Talli Y. Rosenbaum is an individual and couple therapist and is certified as a sex therapist and certified sex therapy supervisor. She cohosts the Intimate Judaism podcast and is co-author with David Ribner of “I am For My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples.” Rosenbaum earned a masters in Clinical Sociology and Counseling and a certificate in Mental Health Studies from the University of North Texas in Neve Yerushalayim. She holds a BA in Physical Therapy from Northwestern University.
I was aware of the book’s publication, and had planned to purchase and read it, but had not yet done so. This invitation provided both the impetus and the opportunity to read, reflect, and respond. My short response, upon which I will expand, is this: anyone involved in the Orthodox Jewish community and women’s spiritual physical, mental, and sexual development, from clergy, educators, Kallah instructors, to mental health professionals (including sex therapists who may think they have had heard it all) should read this book. In fact, if you are a woman and Orthodox, this book is likely to have meaning and relevance to you.
Reading through the volume’s entries confirmed for me why I had procrastinated. I thought that reading it would probably feel like work and indeed, it did. As an individual and couple’s therapist and a sex therapist working primarily in the Orthodox community, the concepts and conflicts that are highlighted in this book are familiar: how body image is affected by strict and often shaming messages around tzniut (modesty), the impact of feelings of guilt regarding fantasy, sexual arousal, masturbation, “breaking negiah” (engaging in physical contact with the opposite sex), and the cognitive dissonance associated with the radical shift from the expectation of no physical touch before marriage to wedding night intercourse.
Women in my therapy practice report feeling very alone with their confusion around sexuality and as noted by the book’s editors, this is because sex is not talked about. “The more I talked to my friends about sex, the more I realized that almost everyone had felt lonely or uncertain because of their sexuality at some point in their lives.” (Sara Lawrence Rozner, introduction). The interview and the book’s content deal candidly with these topics, normalizing for so many women that the experiences they have struggled with are shared by so many others. The personal stories also underscore the specific struggles of modern Orthodox Jewish female millennials navigating the integration of their traditional Jewish beliefs with their more progressive values.
In the interview, the editors are asked how the book relates to identity formation. One essay, in which the writer describes that sexually related content presented in the college orientation or discussed in classrooms felt irrelevant to her as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, deals with this very subject. The belief that sexual education does not apply to religious youth and the reluctance to offer such discussion in schools is often based on fears that doing so implies tolerance of sexual activity. Unfortunately, as discussed in my blog article “Too much information or not enough: Addressing adolescent female sexuality in Orthodox Jewish girls”, this prevents access to fundamentally important information about LGBTQ identity, reproductive health, and, most importantly, autonomy and consent . It also leaves curious young people vulnerable to easily accessible but unreliable, unrealistic and potentially harmful sources, such as pornography. Rather than experience a conflict of identity between the spiritual and the sexual, values based sexual education provides the opportunity to strengthen and integrate religious and sexual identities, as noted in the article:
Adolescents steeped in religious teachings yet exposed to popular culture receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely at best to be incorrect, and at worst, harmful. Sexual education should not be viewed, however, as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities. Sexual education in the adolescent years is crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage and includes elements that do not require experiencing sexual activity. This includes self and body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.
One of the most salient take-home messages gleaned from the experience of the book’s contributors, and to which I can attest based on years of clinical experience working with Orthodox individuals, is this: framing the laws of yichud and shmirat negiah as providing sexually protective boundaries is potentially harmful. Without an appreciation of sexual agency, autonomy, and consent, a woman who decides to engage in physical touch, as many women will, may not feel sufficiently entitled to boundaries such as ‘this doesn’t actually feel good to me, please stop” or even “this feels good, but I am not ready to go this far.’ The opposite of “shomer” is not “hefker.”
The themes, the content, the pain, and the confusion of juggling the dissonant parts of the sexual self, innocence and guilt, ignorance and curiosity, are laid bare for the reader with content and language familiar to me from my therapy room.
In fact, in Professor Brill’s interview, he notes, “I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain.”To this, editor Sarah Ricklan responds thoughtfully, “Some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser…. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.” This honest response appears to recognize the impact of exposing such deeply private and vulnerable thoughts, feelings and experiences. Some writers may have achieved closure with their entries, but others may have just begun to open painful wounds.
This is the most compelling reason that mental health professionals, and in particular sexual health professionals, should read these narratives. This book provides first-person accounts of the extent to which the lack of sex-positive sexuality education and sexually shaming messages can affect healthy sexual development, positive self-image, and sexual functioning. These are messages about which I have been writing for years. In fact, I suggested in a rather glib but popular blog post published in May 2014, entitled Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Daughters, that while modesty in dress and behavior are legitimate values, they should not be taught in ways that shame, blame, objectify, or instill fear regarding male lust. I suggested ways to promote the appreciation of sensual pleasure, facilitate a positive body image, talk directly about sex, genitalia, and menstruation, provide modeling for healthy sexuality and affection, and to encourage assertiveness. For example:“Encourage your daughters to “tell me what you want, what you really, really want”: To enjoy sex, one needs to be able to say things like “this feels good” or “this is uncomfortable”. If girls do not learn the language of asking for or anticipating that their needs be met, they will have a hard time experiencing pleasure.”
I also discussed not relying on halachic boundaries alone in lieu of personal autonomy and consent. “Not being shomer” does not imply consent. Choosing to engage in physical touch still must involve enthusiastic consent and the entitlement to change one’s mind and to establish chosen boundaries. So too, the “harchakot” which refer to prohibited activity between a married couple during a woman’s menstruation until immersion, should not be framed as “protective”:“However, you wish to explain the “harchakot” let’s not attribute them to the need to make boundaries. That makes the perceived force of touch as turning immediately to sexual intercourse into something scary and uncontrollable and can create anxiety in many young women, particularly as they return home from the mikvah.“
But talking to girls and young women is not enough. In my follow-up blog post, Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Sons, I related to the formation of healthy sexuality in boys and young men, also through their contact with young women. For example, “Don’t tell your son that by touching a girl, he is disrespecting her. This sends the message that a girl who engages in touch, with agency and mutual consent, is not deserving of respect. Rather, explain that if he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, pushes her into doing things with which she is uncomfortable, or takes advantage of her simply for his own gratification, that is disrespectful.”
I am also attempting to raise awareness through the Intimate Judaism podcast, which I co-host with Rabbi Scott Kahn. The podcast addresses intimacy and healthy sexuality in the context of Jewish family life, navigating topics such as shmirat negia, masturbation, Taharat Hamishpacha, gender identity and sexual orientation, infidelity, pornography, and sexuality throughout the lifecycle. More discussions, books, podcasts, and sex-education initiatives that promote healthy sexual development within a Jewish values-based perspective are necessary and welcome.
Italian Jewish culture was unique for its openness to the broader society and its distinctly Italian character. They lived with a deep integration into Italian life including both low and high cultures. Prof. Cecil Roth termed it assimilation, and most will call it acculturation. The historian David Malkiel captured the hybridity well in academic language when he described Italian Jewish life as “heterocultural, exemplifying the dialectical character of the Jewish -Christian cultural encounter, in which the Jews assiduously cultivated their own tradition as they intensively and fruitfully engaged the culture of the surrounding majority.” This openness led Rabbi Abraham Berliner to teach a course at Hildesheimer’s Berlin Rabbinical Seminary on Italian Jewry as a role model for modern observant Jews.
One of the 19th centuries shining stars of this approach was Rabbi Elia Benamozegh of Livorno (1823-1900) whose many writings show a different form of Jewish modernity than that of the German Enlightenment. Benamozegh was an Italian Sephardic Orthodox rabbi, highly respected in his day as one of Italy’s most eminent Jewish scholars. He served for half a century as rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno. Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur wanted to claim Benamozegh as a paradigm the Italian Sephardic approach of a Sephardi modernity, an alternate modernity consisting of a rabbinic humanism combining Judaism with the best of culture. But, as Berliner noted Benamozegh was born under an unlucky star, having less success than he deserved.
