality had its corresponding regulations for prevention and control. Restrictions on social mingling connect more general attitudes toward sexuality with the rules of modesty for women discussed above. Laws of female modesty and rules of chaperonage limited the free interaction of the sexes that could lead to fornication or adultery, and the same was true of the increasing segregation of men and women that, from the end of the third century, marked many festive and religious occasions. Beyond such restrictions, men were discouraged from engaging in any action that might conceivably start a train of thought considered unwholesome. A man was not to hold his penis while urinating, unless his wife was in town and clean so there would be no need for lustful ruminations. To walk behind a woman was considered dangerous, for it might lead to erotic meditations about the female form. To pass a coin to a woman with the intention of looking at her, to glance at her little finger, even to gaze at her garments in a closet was considered an invitation to carnal sin. Regulations applying to close relatives were only somewhat less restrictive than those involving acquaintances, so that even within the family the tradition was on guard. A father might kiss his daughter and a mother her son, but otherwise hugging or kissing a woman within the incestuous degrees of kinship was considered inappropriate. The need for safeguards against homosexual liaisons was somewhat more disputed. While the Mishnah records that Rabbi Judah forbade two unmarried men to sleep under the same blanket, in general the sages felt that the rarity of homosexuality among Jews made such preventive legislation unnecessar y. 29 In the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Caro cautioned against unchaperoned association between males, but his ruling was suspended a hundred years later, again because it was considered superfluous. Concerning lesbians, Maimonides adjured a man to supervise his wife to ensure she had no contact with women known to be such .311 While laws and customs of modesty and avoidance circumscribed the lives of both women and men, these laws are nonetheless strikingly asymmetrical in their rationale, content, and phrasing. We have izome to expect that in a male-defined system, the law will be addressed to men and formulated from their perspective. But sexual legislation does not simply omit women's viewpoint; it attributes the turbulent character of male sexuality largely to the provocation and stimulation of women. Although the rules of onah presuppose that women's sexuality is restrained and silent so that a husband has the obligation to discern and respond to it, the laws concerning almost every other aspect of sexuality see women's sexuality as an ever resp ent danger that must be contained within the family and guarded against at all times. Louis Epstein, toward the beginning of his Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, remarks that the rabbis ridiculed the fear of the "dangerous woman" that had occupied authorities in Second Temple times . 31 But as he develops rabbinic attitudes toward sexuality in the rest of his book, this ridicule seems increasingly hollow. When the overwhelming majority of rabbinic laws on modesty pertain largely or solely to women, when a woman's voice or little finger are defined as occasioning lewdness, when "it is better to walk behind a lion than behind a woman," it is difficult to conclude anything other than that women are a source of moral danger and an incitement to depravity and JUSt.32 Attitudes toward sexuality and toward women's sexuality come together, then, in that the overriding concern with control that marks the negative side of Jewish ambivalence about sexuality is rooted at once in what is perceived to be the urgent character of male sexuality and the peril to it posed by woman. It cannot be said that all of male sexuality is projected onto women, for many of the stratagems of avoidance fall on men and enforce their responsibility for self-control. But women are the ubiquitous temptations, the sources and symbols of illicit desire, the ones whose sexuality threatens even their husbands/ possessors with the temptation to illegal action. To speak of control is necessarily to speak of women-of the need to cover women (but not men), to avoid women (but not men), and to contain women in proper (patriarchal) families where their threat is minimized if it cannot be overcome. To speak of sexuality is to speak of women occasionally as fellow people themselves desirous but subject to social restraint-but mainly as objects, as Others, as dangers to male moderation, as hazards to the balance and regulation that mark the sacred order.
Sexuality and the Sacred
When we look at sexuality within the context of the family and social relations between the sexes, it is clear that sexuality is a locus both for sanctification and disorder. Properly channeled and contained within the patriarchal family, sexuality is a good gift of God, the foundation for a stable and thriving social order. Marital sexuality is the subject of two important mitzvot:
p'ru ur'vu - procreation-"be fruitful and multiply," and onah, the laws specifying a man's conjugal duties to his wife. Indulged in for the proper reasons and with proper moderation, sex is a legitimate avenue of pleasure for both partners in a marriage. At the same time, however, the sexual impulse is named the evil inclination and is seen as continually threatening to break out of its divinely sanctioned boundaries, bringing sin and chaos. The family itself poses the dangers of incest and sex with a menstruant. In the wider world lurk the perils of fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. Especially the man with his insistent sexual impulses must be ever on guard against the temptations of female sexuality and his own evil urge. This same ambivalence or contradiction that pertains to sexuality in the social order also holds for sexuality in the symbolic and "religious" orders.33 Sexuality is a symbol of and vehicle for divine unification, and also a potential distraction and disturbance-even [email protected] the divine/human relation and symbolism for the divine. As is the case with sexuality in the social realm, these contradictory attitudes divide to some extent along historical and sectarian lines but also are found within particular periods and movements, forming an intricate and many-layered pattern of conflict. The relation between the sexuality of God and other sexual attitudes is an excellent illustration of the complexities of this pattern.
