Sex and Religious Zionism in the 21st Century

An insightful new book suggests that when it comes to the issues of bodily pleasure and sexuality, the religious Zionist public is shifting from traditional halkhic discourse to a more modern discussion of inner repair and spiritual perfection.

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
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Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

“Guf Vemini’ut Basiah Hatzioni-Hadati Hehadash” ‏(“The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse”‏), by Yakir Englander and Avi Sagi, Hartman Institute and Keter Publishing House, 267 pages, NIS 94

In the waning years of the 19th century, Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing wrote in his book “Textbook of Insanity,” regarding sexual anomalies: “These anomalies are very important elementary disturbances, since upon the nature of sexual sensibility the mental individuality in greater part depends; especially does it affect ethic, aesthetic, and social feeling and action” ‏(translation by Charles Gilbert Chaddock, 1905‏).

Krafft-Ebing thus expressed a new understanding: Our sexual desires were no longer solely natural expressions of the body, certainly not wicked agents of the devil. Instead, they became basic pillars of our personality − that is, of modern human individuality.

In discussing “The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse,” it must be remembered, therefore, that sexuality itself is a modern category that became popular in 19th-century Europe, when it became a definition not only for practices but also for personality. Accordingly, the term “sexuality” was now given various prefixes − like “hetero,” “homo,” “auto.” Nowadays, we can also look at the broad scope of the literature intended to help bring about improvement in our sexual lives, a literature that started to become widely available in the 1960s. If our sexual pleasure is such a central part of ourselves, improving it, as a central part of our self-improvement project, seems also to be obvious.

The new book by Prof. Avi Sagi and Dr. Yakir Englander is very aware of this historical background, and it tries to focus upon and characterize the current historical moment as it is experienced by the religious Zionist public. It is successful in doing so on a number of levels, and it provides important reference points for any future discussion on the subject. As a field of research, Sagi and Englander have focused on the discourse in terms of halakha ‏(traditional religious law‏), especially as it appears on responsa sites on the Internet. This is a public discourse by its very nature, as its rulings are presumed to reach and to shape the conduct of everyone who observes this law. Thus, those rulings are also intended to create a homogeneous “public” of a God-fearing community.

The authors have chosen to examine various models in which it is possible to find direct conflicts between the modern and the halakhic perceptions of sexuality. They have specifically examined the issues of male and female masturbation and homosexuality.

The analysis they propose vis-a-vis the discourse in halakha concerning the prohibition of male masturbation is fascinating. The authors bring evidence that the responsa are no longer truly halakhic in nature and have instead taken on the
character of “pastoral counseling” − i.e., of spiritual guidance intended to shepherd individuals from the flock of the devout toward inner repair and spiritual perfection. This is an entirely different genre of dialogue, as the rabbi here comes across not as an arbiter of halakha, but rather as a guide to the inner psyche, who offers an ethical path, the purpose of which is redemption of the soul.

While in premodern times it was possible to find within halakha a formal discourse that ruled in accordance with an interpretation of tradition, the authors find that today the invocation of halakha is marginal, and that most discussion of the question of male masturbation is in the realm of values and ethics. Thus, for example, rabbis endeavor to console the questioner who has failed and thus sinned, to strengthen his spirit, to imbue him with motivation to overcome his urges, and to present him with the choice between courageous resistance to Western trends and loyalty to what they perceive as “the tradition of ancestral Israel,” which commands abstinence from self-pleasure.

The rabbi presents himself as a meta-figure with respect to halakha, speaking in the name of a Jewish metaphysic that is not formulated with traditional tools, but rather is assumed to be in “the spirit of halakha.” He is no longer an arbiter of the legal canon, but rather a spiritual guide who knows the true path to redemption of the soul. The sinner’s confession, which is central to this discourse, is answered by rabbinical counsel, and the point to which the discourse relates shifts from the forbidden deed ‏(masturbation‏), to forbidden passion and forbidden emotion ‏(sexual craving, despair‏).

In so doing, the rabbis of religious Zionism, Sagi and Englander stress, are accepting the assumptions behind modern individuality. They espouse spiritual guidance that is aimed first and foremost not at maintaining divine law, but rather at redemption of the self, rectification and achievement of personal perfection and satisfaction.

