Culture, Religion

Whose Torah?

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.)  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.

7 thoughts on “Whose Torah?

  1. These quotes, even out of context, are horrifyingly inaccurate, not to mention self-contradictory! Did anyone edit this book?
    I’m all in favor of progressive Judaism challenging the system, but this is not the way to do it. It underscores an ignorance of primary sources and a willingness to skew textual reading beyond the boundaries of credibility.

  2. My longest exposures to Rebecca Alpert have not left me with a fabulous impression of either her knowledge or her Judaism. She calls herself “rabbi” to write the book, but she publicly commented (at the Rabbis for Human Rights conference two years ago (there were like 200 people in the room; surely I’m not the only one who heard this!), I can’t recall exactly how she said it, though) that she basically didn’t think much of Judaism as a tradition, leaving me wondering why she kept the title “rabbi,” then. She went on to be dismissive of religious Jews (which includes, not only those in the Orthodox world, but also those who take their tradition seriously in the Conservative and liberal movements; as far as I can tell, she was including anyone who wasn’t willing to buy her version as that kind of Jew)
    Since then, I have heard little to improve my opinion; I would hesitate to call her a progressive Jew then, except insofar as someone who has a Jewish background (which is totally fine, but if that’s what you are, please own up to it and don’t call yourself “rabbi”!)

  3. KRG – Your comment makes sense, and helps me better understand the intro to the book. She made several generalising statements along the lines of, “as progressive Jews we all obviously agree that G-d is made up” and “as progressive Jews we all know the Torah was not from G-d/Sinai.” If she were trying to be open to the fact that Jews could be progressive, regardless of denominations or beliefs, this would be a horrible assumption to make (and one that I just couldn’t figure out). Putting it within the context you’ve provided, she seems to, unfortunately, have a very narrow view of what Judaism, and who Jews, ought to be. Alas.

  4. Every time I scroll past and see this post’s subject, I can’t help but think to myself, “Run’s Torah!”

  5. Thanks for helping me take another book off my reading list, feygele. I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. What saddens me is that anyone with a semichah in liberal Judaism would take such a narrow, prescriptive position. If the reason for liberal interpretation is to maximize tolerance and give everyone room, then it defeats the purpose to load it down with dogma. But at least among the most narrow-minded of traditional Jews, there is a basis in fact, historicity, and Torah. Here, we seem to see little more than personal opinion and the “way things ought to be” (and little use for religion except as means to an end). In terms of sex and sexuality, I see much more encouraging things from the CJLS — even if I don’t quite get how a responsum can dismiss an accepted element of halachah without recourse to some sort of halachic basis. I’m thinking of last year’s rulings of homosexuality here. Even some kind of gematriah or pilpul would be preferable to saying that a particular law is “not in keeping with our modern sensibilities.” But hey, at least the struggle for equality and the desire to pursue justice is still there.

  6. Even some kind of gematriah or pilpul would be preferable to saying that a particular law is “not in keeping with our modern sensibilities.” But hey, at least the struggle for equality and the desire to pursue justice is still there.
    er, there were certainly things in the Dorff, Reisner Nevins tshuva that I thought were somewhat open to argument, shall we say, but they didn’t say (maybe I should go look again) that they were reinterpreting on the basis of “not in keeping with our modern sensibilities” except insofar as why they were engaging in the project. My understanding of the tshuvah is that they were reinterpreting based on the talmudic sources which cal into question exactly what acts are forbidden (the talmud says the toraitic verses are specifically referring to a particular act of hachnasat atarah) and to override the lesser prohibitions which are not prohibited by those verses (but only as acts of lewdness) as based on kavod habriyot. It’s a stretch certainly, but I think it’s probably the best effort yet that falls within halakhic parameters. (that would be the recourse to halakhic basis you mention) Sketchy, but not impossible.

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