In my discussion of Jewish objections to paganism in the last chapter, I alluded to the connection between biblical abhorrence of pagan sexual practices and the unique "singleness" of Israel's God.-14 While God is sexual in the sense that "he" is gendered, in biblical and rabbinic thought God is free from sexuality in the narrower sense under consideration here. In contrast to the gods and goddesses of pagan mythologies, God has no sexual partner; we hear of no sexual exploits or feelings within the deity; the whole issue of sexuality pertains to humans as God's creatures, but finds no obvious echo in the depiction of God. While this nonsexuality of God is not part of a full-fledged philosophical dualism linking God as spirit to the human spirit trapped in flesh, the relation, between God's nonsexuality and antipagan polemics, and the rabbinic association of sanctification with moderation and control suggest a connection between knowledge of and intimacy with God and the harnessing of flesh to spirit.35 To express this connection negatively, sexual behavior perceived as immoral is a serious religious offense, and adultery and fornication are important metaphors for human reprobation and alienation from the God who is ever faithful to Israel. To express it positively, adherence to a rigorous sexual ethic is part of the path to holiness, a holiness that has its model in a God who is himself beyond sexual relations. The implicit interconnections between the image of God as nonsexual and a rigorous Jewish sexual ethic become much clearer when this image of God is threatened by female metaphors. Resistance to female images for God stems not only from the fact that they alter the gender of God but also from their threatening God with sexuality.36 Having examined the crucial place of women in the Jewish understanding of sexuality, we are now in a better position to see why this should be the case. From a certain male perspective, women, whatever they may be in themselves, represent and elicit sexual desire and temptation. The use of female metaphors for God evokes an extensive and firmly established set of associations between women and sexuality that persists with different emphases throughout the history of the Jewish tradition. Applying female metaphors to God means that God becomes subject to these same associations. The implication of these associations is such, moreover, that those who worry about female images are deeply anxious about their moral effects. Mortimer Ostow, in an article opposing the ordination of women as rabbis, argues that the rabbi represents God. In the case of a woman rabbi, this representation poses a severe problem, he claims, because since woman "unconsciously represents temptation, gratification and sensuality," the appearance of a woman on the bimah "unconsciously suggests a regression to indulgence and gratification as a dominant value.1137 The association of women with sexuality, and female sexuality with God, connects God to an ethic of sexual intemperance, potentially wreaking havoc with an ethic of control. Cynthia Ozick takes this reasoning a step further, moving by stages from the introduction of female imagery to the threat of child sacrifice.311 Such arguments clarify the psychological/symbolic connections between the conception of God as nonsexual male and the importance of control in the Jewish understanding of sexuality. Any changes in this conception threaten to disturb the whole system of control that is held together by a complex web of symbolic associations. In mainstream Jewish thinking, then, God's nonsexuality is an important pillar in the symbolic and moral order such that changes in the image of God threaten the sacred order by undermining the symbolic restraints on self-discipline and control. In Jewish mysticism, however, the case is quite otherwise, so that Kabbalah provides a quite different-indeed a contradictory-picture of the relation between sexuality and the sacred order. The Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah use extensive sexual imagery to describe the inner life of God, particularly in discussing the relation between the ninth and tenth sefirot (emanations). The ninth sefirah, Yesod (foundation), through which all the higher sefirot @ow into the feminine Shekhinah, is portrayed in clearly phallic terms and interpreted as the male procreative force dynamically active in the universe. Its sacred marriage with the Shekhinah, queen and celestial bride, is central to the whole process through which the sefirot unfold. The separation of the masculine and feminine principles within God is a cosmic calamity that forms part of the drama of creation. The reunion of God and his Shekhinah, the uninterrupted joining of the divine masculine and feminine, is the very meaning of redemption.39
It is not surprising, given the importance of sexuality in the Kabbalistic understanding of divinity, that the mystical tradition is the source of some of the more positive strands in Jewish attitudes toward marital sexuality. For the Kabbalist, human sexual intercourse, performed with the right intention and within its proper limits, is an imitation of processes within the divine and a symbolic realization of the reunion of God and the Shekhinah. In Iggeret Ha-Kodesh, a popular thirteenth-century mystical text, the author argues that sexual intercourse is called "knowing" because it is an act of great holiness. A husband and wife who conduct themselves properly mirror through their human actions the divine creation of the world. The author teaches husbands how to approach their wives, adjuring men to speak pleasing words that urge their wives to passion. A man should never quarrel with or beat his wife over sex; nor should he take her by force or when she is sleeping. Rather, he should ensure that desire is mutual, checking his own ardor to match hers, so that in their harmony they may enact a divine process .40 Contrary to the fears of the mainstream tradition, this view of sexuality, while it added a new dimension to the appreciation and sanctification of sex, by no means altered halakhic sexual boundaries. Whatever the biblical and rabbinic association of God's asexuality with sexual control, Kabbalistic use of female and sexual language for divinity did not lead to the creation of a new sexual morality. It is true that the Sabbatian movement, an outgrowth of Kabbalism, was associated with antinomian acts both on the part of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi and of his more radical followers, and that these acts often involved transgression of sexual laws.41 If this antinomianism was connected to the Sabbatian view of God, however, the connection seems not to have affected the rest of Jewish mysticism, which remained thoroughly committed to traditional sexual values. Sex was a significant mystical rite, but within the careful constraints of heterosexual marriage. Misuse of the sexual impulse was a matter of severe anxiety to the Kabbalist, for it was believed to strengthen the forces of evil. For those who aspired to mystic contemplation, sexual transgressions brought in their train stringent practices of self-mortification to disentangle holiness from impurity. 42 Nor can it be said that the presence of a female element in God freed Kabbalah from suspicion of female sexuality. On the contrary, Jewish mysticism associated the feminine with the demonic, and in Kabbalistic mythology, Lilith and her host of female demons provoke men to improperly waste their seed.43
If Kabbalah, despite its symbolic unorthodoxy, remained firmly wedded to the value of sexual control, the holiness of marital intercourse is not just a mystical invention. The Talmud prefers the Sabbath as the day on which scholars are to perform the mitzvah of onah, and this preference is preserved by the later codes despite their often ascetic bias. Rashi explains the association of sex and the Sabbath on the grounds that the Sabbath is a "time of pleasure, rest, and physical wellbeing." But certainly the choice of Sabbath sex also assumes that marital intercourse will benefit from and contribute to the holiness of the day, a conviction in sharp contrast with certain Christian admonitions to abstain from sex on any holy occasion .44 Thus while mysticism built on and elaborated the notion of sex as a source of sanctification, it grounded its speculations in earlier mainstream sources.
