“Ordered in Your Limbs:” Halacha and Queer Women’s Sexuality

This piece was also published on Approaching.

Rav Jeff Fox’s major contribution to the world of Torah in this form of his teshuva “Nashim Mesolelot” has been, as yet, underdiscussed. I am very glad that R. Fox took on the challenge of writing psak on queer women’s sexuality. This is vital work, and R. Fox’s teshuva is a work of both skilled analysis of text and a thoughtful and novel approach coming from a straight Orthodox posek. The very act of writing publicly about queer sex without a default posture of condemnation is one that can move the halachically-observant community away from stigma and toward embrace of queerness.

I write in the spirit of striving להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה, for R. Fox’s work to be a step in what is, God willing, the development of different kinds of Torah that speak to varied needs. In responding to R. Fox’s teshuva, I hope to increase Torah for, from, and about queer Jews – and all Jews. 

I spent many days sitting with R. Fox’s teshuva. I felt simultaneously grateful it existed, impressed by its thoroughness, and yet unsettled. I know R. Fox both by reputation and personally to be a thoughtful and caring posek, and I certainly was not experiencing malice from the teshuva. And yet, I found it difficult to read.

I had many conversations with other frum queer people who were sharing this experience. What eventually coalesced through this collective wisdom is that even as the teshuva is a work of halacha about queer women, it is a straight teshuva. It is hard to describe what it means for Torah to feel straight even as it is about queer people. But everything is in Torah, even the experience of learning Torah that is alienating rather than affirming. 

In Masechet Eruvin (53b-54a), we find a tale about the sage Beruriah: 

ברוריה אשכחתיה לההוא תלמידא דהוה קא גריס בלחישה. בטשה ביה, אמרה ליה: לא כך כתוב ״ערוכה בכל ושמורה״, אם ערוכה ברמ״ח אברים שלך — משתמרת, ואם לאו — אינה משתמרת.

Beruriah came across a certain student who was whispering his studies rather than raising his voice. She kicked him and said to him: Isn’t it written as follows: “Ordered in all things and secure” (ii Samuel 23:5), which indicates that if the Torah is ordered in your 248 limbs, i.e., if you exert your entire body in studying it, it will be secure, and if not, it will not be secure.

Beruriah chastises this unnamed student for learning in a whisper rather than reciting the passage he was learning aloud. But her teaching is about more than simply the volume at which a person ought to learn. She is saying that only Torah that is integrated with our full selves can endure. If we separate ourselves, our bodies and experiences, from our engagement with Torah, this Torah will not be “mishtameret,” secure. 

Beruriah’s teaching gives voice to my experience learning R. Fox’s teshuva. It did not feel integrated; it sat uncomfortably outside of me rather than being part of an embodied and experienced relationship with Torah. This is an example of what my friend and teacher Laynie Soloman calls “dysphoric halakha.” Soloman defines dysphoric halakha as “a halakha that defines trans-ness by the ways in which we aren’t right, we don’t work, and we are out of place. Dysphoric halakha seeks to get us to ‘fit.’” Soloman’s work is on transness, and it resonates, too, with this experience of engaging with halacha that regulates queerness, even as this halacha is on its face “permissive.” It is not a work of halacha that engages with the fullness of queer experience. 

Rachael Fried, in the only published response by a queer woman, articulates this same idea when she says that “Rashi says that the behavior of nashim mesolelot ‘is not the way of the world.’ I am curious on what that comment is based on because it seems possible that it is rooted in a feeling that Rashi had. It is interesting to me that so many men are willing to write so confidently about an issue that does not involve them at all. It is unlikely that these individuals would know what the “way of the world” is, practically speaking, for a population and a private action that does not include them.” (96.)

Fried here speaks about Rashi as an example of a person speaking about Torah without direct knowledge and integrated experience. But my teacher, Rav Aviva Richman, applies this critique to R. Fox’s work more directly in her own response: 

The framing here assumes that female-female sexuality is a problem and then focuses on how much of a problem it is. I wonder how the process of halakhic research and writing can itself place the questioner’s subjectivity front and center, and contribute to their sense of being within the halakhic conversation rather than being discussed as a marginal case and a “problem.” (124-125.)

This insight from Rav Richman encapsulates the experience I had of learning this Torah from R. Fox. I am glad this Torah exists, but it is not Torah about me. It is Torah that approaches queerness from the outside, rather than Torah informed by a depth of personal experiences. This is a teshuva about queer sex, but it is a straight teshuva about queer sex. 

A common thread in queer conversations about this teshuva was an objection to an approach of seeking heter, permission, for queer sex acts, as part of a posture that treats queer people and queer sex as a problem to be solved. I do not share this objection fully. As someone who is committed to halacha – and believes that halacha is committed to me – I do think that it is useful to demonstrate that sex acts that have been assumed to be assur within the halachic framework are not assur. Someone needs to do that work, and I think it is  important for straight, cis people to take it on. There is value in someone putting themselves between queer people and the painful experiences of engaging with this material. That is a major contribution of R. Fox’s teshuva. 

However, while it is holy work to matir queer sex acts (though, as R. Richman compellingly demonstrates, this teshuva does not get clear enough on which sex acts it is discussing), this is not the same as celebrating queer sexuality within the framework of halacha. 

