ArticlesVolume 15, Number 2 (2006)

Of Pearls and Fish: An Analysis of Jewish Legal Texts on Sexuality and Their Significance for Contemporary American Jewish Movements

Abstract

Analyzing halakhic texts provides insights into the past and present regulation of sexuality under Halakhah. This Article argues that halakhic conceptions of sexuality in Jewish texts, which promote the expression of heterosexual desire through marriage, form the basis of modem strategic readings of sacred texts that disenfranchise women in the process of divorce and reject homosexuality as a permissible sexual identity. Located in the family, where struggles between authority and the expression of sexuality commonly occur, these two issues illustrate how changes in American social norms may, or should, affect the interpretations and implementation of Halakhah by the rabbinical authorities of the modem Jewish movements.

Because Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism each approach Jewish texts and traditions differently, however, their decisions are tempered by their varying theological assumptions about the divine authority of sacred works. Nonetheless, each movement’s approach to sexuality has practical effects on the lives of American Jews who follow Halakhah. Consequently, Part II analyzes halakhic texts from past and present rabbinical perspectives that exemplify the laws regulating sexuality, focusing on the rabbinic preference for heterosexual desire as properly expressed in marriage. This Article examines the underlying