To give one more turn, however, to an already conflicted picture of the relation between sexuality and the sacred, we might shift from images of 6od and marital sexuality to the separation of the sexes in the synagogue. This highly contentious issue, which has split many a US congregation, brings us right back to the desire to disassociate God and sexuality with which I began this section. The substantive rationale for traditional insistence on the mechitzah-partition separating men and women in the house of worship-is that the mechitzah protects the sanctity of worship from the intrusion of sexuality. If the exposed handbreadth of a woman's body, her voice, her uncovered hair, are indecent, then women's presence among men at prayer constitutes a veritable invitation to immora lity.45 Insofar as God's asexuality is symbolically linked to a restrictive sexual ethic, this ethic certainly must operate in the synagogue where the asexual God is worshiped. While the mechitzah is just another aspect of the familiar concern with control, expressed from a male perspective and projected onto women, the argument over separation of the sexes in the synagogue also indicates that it is easier for mainstream Judaism to sanctify sexuality than to sexualize the sacred. One may raise sexuality to God by engagintention. But one cannot intensify or raise prayer to God through allowing sexual feelings in a house of worship. Although liberal Judaism, in introducing mixed seating, seemingly ignores this traditional truth, it enforces a new strict decorum in the synagogue that in its own way works against any sexual feeling. Whether through a physical wall or balcony or through decorous worship that comes from a head without a body, public prayer is based on a separation of sexuality and the sacred that coheres with certain elements in the tradition while it stands in tension with others.
Reclaiming the Body and Sexuality in Feminist Thought
This conflicting and conflicted set of attitudes toward, sexuality constitutes an extremely problematic heritage for modern Jews, particularly Jewish women. It has been noted frequently that for liberal Jews who take their Judaism seriously, there is no area in which modern practice and traditional values are further apart than the area of sexuality.46 The insistence that legitimate sexual expression be limited to marriage, and indeed, only certain periods in a marriage, and the insistence on boundaries and control as central aspects of an approach to sexuality, are thoroughly out of tune with both the modern temper and the lived decisions of most contemporary Jews. Troublesome as inherited sexual values are for Jews of both sexes, however, they are especially troubling for women; for these values are a central pillar upholding Judaism as a patriarchal system, and the stigma and burden of sexuality fall differently on women than on men. Men's sexual impulses are powerful-"evil"-inclinations in need of firm control. Women's very bodily functions are devalued and made the center of a complex of taboos: their gait, their voices, their natural beauty are all regarded as snares and temptations and subjected to elaborate precautions. Men define their own sexuality ambivalently-but they define it. And men also define the sexuality of women which they would circumscribe to fit the shape of their own fears, and desire for possession. Women must carve out a sense of sexual self in the context of a system that-here most centrally-projects them as Other, denying their right to autonomous self-understanding or action. Given the generally ambivalent and problematic treatment of sexuality in Judaism, however, it is precisely the key location of women as the central locus of ambivalence that makes women's voices and experience enormously important to the overall transformation of Jewish attitudes toward sexuality. If control of women's sexuality is the cornerstone of patriarchal control of women, then women's naming and reclaiming our own sexuality poses a major threat to that control and to the understanding of sexuality correlated with it. Such naming and reclaiming, moreover, has been a crucial piece of the contemporary feminist project. Partly in response to the Jewish understanding of sexuality, more fully in response to the explicit dualism of Christianity and the attitudes of a culture shaped by both traditions, feminists have begun to explore and revalue women's sexuality and body experience from a woman-centered perspective. These explorations have potentially profound implications for Judaism, certainly for its understanding of women, but also for its understanding of sexuality and the relation between sexuality and the sacred.
