Judith Plaskow

Lecture 1: Contextualising sex

The first lecture tries to sketch out the complexity and multi-layeredness of the subject of sexuality. Sexuality is integral to our most private lives and feelings about ourselves, our relationships with our families of origin, and the intimacy constellations we create in adulthood. But it is also profoundly social, connecting us to numerous institutions that shape and regulate sexual attitudes and behaviors: the family, schools, media, law, the political arena, and, of course, religion. Jewish attitudes and norms concerning sexuality need to be rethought, both because of the great abyss between traditional values and most Jews’ sexual behavior, and because the power relations that underlie these values are seriously problematic. But focusing on sexuality in the Jewish context easily becomes part of a broader cultural fixation on sex that exaggerates its importance and distracts attention from other important issues. This first lecture, which is divided into two parts, attempts to capture some of the many tensions and issues surrounding sexuality.

Part one of the lecture argues for the importance of rethinking Jewish sexual ethics, and proposes a starting point for such a project. I argue that the dilemmas of individual Jews who find themselves at odds with tradition on questions of sexual behavior can best be addressed through the lenses of social movements that have generated internal challenges to dominant Jewish sexual values. Feminists; abuse survivors; and lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men have raised broad questions about how sexuality is constructed within Judaism, and how sexual norms and family structures intersect with and constitute power relationships within the Jewish community and the larger society. They raise hard questions about sexuality, and, in doing so, provide occasions for discussing little-examined questions for a far larger constituency. The lecture briefly lays out some of the significant issues raised by each of these groups, pointing to the ways in which they have both criticized Jewish tradition and offered constructive reworkings of Jewish laws, rituals, and values. In opening up communal conversations about sexuality, these groups redefine what it means to think about sexual values in a Jewish context and in a Jewish way. Judaism and Jewish community become spaces not simply for reiterating traditional norms, but for examining and transforming Jewish texts, practices, and historical traditions. Seen in this context, the Jewishness of Jewish sexual ethics lies not so much in the affirmation of particular values, as in the engagement—in the context of Jewish community—with multiple strands of a complex and evolving tradition.

The second part of the lecture argues for the need to "contextualize sex," to place the project of rethinking Jewish sexual ethics in a wider social and religious framework. Given the excessive preoccupation with sexuality in contemporary religious discourses, and the extraordinary focus on sex in the broader culture, it is important to insist that, while sexuality is a significant issue, it is only part of an ethical and theological analysis, part of life, part of embodied experience, and one axis along which power is exercised and contested. On the personal level, it must be recognized that, despite the constant barrage of sexual images coming from the media, sex plays very different roles in the lives of different individuals, and at different moments and stages over an individual lifetime. On the ethical and theological levels, sexual issues must be considered, not in isolation, but with reference to broader religious principles concerning forming ethical relationships, creating community, and ensuring social justice. And on the social and political levels, it is important to analyze the ways in which issues of family and sexuality easily serve as condensed codes for both particular political agendas and for discussing a host of social ills far less easy to understand and control than private sexual behavior. A Jewish feminist sexual ethic must try to address sexuality on all these different levels: it must attend to the large numbers of Jews abandoned by a traditional sexual ethic; it must place particular sexual norms in an ethical and theological context; and it must insist that the power relations that shape our individual and sexual lives be examined and transformed.


Lecture 2: Thinking about thinking about sex

The second lecture deals with issues of authority and method in sexual ethics. All efforts to reconstruct Jewish norms, whatever the topic under consideration, necessarily raise questions of authority. What allows and authorizes any particular reconstruction? To what extent are we bound by the values of the past? What weight do we give to our own contemporary experiences? How do we know what values are too fundamental to be surrendered? A lot of recent scholarship on Jewish attitudes towards sexuality intensifies these issues of authority by highlighting the tensions and disagreements about sexuality within Jewish tradition. Because virtually any stance toward sex can be justified on the basis of some Jewish source, creating a sexual ethic must be thought of more as an imaginative project than a matter of identifying the essential and authentic voice of "the" Jewish tradition.

I develop my own approach to this project in relation to the reports on sexuality issued over the last several years by all the nonOrthodox denominations in the United States and Britain. I argue that, while the three broad statements issued by the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements in the United States all do an excellent job of locating sexual ethics in the context of an ethics of relationship, they sidestep questions of authority in a number of troubling ways. First, each statement begins with a list of core Jewish values that should be present in all human interactions, but none discusses how it arrives at its list--how it chooses precisely the values it does and no others. Second, the Reform and Conservative statements are inconsistent in the extent to which they appeal to sources of authority other than general values. And third, none of the documents grapples with what I call negative values--values that are either uncomfortable or antithetical to contemporary sensibilities. Because values such as sexism, compulsory heterosexuality, and the legitimization of wife-beating are passed over in silence, it becomes impossible to examine the ways in which they might contribute to abuses in sexual relationships that all the documents condemn as unjust.

