Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Of Pearls and Fish: An Analysis of Jewish Legal Texts on Sexuality and Their Significance for Contemporary American Jewish Movements

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Of Pearls and Fish: An Analysis of Jewish Legal Texts on Sexuality and Their Significance for Contemporary American Jewish Movements

Article excerpt

Analyzing halakhic texts provides insights into the past and present regulation of sexuality under Halakhah. (1) This Article argues that halakhic conceptions of sexuality in Jewish texts, which promote the expression of heterosexual desire through marriage, form the basis of modern strategic readings of sacred texts that disenfranchise women in the process of divorce and reject homosexuality as a permissible sexual identity. Located in the family, (2) where struggles between authority and the expression of sexuality commonly occur, these two issues illustrate how changes in American social norms may, or should, affect the interpretations and implementation of Halakhah by the rabbinical authorities of the modern Jewish movements.

Because Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism each approach Jewish texts and traditions differently, however, their decisions are tempered by their varying theological assumptions about the divine authority of sacred works. Nonetheless, each movement's approach to sexuality has practical effects on the lives of American Jews who follow Halakhah. Consequently, Part II analyzes halakhic texts from past and present rabbinical perspectives that exemplify the laws regulating sexuality, focusing on the rabbinic preference for heterosexual desire as properly expressed in marriage. This Article examines the underlying normative assumptions of differences between men's and women's sexuality. In this context, the discussion of heterosexuality also addresses the modern Jewish attitudes regarding the purpose of marriage between a man and a woman from traditional and liberal perspectives.

Parts III and IV explore the influence of halakhic conceptions of sexuality on divorce and homosexuality. These issues have been chosen because they are matters regulated by Jewish legal institutions. Part III addresses the legal intricacies of divorce in the Jewish tradition and the difficult situation of the agunah, a woman whose husband has refused to grant her a get, or a Jewish writ of divorce. The issue of divorce is located in a larger textual discussion of the position of women in marriage. The section explains how, in the rabbinic materials, the assumptions underlying the halakhic regulation of a woman's sexuality conflict with contemporary social norms. This Article also explores the respective American Jewish movements' responses to this issue. Part IV begins with an analysis of halakhic verses that prohibit homosexual sex in contrast to those texts that suggest the possibility for alternative genders and sexualities. It also addresses the halakhic and social implications of these texts for modern Jewish movements, examining the official reactions of traditional and liberal Jewish movements to the increased visibility and participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews ("GLBT Jews") in their respective Jewish communities. It also incorporates GLBT Jews' articulations of their relationships to, and with, the larger Jewish communities in the search for positive Jewish identity.

Part V concludes with an analysis of whether the modern American Jewish movements are consistent in their manner of interpreting and implementing halakhic texts in their respective developments of Halakhah. While the modern Jewish movements are actively responding to the difficulties posed by topics such as divorce and homosexuality, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism approach each controversial matter strategically, in accordance with their respective theological beliefs. It is important, then, to recognize both how these contemporary authorities apply halakhic texts, as well as how their decisions considerably affect the many people today who value Jewish legal traditions. This Article argues that the Reconstructionist approach to halakhic texts is the most consistent in terms of its internal logical reasoning, even though it departs furthest from the traditional rabbinical constructions of sexuality. …

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