Feminist writing on the body and sexuality has been so rich and voluminous that it is quite impossible to characterize it briefly. It has encompassed everything from compilation of basic information, to analysis of central institutions shaping women's sexual attitudes and lives, to exploration of the sensations and meanings of a woman-defined sexuality.47 It has delineated important male ideas about sexuality and their impact on women and also described women's experience of and reflections on our own sexual lives. If there is any key insight that unifies this very diverse writing, it is the insistence that sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed. While sexuality has a biological base, its interpretation and meanings are neither genetically inscribed nor divinely ordained, but rather change through time and space, shaped by the many ideas and institutions that make up human culture. Adopting a social constructionist model of sexuality has enabled feminists to trace the relationship between particular social and economic configurations and specific attitudes toward sex, and also to illuminate broader patterns of thinking about sexuality that continue to have an impact on contemporary culture. This model allows us to examine the social context of rabbinic anxieties about women, to try to understand the sources of concerns that today appear peculiar or puzzling. What is the cause of rabbinic apprehension about the effects of looking at a woman's finger, for example, or contemplating her clothes in a closet? Is it explained by a social situation in which the sexes led largely separate lives? Did covering the female body mystify and eroticize it? Was the preoccupation with female exposure itself an invitation to desire? How did men learn, in other words, both to react ' sexually to any sign of a woman's body and to reject that reaction as morally wrong? Feminist work on the history of Christianity has focused on the impact of hierarchical dualisms on the understanding of women's sexuality, and in doing so has highlighted an important determinant of contemporary attitudes toward women. Rosemary Ruether's pioneering work on dualism has set out the connections between male/female and mind[body dualisms in Christian theology, showing how a dichotomized and objectified understanding of female sexuality is firmly embedded in the normative Christian worldview and continues to shape advertising, legal treatment of rape victims, and many other features of the modern social world .411 Other feminist work has made clear that both Jewish and Christian attitudes toward sexuality are rooted in a basic "energy/control paradigm" of sexuality, which understands sexuality as an independent and sometimes alien energy that must be held in check through personal discipline and religious constraints.11 Since the perception of male sexuality as a distinct, powerful, and foreign force, triggered by women who are therefore responsible for it, is still our dominant cultural and religious model, it is especially difficult to see this paradigm as a social construction. Feminist writing on sexuality has not stopped with trying to understand male images and institutions, however. just as feminist work on other aspects of women's history has moved to reclaim a positive history, so feminist work on sexuality has both sought to uncover the experiences of women within and against patriarchal constructions and to create new frameworks for understanding and appropriating embodied, sexual life. Feminists have set out the dualisms that have shaped religious and cultural disgust at women's bodies, and also have tried to overcome these dualisms, reclaiming women's body experience in a conscious and affirming way. Sometimes feminist efforts to subvert dualisms have had the effect of simply reversing them, elevating women's body experience as a response to its devaluation. The consistent goal of feminist writing, though, has been to undercut dualisms, to find a way through and beyond the either/or thinking (either spirit or body, either virgin or whore) so central to western attitudes toward sexuality.50 As Adrienne Rich argues in Of Woman Born-one of the richest and most profound feminist efforts to rethink dualism-women must resist the incarceration in the body that has been the legacy of patriarchy without either recoiling from our bodies or pretending we can live without them. In thinking of "our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny," in imagining a world in which every woman can be "the presiding genius of her own body," women begin to work toward a society in which we can bring forth not only children but the visions and rethinking "necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence."51
The project of challenging dualisms and reclaiming women's body experience is central to the female, sexual images for God that I discussed in the last chapter. When Naomi Janowitz and Maggie Wenig speak of God as the one who gives birth and whose womb covers the earth, they are not just suggesting new female metaphors for God but are also implicitly attacking modes of thinking that separate sexuality-particularly women's sexuality-from any contact with the divine.52 Womens bodies are not snares and temptations, these metaphors proclaim; women's sexual functions are not to be degraded and feared. Women's sexuality is a source of life, a fitting image for the ultimate source of life who births the world and nourishes its being. Insofar as images of God are drawn from and reinforce what we value, imagining God in female sexual terms reflects and teaches a positive understanding of women's and human sexuality, disputing and dislodging the negative feelings and images that are so much part of the Jewish legacy. Work that tries to bring together sexuality and the sacred is a minority strand in feminist writing, but it is a strand with considerable power not only to challenge traditional dualisms but also to generate alternatives to the energy/control paradigm of sexuality. A number of feminists concerned with the connections between sexuality and spirit have suggested a new model of sexuality that sees it as part of a continuum of embodied self-expression. From this perspective, our passions, including but not limited to our sexual passions; our self-identity as female or male, including but not limited to our capacity for sexual expression; and our capability of feeling generally, are all rooted in our being in the world as embodied persons. As ethicist Beverly Harrison argues in setting out the base points for a feminist moral theology, our whole relationship to the world is body-mediated. "All knowledge is rooted in our sensuality. We know and value the world, if we know and value it, through our ability to touch, to hear, to see." Without the capacity for feeling that is rooted in "our bodies, our selves," we would lose all connection to the world, all ability to act or to value. For Harrison, sexuality is an aspect of our embodiedness and inherent in it, the aspect that "represents our most intense interaction with the world." The intensity of sexuality, however, is not a function of its existence as a separate energy. Sexuality is one dimension of our body-mediated power, of the body space that is "literally the ground of our personhood." What makes sexuality special is that it is the part of ourselves that allows us to interact with others through touch, giving and receiving meanings that transcend our capacity for verbal communication .53