Accordingly, modern sexuality discourse also has become for the rabbis a theological starting point, and sexuality is understood as a constitutive element of an individual’s identity. Thus, prohibitions rooted in halakhic tradition exceed their formal status and become tremendous obstacles along the individual’s path to attaining an ideal ‏(“Torah-observant” or “believing”‏) self-identity.

The modern perception of sexuality is also reflected in the stance toward homosexuality. Since the sexual act has essentially become a sexual identity, the arbiters of halakha face three possibilities: a‏) to grapple with established legal tradition and permit whatever is possible within that framework ‏(in the case of female homosexuality, this is much easier‏); b‏) to change the Jewish attitude toward sexual abstinence and enjoin persons with these tendencies to abstain from sex all their lives; and c‏) to argue that homosexual tendencies are not natural and can be rectified and changed.

In accordance with the pastoral discourse that has replaced halakhic discourse, the authors offer a wealth of rulings that instruct men and women with same-sex tendencies who are seeking advice to change or to abstain from sexual relations. Here, too, the discussion moves from halakha to meta-halakha, in the direction of fomenting an ethical discourse that shapes a new, pure Jew.

Male hegemony

The perception of sexuality as raw material used in creating the religious self is also manifested in rabbinical discussion surrounding the issue of female masturbation. In contrast to strictures relating to men in this regard, there is no express halakhic prohibition on female masturbation. As one might have expected, Sagi and Englander find pastoral discourse on this subject, too. The discourse here directs women toward a certain type of sexuality that, from the rabbis’ perspective, even if not according to halakha, is kosher and positive.

Following this, they go on to examine the aggregate of the perceptions of female sexuality in the new religious Zionist discourse. Their main insight is that there is no real connection between the image of the women about whom the rabbinical arbiters speak and women as living beings who walk the earth.

The book presents various rulings that indicate that, in the eyes of the arbiters, a woman has a fixed and simple essence: She is an introverted, passive, delicate and sensitive creature, whose sexual passion is dependent on emotion and love. Thus, for example, there is a perception that women are not sexually aroused upon seeing an exposed male body, and therefore men are not required to cover themselves for the sake of “modesty.” Even when the women who send in questions to the Internet sites inform the rabbis that they, too, have urges and desires − the rabbis silence them and insist that they do not, that there is in actual fact no such thing. As Sagi and Englander write, the arbiters talk about women, not with them.

This whole issue leads the authors to emphasize the male hegemony in the realm of rabbinical rulings. Ostensibly, this is obvious and self-evident, but this book stresses the alienation that derives from the fact that only men deliberate about halakha. This creates a contradiction between the real woman and the ideal woman; the real woman is negated or else required to undergo a transformative journey to become the imaginary ideal. Once again, pastoral discourse constitutes an arena in which the woman who observes halakha must grapple with her image and aspirations. ‏(In this context, mention should be made of the religious Zionist organization Beit Hillel, which promotes women, though at present tentatively and in a minor way, as rabbinical arbiters. Reading this book could contribute to an understanding of the challenges involved in this move, as well as of the huge promise inherent in it.‏)

The new sexuality discourse reveals the way religious Zionism is dealing with modernity at the present time. The authors take care to emphasize and exemplify the fact that there is nothing deterministic in the way this discussion has crystallized: A very different discourse could quite easily have developed, one that uses formal halakhic strictures to make it easier for the religiously observant to deal with modern sexuality.

“The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse” is full of insight, but the editing is inadequate and it is possible that readers will get lost in a maze of quotations and footnotes. It is evident that the work benefits greatly from the voice of Avi Sagi, one of the most profound thinkers in contemporary Judaism. The reader will find many diagnoses that are fully developed in Sagi’s other books, while here they illuminate the research details and emphasize their importance.

The authors conclude with an expression of concern about the future. While religious Zionism developed primarily with an inclusive view toward modernity, it has not succeeded in developing a halakhic discourse that has responded to its challenges. Instead, part of religious Zionism has been retreating and shutting itself up behind ideals that are divorced from reality: “In this way a historic movement, which had perceived itself as a mediating agent within Israeli society ... has developed antibodies to this mediation. The sting of this process is manifested first and foremost against itself; against the real body and sexuality, and against real women and men.” We can only hope that the other parts of religious Zionism will have the sense to embrace reality, and never let go.

Dr. Tomer Persico is a researcher in the comparative religion program at Tel Aviv University and a lecturer at the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv's gay pride parade. The sexual act has essentially become a sexual identity.Credit: David Bachar



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