The Passionate Torah


I must admit; some things are remarkably Dutch about me and one of those things is my complete happiness to discuss sexual matters in a spirt of openness. (Although I suspect that having both parents in the mental health industry might have had something to do with that too - I was reared on Freud).
So, I was excited to hear about the project of a former schoolmate (and future colleague, God willing) of mine: Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She had edited Yentl's Revenge and written her own book Surprised by God before bringing to light (as we say in Hebrew) her latest (editorial) work: The Passionate Torah.

As soon as this anthology of essays discussing Judaism and sexuality came out, I rushed to the library to read it.
As suggestive as the sexy cover with the ketubah hanging over the unmade bed is, be not mistaken: 'sexy' doesn't begin to describe this intelligent and cutting-edge anthology with its stellar contributors.
'The Passionate Torah''s sex-appeal is not steeped in graphic depictions of eroticism but rather in rigorous and daring scholarship. Divided in three sections according to the Buberian worldview of relationships (I-It, I-Thou and We-Thou), the various contributors write about anything. From a fresh approach to hilchot niddah/family purity laws, winding through controversial discussions on the eroticism of Jew-Gentile relationships, to a reconstruction of a progressive form of tzniut (modesty). Other topics ranged from prostitution, the Sotah trial as rabbinic pornography, queer theology and masturbation.

Although the book is not as sexy as the cover suggests, it is tantalizing in its courage to 'go there' and discuss issues that are taboo, villified or just plainly misunderstood. Some of the stellar contributors are gay activist and philosopher Jay Michaelson, Orthodox-ordained Rabbi Haviva Ner-David and legal scholar Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

Pieces that really had me riveted were "Queering God, Torah and Israel" by Jay Michaelson as he constructed a more gender-fluid and queer theology understanding God to be the biggest dragqueen and gender-bender of them all. Not only is this liberating to GLBT people but also helpful to heterosexuals who would like to expand their experience of gender and the Divine.
Danya Ruttenberg's piece "Towards a New Tznïut" was both brave and innovative in her insistence of addressing subject matter that has traditionally been the jurisdiction of Orthodoxy (and men). With great sensitivity to women, their bodies and self-images, Ruttenberg crafts a new vision of dressing with self-love and self-respect.
In terms of theoretical discussion for practical application, Haviva Ner-David lowers the threshold on the ancient mitzvah of mikveh and Family Purity by offering alternative readings and practices helpful to non-Orthodox Jews.
Finally the book closes in a vein of Messianic hope with Arthur Waskow's "Eden for Grown Ups" in which he cites the Song of Songs as a new ethic and eros helping us to understand our relationship to our sexuality, our planet and to the Divine.

"The Passionate Torah" is a beautifully crafted and balanced piece of work that manages to combine inclusivity with an engagement of traditional Jewish texts and traditions. As a traditionally-observant but progressively-minded Jew, it was heartening to read essays on gender and queer issues side by side studies of Talmudic passages and ancient observances.
In conclusion, I have high praise for "The Passionate Torah", which should be a must-read for every (formal or informal) student of Judaism. However, a mild critique remains. As I read the various essays, I sometimes found myself a little resistant to the (righteous) indignation the writers brought to our ancient texts. Maybe I am overly apologetic (or helplessly naive) in my reading of Biblical or Talmudic texts, or maybe I take a feminist worldview for granted, but I felt that I did not really need that anger. I didn't find that anger conducive to the reading of the book and found it a little distracting: don't we all know by now that most of Jewish (and human) history is patriarchal? I am far more interested in finding a way of overcoming that and making women and men love themselves, each other and Judaism within their own (denominational) framework and terms.

Apart from this mild critique, "The Passionate Torah" is a wonderful book. I also think it would be great if it could have a companion volume in which the abstract discussions of this volume are illustrated by real life experiences and examples--this would help these discussions come to life in rich and meaningful ways.

All in all, this book is worth your time and money and skillfully balances modernity and tradition--no easy feat. Sexy? That it is not. But it's title is accurate in one regard: this book will make you passionate about Judaism. And dare I say it? That's sexy.

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