Questions & Answers / A Conversation With Danya Ruttenberg

The editor of a new book of scholarly essays on Judaism's approach to just about every imaginable question related to sex.

Even before she began editing a collection of edgy essays about Judaism and sex, Danya Ruttenberg, 34, was making waves among American Jews who were paying attention. Having edited an earlier volume about feminism and Judaism, it was only a year ago that the Conservative rabbi from suburban Chicago, then newly ordained, published a memoir ("Surprised by God") describing her spiritual journey out of, and then back into, faith. She spent most of her 20s working as a journalist in San Francisco, identifying with punk culture and partying hard, while gradually moving toward a traditional observance that began when she started saying kaddish for her mother a few years earlier. Eventually, she decided to apply to rabbinical school, and attended the Conservative movement's American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

"The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism" (NYU Press, 294 pages, $19.95, paperback) is not a guidebook to "kosher sex," as Chabad emissary turned high-profile media figure Shmuley Boteach called one of his best-selling books, but rather an assemblage of 18 essays that apply cutting-edge scholarship to the way the Jewish sources deal with subjects like birth control, homosexuality, premarital sex, niddah (the laws that separate a woman from her husband while she is menstruating), masturbation and more. For one not well-versed in Jewish learning, perhaps what's most surprising is the fact that the rabbis of the sources were even talking about these and other topics - androgyny, for example, which, according to the chapter by Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla, turns up more than 100 times in the Babylonian Talmud. The essays, by scholars and religious pioneers like Judith Baskin, Haviva Ner-David, Jay Michaelson, Elliot Dorf, Malka Landau, Arthur Waskow and Ruttenberg herself, are dead serious in their attempts to understand what the founding fathers of the faith (and of course, that they were all men is key to this discussion) were thinking when they interpreted Jewish law. Many of the ideas in the book are radical, but they're all presented in a very Jewish spirit of openness. These are the essays of "wise sons" (and daughters), not evil ones.

Haaretz spoke with Ruttenberg by phone from Haifa, where she was spending the month visiting family with her Israeli-born husband and their 4-month old son.


Q: Despite the catchy title and the provocative cover art (of a slept-in queen-size bed), this is a pretty serious book. Whom do you see as the audience?

A: I think there's a significant audience. There are plenty of people who find Shmuley Boteach's simplistic approach to be insultingly dumbed-down Judaism. He'll say, "This is what the Bible says," and then give a one-sentence answer to a complicated question that cuts out 2,000 years of serious discussion and debate. Certainly, the Bible didn't say that, whatever "that" is, and it's not certain that rabbinic texts said it either. We can give ourselves and our children the opportunity to see the dynamism in Jewish thought, and to see that faith and engagement don't have to come at the expense of our intelligence. There are plenty of people who are looking for something more nuanced. There's definitely a class of educated, sophisticated lay Jews in America who want to have a serious conversation, and one that takes them seriously.

Q: Do you see a similar sort of community existing in Israel? Is there a place here for a serious conversation? A: I lived in Israel for two and a half years, between 2004 and 2007, and my sense is that this kind of thing is missing from the popular discourse. The pervading story is that either one is "religious," according to a very specific kind of Judaism, or "secular," and yet there are all sorts of people on both sides of this false divide, people who are neither Haredi or angry secular folk, who would love for somebody to take their questions seriously, to engage with the sources and show that there are different ways to read a particular text.

The Talmud allows room for multiple readings, and it leaves many questions open, without concluding the halakha on the page. I have often seen Israelis of various backgrounds pleasantly surprised to find that there are people with a more modern, pluralistic viewpoint about our texts.

Q: I read a reference somewhere to a comment you made to the effect that "feminism is the biggest threat to Judaism today." Explain, please.

>A: I mean that feminism threatens very narrow readings of texts that are really more open. When the sources say that women are "exempt" from time-bound mitzvot [commandments], does "exempt" mean forbidden? Or does it mean "permitted," that there's room for women to take on these mitzvot as well? Feminism challenges particular interpretations of our sources, and I think that's not only healthy, but that it's absolutely vital for our faith to wrestle with the moral questions of the day - of which the status of women, as well as of GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] folk, are absolutely part and parcel. What is religion that comes at the expense of human rights and dignity, of all of our ability to flourish and serve God? When moral issues were at stake, the rabbis were more than willing to embrace radical readings of the sources. Maimonides read Aristotle; many of our greatest minds engaged with the wider culture and its questions. This is how Judaism has managed to grow and remain vital all these centuries.

