Sex in Public Among Religious Zionists

Yoel Finkelman on Yakir Englander and Avi Sagi’s Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse

Yakir Englander and Avi Sagi, Guf Vemini’ut Basiah Hatzioni-Hadati Hehadash ‏(“Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse”‏), Hartman Institute and Keter Publishing House, 2013, 267 pp.

There is no way to understand the fraught relationship between religion, Zionism, and Israeli culture without understanding how Religious Zionists talk and teach about sex and bodies. A book by two scholars with international reputations in philosophy, traditional Jewish sources, and sexuality promises insight into this vexed subject. Yet I put down this volume frustrated since the arguments advanced by the authors seemed to come at the expense of a fair and thorough analysis of representative sources.

The burgeoning subfield of works on sexual politics and discourse about the body has argued compellingly that sex does not occur exclusively between the sheets in the privacy of bedrooms but is tied up with society and politics. Communities form and regulate individuals’ bodies as part of broader attempts to form and regulate the body politic. American debates about abortion and same-sex marriage serve as the most obvious evidence of this. Naturally, then, one would expect Religious Zionism’s relationship with secular Zionism on its left and the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox on its right to manifest in conversations about body and sexuality.

Body and Sexuality argues that the internet has enabled a new discourse within Religious Zionism in Israel over the last decade by creating direct public communication between rabbinic leaders and young people. If ultra-Orthodox groups rarely speak about issues relating to the sexuality in public, and if some within secular Israeli society see discussion of virtually any sexual expression as legitimate, Religious Zionism lies in the middle. Numerous websites allow youth to ask religious and personal questions of rabbis and receive quick responses. The online responsa and ideological statements of leading Religious Zionist rabbis indicate that these rabbis are adopting not only the traditional role of legal decision makers in Jewish law (halakha) but a pastoral function as well. Rabbis listen to confessions of young people and help guide their self-understanding regarding their developing bodies and sexual drives in directions that conform to religious norms.

The online forums might have created opportunities for open dialogue and mutual understanding between rabbinic leaders and laypeople. According to the authors, however, Religious Zionist rabbis have instead emerged as dogmatic and paternalistic, creating a hegemonic masculine discourse in which unnecessarily narrow legal and extra-legal norms are the only legitimate expressions of sexuality. Any drive, desire, or action that moves beyond those strictures is condemned as unnatural, deviant, illegitimate, and sinful. Women should dress modestly, marry young, and have many children quickly, whether or not they want to. Youth and adults should abstain from masturbation and homosexuality. These edicts expose the dilemmas facing religious leaders when the sexual mores of contemporary Western culture are profoundly different from those of traditional religious texts.

Englander and Sagi argue that Religious Zionism must shift sharply away from the puritanical and toward openness and permissiveness when it comes to sexual discourse. Religious Zionist rabbis should end an obsession with women’s clothing and allow couples much greater freedom in family planning. Masturbation should be treated as a normal physical and psychological impulse and should be permitted or at least tolerated in Jewish law. They claim that Jewish law can permit homosexual relations, with the exception of full anal intercourse between men. Rabbinic restrictions stem from rabbis who chose puritanical stringencies to shore up their own power, even though, the authors claim, Jewish law contains resources that could permit what Englander and Sagi themselves advocate.

At an important level, Englander and Sagi are correct. The discourse of female modesty, which regulates sleeve and skirt length to the centimeter, does indeed objectify women and girls and infantilizes men as sexually uncontrollable. Rabbis do often speak as if they know young people better than they know themselves, and educators can oversimplify complex matters when speaking to students about sexuality. Telling young people that homosexual drives can be changed or that masturbation has cosmic consequences due to its mystical influence on the upper worlds may well be harmful.

Yet in spite of the appeal of some of its conclusions, Body and Sexuality misrepresents its sources and contains several serious errors. A book that purports to focus on sexual discourse in Religious Zionism during the first decade of the 21st century quotes prooftexts from as early as 1980 and marshals evidence from non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox websites and outreach workers. It offers learned explanations for why a statement of principles about homosexuality by a group of American Orthodox rabbis does not discuss lesbianism, when the text explicitly does. (Full disclosure: I am a signator on that statement.) Body and Sexuality tries to explain why rabbis permit women to go fully dressed to beaches, when some of the texts Englander and Sagi cite actually prohibit women from doing so and others strongly discourage it. The book offers explanations for why a well known moderate rabbi, Yuval Sherlow, rejects the study of Talmud for women, preferring to follow the tradition that views Talmud as a male endeavor. But Sherlow explicitly permits and encourages female Talmud study. Unfortunately, there are too many examples like this to write off as occasional mistakes.