To help the reputation of Benamozegh, we have a new book by Clémence BoulouqueAnother Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism (Stanford University Press, 2020). Boulouque is the Carl and Bernice Witten Assistant Professor in Jewish and Israel studies at Columbia University. More interesting, is that she had a first career as a journalist, literary critique and TV producer in France. Hence, her course listings include religion and film as well as religion and the arts. Boulouque is a graduate of the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, she holds a B.A. in art history and a post M.A. degree in comparative literature, and she was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University in the master’s program of the School of International Affairs with a concentration on the Middle East. She received her PhD in Jewish Studies and History from New York University in 2014.
Another Modernity is a rich study of the life and thought of Elia Benamozegh, specifically focusing on situating Benamozegh as a modern and specifically as an alternate approach to modernity than the Ashkenazi paths of Germany or Russia. Much of the trajectory and organization of the book is from her comparison and contrast of Benamozegh to others as a means of showing this alternate modernity. Part of the point is to show that a Moroccan born Kabbalist has what to say to European modernists. Boulouque situates Benamozegh in the modernism of the port Jews of Livorno, hence it is not just any Sephardic modernist or any Italian Jew but a specific kind, a port Jew who lived in a more open and flexible way than Jews in Italian ghettos.
Benamozegh was a publisher, communal rabbi, seminary professor, and author of many works including a commentary on targum, two defenses of kabbalah, a commentary of Psalms, more than one introduction to Judaism, a presentation and defense of the oral law, and a presentation of the metaphysics of Judaism. These works are more traditional, less universal, and tend to attract the attention of Israeli scholars who want to downplay his universalism. Benamozaeh presented Judaism as the religion of the future, a polyphonic capacious Judaism, which he calls Hebraism, that includes the full range of Jewish works including kabbalah.
His Hebrew work that attracts the most attention is his Em la-Mikra commentary on the Pentateuch,. The former was a unique commentary incorporating the archeology, comparative religion, study of mythology, and philology of the early 19th century. Nevertheless, this unique work has yet to be fully studied for its exegesis. No other rabbinic work has turned to comparative religion, rather than history. Benamozegh see parallels between the Biblical stories and the narratives of other religions. For example, in his commentary on Genesis 23:6 he compares Joseph to the Egyptian God Serapis
What people usually do discuss is that this work was banned by the Iraqi rabbinate who could not accept his modernism. Yaron Harel, a historian of Iraqi and Syrian Jewry, has shown that the Aleppo rabbis banned it because of the worries about rise of Reforming tendencies in those countries. (It is an urban legend that Sephardic Jews did not have reforming movements.) He also wrote Ya’aneh be-Esh a rejection of the practice of Italian Jews cremation (see here where this blog discussed it.)
And his “Israël et l’Humanité” (Israel and Humanity), discussion of universal religion and the roles of and relationships between Judaism, Christianity, 1914 (posthumous, edited by Aimé Pallière [fr]). The work is constructed of selections from a 1900 manuscript. Various claims are made about the relationship of the manuscript and the published edited book. But it is in many ways the first modern Jewish theology of other religions. For Benamozegh, polytheism, Christianity, and religion in general all hold sparks of the divine, which the other traditions fail to interpret properly. For Benamozegh, divine attributes transcend a given religion, so that the same attribute can be identified with pagan gods or with YHWH, the Jewish god. On the other hand, God is so great that Jew and polytheist perceives a different attribute of God; each religion or people perceives their own attributes pointing to the one God. Benamozegh imbibed heavily from Vico and the post-Schelling idealism of von Hartmann, Vincenzo Gioberti, and even Feuerbach.
Benamozegh remade Christianity to have an obscured Jewish heart, rather than the German Ashkenazim such as Geiger who had polemic against Christianity. He finds a place for world religions in God’s plan and places Judaism at the top of the religions the same way that the Neo-Hindu modernist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan finds a place for all religions but place Advanta Vedanta Hinduism as the highest form of religion.
How does Benamozegh fit with your own Moroccan background or personal connection to an Italian-French-Morrocan Sephardi Jewry.
I first came across the work of Benamozegh after 9/11 as I was exploring the works of thinkers who strove to offer narratives of religious coexistence in times of crisis or divisiveness. Even if one may argue that his endeavors are an instance of noble failure, I still feel drawn to such efforts and to the lessons we can learn from them. I also soon realized that I had a personal connection to this Italian thinker of Moroccan descent: I was born in France but spent a significant amount of time in Italy as a child and it felt like my second country. On my father’s side, our family roots are in Morocco as well as Algeria and Turkey if we go further back in time. So, I do feel a sort of bond with Benamozegh, the languages he wrote in and the worlds he lived in.
2) How is Benamozegh a different form of modernity or as your title says Another Modernity?
Benamozegh’s understanding of, and agenda for, modernity, is idiosyncratic. It was dictated by a sense of urgency and a call for religious unity: in his view, both secularism and reactionary impulses within religious institutions were perilous for society as a whole.
While the most trodden path for thinkers of the Jewish enlightenment or advocates of Jewish assimilation was to prove the worthiness of Judaism through its rationalism, Benamozegh rejected the binaries of religion vs reason which he saw as insufficient categories and a key reason for the religious and political crisis of the Western world. In order to go beyond the dichotomies, Benamozegh sought to apply kabbalistic concepts, derived from the tradition but refashioned in a a modernist discourse, to contemporary debates about religion in his time. He turned these concepts such as the coincidence of opposites, into a stock of tools relevant to religious coexistence. By the same token, he emphasized the Jewish capacity to solve the quandaries of his time – and of humankind – by highlighting its humanitarian nature and its universalism through particularism, in a paradoxical synthesis that foreshadows Levinas philosophy.
Benamozegh’s analysis of the concept of modernity intuited – and rejected – what has become the classical framework by which tradition and modernity are distinct categories. Indeed, Benamozegh claimed that the harmonious dialogue between faith and science originated from within tradition understood as the locus of progressive revelation –a concept central in Kabbalah and from which progress could derive.
Jurgen Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity offers a relevant frame of analysis for his work when he discusses the imperative for modernity to find normativity, i.e. the standards by which one evaluates permissible and desirable behaviors, within itself lest individuals will experience alienation; in fact Benamozegh framed religion as a place where normativity, is both internal (when it resembles natural law, and thus derived from one’s reason or mind),and external (determined by divine revelation)– something he found in Kabbalah and in the Noahide laws.
Finally, in his work as a publisher of Hebrew books, mostly geared toward the Middle-East and North Africa, Benamozegh promoted a vision of Oriental Judaism that decentered an Aufklärung/Europe-centered narrative of modernity, and certainly contributes to what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities”
All of his propositions and his self-assertive tone make Benamozegh the advocate of a multi-facetted modernity that was unique in his time and is still relevant today in times of renewed clash between science and faith, and divisive identity politics where particularistic agendas lead to divisiveness and seem to undermine the very possibility of unity or coexistence.
3) What was his Moroccan-Sephardi-Italian education? Did not Jose Faur come to similar conclusions about Benamozegh in his articles?
The importance of Benamozegh’s Italian (more specifically Livornese) and Moroccan roots and education, his intellectual and religious genealogies, cannot be overstated. The rabbi was born in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, Italy, to parents of Moroccan descent.
In many ways, Benamozegh is emblematic of the figure of the Port Jew proposed by David Sorkin and expanded by Lois Dubin; his openness toward other religions arguably stems from his Livornese Jewish milieu: it did shape Benamozegh’s understanding of unity through diversity. The tight commercial networks that connected Livorno and Morocco were paralleled by a circulation of knowledge and rabbinical personnel – of which Benamozegh’s uncle, the Kabbalist Yehuda Coriat – active in Gibraltar, Mogador and Livorno, serves as a perfect example.
Having lost his father at a young age, Benamozegh was raised by Coriat who took over the boy’s religious education in which Kabbalah, and the Zohar especially played a central role, as it did in traditional Moroccan households.
Aware of the discredit of Kabbalah in Western Europe, Benamozegh never ceased to defend it, calling it “our theosophy,” thus insisting on the scientific approach of the divine and not on magic or contemplative practices. He also rejected the notion of an antinomian nature of Kabbalah which he saw as a corruption of its true nature, for which he blamed the Hasidim, and pitted obscurantist practices in Eastern Europe against an Oriental Jewish Enlightenment. This is the sort of openness that he promoted in his activity as a printer where he strove to counter the discourse of contempt toward the Orient in his time.