This understanding of sexuality as one dimension of bodily feeling finds its most powerful formulation in Audre Lorde's brilliant essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." Lorde defines sexuality as one expression of a spectrum of erotic energy that ideally suffuses all the activities in our lives.54 The erotic is the life force, the capacity for feeling, the capacity for joy, a power we are taught to fear and ignore by a society that "defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need." The erotic can be experienced with another in the sharing of sexual passion, but it is not limited to this; it is also present in deep connection over any pursuit, "physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual." Indeed, broadly speaking, the erotic is the joy that, every now and then, human beings find ourselves capable of. As such, it is a source of empowerment, because once we experience joy, the experience becomes a "lens through which we [can] scrutinize all aspects of our existence," honestly evaluating them in terms of their value and meaning within our lives. When we turn away from the knowledge the erotic gives us, when we accept powerlessness or resignation, we cheat ourselves of full life. And when we fail to understand sexual feelings as an expression of the power of the erotic, we reduce them to mere sensations that we then fear and seek to suppress.5," This view of sexuality as part of a spectrum of body/life energy rather than a special force or evil inclination has at least two important implications for understanding the place of sexuality in human life. One is that we cannot suppress our capacity for sexual feeling without suppressing our capacity for feeling more generally. If sexuality is one dimension of our ability to live passionately in the world, then in cutting off our sexual feelings, we di,minish our overall power to feel, know, and value deeply. This connection does not imply that we must act out our sexual feelings-any more than we are compelled to act out any feelings. It does mean, however, that we must honor and make room for feelings-including sexual feelingsas "the basic ingredient in our relational transaction with the world."- Second, insofar as sexuality is an element in the embodiment that mediates our relation to reality, an aspect of the life energy that enables us to connect with others in creativity and joy, sexuality is profoundly connected to spirituality, indeed is inseparable from it. "Sexuality is both a symbol and a means of communication and communion.... It is who we are as bodyselves who experience the emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual need for intimate communion, both creaturely and divine."57 It is that part of us through which we reach out to other persons and to God, expressing the need for relationship, for the sharing of self and of meaning. When we touch that place in our lives where sexuality and spirituality come together, we touch our wholeness and the fullness of our power, and at the same time our connection with a power larger than ourselves.58
Toward a New Theology of Sexuality
Feminist reconceptualization of the energy/control model of sexuality and affirmation of the profound connection between sexuality and spirituality provide directions for rethinking the ambivalent attitudes toward sexuality within Judaism. Acceptance and avowal of a link between sex and spirit is, as I argued earlier, by no means foreign to Jewish experience. In the mysteries of the marriage bed on Sabbath night; in the sanctity of the Song of Songs; for mysticism, in the very nature and dynamics of the Godhead, sexual expression is an image of and path to the holy.59 Yet again and again in theology and practice, Judaism turns away from and undermines this acknowledged connection by defining sexuality in terms of patriarchal possession and control. Where women's sexuality is seen as an object to be possessed, and sexuality itself is perceived as an impulse that can take possession of the self, the central issues surrounding sexuality will necessarily be issues of control: Who has the right to control a particular woman's sexuality in what situation? How can a man control his own sexual impulses, given the constant bombardment of female temptation? How can the law control women and the relations between men and women so that the danger of illicit sexual relations (relations with a woman whose sexuality is owned by some other man) is minimized? All these questions make perfect sense as related aspects of a patriarchal system, but they are inimical to the mutuality, openness, and vulnerability in sexual relations that tie sexuality to the sacred. Recognizing then that the role of women's sexuality in the institution of the family, the rules surrounding the relations of the sexes, and the energy/control paradigm of sexuality are all connected pieces of a patriarchal understanding of sexuality, the question become's: What would it mean to develop a model of sexuality that is freed from this framework? How can we think about sexuality in a way that springs from and honors the experience of women? How can we develop a positive feminist discourse about sexuality in a Jewish context? In line with the fundamental feminist insight that sexuality is socially constructed, a Jewish feminist understanding of sexuality begins with the insistence that what goes on in the bedroom can never be isolated from the wider cultural context of which the bedroom is part.60 The inequalities of the family are prepared for by, and render plausible, larger social inequalities, and the task of eradicating sexual inequality is part of the wider feminist project of ending hierarchical separation as a model for communal life.61 Thus a Jewish feminist approach to sexuality must take sexual mutuality as a task for the whole of life and not just for Friday evening, fitting its commitment to sexual equality into its broader vision of a society based on mutuality and respect for difference.
It is striking that one of the profoundest images of freedom and mutuality in sexual relations that the Jewish tradition has to offer is at the same time its central image of the connection between sexuality and spirituality. Unlike the Garden of Eden, where Eve and Adam are ashamed of their nakedness and women's subordination is the punishment for sin, the Garden of the Song of Songs is a place of sensual delight and sexual equality. Unabashed by their desire, the man and woman of these poems delight in their own embodiment and the beauty surrounding them, each seeking the other out to inaugurate their meetings, each rejoicing in the love without dominion that is also the love of God . 61 Since this book offers a vision of delight that is easier to achieve in a sacred garden than in the midst of the demands of daily living, it is perhaps no criticism of the institution of marriage that the couple in the Song of Songs is not married. Yet the picture of mutuality, and the sacredness of mutuality, offered by this book stand in fundamental tension with the structures of marriage as Judaism defines them. When the central rituals of marriage and divorce celebrate or enact the male acquisition and relinquishment of female sexuality, what are the supports and resources for the true reciprocity of intimate exchange that marks the holiness of Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs)? Despite the efforts of the tradition to legislate concern for women's sexual needs, the achievement of mutuality in the marriage bed is extremely difficult in the absence of justice for women in those institutions that legitimate and surround it. A central task, then, of the feminist reconstruction of Jewish attitudes toward sexuality is the radical transformation of the institutional, legal framework within which sexual relations are supposed to take place. Insofar as Judaism maintains its interest in the establishment of enduring relationships both as a source of adult companionship and development and as a context for raising and educating children, these relationships will be entered into and dissolved by mutual initiative and consent. "Marriage" will not be about the transfer of women or the sanctification of potential disorder through the firm establishment of women in the patriarchal family, but the decision of two adults-any two adults-to make their lives together, lives that include the sharing of sexuality. Although, in the modern West, it is generally assumed that such a commitment is a central meaning of marriage, this assumption is contradicted by a religious (and secular) legal system that outlaws homosexual marriage and institutionalizes inequality in its basic definitions of marriage and divorce. This redefinition of the legal framework of marriage, which accords with the feminist refusal to sanctify any hierarchical relationship, is also based on the important principle that sexuality is not something we can acquire or possess in another. We are each the possessor of our own sexuality-in Adrienne Rich's phrase, the "presiding genius" of our own bodies. The sharing of sexuality with another is something that should happen only by mutual consent, a consent that is not a blanket permission, but that is continually renewed in the actual rhythms of particular relationships. This principle, simple as it seems, challenges both the fundamental assumptions of Jewish marriage law and the Jewish understanding of what women's sexuality is "about." It defines as immoral legal regulations concerning the possession, control, and exchange of women's sexuality, and disputes the perspective that a woman's sexuality is her contribution to the family rather than the expression of her own embodiment.
