Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 14). Jennie made aliyah last year and is currently a Junior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where she is writing a book on sexual ethics for Orthodox singles, and a Talmud teacher at Havruta, the Bet Medrash for students of the Hebrew University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I didn’t anticipate linking my thoughts on the need for a sexual ethic in the Orthodox world today to the parasha. However, upon reading through Parashat Va-yeira and being struck by the many questions of sexual morality that it raises, I couldn’t resist.
In a parasha rife with the anti-ethical in the sexual realm, I want to focus on Lot. The men of Sodom surround Lot’s house demanding his visitors—“that we may know them [carnally]” (19:5). Lot responds, offering the townspeople his two virgin daughters instead—“and you may do with them whatever you like”—as long as they do not harm the guests (19:8). Those same virgin daughters end up sleeping with Lot later in the chapter and bearing his children.
Lot’s response to the townspeople is mind-boggling: If Lot was trying to stand up for sexual morality, how did he dare offer his virgin daughters as sex toys, and if Lot had no sense of sexual ethics, then why didn’t he give over his guests? I think that Lot’s response exhibits a halakhic formalism which has perhaps grown more acute with time. Let me explain: Lot was no stranger in Avraham’s house, and from Avraham he learned the importance of always welcoming guests. Lot took this mitzvah so seriously that it literally trumped all other considerations. For a father not to realize that there is something wrong with offering his virgin daughters to the hungry crowd in the spirit of protecting his guests, is warped; and yet Lot didn’t realize. Lot wasn’t trying to be cruel—he was just clueless. Lot didn’t know how to order his values and therefore didn’t appreciate that in the hierarchy of things protecting his guests was important, but it should not be done at the expense of protecting his own children. He had no independent sense of a sexual ethic or moral standard; he had only the one mitzvah that he learned in Avraham’s house, and, ironically, that mitzvah led him astray in this instance.
Today, I believe that the Orthodox world faces a challenge which has much in common with the challenge faced by Lot. It is the challenge of setting priorities, of weighing the various values (both Jewish and otherwise) that we hold dear, and making difficult choices about their hierarchy. Often, like Lot, we are ill-equipped to use our own judgment in making these decisions because we simply have not developed our own moral sense.
In the Orthodox world today, we are plagued by halakhic formalism, halakhocentrism, and halakhic perfectionism. It is a taking too far of the Talmudic adage that “From the day of the Temple’s destruction, G-d has nothing in this world other than the four cubits of halakhah” (Berakhot 8a). Post-Temple religion has become narrow. No longer is there the potential for knowing G-d in a myriad of ways. But one avenue for religious expression remains and that avenue is law, or halakhah.
This halakhic formalism is the root of many ills in the Orthodox community, which spill over into almost every realm of life and human interaction. In the sexual realm, this halakhic formalism can be particularly acute, with individuals feeling that halakhic observance is all that counts, and allowing the more human aspects of sexual interaction to fall by the wayside. In my own work I have focused on singles and on the need to create a sexual ethic which can speak to Orthodox singles today even when they may violate the halakhah. Judith Plaskow writes about the gap that all types of Jews are feeling in the sexual realm between the mandates of halakhah and their own sexual lives, and the way that this gap leaves a void in which Judaism can’t speak to this most significant area of people’s lives. That is tragic.
Reading through the Talmud in particular leaves me with the sense that halakhah is only the beginning; it is only one slice of what Judaism has to say about sexuality. Talmudic narratives confront the complexity of integrating the halakhah into daily life, and show that even for the most righteous of our sages, this integration was far from seamless. Stories of sexual sin and struggle make the point that halakhah can be honored in its observance as well as in the breach, however, they are also sometimes able to teach us something deeper about the sexual ethic that we must uphold whether or not we uphold the halakhah itself.
I pray that we all learn something from Lot; that he inspire us to reexamine our own moral sense and return to the sources of our tradition for a sexual ethic which can address the needs of contemporary life.