Benamozegh stands for what the late Jose Faur described as a religious humanism,” in Sephardic thought, noting the influence of the 18th century Italian philosopher Vico on Benamozegh and other Sephardim. Vico’s emphasis on the need to understand religion neither as eternal truth nor in a literalist manner as very conservative communities would admonish, while resisting their wholesale rejection because of their irrationalism as the enlightenment would have it, struck a chord with these thinkers. Like Vico, whom he references, Benamozegh envisioned religious texts as instances of humanity’s confronting nature, creation, and the sublime- and as stages of what he called progressive revelation.
In addition to Vico’s influence, the role of his Italian identity is also noteworthy – he came of age at the time of the Risorgimento, and he saw the Italian struggle for independence as a way for Jews to show their Italian patriotism. During these years, he gave impassionate speeches where he articulated his key axiom: the more Jewish, the more Italian, and vice versa – the more national, the more universal, which he foreshadows his later credo whereby the more particular, the more universal a religion can be . Yet, the Risorgimento also tells a story of shattered hopes for a more tolerant religion, which Benamozegh experienced first-hand in the Peninsula when the Papacy took an aggressive reactionary turn against which the rabbi fought throughout his life.
Benamozegh stood at many crossroads and this multi-layered Sephardi Italian identity deeply shaped his worldview.
4) What does he mean by the Hebraism?
Hebraism captures Benamozegh’s expansive understanding of Judaism in which both the Talmud and Kabbalah had a central role to play, alongside midrash, philosophy and poetry. The term could be a faulty translation of the Italian word for Judaism, “Ebraismo,” but when Benamozegh wrote in French, his use of Hébraïsme was deliberate. This is no accident that he turned to this expression which, alongside other alternative terms for Judaism such as “Israélitisme,” took hold in the 19th century in order to emphasize the moral aspect of Judaism, especially in its prophetic and ethical message, and to break away from a conception of Judaism that was viewed as narrowly legalistic or ethnocentric. His purpose in using the term was certainly to highlight the worthiness of Judaism.
But the term had an additional distinct resonance for Benamozegh who was versed in Christian theology: it is reminiscent of the fourth century Christian polemicist, Eusebius, who in his Evangelical Preparation called “Hebraism” the universal, acceptable, non-nationalistic aspect of Judaism. Evidently, the purpose of Eusebius was not to defend the Jews but to show that the Greeks had stolen from Hebraism aspects that could be universal and that these aspects were a preparation for the truth of the Christian scriptures—all of which the Jews, paradoxically and ironically, refused to acknowledge. This claim of Eusebius is crucial because this is exactly the point that Benamozegh wants to emphasize to his interlocutors: the religious core constituted by Judaism, which was picked up by later religions and somehow distorted along the way by Christianity. Religious differences come from a misrepresentation that needs to be addressed and this is this core that humanity should return to – or at least be aware of. Benamozegh’s use of Hebraism showcased a typical strategy of his: he reappropriating Christian terms or concepts and using them in a Jewish key.
5) What is the importance of the layers of human voices that make traditional Judaism more universal than Reform Judaism?
Benamozegh repeatedly emphasized the importance of deliberation within the Talmudic tradition and he even saw these deliberations as foreshadowing Kant’s concept of practical reason – which is one of the tenets of universalism. Because the Reform movement severed ties with the Talmud, it divested itself of the layers of tradition, and of richness of minority opinions that were kept for the benefit of future generations. Benamozegh also compared Reform Judaism to Karaism – the Jewish movement that originated in Baghdad in the eight century, grounded its observance in the Pentateuch alone, in a stern way – and he claimed that such a movement could only lack unity and carry the danger of individualism since true pluralism could only be found in the polyphony of deliberation.
Additionally, in his Kabbalistic references, Benamozegh rekindled the notion of encrypted layers of meaning so central to medieval Jewish thought and used it in a modernist key by addressing multiple readerships- Jews and non-Jews- on their own terms: he thus turned his own writings into a multilingual, multilayered, polyphonic body of work.
6) How does he make the Noahite laws into a universal religion?
The Noahide laws – the seven edicts that bear on all of humankind and offer salvation for all – play a major role in Benamozegh’s system; he viewed them as evidence of Judaism’s true universalism : “If Judaism had been only a purely national religion, it could not have given birth to two religions with truly universal aspirations,” he wrote. This universalism is superior to that of Christianity’s whose salvation is predicated on the acceptance of the messiahship of Jesus.
Unlike Mendelssohn who identified the Noahide laws as natural law, Benamozegh insisted on the fact that they should be accepted as an aspect of the monotheistic revelation. Noahism is thus a continuum between reason and revelation, autonomy and heteronomy, it quietly offers a middle way and caters to the need for metaphysics that, Benamozegh claimed, constitutes a defining feature of humanity and should not be taken away by modernity. Thus spreading the teachings of the Noahide laws in an effort to foster religious unity across nations was paramount to him.
Benamozegh set out to demonstrate that God’s law ought to be immutable and to establish that the Mosaic laws did not supersede Noahism, the previous code, but complemented it- and Christianity, as an expression of Noahism, should be returned to his root in order to enable religious coexistence.
Another crucial aspect is that the Noahide laws made Judaism immune to one of his key criticisms of Christianity which led to the theology of supersession—the Christian theological concept according to which Jesus’ New Covenant superseded the old one, meant exclusively for the Jews. The Jewish-non-Jewish binary was thus softened: there were two modalities of a covenant – a covenantal pluralism.
7) According to Benamozegh, how do Judaism and Christianity compare?
According to Benamozegh, it is Judaism and not Christianity that should be understood as being the true universal religion and the seed for that religious unit because it contains the seeds of all other religions. A metaphor of choice is that of the sun and the rays which Rosenzweig also used.
While he never ceased to acknowledge the beauty and the role of Christianity, the tone of some of his writings could be occasionally scathing. For instance, in Jewish and Christian Ethics, he lamented that Christianity prided itself on its ethical teachings when they derived them from Judaism, and rhetorical questions such as “Is there no exaggeration in the praise Christianity lavishes upon itself?” abound. Additionally, Benamozegh endeavored to demonstrate the Jewish origin of the Christian dogma and more specifically the Kabbalistic origins of Christianity – he viewed the trinity as a misunderstanding of Kabbalistic concepts wrongfully disseminated by apostles who were not ready nor sophisticated enough to be initiated in the mysteries of Kabbalah.
In order for Christianity to reform itself, in a move urgently needed for the future of religion in general, it needed to return to its Noahic origins and acknowledge its deep connection to Judaism so that Christianity could properly embrace modernity, as deployed and defined anew by Benamozegh, instead of becoming a reactionary force likely to further alienate believers from religion and would result in deepening the social and moral crisis of his time.
8) What role does his thought play in that of Orthodox right-wing Zionists? Why do they say Pallière was not faithful to Benamozegh’s work?
Benamozegh was eager to rewrite the narrative of inclusion and exclusion in Judaism and Christianity from an Orthodox perspective and the laws were a perfect tool, but in doing so, he turned a blind eye to the limitations of the Noahide laws, – and this is one of the key criticisms of scholars who shows how this renewed articulation of Jewish difference of the Noahide laws is pivotal in contemporary movements such as Lubavitch, but remains highly problematic. The inclusivity arguably hierarchical nature may indeed bespeak minimal universalism.
As Benamozegh hoped, Kabbalah has indeed become an instrument of political engagement—albeit sometimes at odds with what Benamozegh seemingly envisioned: its radical use among fringe groups of the settler movements in the West Bank testifies to limits or ambiguities in the inclusive interpretation of an ethnocentric tradition. The figure of Adam that he used in order to demonstrate the common origin of humanity appeared in Lurianic kabbalah and has been used by rightwing thinkers according to whom Adam does not stand for humankind but for Israel only – an aspect that Benamozegh silenced but that fueled the notion that his was in reality a sort of qualified universalism: the same system of ontological differences based on Kabbalah is present in Rav Kook’s complex universalistic worldview, which have inspired Israel’s religious far right.
Ethnocentric tensions also remain since it is incumbent on Israel to carry out this universalist mission, especially in messianic times. Some of his texts display a strong messianism in which the messianic times will usher in an era in which differences are subsumed into a return to unity and the original Jewish faith. So isn’t it misleading to talk about Benamozegh’s universalism?