But if one firm principle for feminist thinking about sexuality is that no one can possess the sexuality of another, it is equally the case that from a feminist perspective, sexuality is not something that pertains only or primarily to the self. Indeed, our sexuality is fundamentally about moving out beyond ourselves. As ethicist James Nelson puts it,
The mystery of sexuality is the mystery of the human need to reach out for the physical and spiritual embrace of others. Sexuality thus expresses God's intention that people find authentic humanness not in isolation but in relationship.11
Our capacity for intimacy, for sharing, for touch is rooted in our early relations with others; and throughout our lives, we seek genuine connection, longing for at least some relationship(s) that can touch the core of our being. The connecting, communicative nature of sexuality is not something we can experience or look for only in sexual encounters narrowly defined, but in all real relationships in our lives. We live in the world as sexual beings. As Audre Lorde argues, our sexuality is a current that flows through all activities that are important to us, in which we invest our selves. True intellectual exchange, common work, shared experience are laced with sexual energy that animates and enlivens them. The bonds of community are erotic bonds. The power that is generated by real community, that gives us access to a greater power that grounds and embraces us, is in part'the power of our own sexual, life energy that flows through community and enlarges and seals it. We are all, women and men, embodied, sexual persons who respond sexually to the women and men among whom we live.
This erotic nature of community is by no means lost on judaism; indeed, it is the subject of profound ambivalence in both the midrash and law. The story I described earlier in which the rabbis blind rather than kill the imprisoned yetzer hara concedes the vital role of the sexual impulse in the creation and maintenance of the world. A similar ambivalence underlies the extensive rabbinic legislation enforcing the separation of the sexes, legislation that tries to protect against the feelings it recognizes, even as it acknowledges the sexual power of community and the continuity of sexuality with other feelings. If the energy of community is erotic, there are no guarantees that eroticism will stay within prescribed legal boundaries rather than breaking out and disrupting communal sanctity. The strict "fence around the law" felt necessary when it comes to sexual behavior is itself testimony to the power of sexuality.
It is tempting for a feminist account of sexuality to deny the disruptive power of the erotic, and to depict the fear of it in rabbinic thought as simply misplaced. But it is truer to experience to acknowledge the power of sexuality to overturn rules and threaten boundaries. Then feminists can embrace this power as a significant ally. There is no question that the empowerment that comes from owning the erotic in our lives can disturb community and undermine familiar structures. On the level of sexual behavior, if we allow ourselves to perceive and acknowledge sexual feelings, there is always the danger we may act on them, and they may not correspond to group concensus about whom we may desire and when. The potentially disruptive effects of sexual feelings exist for communities with stringent sexual ethics that carefully restrict permitted behavior, but also for those with more open boundaries. Starhawk, in discussing the dynamics of political action and other small resistance and countercultural groups, formulates three pessimistic laws of group dynamics: (1) Sexual involvement in small groups is bound to cause problems. (2) "In any small group in which people are involved, sooner or later they will be involved sexually. (3) Small groups tend to break up."64 Not only the values of a group can be trampled upon by unlooked-for sexual connections but-given the feelings of fear, vulnerability, pain, and anger that can accompany the birth and demise of relationships-sexual liaisons can threaten a group's ability to function cohesively as a community.
When the erotic is understood not simply as sexual feeling in the narrow sense but as our fundamental life energy, the owning of this power in our lives is even more threatening to established structures. In Audre Lorde's terms, if we allow the erotic to become a lens through which we evaluate all aspects of our existence, we can no longer "settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe."65 Having glimpsed the possibility of genuine satisfaction in work well done, we are less likely to settle for work that is alienating and meaningless. Having experienced the power and legitimacy of our own sexual desire, we are lesslikely to subscribe to a system that closely and absolutely prescribes and proscribes the channels of that desire. Having experienced our capacity for creative and joyful action, we are less likely to accept hierarchical power relationships that deny or restrict our ability to bring that creativity and joy to more and more aspects of our lives. It may be that the ability of women to live within the patriarchal family and the larger patriarchal structures that govern Jewish life depends on our suppression of the erotic, on our numbing ourselves to the sources of vision and power that fuel meaningful resistance. It may also be that the ability of Jews to live unobtrusively as a minority in a hostile culture has depended on blocking sources of personal power that might lead to resistance that feels foolish or frightening. Obviously, from a patriarchal perspective, then-or the perspective of any hierarchical [email protected] empowerment is dangerous. That is why, in Lorde's words, "We are taught to separate the erotic demand from most'vital areas of our lives other than sex," and that is why we are also taught to restrain our sexuality, so that it too fits the parameters of hierarchical control that govern the rest of our lives. From a feminist perspective, however, the power and danger of the erotic are not reasons to fear and suppress it but to nurture it as a profound personal and communal resource in the struggle for change. When "we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of," we carry with us an inner knowledge of the kind of world we are seeking to create .67 If we repress this knowledge because it also makes us sexually alive, then we repress the clarity and creative energy that is the basis of our capacity to envision and work toward a more just social order. It is in relation to this understanding of the power of the erotic that feminist insistence on seeing sexuality as part of a continuum of body/life energy is a particularly crucial corrective to rabbinic attitudes toward sexual control. As I have argued, the rabbis recognized the connection between the sexual impulse and human creativity. "The bigger the man, the bigger the yetzer," they said, and advised, "Hold him [the yetzer hara] off with the left hand and draw him nigh with the right ." 611 Yet at the same time they acknowledged the role of sexuality as an ingredient in all activity, they apparently believed one could learn the fear of a woman's little finger without damaging the larger capacity to act and to feel. To love God with all the heart meant to love God with the good and evil impulses, and yet it was imagined one could rein in the so-called evil impulse without diminishing the love of God .69 If we take sexuality seriously, however, as an expression of our embodiment that cannot be disconnected from our wider ability to interact feelingly with the world, then to learn fear and shame of our own bodies and those of other ven when these feelings are intermixed with other conflicting attitudes-is to learn suspicion of feeling as a basic way of knowing and valuing the world. We should not expect, then, to be able to block out our sexual feelings without blocking out the longing for social relations rooted in mutuality rather than hierarchy, without blocking out the anger that warns us that something is amiss in our present social arrangements, without blocking and distorting the fullness of our love for God .70
I am not arguing here for free sex or for more sexual expression, quantitatively speaking. I am arguing for living dangerously, for choosing to take responsibility for working through the possible consequences of sexual feelings rather than repressing sexual feeling and thus feeling more generally. I am arguing that our capacity to transform Judaism and the world is rooted in our capacity to be alive to the pain and anger that is caused by relationships of domination, and to the joy that awaits us on the other side. I am arguing that to be alive is to be sexually alive, and that in suppressing one sort of vitality, we suppress the other.
