Question and answer sites on the Internet have become the first public spaces where religious Zionist rabbis are asked questions regarding the body and sexuality. Research by Professor Avi Sagi and Yakir Englander reveals that in their responses, the rabbis often choose an approach that is fundamentalist and isolationist, increasingly reminiscent of the ultra-Orthodox world.
The sexual revolution was one of the major revolutions of the twentieth century. It centered on a change in the status of the body, with a particular focus on the means by which society constructs and controls the body. The accepted identification of sexuality with matter—with the animal components of man—was subject to sharp criticism. The sexual revolution ended the separation of body and soul, in which the body had been relegated to secondary status. Now man is perceived as a concrete being whose corporeality and sexuality are an integral part of his existence.
As a result of this change, a new awareness arose that the term “man” does not denote an abstract being associated with one characteristic or another, whether it be rationalism, creativity, or any other feature in the abstract. Now, the accepted approach is that human beings are primarily physical creatures. Sexuality is not an accidental element of human existence; on the contrary, it is what determines that existence.
Religious Zionism, as part of the modern Zionist revolution, also took the body out of the body-soul dichotomy, and placed it at the center of human activity. In the self-awareness of religious Zionist revolutionaries – represented, for example, in the motto of “Torah V’avoda” (literally, Torah and work) – returning special status to the body was a central part of the rehabilitation of Judaism.
From Chaim Elbaum’s film “And Thou Shalt Love”, with permission from the film’s website: www.shaltlove.com
Nonetheless, until the beginning of this century, religious Zionism was almost never called upon to take a stance with regard to sexuality, either in general or from the perspective of halakha. It was the technological changes at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the overlap of the virtual world with the halakhic realm, that required the leaders of religious Zionism to directly address sexuality for the first time. The focus of our research is on how religious Zionism copes with this challenge.
In the last decade, the halakhic discourse between rabbis and the religious public took place primarily on virtual Q&A – question and answer (‘shutim’) sites. Sites such as “Yeshiva,” “Kipa,” and “Moreshet” provide the public with access to a list of rabbis who read and respond to the halakhic questions directed to them. The questions are posed anonymously – thus protecting the questioners from exposure – and people can choose the rabbi to whom they wish to direct their questions. These conditions, which were previously nonexistent in the dialogue between rabbis and the public, allow questioners to reveal the secrets of their hearts, and demand that the rabbinic hegemony respond on sensitive subjects that until recently were almost never dealt with in public.
Even a cursory glance at the “hot” topics on the sites indicates that the religious-halakhic relationship with sexuality and physicality is of central concern for Internet questioners. Issues such as masturbation, homosexuality, and premarital sexual contact trouble thousands of questioners. It is important to bear in mind that while the halakhic responses on the site are addressed to the questioners, they are open to all readers. As a result, these virtual Q&A sites become a space in which the public is exposed to rabbinic ideology on the subjects being discussed. Additionally, virtual Q&A sites enable women, for the first time, to enter into direct and open dialogue with rabbis. They forward questions from their world, and often even respond to the rabbis, who must then deal with real women, not imaginary women.
In our book, “The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse,” which will be published soon (in Hebrew), we seek to monitor the new discourse developing in the early twenty-first century religious Zionist community regarding the body and sexuality through the examination of halakhic texts that appear in the dialogue between rabbis and the public. Our main conclusion is that the new religious Zionist discourse is defined by rising barriers that seek to isolate the religious Zionist discourse from the discourse of the “outside.” Here is historical irony: religious Zionism, which sought in its early days to be part of the modern Zionist revolution, is in face of the changes curling up protectively into an enclosed space and becoming increasingly similar to ultra-Orthodoxy, which never gave legitimacy to the body.
Among other topics, the book deals with halakha’s position on self-sexuality (masturbation) for men and women, as well as the autonomous sexuality of women (lesbianism) – in other words, sexuality that is not directed at men, and does not serve as a tool for them. Another chapter focuses on the gap that the hegemonic religious-Zionist discourse creates between ideal femininity and actual femininity.
It should be noted that in the past, various halakhic solutions were proposed for these problems, but paradoxically it is within the new discourse that those ideas have been rejected. The comparison between ideas raised in the past and the present halakhic responses allows us to examine the quality of the religious Zionist rulings, or at least of those of its rabbis, and their choosing a closed and fundamentalist dialogue with regard to women and men.
Even though the book primarily discusses the question of body and sexuality, a review of halakhic writings on the Q&A websites also reveals that virtual writing differs from classic halakhic writing: the halakhic ruler in the virtual world behaves like a Christian pastor, a spiritual shepherd who is called upon not just to interpret the sacred writings, but to actually save the souls of his flock. The rabbinic shepherd on the Internet does not stop at setting ideological goals for the questioner in line with “Da’at Torah"—he also analyzes the inner life of the questioner. He is a psychologist who enables the questioner to progress from his problematic psychological state to the realm of redemption, all the while critiquing the modern values that caused his problem in the first place.
An overview of the halakhic rulings indicate a dissonance between life in the religious world vis-à-vis the halakhic space. As Foucault writes, the exercise of power plants the seeds of resistance. The virtual rulings, and especially the responses of questioners to them, indicate dissatisfaction and even agitation and resistance to halakha. We do not know who will win this battle, but the very existence of this struggle demonstrates that the stable and solid religious Zionist identity, or the stable identity that it has pretended to represent, is weakening.
Professor Avi Sagi, head of the Culture and Interpretation program and a lecturer in philosophy at Bar Ilan University, is a faculty member and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Yakir Englander is a doctoral student who teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.