This is what suggest the critiques leveled at Aimé Pallière who edited Benamozegh’s Israel and Humanity. Pallière, his Christian disciple (who wanted to convert but was dissuaded by Benamozegh who asked him to be an advocate of Noahism instead), was asked by Benamozegh’s son to take care of this edition, and he frequently consulted with a Livornese rabbi. The magnum opus, which appeared posthumously, based on a manuscript written directly in French has generated heated controversies over the Rabbi’s authentic legacy. Scholars have disagreed about the content of this 1900-page work, claiming it had been rewritten by Pallière who fabricated a universalism that was absent from the original – and that response also raises the question of how a non-Jew could be familiar with the Jewish tradition, and especially its esoteric/secret aspects. I do believe that Benamozegh’s universalism is not a construct and that its tensions are part of his theological and philosophical construct – a dynamism born out of frictions and the coincidence of opposites.
9) What is his idea of universal psyche? How does Kabbalah and myth fit in?
Benamozegh’s efforts to draw on nascent theories of the unconscious, which he also defined as a “confused perception of the wider field of shared consciousness,” were part of his broader undertaking: showing that “Hebraism,” to use his category, had anticipated scientific discoveries, and notably the science of the mind. In 1877, he closed his 250-page Theology (Teologia) with a credo where he affirmed that the unconscious predated its emergence in the 19th century: “I believe that man does not have conscience of himself, that it is more than what he knows to be, and thus I believe that the philosophy of the unconscious which makes speak of itself so much, not only with Hartmann but before, has a lot of truth to it in that sense.” In 1897, three years before his death, Benamozegh wrote in a small volume entitled Dio (God): “I have long been at work on perfecting my theory of concentric consciousnesses that culminate in God, the consciousness of consciousnesses as the first protological principle of the universe, in the place of intelligence, will, etc… Now that the Unconscious is playing an increasingly important role, we may allow that it is the sense or the awareness of the greater field of shared consciousness; it has at least been proved that we do not have total consciousness of ourselves and that our consciousness has no insurmountable boundaries.”
Kabbalah mirrored the quandaries of the modern mind: just like the unconscious, it allowed for contradictory truths which Lacan defined as a key feature of the unconscious, and which explains his attraction for Benamozegh’s work. Additionally, Benamozegh highlighted the power of myth in Kabbalah with its figures such as Adam. These archetypes will later influence Jungian psychology, which Benamozegh foreshadowed by insisting on myth as a universal expression of the human psyche and as a language shared by humanity. Yet a significant distinction remains. In Benamozegh’s construct, the study of psyche and the unconscious are not the ultimate goal: they are primarily worth studying because they constitute a tool to explore the revelation of God himself in and as the human mind.
10) How does he allow foreign religious elements to play a role in Judaism?
Benamozegh argued that, in Kabbalah, the Jewish tradition had a hermeneutical device perfectly suited for bringing the different faiths together – for understanding otherness in general. He called it was a “connecting shape” (“forme mitoyenne”), which also meant the possibility for proximity but involved a risk of friction: “There can be no hostility where there is no contact.” Kabbalah, he claimed, had fallen in disfavor among Jews precisely due to its proximity with Christianity.
The central concept in Benamozegh’s theology of otherness is berur, choice, separation and elevation. In Luria’s cosmology, the world is the result of God’s contraction, his light pours into vessels which cracked as a result of its intensity and the sparks are trapped in the world. It is incumbent on human beings to reunite them with God and to elevate them, as part of the tikkun (reparation). Benamozegh transposed the concept from transcendent to immanent categories, and cosmological to intellectual categories, whereby berur becomes an act of discernment. In his understanding, one has to extract truth and merits from all traditions – just as God shaped his creation and this world from previous ones. As a result, religious pluralism is a form of imitatio dei, the highest ethical call for humans.
It is worth noting that this old kabbalistic motif, as it appears in sixteenth-century Lurianic sources, is arguably ethnocentric– as it is meant to shed the impurity of the non-Jews – and yet, Benamozegh reframed the concept so that it constitutes the locus of interfaith encounters and a cosmogonic basis for the Maimonidean ideal of accepting the truth from any source.
It is through the coincidence of opposites and the variations on the notion of elevation (illuy and berur) and clarification that Benamozegh was able to provide a new framework, serving as a hyphen between faiths and as a path defying the traditional divide between secular and sacred worldviews. The Kabbalistic concept of coincidence of opposites which first appeared in the 13th century writings of Azriel of Gerona posits that, because the source of all things is one and divine, opposites should be emphasized and elevated and no one is better equipped for this task than the Kabbalists.
11) What is his idea of poligonismo? How does it relate to the religious unity of mankind?
Probably borrowing from the Italian Catholic thinker Gioberti who exerted a great influence over him, Benamozegh used this rare term “polygonism” (which doesn’t even have an entry in the dictionary!) to describe the multiple pathways of the divine plan toward unity. “Alongside polyglottism, which deals with the extrinsic shape, we will place polygonism too, which regards, so to speak, the intrinsic form, the religious idea, whether it addresses one intelligence or the other, in order to make itself accessible.”
The term means that only God is complete and humanity can only have access to fragments of truth, and in multiple languages. Benamozegh often described the importance of multilingualism as a part of revelation – in seventy languages and seventy nations of the globe – so that each could be addressed in their own terms, according to their own capacity. Indeed, in his view, each language is a repository of culture (and here Benamozegh is indebted to Vico’s philosophy) and each worldview is couched in a specific language, which acquires a metaphysical nature. Polyglottism and polygonism are fragments of truths and a reflection of the multiple ways to access God.
12) How does he find polytheism as serving God?
Benamozegh claimed that “The notion of false gods is not the language of the Bible.” and pushed against such a translation, asserting that the accurate rendition would be “unworthy of worship” and not “false, based on his reading of the book of Hosea 1:9. And even such deities provide an opportunity to refine people’s religion and make it worthy of worship as it leads to a greater understanding of the divine.
An interesting way to drive this point home is the unexpected treatment of Egypt. Traditionally, Egypt is the evil place of the “mixed multitude,” the “erev rav” (see Exodus 12:38) that left with the Hebrews, was the cause for worshipping the golden calf, and whose influence was cited by the rabbis at every negative juncture of Jewish history. Yet, Benamozegh claims: It is just a mistaken understanding of the role played by the parts in the whole: “Kabbalism regards the long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt as a way used by the Divine Providence to restore to the religion of Israel- to incorporate in it through a selective process – all that was good and true in Egyptian religion.” Here, a pivotal concept is the “iron crucible,” an alchemical metaphor for the sojourn in Egypt, where identities mixed and where the Jewish religion was refined through its contact with paganism, and is thus viewed as positive theological experiment.
13) What is his concept of a relational dependence of other religions with Judaism?
Benamozegh articulated a notion of interdependence that should replace tolerance and he uses a few operative concepts in order to promote his views and compares religions to a family or an organism. For instance, if religions are equated with the children in a family, Judaism would thus be the priestly religion because it is the oldest monotheism and traditionally the eldest child in a family was dedicated to priesthood: he thus equates Judaism with priesthood (thus also tacitly drawing on the theological notion of a nation of priests, found priestly mission to the nations) but he hasten to add: “ what greater absurdity by the way than priests without laity?”. He couched these views on interdependence in a scientific language and described society as a large organism: mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes. He took that organic metaphor to describe “humanity or the world of nations,” or “the civil world of the nations”= whereby every nation has a role, with Israel – the eldest – being the priestly one, in a well-known trope of mission to the world. One can grasp one of the tensions in Benamozegh’s system here; even if this construct conveys a sense of hierarchy it also expresses a singular born out of a plural, a universalism born out of differences and an interdependence, which is more lasting than toleration.
Benamozegh’s contribution is to demonstrate in Judaism the relation between particularism and universalism- “a particularism that conditions universality,” in the words Levinas’ who articulated the same thought in his essay “A religion for adults.” Although Levinas would have likely objected to the metaphors of organs and body parts since these seem very functionalist and have articulated this interconnection based on the responsibility toward the other, irreducible to rationality or vitalism (which ewere especially fraught references in the wake of Nazism), but what Benamozegh sought to convey, steeped as he was in a language of positivism, was that the interconnectedness, and the indispensable nature of all nations and facets of humanity.