I argue that an adequate methodology for sexual ethics requires a more radical critique and daring reconstruction of traditional values than are undertaken by any of these documents. Approaching Jewish sexual ethics from the perspective of feminists; survivors of abuse; and lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men entails rethinking sexuality along both critical and constructive lines. A sexual ethic that strives to be in solidarity with those who have suffered from traditional values would need to analyze traditional norms in ways that attend to the connections between various forms of sexual control and subordination, and would also need to propose a new set of values both in continuity and discontinuity with tradition. Criticism is the necessary starting point of such an approach, because the inequalities of power embedded in Jewish sexual norms continue to shape contemporary sexual relations. Unless these inequalities are directly analyzed and addressed, they are left to form consciousness and affect hearts and minds. The lecture undertakes such analysis in relation to the issues of wife-beating and the privileging of marriage as the only legitimate Jewish life path.

While criticism, insofar as it makes clear what needs to be changed, is a necessary precondition for the emergence of new values, ultimately the purpose of critique is to open up space for a new sexual ethic. Seeking full participation in the Jewish community on terms that they help to define, Jewish feminists; abuse survivors; and lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are both living out new values within Jewish contexts and claiming the resistive elements within the tradition in order to shape it in new directions. In revisiting the issues of wife-beating and compulsory heterosexuality from the perspective of these marginal groups, one can mine the contradictions within the tradition, appealing to both certain of its fundamental values and its dissident and resistive strands, in order to shape the tradition in new directions. In the end, I propose a method with three interconnected dimensions: examining and criticizing the unequal power relations embedded in texts and institutions pertaining to sexuality; imagining and committing oneself to alternative values emerging out of groups of resisters; and mining the dissident and self-critical resources available in Jewish tradition.


Lecture 3: The sexuality of God

Jewish understandings of human sexuality are embedded in theological frameworks, so that religious injunctions concerning sexuality must be understood in theological, and not just ethical, context. The ultimate warrants for Jewish teachings on sexuality are theological, not simply in the sense that these teachings are regarded as having been given by God, but also in the sense that they are reinforced, complicated, disrupted, and problematized by images of divine sexuality, which are crucial components of Jewish understandings of sex. The third lecture deals with the sexuality of God, using the methodology developed in lecture two. I begin by examining critically images of the sexuality of God offered by three strands within Jewish tradition: mainstream male monotheism, the prophetic and rabbinic use of marriage as a metaphor for covenant, and kabbalistic (mystical) images of divine sexuality. Then, after mining the tensions that emerge within and between various religious symbols in order to subvert those uses of symbols that support domination, I gather up the elements of critique and reappropriation of traditional sources, using the concept of transgender to creatively reimagine divine sexuality.

From the perspectives of feminists; survivors of abuse; and lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men, Jewish symbols of the sexuality of God often seem to be "more of the same" male, heterosexual power, at once a projection of and model for human sexual values. First, mainstream male monotheism excludes women and women’s sexuality from the divine image. Insofar as God is imagined as male, women as persons and women’s sexuality in particular have no part in the image of God, and insofar as Israelite men are symbolically feminized as they enter into intimate partnership with the male deity, women are rendered entirely superfluous. Second, the prophetic marriage metaphor objectifies and demonizes women’s sexuality and reflects and serves to justify male domination and violence. In drawing an analogy between female whoredom and adultery and Israel’s faithlessness in worshipping other gods, the prophets depict women’s sexuality as deviant and dangerous, and the marriage between God and Israel as violent and abusive. Third, both these and kabbalistic images are insistently heterosexual in a way that is interstructured with the exclusion, abuse, and control of women’s sexuality. Various symbolic tensions around the divine sex, the marriage metaphor in its appealing and disturbing aspects, and kabbalistic speculations on the union of masculine and feminine elements within the Godhead, all assume the inevitability of heterosexuality, and at the same time struggle to preserve it, making whatever symbolic adjustments are necessary to avoid the specter either of spiritual homoeroticism or benign and independent female power.

The fact that these images of the sexuality of God mirror domination and subordination on the social level is only one layer of their import, however. Ironically, the very insistent heterosexuality of images of the divine sexuality, and the very virulence of the misogyny of the prophetic marriage metaphor, generate instabilities that subvert this layer of their meaning, pointing to other ways of imagining God’s sexuality. As the symbolic resonances of all these images shift and change to reflect and support male power, the very shifts give rise to meanings that escape the framework they are intended to serve. Because God’s sex is always veiled, for example, it is finally unknown and open to many interpretations. Jewish men are feminized in order that they can become partners and lovers of God, but this feminization is a source of significant ambiguity, calling attention to the homoeroticism that always lurks behind it. The violence of the marriage metaphor as the prophets elaborate it requires a theology of protest that calls God to justice within the framework of the covenant. But it also creates a need for images of mutuality, a need met by the Song of Songs, which presents a startling countervoice to the prophetic degradation of Israel. In offering a vision of mutual desire and delight that is unique in Jewish literature, the Song of Songs, understood allegorically, also provides an image of the divine/human relationship that is radically different from and subversive of that found anywhere else in the tradition.