Q: If one doesn't accept the commandment framework as binding, is it possible to be sure that you can pass on what you believe to your children? In becoming a Conservative rabbi, did you accept the yoke of the commandments?

A: Absolutely. I have a very strong sense of obligation. I keep Shabbat and kashrut in very much the traditional fashion. The fact that I think that there's room to rethink our gender roles in Judaism hardly means that I'm interested in reworking the entire religion! There have always been some innovations in Jewish thinking. Look at the evolving understanding of the Torah's phrase "an eye for an eye." The rabbis asked, can we reframe this statement to look at it in terms of damages owed, rather than retaliatory punishment, by which we're actually obligated to gouge out the other guy's eye? Do we really have to stone our rebellious son, or can we reframe the commandment so that we don't have to kill every teenager who talks back? That's how I understand the gist of the Conservative movement and of the role of feminism in Judaism - as an attempt to bring our tradition and today's questions together. I don't see a rereading of the positive time-bound commandments as an invitation to pick and choose, but rather as grappling with tradition on its terms.

Q: Your book reminded me of the joke about the woman who asked her rabbi if she and her husband could experiment sexually. Sex with her on top was fine, he told her. Oral sex? No problem. But when she asked if they could have sex standing up, he said that was forbidden, because it could lead to mixed dancing.

A: One of my favorite ways to shock people, if, say, I'm giving them my one-hour talk on Judaism and sex, is to describe the Talmud's Tractate Nedarim 20b, in which a woman comes to a rabbi and asks about anal sex, and whether it's okay. He says that sex is like meat - you can enjoy it salted, or roasted or seethed - however you want. The implication is that what's being asked is permitted. But at the same time, he doesn't say that you can have a cheeseburger - not anything goes. There are limits, to be sure. How to define what those limits are is one of the questions inherent in "The Passionate Torah."

Q: Now that you mention it, why wasn't anal sex treated in the book? The subject does seem to have occupied the rabbis.

A: I really wanted a chapter on anal sex, in part at least because the sources sanctioned it in a heterosexual relationship. "Turning the tables" is permitted in the Shulhan Arukh [code of Jewish law] and elsewhere. But for two men to do it is generally understood to be forbidden in the Torah itself. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a contributor to write about that seriously.

Q: What other topics were you not able to cover that you wanted to?

A: Well, pornography is another one of those really juicy topics that I wasn't able to find a contributor for or didn't have room for. It's a topic that is hotly debated in feminism. Many see it as a horrible objectification of women, but others embrace women's making and watching of pornography. So it would have made for an interesting topic. But also, the subject of sex toys. And there's nothing on kinky sex (BDSM), and nothing on a lot of the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 19, like incest - well, actually, what are you going to say about that besides "don't do it"? I almost had a chapter on sex jokes in the Talmud, but sadly, it fell through. That would have been fabulous.

Q: Tell me about the books you're now working on with one of your teachers from rabbinical school, Elliot Dorff.

A: We're editing three volumes on Jewish ethics, due out next year, being produced by the Jewish Publication Society for a series called "Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices." We're doing volumes on sex, war and social justice, and bringing in a range of different perspectives. We embrace a spirit of debate, and deliberately looked for people who would disagree, to get across the idea that there may even be three or four "right" Jewish views on certain issues.

Q: How else do you spend your time, professionally?

A: I was ordained in 2008. This past year I have been working freelance, writing and teaching, as well as having a baby. Starting in August, I will take up a position as senior Jewish educator at Tufts University Hillel. It's a new position that is starting up at a handful of different universities in the U.S. The idea is to give Jewish access to people who might not otherwise have it, who are not necessarily already coming to Hillel. I'll be working in a somewhat experimental mode, trying to find ways to connect people without a preconceived notion of what their Jewish engagement might look like, but rather something very open.