14) What were the biggest insights from looking at the full manuscript of Benamozegh, which removed passages taught the most?
Until now, however, no close reading and comparison of Benamozegh’s manuscript to the one published by Pallière in 1914 had been done. Such a comparison constitutes a critical part of my book as I gained access to the 1900-page text, certainly not the first draft but an intermediary stage, which resides in the archive of the Jewish community in Livorno.
The close reading and the analysis of the text has enabled me to shed new light on Benamozegh’s thought and probe the deep influence of the Christian thinker Gioberti. While his ideas, and his faulty French based on Italian , the urge to compress many ideas into one sentence, the subsequent run-on sentences, called for extensive edits, Pallière did not “Christianize” the texts. Many of the mentions of Jewish universalism were actually present early on in Benamozegh’s earlier work, and especially in his 1885 introduction to this opus magnum in which he claimed that the notion of common humanity made Judaism all the more relevant for his time because it never ceased to talk to “humanity about humanity.”
15) Why was his Biblical commentary put in Herem?
Benamozegh’s five volumes commentary came out between 1862 and 1865: it included non-Jewish material as well thinkers such as Spinoza and Voltaire and comparisons between Greek and rabbinical sources.
A few years later, the Aleppo rabbis put the book in herem, thus condemning it to be banned and burned. The rationale for this very rare act of censorship was twofold – first, Benamozegh’s claim that the use of external (non-Jewish) texts could advance knowledge of the Torah and second, that comparisons between the Torah and pagan mythologies – and Christian scriptures – were acceptable.
The measure appears all the harsher given that the commentary accompanied the text of the Torah itself, and thus burning the book meant burning the sacred text, which is proscribed unless the commentary is written by a heretic (See Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah)
Yaron Harel has shed light on this internal dynamic in the Aleppo community that led to this episode: in spite of Benamzoegh’s reputation for orthodoxy, the rabbis felt compelled to reject his “Westernized” treatment of the Bible to better combat a budding reform community in their midst. Following this humiliating episode Benamozegh wrote a long defense in the newspaper Ha Levanon where he claimed to be only following in the Jewish tradition but – except for a long responsum on cremation (which he opposed because it is against Orthodox Judaism but nevertheless stressed that, should this act be performed, it was a duty to bury the ashes)- he never wrote in Hebrew again, and turned to Italian and French in an effort to expand his readership and offer a vibrant defense of Judaism geared toward Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.
In 1996, Eve Ensler broke ground with a play called The Vagina Monologues, consisting of a series of episodic narratives. Based on over 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women, the play addressed women’s sexuality and the social stigma creating a new conversation about and with women. The play explores consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, vaginal care, menstrual periods, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences. Critics consider the work as one the most important pieces of political theater of the last decades. In 2018, The New York Times stated “No recent hour of theater has had a greater impact worldwide”
Every year, the play is performed on hundreds of college campuses. Inspired by The Vagina Monologues, many colleges have gone on to develop their own version based on the life experiences of its students. Performances at colleges are always different, not always pre-written, and feature actors writing their own monologues. The Cardinal Newman Society has criticized the performance of the play on Catholic college campuses. Yet, in 2011 ten of the fourteen Catholic universities hosting the Monologues were Jesuit institutions. What would the Monologues look like if performed on a Modern Orthodox campus?
The volume is a collection of 32 individual narratives by Jewish women on a mission to break the taboo surrounding female sexuality in their religious communities. Featuring a mix of poetry and prose, all the pieces in the book are personal, raw, and enrapturing. They capture the that conversations about female sexuality have happened in Orthodox communities. Inside, dozens of stories, poems and musings — some anonymous — grapple with those conversations and their effects on women.
Makom is a Hebrew word that literally means place, but is also the common euphemism for vagina throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature. The authors wished to reclaim the very word the Rabbinic sages used to sanitize the mention of our sexual organs.
The project is the brainchild of Sara Rozner Lawrence. Rozner was a freshman at Stern College for women when she attended a production of The Vagina Monologues. Rozner found that though she related to many parts of the show, it did not fully speak to her experience as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she sought a place where her own identity would be represented. She also knew her friends would not be comfortable at the original The Vagina Monologues. The book grew out of three evening of personal narrative, none of them held on the actual campus of Stern College. The first one, held in a friend’s apartment, surprised her by having sixty people show up. The next two had many more show up at the auditorium venue.
Sara Rozner Lawrence recounts in the book’s introduction “that she went to a pretty mainstream Modern Orthodox school and sex was just something that was never considered safe to touch. My mom assumed wrongly that I was getting the information at school and I wasn’t, and I graduated knowing basically nothing. Monologues from the Makom was born from a backdrop of silence.” Rozner narrates how, when she “was a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, sex was not something we talked about. While there were vague references to the shadowy world of “relations,” they were always accompanied with warnings and shaming terms so that we would know it was wrong. The well-intentioned educators in my all-girls schools made their best efforts to instill in us both a sense that our bodies were holy and that they were dangerous, a source of inadvertent temptation for men.”
Rozner describes how “silence and secrecy about sex breed shame. When something as developmentally central as sexuality is ignored by parents and educators, many children naturally come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong and shameful and embarrassing about it. Rozner, who is now a Clinical Psychology doctoral student, emphatically states that “many young adults in our community are left with a lingering sense of guilt about their sexuality even as they attempt to enter into fulfilling sexual relationships.”
The book is groundbreaking and will serve as a historic marker for a new generation of Modern Orthodox leaders. In order not to be mansplaining to anyone, I will let the editors speak for themselves. I would also appreciate women who have different views to write a response to be posted in future weeks.
Of the five editors, Rozner already gave her views in the book’s introduction. Below is an interview with three of the other editors. The three editors, Sarah J. Ricklan, Naima Hirsch, and Rivka Cohen answered my questions. Each editor contributes her own personal perspective. Their personal differences in content and style are consistent throughout.
Sarah J. Ricklan is a third year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Her academic interests and research include human evolution, women’s health, and access to healthcare.
Naima Hirsch is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as clergy. She serves on the leadership team of the Beis Community in Washington Heights.
Rivka Cohen is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Development at Lissan, a nonprofit that promotes equality in East and West Jerusalem through language education.
1) What are young Orthodox women doing reading Eve Ensler?
Rivka Cohen: I attended The Vagina Monologues during my sophomore year of college. While I grew up with many feminist values, it was not until I started college that I started associating with the label. By the time I learned about The Vagina Monologues during my second year of college, I had already become comfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, and understood that the The Vagina Monologues held an important place in the feminist movement. Many of my feminist friends were attending the play, and some were even performing in it. I felt a curiosity, and perhaps even an obligation to attend.
More importantly, the group that performed The Vagina Monologues hosted a number of events during Vagina Week, the week leading up to the performance. Just a year and a half prior, I had chosen not to attend any of the sex-related sessions at orientation, because I thought that they did not apply to me. However, during Vagina Week, a sexologist came to speak, and as a 21-year-old struggling with the religious norm of not touching men (shmirat negiah), I felt like it was time to push my intellectual boundaries, learn more about sexuality, and explore my own. I remember feeling torn between the secular feminist culture that told me that I should be completely sexually liberated, and my conservative Orthodox culture that told me that I should be completely sexually repressed. However, I am very grateful for the opportunity that The Vagina Monologues offered me to think more deeply about my sexuality, which felt like a turning point for me.
Sarah J. Ricklan: I think some people are drawn initially to Eve Ensler’s work because of its place in the feminist movement and the initiatives that have grown out of The Vagina Monologues; her play highlights the multifaceted experience of womanhood across cultures. This play was the launching point for Monologues from the Makom events – which later gave rise to the book – because Ensler’s monologues, though broad ranging, do not perfectly capture the observant female experience. Perhaps one reason the Monologues from the Makom events were so appealing to young observant women is that, in watching or reading Ensler’s play, they realize just how much of their own experience is not captured.