I mentioned above Starhawk's three laws of group dynamics that acknowledge the potential disruptiveness of sex to the creation of community. On the basis of more experience, she adds a fourth: A group that has survived one breakup between members is more likely to survive subsequent ones, and may experience a deepened sense of trust and safety because of what it has been through.71 This fourth law points to the possibility that even the disruptions caused by sexuality can be a source of power if we refuse to look away from the feelings they evoke in us, maintaining our commitment to the building of community in full cognizance of its erotic bonds. The question becomes, then: Can we affirm our sexuality as the gift it is, making it sacred not by cordoning off pieces of it, but by increasing our awareness of the ways in which it connects us to all things? Can we stop evicting our sexuality from the synagogue, hiding it behind a mechitzah or praying with our heads, and instead bring it in, offering it to God in the experience of full spiritual/physical connection?72 Dare we trust our capacity for joy-knowing it is related to our sexuality-to point the direction toward new and different ways of structuring communal life? While I am suggesting that the implications of a changed conception of sexuality go well beyond the sexual sphere, it is also the case that they shape that sphere. The ability to feel deeply in the whole of our lives affects what we want and are willing to accept in the bedroom, just as what we experience in the bedroom prepares us for mutuality or domination in the rest of our lives. A new understanding of sexuality and a transformed institutional context for sexual relationships will have significant impact on personal sexual norms. If the traditional models and categories for understanding sexuality are no longer morally acceptable from a feminist perspective, but sexuality is fundamentally about relationships with others, what values might govern sexual behavior for modern Jews? It should be clear from all I have said thus far that rejection of the traditional energy/control model of sexuality and of ownership as a category for understanding sexual exchange is by no means synonymous with a sexual ethic of "anything goes."
On the contrary, I would argue - and the current move back toward sexual repression supports this - that the obsession with sexuality in US culture for the last twenty years, the pressures toward early sexual activity for women and men, the expectation that sex could compensate for dissatisfactions in every other area of life, all reflect a reversal of traditional paradigms that does not succeed in moving beyond them. If the Jewish tradition says sex is a powerful impulse that needs to be controlled, certain strains in modern culture say it is healthier to act out our impulses. If the tradition says men may have affairs but women may not, certain strains in modern culture give women "permission" to be promiscuous on male terms. If the tradition says sex has a place in life, but it must not be allowed to take over, modern culture offers sex as a panacea for all that ails us. But when sex is understood as a particular impulse that we act out instead of control, the result is an alienated sexuality that can never rescue us from the alienation in the rest of our lives. If greater genital expression were really the solution to our social miseries, says Beverly Harrison, we would expect ours to be the happiest society around. In fact, however, since, in Audre Lorde's terms, our "erotic comings-together . . . are almost always characterized by a simultaneous looking away," sexual encounters often leave us feeling used and abused rather than renewed and connected .73 To see sexuality as an aspect of our life energy, as part of a continuum with other ways of relating to the world and other people, is to insist that the norms of mutuality, respect for difference, and joint empowerment that characterize the larger feminist vision of community apply also-indeed especially-to the area of sexuality. If, in our general communal life, we seek to be present with each other in such a way that we can touch the greater power of being in which all communities dwell, how much more should this be true in those relationships which are potentially the most open, intimate, and vulnerable in our lives? The Song of Songs, because it unifies sensuality, spirituality, and profound mutuality, may offer us the finest Jewish vision of what our sexual relationships can be, a vision that at the same time points to the transformation of our common life. Beverly Harrison places the unification of these elements in a feminist framework:
A feminist moral theology requires that we ground our new ethics of sexuality in a "spirituality of sensuality." .Sexuality is indispensable to our spirituality because it is a power of communication, most especially a power to give and receive powerful meaning-love and respect or contempt and disdain.... The moral norm for sexual communication in a feminist ethic is radical mutuality-the simultaneous acknowledgment of vulnerability to the need of the other, the recognition of one's own power to give and receive pleasure and to call forth another's power of relation and to express one's own.11
It is important to note that this "spirituality of sensuality" and mutuality specifies and intensifies for sexual ethics what are also broader norms for interaction with the world. The unification of sexuality and spirituality is a sometime gift, a measure of the possible, rather than the reality of everyday. What keeps this unification alive as a recurring possibility is the exercise of respect, responsibility, and [email protected] with the nature and depth of the particular relationship-as basic values in any sexual relationship. In terms of concrete life choices, I believe that radical mutuality is most fully possible in the context of an ongoing, committed relationship in which sexual expression is one dimension of a shared life. Traditional insistence that sex be limited to heterosexual marriage might find its echo in support for and celebration of long-term partnerships as the richest setting for negotiating and living out the meanings of mutuality, responsibility, and honesty amidst the distractions, problems, and pleasures of daily life. Such partnerships are not, however, a choice for all adults who want them, and not all adults would choose them, given