Many complex and contradictory images of the divine sexuality thus emerge from these reflections that might be taken in a number of directions. I propose the notion of "transgender" as the most adequate term for capturing the ambiguities and shifts in the gender of Israel and God, shifts that, in the dominant discourse, serve to maintain a normative heterosexuality on both the metaphoric and social levels. The concept of transgender, which aims to reinterpret these shifts from the perspective of those on the margins, builds on the feminist project of recovering the female aspect of God, but highlights the fluidity of the divine gender and the ultimately problematic nature of gender categories. To talk about God as transgendered is to focus on the ways in which moving beyond male gender language for God challenges and transforms the bi-polar categories of gender. What comes to the fore is not God’s androgyny, which keeps masculinity and femininity in place by defining God as a combination of the two, but the flexibility of and shifts in God’s gender. It is not just God for whom gender categories are inadequate, moreover; the gender of Israel also shifts in rabbinic and kabbalistic sources. Thinking about God and Israel as both transgendered opens up enormous symbolic space for reconceptualizing the sexuality of God and the relationship between God and Israel.


Lecture 4: Sexual ethics in context

The last lecture begins to set out a constructive sexual ethic that incorporates the insights of those who have been marginalized by traditional norms, and that rests on and supports a vision of just social relationships. I argue that it is necessary to think about sexual ethics on three interconnected levels: in terms of minimal norms, in terms of future possibilities, and in terms of the social preconditions of sexual holiness.

The project of creating moral norms needs to begin with the realities of sexual decision-making in a world that is rife with inequalities. The existence of inequality does not mean that sexual relationships cannot be pleasurable and exciting, loving and fulfilling. But it does mean that there are structural impediments to love and pleasure that make sex satisfying for fewer people than it should be. Given this reality, the first goals of a sexual ethic should be to protect those with less power, and to level inequality in sexual relationships insofar as is possible. The notions of protecting the powerless, along with loving the stranger and caring for the socially marginal, are powerful imperatives in the Jewish tradition, but they have rarely been applied in the realm of sexuality. A sexual ethic that begins with those on the margins, however, must make concern for the powerless a foundational value. To this end, I propose the related norms of authentic consent and bodyright as the minimal requirements for ethical sex, and then suggest the concept of responsibility as the central guideline for sexual ethics. In proposing certain minimal norms for ethical sexual relationships, I align myself with those inside and outside the Jewish community who place an ethic of relationships above a morality of acts, and, in doing so, try to articulate values that can be applied across a wide range of life choices.

It is one thing to propose minimal norms for sexual relationships, however, and another to lay out a vision of sexual possibility that attempts to suggest some ways in which sexuality might enhance self-worth and contribute to the creation of community. A number of contemporary Jewish treatments of sexuality contrast ethics with holiness in order to distinguish between behaviors that meet basic guidelines for human decency, and therefore cannot be considered bad or immoral, and those that conform to the higher measure of holiness demanded by Jewish tradition. I suggest that the idea of holy sexuality directs us beyond our present social arrangements, to a sexuality grounded in a just social order. Thinking about holiness encourages dreaming. What would it mean to imagine sexual relationships not bound by the inequalities of power so central to Western culture? What if holiness were not equated with particular institutional structures or familial constellations, but thought of in Buberian terms as the genuine meeting of persons in which the Eternal You is present? What would such relationships look like and what would enable them to flourish? Since the Song of Songs provides many images of holy sexuality—of sexuality freed from the inequalities so evident everywhere else in the Tanakh—I turn to it to concretize fragments of dreams about a sexuality that is sensual, passionate, loving, mutual, and generative, and that emerges out of and supports the capacity of individuals to act as self-directed persons.

But setting out minimal norms for ethical sexual activity and dreaming of sexual possibilities in a world that eschews domination are still not the whole of sexual ethics. To limit discussion of sexual values to the sphere of interpersonal relationships is to neglect the wider social context of sexual decision-making. A sexual ethic must be a political ethic, and not simply an interpersonal one. Sexual ethics must attend to the ways in which personal choices are always located in larger social contexts that shape individuals’ sense of what seems thinkable and possible, fitting and right. Insofar as bodily integrity, the ability to make self-determining choices, and emotional and sexual intimacy are positive moral and social goods, communities must be structured in such a way as to support and sustain these goods, and to enter into active solidarity with those who have been prevented from achieving them, partly by traditional sexual norms themselves. In order to help create the preconditions for just and loving relationships, the Jewish community must address the existence of sexual abuse in its midst and undertake to decenter marriage as the only legitimate norm for adult sexual life. At the same time, since what goes on in the Jewish community cannot be separated from the broader social context of which the community is part, creating the preconditions for holy sexuality is ultimately linked to a broad justice agenda.