For example, Ensler gives the female body – its actual body parts – a brash, explicit, unapologetic voice. Several of the women in this book do not feel the level of comfort, ownership, and understanding of one’s body that is required to write in that way. The first piece in this book, “Subjectivity,” discusses the alienation one woman feels from her own body, saying “…of course, it’s the soul that’s important/ But it’s my body that has me HERE/ And I’m living within the walls of a stranger’s home” (p. 1).
2) This book is written as 32 first-person accounts. Why is first person narrative effective?
SJR: The role of narrative is critical. Within the framework of Jewish feminist thought, Judith Plaskow argues that narrative can be a way to reclaim Jewish women’s history. She argues that we need to focus on Jewish women’s stories in Jewish texts and history, to the point of even coming up with our own exegetical stories, or ‘midrashim,’ that reflect the female role. In this vein, in using narrative, the writers in this book claim their position within Jewish lived practice. The narrative brings their voices into practices and spaces that were not previously performed or occupied by women, or not previously spoken about in women’s voices.
But it’s not just about claiming a place within the community. The descriptions women use in this piece are vivid and at times incredibly painful to read. Narrative and storytelling, then, serve as media for descriptive writing that forces the reader to consider the emotional toll these experiences within the community have had. We are forced to question the systems we’ve created that can produce these experiences.
Naima Hirsch: In her introduction to the book, Sara Rozner Lawrence writes about her concerns before the first Monologues from the Makom event: “I thought that at most 20 people would come and that I would have to beg my friends to share monologues” (xiv). After the performance where over 60 women attended and 17 women performed, “at least a dozen women approached [Rozner Lawrence]…to tell [her] that they had deeply needed this gathering, that it had spoken to the discomfort and shame that they were still grappling with” (xv). Coming together to hear individual stories about sexuality, gender, and body image helped women feel that they weren’t alone in their shame, nor do they have to suffer through it alone.
3) How does this book relate to #Metoo and consent?
SJR: We were already working on the book when the #MeToo movement became a larger part of societal conversation. We thought this was a critical moment of reckoning, so we decided to put out another call for submissions that dealt with themes relating to #MeToo and consent. In the final product, several pieces discuss rape and sexual assault within the community.
Strikingly, several pieces talk about assault within Orthodox institutions — and argue that these institutions did not equip them with the tools they needed. In the piece “It’s Different Than the Movies,” the author talks about an early Modern Orthodox high school relationship that ended with a sexual encounter that was not consensual. As the author reflects on the experience, she notes that she “…didn’t learn the word consent until college” (p. 31) and “…”wish[es] [her] high school feared less about students having sex, and more about students being abused” (p. 31). In another piece, “Shame,” the author talks about how she blamed herself for a sexual assault at an Orthodox summer camp and how this experience affected her future relationships.
RC: I would like to add that this book also includes positive accounts of consent. Notably, in the piece “Love on the Brain,” the author offers a beautiful and poetic account of her first kiss, including the dialogue that transpired between her and her partner. She recounts how he asked her “Are you okay?” and “You have to tell me if anything makes you uncomfortable or if you want to stop. Promise?” (p. 83) giving us a positive example of what healthy consent and respecting boundaries can look like.
4) The tensions around first kisses, first awakening of sexuality, first period, are all part of general American life. Why bother to bring in Judaism or Orthodoxy?
SJR: This book is different from prior narrative works about growing into one’s female sexuality because it presents experiences of both being observant and being a woman; growing up female while growing up observant creates a new dimension of experience.
For example, girls are encouraged to be “good girls”, which means they should be sexually conservative, avoid having sex young, and avoid having multiple sex partners. Observant Jews are given religious laws related to dress and modesty, as well as laws restricting touch between girls and boys. An observant woman who breaks the “rules” experiences sexual guilt for not being a “good girl” in combination with deep religious guilt. But these guilts are not merely additive – they produce a crisis that seems to exceed each individual “guilt”.
The intersection of these two teachings is expressed well in the piece in our volume “I am.” The author writes, “This body,/ I was taught,/ Is holy, is sacred, belongs to God./ Keep it covered/ To protect my dignity” (p. 5). The author’s dignity – her status as a “good girl” – is contingent upon the modesty dictated by her religion. But preserving her “dignity” not only preserves the author’s social reputation — it also preserves her holiness. So when the author breaks the rules of modest dress, she feels “no longer holy” (p. 5) and engages in a harmful sexual relationship. As the author heals from this sexual wound, she must reclaim not just her sense of self-worth, but also her sense of holiness.
NH: The tensions and expectations surrounding first kisses, sexual awakenings, and first periods have only relatively recently become part of general American life. It is because of young adult writers like Judy Blume that all of these tensions are common topics and themes in books, TV shows, and movies. Blume’s bestselling books Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970); Deenie (1973); and Forever (1975) and their frank portrayals of puberty, female masturbation, and sex brought the tensions teenaged girls were (and still are) experiencing into the public discourse, and gave Western media more tropes for their media set in middle and high schools.
There’s the ever-present cheerleader versus band geek dichotomy; the parties; the middle school dances and homecoming games. What does it mean to be a “good girl?” Does enjoying sex make you a slut? What’s the value in waiting until prom to lose your virginity? Everyone else has had their first kiss, so you might as well “get it over with…” You don’t want the other girls to see you change in the locker room because you’re still wearing a training bra, so you change in the bathroom stall and wait for them all to leave…
While many of those tensions and questions are present in Jewish culture, we have a different set of tropes that sometimes bring up different issues. For a number of reasons, environments like summer camp and youth groups become hypersexualized places where preteens and teenagers explore their sexuality, often in unhealthy ways. While camp is often a place for such experimentation, the subconscious messaging around Jewish continuity both at camp and in youth groups, especially outside of Orthodoxy, creates an even more hypersexualized environment. Additionally, the concept of a “nice Jewish boy” and “nice Jewish girl” (or NJB or NJG, as shortened on dating apps like JSwipe) become stereotypes and fetishizations; making even Judaism itself sexual.
This is often more fraught within Orthodoxy, because of the tension surrounding not being part of general American life that Orthodox Jews struggle with daily. We’re instructed not to be like average American teenagers: not to have sex or anything close to it, and to get married and have kids young. But we still exist in the world of general American life. We still watch the same movies and have the same bodies and desires. We still have friends who are boys (at least in the Modern Orthodox world), and we still struggle how to navigate the awkward situations when we start having feelings for those friends, or when they start having feelings for us.
There’s a lot of shame and stigma in the Orthodox world around these issues used to create silence and enforce complacency and conformity. But as the daughters of women who grew up reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, we can see how speaking up and writing about our experiences can be empowering. By creating ways to own our narratives, we can truly appreciate the universal experiences contained therein.
5) How do you envision a sex positive approach in Modern Orthodox day schools and summer camps?
NH: Sex positivity begins with teaching consent from a young age. Toddlers and preschoolers need to be taught that when their friend tells them not to, they need to stop touching them, no matter what. Similarly, boundaries need to be honored and respected from a young age. If a preschooler is being tickled, and they say “no more!”, the adult tickling them needs to stop right away, whether or not the child is laughing. Additionally, kids need to know the proper names for all body parts from a young age. By using euphemisms to talk about penises or vaginas, kids will sense that their genitalia are something to be ashamed about.
SJR: I don’t think that sex positivity is the goal. Instead, I think reducing shame and alienation from one’s body and sexuality should be the goal. “The Girl Who Loved Masturbating/My Complicated Relationship with Masturbation” describes the problem of shame surrounding sexuality. In this story, the author talks about the first time she experienced an orgasm through masturbation and the shame she felt surrounding this pleasure. She says she “… quickly began to hate [herself] for having dirty thoughts” (p. 25). She expresses the “relief” (p. 26) she felt when she learned that sexual pleasure within marriage was encouraged — finally, a sense of sex positivity.
As this story suggests, waiting until marriage to acknowledge sexuality can create feelings of self-loathing and guilt. Eliminating the taboo of pleasure does not necessarily mean encouraging sex in day schools and camps. Instead, it allows young people to understand their bodies in appropriate, healthy, and safe ways. Critically, within the framework of Jewish institutions, consent must be a focus. Even if things like consent are not taught from a young age, they should be taught in high school.
RC: I think that we need to change the way we teach such topics as not touching members of a different sex (shmirat negiah), masturbation, and modesty (tzniut).