the possibility. To respond within a feminist framework to the realities of different life decisions and at the same time affirm the value of sexual well-being as an aspect of our total wellbeing, we need to apply certain fundamental values to a range of sexual choices and styles. While honesty, responsibility, and respect are goods that pertain to any relationship, the concrete meaning of these values will vary considerably depending on the duration and significance of the connection involved. In one relationship, honesty may mean complete and open sharing of feelings and experiences; in another, clarity about intent for that encounter. In the context of a committed partnership, responsibility may signify lifelong presence, trust, and exchange; in a brief encounter, discussion of birth control, AIDS, and safe sex. At its fullest, respect may mean regard for another as a total person; at a minimum, absence of pressure or coercion, and a commitment, in Lorde's terms, not to "look away" as we come together. If we need to look away, then we should walk away: The same choices about whether and how to act on our feelings that pertain to any area of moral decision making are open to us in relation to our sexuality. The same norms that apply to heterosexual relationships also apply to gay and lesbian relationships .75 Indeed, I have formulated them with both in mind. There are many issues that might be considered in reevaluating traditional Jewish rejection of homosexuality. 76 But the central issue in the context of a feminist reconceptualization of sexuality is the relationship between homosexual choice and the continuity between sexual energy and embodied life energy. If we see sexuality as part of what enables us to reach out beyond ourselves, and thus as a fundamental ingredient in our spirituality, then the issue of homosexuality must be placed in a somewhat different framework from those in which it is most often discussed. The question of the morality of homosexuality becomes one not of halakhah or the right to privacy or freedom of choice, but the affirmation of the value to the individual and society of each of us being able to find that place within ourselves where sexuality and spirituality come together.77 It is possible that some or many of us for whom the connections between sexuality and deeper sources of personal and spiritual power emerge most richly, or only, with those of the same sex could choose to lead heterosexual lives for the sake of conformity to halakhah or wider social pressures and values. But this choice would then violate the deeper vision offered by the Jewish tradition that sexuality can be a medium for the experience and reunification of God .78 Historically, this vision has been expressed entirely in heterosexual terms. The reality is that for some Jews, however, it is realized only in relationships between two men or two women. Thus what calls itself the Jewish path to holiness in sexual relations is for some a cutting off of holines&-a sacrifice that comes at high cost for both the individual and community. Homosexuality, then, does not necessarily represent a rejection of Jewish values but the choice of certain Jewish values over others-where these conflict with each other, the choice of the possibility of holiness over control and law. Potential acceptance of gays and lesbians by the Jewish com munity raises the issue of children-for Judaism a primary war rant for sexual relations, and the facade that prejudice often hides behind in rejecting homosexuality as a Jewish choice. Again to place this issue in the context of a feminist paradigm for understanding sexuality, procreation is a dimension of our sexuality, just as sexuality itself is a dimension of our embodied personhood. If sexuality allows us to reach out to others, hav ing children is a way of reaching out beyond our own genera tion, affirming the biological continuity of life and the continuity of Jewish community and communal values. Insofar as Jewish communities have an important stake in the rearing of Jewish children, it is in their interest to structure communal institutions to support in concrete ways all Jews who choose to have children, including increasing numbers of lesbians and gay men .79 But, just as Judaism has always recognized that pro creation does not exhaust the meaning of sexuality, so having children does not exhaust the ways in which Jews can contrib ute to future generations.110 Recognizing the continuities between sexuality and personal empowerment strengthens the conviction of the inherent value of sexuality as an expression of our personhood and of our connection with and love for others.
The sense of integrity and self-worth that a loving sexual relationship can foster enhances the capacity to make commitments to the future, whether this takes the form of bearing and raising children or nurturing communal continuity in other ways. Lastly, but underlying all that I have said, sexuality as an aspect of our life energy and power connects us with God as the sustaining source of energy and power in the universe. In reaching out to another sexually with the total self, the boundaries between self and other can dissolve and we may feel ourselves united with larger currents of energy and sustenance. It is also the case, however, that even in ordinary, daily reachings out to others, we reach toward the God who is present in connection, in the web of relation with a wider world. On the one hand, the wholeness, the "all-embracing quality of sexual expression" that includes body, mind, and feeling, is for many people the closest we can come in this life to experiencing the embracing wholeness of God.111 On the other hand, the everyday bonds of community are also erotic bonds through which we touch the God of community, creating a place where the divine presence can rest. Feminist metaphors that name God not simply as female but sexual female-beautiful, filled with vitality, womb, birthgiver-seek to give imagistic expression to the continuity between our own sexual energy and the greater currents that nourish and renew it. Feminist images name female sexuality as powerful and legitimate and name sexuality as part of the image of God. They tell us that sexuality is not primarily a moral danger (though, of course, it can be that), but a source of energy and power that, schooled in the values of respect and mutuality, can lead us to the related, and therefore sexual, God.