The phrase “committed monogamous relationship” is a key phrase in the teshuva. It is queer women’s sex in the context of marriage – and potentially reproductivity – that is permitted here. R. Fox is very clear on this point. He says:

The reality of the LGBTQ+ community today is that there is still a lot of promiscuity. There may be good explanations for that behavior, given the history of repression and abuse, and the obstacles in the way of recognizing non-heteronormative monogamous relationships. For those who are trying to live within the Orthodox world, this is not really the case. However, halakha also makes claims on people who want to be part of the frum world. I agree with Rava that a woman married to a man who steps out on him is behaving inappropriately. When people “hook up” with each other and don’t think twice about the implications of that physical interaction, that really is pritzut. But when people behave in a way that does not implicate an unknowing spouse and that attempts to maintain halakha in all ways, that should no longer be viewed as pritzut.

R. Fox here relates to queer sexual culture only as an aberration from the sexual behavior of the “frum world.” Queer sex, in this framework, is a series of acts that can happen in a context that “really is pritzut,” or it can happen in a context that resembles a frum, straight marriage which will produce children. But it is wrong to unilaterally dismiss as as pritzut the sexual culture of the queer community, which itself is far from a monolith, and varies widely based on location, class, race, and sexuality (gay men’s sexual culture and lesbian sexual culture have overlaps, for example, but are in some ways more different from each other than each is from straight culture). R. Fox characterizes this culture as one based in a “history of repression and abuse.”  It is reductive to assume that queer cultural structures around sex are a maladaptive response born of mistreatment rather than a way of seeking liberation, even as oppression has had a substantial impact in shaping queer culture.

Queer sexual culture does not look like straight sexual culture. In part, this is because queer relationships have had to be built underground for so long – and still are in so many contexts. But as generations of queer theorists have argued, queerness and queer culture offer important alternatives to straight relationship structures. For example, in their article “Sex In Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue that

Queer and other insurgents have long striven, often dangerously or scandalously, to cultivate what good folks used to call criminal intimacies. We have developed relations and narratives that are only recognized as intimate in queer culture…Queer culture has learned not only how to sexualize these and other relations, but also to use them as a context for witnessing intense and personal affect while elaborating a public world of belonging and transformation. Making a queer world has required the development of kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation.

Berlant and Warner here are articulating queerness as importantly different from heterosexuality – yes, deviating from the norm, but no, not deviant as in bad. Queer culture has different models to offer for the building of sexual relationships and other intimacies, from spaces as private as the bedroom to spaces as public as the nation. Queer sexuality is not something that simply can be fitted neatly into the frameworks built by and for straight couples. It offers new ways of being, and can point toward new worlds, tastes of olam haba. 

To ask halacha to meet the challenge of queer sex is not simply to ask which kinds of sex can be mutar, though, as I said above, that is important as well. But halacha – and poskim – must take the alternative vision of what sex is, what our bodies are for, and how we build relationships and communities, that is offered by queerness, and figure out how it sits with halachic structures and frameworks. 

Rav Richman, in her response, powerfully points out that “[t]he content surfaced through his analysis brings to our attention many fundamental aspects about the nature of sexuality and partnership that can be a source of learning for all Jews. When is sexual behavior pritzut and when is it tzniut? What kinds of sexual relationships are a toevah and why? What halakhic sources speak to the importance for everyone to have the option to pursue meaningful sexual intimacy and raise children in the context of a partnership that is conducive to happiness?” (126-127.)

These questions point a way forward. Even as halachic Jewish communities affirm the importance of covenantal, committed relationships, queer culture itself can help us move toward deeper understanding of what makes sexual relationships liberatory. There are decades, centuries, even millennia of those on the sexual margins exploring how to have sex in ways that are nourishing, responsible, and even holy. This is a resource to explore and embrace, not one to dismiss. Halacha offers us important resources for understanding committed, sanctified relationships; queer culture offers questions that can enrich this thinking. 

I do not write here to endorse any specific way of relating to sex and relationships. Indeed, as a currently non-partnered frum woman, it feels risky to even suggest that there is value in queer approaches to sex that do not align with straight frum married life, for fear that the reader might make assumptions about my own choices. But we cannot ask halacha to address queerness without addressing what queerness looks like in all kinds of queer lives, in queer history, and in queer culture. This is a crucial next step. 

The story in which Beruriah chides the student for learning silently and teaches us all that we must engage with Torah in an embodied, integrated way has an important context. In Eruvin, it immediately follows the more well-known story where Rabbi Yose HaGelili asks Beruriah for directions to Lod, and she tells him he should have asked her using fewer words, citing the statement in Avot 1:5 “אַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה,” “do not speak too much with women.”

Beruriah’s knowledge that one cannot have a true experience of Torah without bringing in their body and what it has been through is not a spontaneous insight, nor does it come only from a drasha on a pasuk. It is an insight that comes from her learning of Torah as a woman, constantly encountering texts and people who tell her that Torah is not hers. The Torah that Beruriah teaches is not just about the importance of experiences – it comes from her very own experiences. We cannot build the glorious world of Torah by limiting who we listen to and which words and bodies we invite into the beit midrash. We must seek abundance, which is the queerest of values.

In coming weeks, I will publish responses to this piece, in the spirit of R. Fox’s original teshuva, which was published alongside responses — this is a way of doing Torah that I deeply admire and strive to emulate. 

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