The book focuses on three primary topics: female dress, masturbation, and homosexuality. These are all topics in which rabbis feel compelled to convince young people not to do what some may otherwise be tempted to do. Confining themselves to areas of prohibition feeds Englander and Sagi’s narrative: male rabbis are more interested in shoring up their authority than engaging with the complexities of real people’s lives. But what Heather Hendershot has argued regarding American evangelical discourse is equally true of Religious Zionism: restrictions on pre- or extra-marital sexuality can only be understood against the background of elaborate discussions and images of ideal married sexuality. Looking only at rabbinic restrictions paints a one-sided picture that might be better contextualized by also examining discussions of dating and choosing a spouse, male- or female-authored guides to happy marriage, the discourse within pre-marital education, discussions of the connection between emotional and sexual intimacy, and analysis of the Jewish laws that regulate married sexuality — to say nothing about data gathered directly from married couples about their sex lives.

Body and Sexuality’s failure to offer a few points of comparison and contextualize the discussion within alternative visions of religious or secular sexuality sets up a false dichotomy. Either one adopts the ethic of what the authors call “modernity,” according to which virtually any kind of sexual expression is legitimate as part of an individualistically constructed self, or one is confined to the dogmas of rabbinic essentialism. Rabbis in online forums certainly attempt to imagine and police what normal or proper femininity looks like, but so do Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, and their Israeli equivalents, as well as endless online forums for nonreligious, Christian, and Muslim youth. We shouldn’t think of “modernity” as involving a free and unregulated sexual discourse, as Englander and Sagi do. It is better characterized as involving numerous competing discourses and media that regulate sexuality differently and conceptualize their authority differently. In that context, rabbinic online discourse can be understood only as an attempt to carve out a place for Jewish norms in a competitive and crowded media environment. Comparison to these other discourses would offer a richer take on the Religious Zionist discourse, and are even essential to understanding what if anything is unique about these online responsa.

To be sure, much of Religious Zionism is patriarchic and embedded in essentialist discourses that push women toward domestic roles, phenomena that are deserving of moral and intellectual critique. Women’s voices about all matters, but certainly about body and sexuality, must be heard in the Religious Zionist and other public spaces. It makes sense, therefore, to compare what these rabbis say about women to the experience of real women.

Englander and Sagi do offer a chapter entitled “Real and Imagined Women in Religious Zionist Discourse,” in which they criticize the paternalism of rabbis who imagine what women are supposed to be rather than being sensitive to the experiences of the real women they encounter. Fair enough. But the chapter discusses the experiences of these real women without presenting data systematically gathered from real women. Instead, Englander and Sagi draw inferences from some questions asked by women in online forums, and they quote a few Orthodox feminist ideological leaders. More often they simply assume that real women oppose these rabbinic voices — that real women within the community are interested in Talmudic learning, want a voice in the traditionally male realm of Jewish legal decision making, have sexual drives which they do not want to or cannot subject to religious restrictions, reject the rabbinic voices that talk about them, and challenge rabbinic hegemony. No doubt, such women exist, but so do Religious Zionist women who disagree with all these points. A chapter on the experiences of real women should help us make sense of the whole range of ways in which Religious Zionist women understand their femininity.

Englander and Sagi sometimes quote Religious Zionist women who have internalized the essentialist conversation, view Talmud study as a male endeavor, and encourage their peers to remain in domestic roles. But Body and Sexuality does not use the adjective “real” to describe them. Instead, they suffer from “false self-consciousness” because “victims can sometimes internalize the attitude that is projected upon them and then spread that attitude among others.” Sagi and Englander’s gender imagery depicts women who challenge the patriarchy as real, and those who do not as less real. Ironically, two men write a book in which they criticize male rabbis for dictating to women what they must do and feel in order to be crowned with the title “modest women.” Yet, those same men seem to describe what women must feel and do in order to be considered “real women.”

As Saba Mahmoud has argued in her influential book on women in the mosque movement in Egypt, Politics of Piety, we cannot offer a real accounting of the roles of gender in religious communities without taking seriously the experiences of women who see themselves, at least in part, as bound by conservative and patriarchal religious traditions. By discounting women who agree with these rabbis, Englander and Sagi lighten their own burden, because they do not need to construct a compelling sexual discourse that would speak to men and women who don’t already share their premises and don’t see themselves merely or primarily as subjects or servants of the patriarchy.

One could debate the ideal role of gender scholarship in bringing about social and political change, but scholarship must first describe a complex reality with as much accuracy, subtlety, and nuance as possible. Scholarship that presents its subjects as almost wholly negative and backwards cannot succeed at its academic task and weakens its political force as well. By excluding a proper discussion of the contexts where rabbis are more encouraging, where listeners agree with their rabbinic leaders, or where Religious Zionist Jews speak to one another without rabbinic intervention, Englander and Sagi present these rabbis and their female followers as puritanical, backwards, and misogynistic, when in fact the reality is more complex.

A richer discussion would include not only controversy but also non-controversy, places where the community and its rabbinic leaders see eye-to-eye or move closer to one another. Perhaps it is not possible to do all of this in one book. But scholarship demands fair-mindedness even when faced with a mindset with which one disagrees.