At first glance, it seemed like a great read. Straightforward writing, accessible style, six chapters each dealing with a different topic in progressive Judaism. Unfortunately, by the time I finished the introduction, I already had a list of complaints. But I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt that author Rabbi Rebecca Alpert would address my concerns in the chapters. Alas, she did not.
“Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism” purports to make use of “illuminating readings of sacred texts to unpack the most important social and political issues of our day – race, war, gender equality, social justice, sexuality, and the environment.” Instead, the chapters provide unfounded statements, without proof or citations as back up. Take this gem from the chapter on sexuality:
“Divorce was always an acceptable practice in Jewish law, so it was not difficult to accept serial monogamy as a norm. Single adults having sex is considered appropriate and even desirable for their mental health. Masturbation is assumed to be a normal part of sexual experimentation. Teens are taught about and encouraged to participate in safe sexual activities, provided they treat the partners they choose with respect. The laws of family purity are no longer practiced, and so menstrual rules of intermittent abstinence do not govern sex within marriage. Gays and lesbians also are respected, and liberal Judaism has begun to tackle issues related to bisexual and transgender Jews.”
Grandiose statements? Yes. Are we to believe that Judaism, as a homogeneous behemoth, is unilaterally in favour of serial monogamy (for the unknowing, that’s going from one monogamous relationship to the next, usually with the connotation that these relationships are all long-term, and usually with the additional connotation that there isn’t much/any break between each), masturbation, and respect of gays and lesbians? In that last statement, it read as “[In the undefined Judaism as a homogeneous whole,] gays and lesbians also are respected, [and only] liberal Judaism[, unlike the Whole of Judaism] has begun to tackle issues related to bisexual and transgender Jews.” This, of course, is not true. Not all Jewish communities or denominations are respectful of gays and lesbians; not only liberal communities, but also “traditional” and Orthodox communities have begun looking at issues related to bisexuality and transgenderism. It is not my intention to nitpick this one sentence; it’s just an example of the flaw to this book. Statements need proof – any high school or college student can tell you that.
Also from the chapter on sexuality:
“The ancient textual tradition forbids many sexual behaviors and relationships that are common and acceptable in today’s society while allowing some now forbidden. Although ancient Jews practiced polygamy and prostitution and accepted sexual encounters between unmarried men and women and oral and anal sex within marriage, they prohibited many other sexual practices that are commonly accepted today, such as masturbation, homosexual relations, sex before (and outside of) marriage, romantic love, and sexual relationships with non-Jews.”
(NB: This is copied verbatim, grammatical markings included. I did not omit any of the much needed commas or semi-colons.)Â Jews prohibited romantic love? Really? And how can ancient Jews have both practiced/allowed “sexual encounters between unmarried men and women” while also prohibiting “sex before marriage”? Unfortunately, the other chapters were just as generalizing.
It’s disappointing when liberal, progressive Jews fail to make their arguments. There is so much to work with in our texts to back up many of the progressive statements Alpert wants us to engage with. But she just doesn’t make a case. I want proof, both of the conservative “way things were” statements of yore (and today) and the progressive readings or opinions.
Available in bookstores now, “Whose Torah” is probably not a book for Jewschool readers… It may be a suitable read for those just starting to realise there’s a way to engage with progressive notions, but have not yet done any reading, engaging with ideas, or research.