The often-all-or-nothing approach to shmirat negiah is unsustainable, in my opinion. The concept was codified for a society and dating scene that is far removed from our current reality. And when teenagers or even adults inevitably “break shomer,” they are not given the tools to set healthy boundaries for themselves and others. I think that tying the concept of shmirat negiah to consent, rather than “saving oneself for marriage,” is a much healthier approach. I would like to see religious education emphasizing the value of having ownership over one’s own body and setting healthy boundaries for different types of relationships, rather than shaming all physical contact that happens outside of marriage.
I also believe that we need to do away with the outright shaming of masturbation. For women, this issue is even easier to navigate halakhically, and girls should know that masturbation is normal, healthy, and nothing to be ashamed of. They should be taught about their basic anatomy, even as it pertains to pleasure and not just reproduction. No girl should leave high school without knowing where her clitoris is, or which hole is which.
6) Is this even feasible, since Orthodox institutions by their nature are socially conservative and not sex positive (at best neutral)?
NH: I think it depends how we define sex positive. Right now, as I see it, Orthodox institutions (such as day schools and summer camps) are in active denial about the urgent need for sex education. I do think that schools need to teach about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships. They need to acknowledge that their students will be sexually active in some way or another, not shame them for that, and make sure that there are resources available to keep their students medically and emotionally safe. I certainly do not think day schools should provide condoms, but I do think that they should teach about different forms of contraception.
SJR: I think it is also important for Orthodox institutions to realize just how harmful some conservative messages can be. In “Consent,” the author describes her abstinence education in school. She was told that “A diamond is most safe when it remains under key,/ Candy most desired when it is still in the wrapper” (p. 38). In the end, these lessons make the author create a distorted image of her own body. She writes the following about this distortion: “when I close my eyes, my body is finite/ it is a countable number of pieces I give away, in mouths and hands/ until I am left with nothing/ it has never belonged to me” (p. 39). The author’s abstinence education has not made her feel safe and in control of her body. Instead, she feels her body is not even her own — it belongs to whichever men she chooses (illicitly) to give it to. Even in socially conservative institutions, we should recognize that this result is tragic.
7) How do you envision modesty (tzniut) if one is sex positive?
SJR: I think we need to reframe the modesty (tzniut) discussion, especially in the context of the Jewish day school dress code. The dress code debate is an old one, but it’s worth seriously considering the messages we send about the female body when we enforce dress codes that are so different between boys and girls. I think this could be a chance to discuss professionalism — in all its complicated nuances — with young adults. What do we expect a Jewish day school student to look like? Why do we expect that? Disentangling tzniut and sexuality or sexualization is incredibly difficult, but it might help to start by being honest with ourselves and with our students about what these sorts of messages convey.
NH: Tzniut and sex positivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can be. I think we have to acknowledge that for some people, being sex positive means not dressing in a traditionally modest (tzanua) way. There are also different ways to measure tzniut – I don’t think that a woman who wears pants or even shorts is automatically not tzanua. It’s about the context in which one wears those clothing items, and the genre of those items, for lack of a better term. There’s a difference between basketball shorts worn to run errands and tight shorts worn to attract attention, and similarly with dresses and skirts. There’s a fashion rule about wearing the clothing instead of letting the clothing wear you – and I think that applies here. Clothing is meant to be a way of expressing ourselves; our tastes and identities, not our bodies.
SJR: I think when we discuss tzniut, even if we don’t veer towards sex positivity, we can eliminate the shame and alienation that often results. This is articulated well in the poem “I have been trying to write this all week.” The author, when discussing her decision to dress according to the halakhic rules of modesty (tzniut), expresses frustration that these rules have caused girls to feel shame about their bodies. She writes that these rules “…teach young girls that they are something to hide/ That their bodies are ugly/ That even their voices are promiscuous/ That they should not be heard, but not seen either” (p. 11). As it stands in many Modern Orthodox institutions, girls learn to develop bodily shame that can and should be avoided — without necessarily being sex positive as such.
RC:Tzniut should not be about saving your body for your husband, nor should dressing “less tznius-ly” be about attracting others’ attention. I would like to see a sex positive culture that encourages girls and women to know and love their bodies, and to dress like they know and love their bodies – feeling comfortable in their skin and clothes for their own sake, and no one else’s.
We need to reevaluate how we teach the values of tzniut, taking care that we do not enter the realms of body shaming or slut shaming. I would like to see religious education emphasize knowing and loving our bodies and wearing attire that is both appropriate to specific settings and makes us feel comfortable. I find that the specific lines drawn for dress codes can often disadvantage bigger or more developed girls, and we need to be careful that we are treating everyone fairly and with respect, even if they have different body types. Additionally, I do not think it is that difficult to set dress codes in co-ed settings that fit both boys and girls (covering shoulders, shorts to your knees, etc.) I believe that having one set of rules for all can help minimize the shame that girls are often made to feel when they are given a special set of rules purely around their bodies.
Additionally, regarding summer camps, I think it is important to note that parents should be held accountable for the clothing with which they send their children to camp. I have encountered multiple girls who come to camp with clothing that does not fit the dress code, and therefore need to change their outfits almost every day. It is unfair of parents to send their child to camp with clothing that does not fit the rules, and we need to take care not to shame or blame the child, but to address the parents more clearly on this issue.
Addressing sexuality in summer camps is a critical issue. Camps are often ripe with bullying, shaming, sexual tension, and peers educating their peers. Moreover, children are supervised by teenagers, who are often in the process of their own budding sexuality and are not equipped with the tools to handle conversations about sexuality with their campers. In recent years, I am happy to note that there has been increased emphasis on sexual harassment prevention at camps, but I think we need to go beyond that. I strongly believe that pre-camp staff training should include conversations about sexuality, how to engage with your campers in a healthy way when they talk about sexual activity, and how to pay attention to potential bullying and shaming that may be happening specifically around sex. When I was a camp counselor, I was not given the tools to facilitate these conversations with my campers when they inevitably arose.
8) How does the book pay attention to an embodied female body?
SJR: Understanding female embodiment involves examining how the physical female body affects women’s experiences. Some pieces describe female embodiment of male religious settings. In “The Lady in Lime-Green,” the author describes the “stares” (p. 58) she endured for wearing a kippah as a woman. In “Bound,” the author describes the difference in physicality between her and her male counterparts as she is not expected to wrap tefillin. She writes that her arms are “smooth, unbound” (p. 63). When excluded from participating in Simchat Torah, the author of “Invisibility” describes feeling her lack of embodiment in the synagogue service, writing that, “…here in this balcony, in these most sacred moments, [she doesn’t] inhabit a body as [she] and the women around [her] participate in nothing at all” (p. 15). Participation requires embodiment — and in some religious spaces, there is no room for the female body. Women are left to either give female physicality to male rituals or not exist in those spaces at all.
Some pieces describe what it is like to encounter another female body in a sexual way. In “An Empty Place,” the author describes her first sexual experience with another woman. She describes “…something thrilling about two of the same mold swaying with open-mouthed wonder at the majestic beauty of their own self-sufficiency” (p. 20). Her appreciation and reflection on the sexual female body — represented by both her own and her partner’s bodies, and their interaction — allows her to better understand how female bodies navigate their worlds.
But such an acknowledgement of the sexual female body can be dangerous. In “Lucy, I Love You,” the author describes seeking out and enjoying pornography to satisfy her sexual desire for other women. She thinks about the actress’s “glorious body” (p. 23), but at the same time, she knows she “…cannot acknowledge the basic and simple joy, the beautiful life-affirming pleasure of exchanging caresses with [her] female lovers because to do that would be instant social death” (p. 23). As she discovers her appreciation for the female body, she realizes she must keep this desire quiet or sacrifice the life she has built.
10) How does your book relate to self-judging and identity formation?
SJR: Women in this book reflect upon how they formed their identity — how they came to be themselves. In doing so, their judgments about themselves often seem negative or ambivalent until they are able to reconcile conflicting thoughts and emotions. For example, many pieces in the book discuss sexual identity development. As sexuality and gender clash with other parts of their identities, particularly those dictated by their communities, some authors feel shame and negative self-regard.
