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Sexually Speaking, in Hebrew

by Carl Bindman February 2, 2016
Sexually Speaking, in Hebrew

Looking into Jewish understandings of love and relationships, one Rabbi at a time

I have a confession to make: I’m not a very good Jew. I’m barely informed about my own culture, and I’m not okay with that. So, I figured I’d take this outlet and explore my heritage using a language I know: love.

Graphic by Thomas Bell.

Graphic by Thomas Bell.

Since I’m Jewish in the loosest sense, I figured I should find people who are in the know. Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Reform synagogue Temple Beth-Emanu-El-Sholom knows what’s up. “If you have a question, find someone Jewish and ask,” she said. “And then don’t assume that their answer is true for every Jew!”

Rabbi Grushcow is a Reform rabbi, and she sees a lot of romance in scripture. Her approach to the Torah can best be summed up by her progressive understanding of even the most “infamous” verses. She points to Leviticus, which states that a man shouldn’t lie with a man as a woman. “The best take I’ve ever heard on that verse is that if you’re a man sleeping with a man, you shouldn’t pretend you’re sleeping with a woman—own your desires, and be at home with your partner and in your own skin,” she said.

The Rabbi also said Judaism espouses qualities that make for good relationships. “Since ancient times, Judaism has emphasized the importance of sexual pleasure, consent, and respect,” she said.

To her, sexuality and spirituality aren’t disparate for Jews—or for anybody. By remembering their origins in the Torah—as people made in the image of God—Jews can see that sexuality has a spark of the divine. After all, sexuality is intrinsic to identity, she said.

Dr. Norma Joseph, associate director of Concordia’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, also thinks about sexuality as a facet of identity—among many other things. She said younger Jews tend not to think about it quite as much, though.

Many people, Joseph said, are looking for other people that they’ll be comfortable with. “But they haven’t ever deconstructed what that means, being comfortable,” she said. Sharing a religion or religious traditions are, in her thinking, a way of looking further than initial sexual attraction or liking the same movies.

“For an Ashkenazi, is it someone I can eat gefilte fish with? Is there something that will make them amenable to understanding my background? It becomes a fascinating world to try and figure out what are the bases for your choices,” she said.

Naturally, religion and tradition help inform those choices. She said a lot of younger Jews don’t consciously think about what that means—of how their identities play into who they date.

Younger people might say, in her words: “I’m a Jew, sure, but I’m going out for beer tonight so what does it matter?”

An example of what an actual young person might say: “My faith hasn’t really had an impact on my romantic relationships.”

That’s what Daniel Smilovitch, a Concordia student, said. He said by going to Jewish elementary and high schools, his environment ended up influencing his relationships, but not what he looks for in a partner today. The traditions his family holds can make a difference anyway, like Friday night dinners where his partners can meet his family and get to know what his whole deal is.

Elisabeth Nyveen, also a Concordia student, sees it a little differently. “I honestly can’t imagine myself not being Jewish,” she said. “It’s such a huge part of my upbringing and how I see the world.” She said she feels love is an important building block in religion, but not the romantic kind—it’s the community. The biggest thing she takes into romantic relationships from her religion, she jokes, “is that my faith prevents me from finding happiness with anti-Semites.”

Julia Maman, a Concordia student and board member of Hillel, a Jewish association at Concordia, does think the spiritual connection is important in romance.

“It’s the feeling I get when I talk to someone who has the same spiritual balance that I do,” she said. “It’s just something more special that you share with another person.” But, in her life, community and tradition are huge factors too. “Judaism is different for every single Jew,” she said.

Joseph said that the ideal of the religion is a person who cares, yes about their family, but also about their community and the world in general—and who works towards those ends.

Grushcow sees it similarly. “I think that religion, tradition, spirituality—choose the word you like best—is meant to help us become our best selves, on our own and with each other. I happen to think that’s hot.”

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