RC: As I wrote in my own piece, “Touching Boy,” after touching my first boyfriend for the first time, “I still considered myself shomer negiah. The shame would be too much to bear otherwise. Being shomer negiah defined me.” (p. 80) Not touching men (shmirat negiah) had been a core element of my identity in unhealthy way, and when I didn’t uphold the expectations that I had for myself or felt pressured to uphold by the Orthodox community, I developed an extreme case of cognitive dissonance — telling myself I was keeping the rules even when I wasn’t — so that I did not have to deal with negative self-judgment or come to terms with my sexuality in a healthy manner.
Many other pieces in the book also relate to questioning and coming to terms with one’s own identity. In particular, two of the pieces that discuss menstruation contain such questions with a clear tie between menstruation and identity.
The book also delves into identity-formation as it relates to how others perceive us. In “Synonyms,” the author grapples with how others view her identity as a woman in religious spaces: “I will never understand why my gender is a controversy/ Why my identity is a question/ Why the way I was born is unfortunate.” (p. 70).
11) How does the book deal with an open discussion of menstruation? What is new here, haven’t there been 40 years of young adult books and after school specials on the topic?
SJR: Simone de Beauvoir famously argues that women experience shame as they enter puberty and begin menstruating. Fortunately, in general American culture, more open discussion of menstruation is on the rise. But the discussion surrounding menstruation in this book reflects the ways in which various aspects of observant life complicate the way women view their own menstruation — and suggests that a general American discussion of menstruation is simply not good enough.
One major example of this phenomenon relates to laws of family purity (taharat hamishpaha). In “Welcome to Womanhood,” the author, noting that her “femininity and [her] Jewish identity were entangled” (p. 46), tells the reader that, “The crimson clots named [her] ‘woman;’/ [Her] religion named them ‘dirty.’” (p. 46). A similar sentiment is expressed in my own contribution, “Private Places,” where I, upon preparing for ritual immersion for the first time, “felt that resentment, that sharp, debilitating sting that comes with realizing what womanhood in my world seemed to mean” (p. 103). Given the significance of menstrual periods in Jewish observance and the invasive ritual needed to purify oneself from one’s periods, it seems impossible that a woman would not feel shame and bodily alienation — and this cannot be alleviated by the general American discourse.
But it’s important to note that some of the stories about menstruation do not feel unique to Judaism. In “Built-up Bravery,” one woman talks about the abnormal pain she felt during her periods. In “First Period,” the author discusses how she lost her period during her long-term eating disorder, and regaining her period allowed her to think about her sexual orientation.
Maybe these pieces show that the general American messaging surrounding menstruation has not seeped into observant life. More likely, however, it shows that observant women, too, still deal with shame and fear about our periods. We can’t shunt our communal responsibility to discuss these topics over to mainstream media — our girls deserve a chance to have their own conversation, even if their perspectives are not uniquely influenced by their religion.
12) I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain. Any thoughts?
RC: Some of our authors have expressed that being part of this book has acted as part of their healing process. Many have found writing about their experiences to be therapeutic and pushing themselves to publish their work – even anonymously – was an act of bravery that has helped them to heal.
Moreover, many authors were nervous in the lead up to publication of the book, but once they read the book in its entirety, they felt more seen and heard than ever. These brave women bared their souls on these pages, and in doing so, created a conversation between one another in the book without ever having met. These women have described a kinship with one another, feeling held up by the other pieces in the book and knowing that they are not alone.
SJR: The tension between these two types of pieces is deeply troubling to me. Clearly, some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser. In these cases, the conflicts they faced regarding sexuality served as a constructive force in their lives and their development. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.
Many of the writers who seem to have moved forward talk about how much therapy, friends, and people outside the community have helped them emerge from their struggle. But those with unresolved pain seem very much alone, their pain hidden from view. I think there is a deep loneliness expressed in the pieces with unresolved pain.
I think that, within the observant community, and particularly in Modern Orthodox intellectual circles, we romanticize the personal, private struggle — the internal tension. We emphasize the value of constructive tension in our religious and personal growth. We learn about Rav Soloveitchik’s “dialectical tension” and the superior religious and moral life that emerges from independently struggling with conflicting ideas. And it’s true — struggle and tension can produce deep thought that can shape our personalities and beliefs.
But such tension about shame, abuse, and consent come at great psychological cost, especially when encountered alone. We should certainly work to reduce the sources of pain in our communities through a more robust discussion about sexuality and consent, for example. But if we cannot or are unwilling to completely eliminate the sources of tension, then we need to make sure our young people do not feel alone. Lonely struggle, as we have seen, is dangerous.
13) Are you not just an example of Modern Orthodoxy arriving at the same place that liberal Jewish feminists were at 30-40 years ago?
NH: While Modern Orthodoxy is only now beginning to acknowledge the marginalized voices of our communities as they are (namely women and LGBTQ people) and to have honest conversations about the challenges they face, I would not say the situations are the same. Yes, we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of empowering marginalized voices, but because the project of Orthodoxy is to live according to traditional Jewish law, the halakha; the results we are seeking are quite different. It is a more delicate balance to find a place of empowerment within a system of religious observance that is definitionally unequal – how far do we want to push the envelope?
I’ve always understood Orthodox feminism to be more like the liberal feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan than the radical feminism of Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Whereas Steinem and Freidan tried to work towards equality from within preexisting socioeconomic systems, Firestone and Koedt felt the solution to sexism could only come from a total revolution against what they saw as an intentionally patriarchal society. Similarly, Orthodox feminism has to work within the traditional halakhic framework from the inside out to make space for women’s voices to be heard and valued as opposed to tearing down and redefining the whole system from the outside.
SJR: There are absolutely similarities between the desires expressed by the women in this book and the desires voiced by liberal Jewish feminists decades ago. This is most notable in the pieces about ritual and prayer — women who authored pieces in our book express a desire to belong, ritually, within the community in a way that I think echoes the cries for inclusion that even Modern Orthodox feminists (and not only liberal Jewish feminists) had decades ago. The fact that we are still hearing these voices, though, should be troubling. As far as observant feminism has come, women are still fundamentally excluded in many ways.
RC: I do not think that this book is exclusively about the Modern Orthodox experience; some of our authors do not define themselves as Orthodox. Women from more liberal streams of Judaism will also see themselves in this book. We are all grappling with many of these issues – especially around sexuality and consent. Perhaps the Orthodox community is further behind than others, but we all have work to do.
14) Is this book a way station out of Orthodoxy for some of you? Rachel Adler sounded like this as a young Orthodox feminist in the 1970’s and then rejected the entire system.
SJR: This book is not a way out of observant Judaism,although it is a fair critique. Several pieces do note the kinds of problems feminists like Rachel Adler identify — the masculine language in prayer (p. 15, 68) and the patriarchal emphasis in scripture (p. 64, 66).
But I do not think this kind of thinking seeks to reject the system. To the contrary, I think the book shows a deep amount of love and respect for the observance system, to the point of wanting more than anything to be included. In “The Lady in Lime Green,” the author describes how her outward religious observance of wearing a kippah, though considered inappropriate for a woman, expresses her commitment to halakhic life. Other authors express appreciation of tefillin as a way to express religious commitments and struggles. The author of “Synonyms” describes that she wishes she could, as a woman, dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah.
This yearning desire to be embraced by Orthodoxy is seen vividly in “Invisibility.” The author, when a teacher suggests that she leave Orthodoxy, finds herself in crisis. The pain the author pens as she describes being kept on the outside is heartbreaking. These women do not want to reject the system. They want their place within the system. This book tells the community — in the most poignant language — just how tragic it is to reject committed, devoted coreligionists.
RC: In all honesty, this book definitely is a reflection of many women’s struggles with Orthodox Judaism. Not all of the authors define themselves as Orthodox, even if they were raised in Orthodox communities and are still observant. Many of us are still finding our communities and identities. I think especially for those of us who are single, there is a struggle to maintain the delicate balance of sex positivity, or even feminism, and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox community does not carve out a clear space for “older” single women in many ways, and it is difficult to balance competing values of halakha, feminism, and just being human. However, everyone who had a hand in making this book happen cares deeply about furthering these conversations within the observant Jewish community because we love and care about it and want to make it a better place.