Jewish Theology after Google

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Written by Gabrielle Girau Pieck. Gabrielle Girau Pieck is a Jewish feminist theologian, math teacher and English teacher. She is on the board of the Interreligiöser Think Tank, a Swiss-wide institutionally independent inter-religious think tank. She lives in Basel, Switzerland with her husband and two sons.

Rated PG-13

In her Master’s thesis at the University of Basel, “Jewish Theology after Google: Post-Rabbinic and Post-Denominational Judaisms in a Digitized World,” Gabrielle Girau Pieck contends that the sacred space of libraries does not always translate to the digital world. Gabrielle Girau Pieck writes that she, like many Jews, have “turned more and more to the online world to satisfy my religious and theological needs.”

Gabrielle Girau Pieck sets out to answer the question of what Judaism can become in “a Google-shaped world.” Her thesis explores three online synagogues, a digital prayer book project an “online Jewish erotic site” and the ways in which digital media can shape and affect Jewish theology. “Digital media is bringing a new medium to Jewish theology,” she writes.

Below is her chapter on Jewrotica, reprinted in full.

Jewish Theology after Google: Post-Rabbinic and Post-Denominational Judaisms in a Digitized World

Jewrotica (http://jewrotica.org/)

There are many lists categorizing rabbis, from the 50 most influential rabbis of North America to the top ten female religious leaders in the United States. Jewrotica.org, an online Jewish erotic site, has come up with a new twist – the ten sexiest rabbis:

They have the stellar IQs of Mensa members. They’re also compassionate, kind — and smoking hot. They’re rabbis, people whom most of us think of as men with graying side curls, not guys and gals with washboard abs. After more than 5,000 years of Jewish existence, creators of the cheeky Jewrotica.org Web site thought it was time to honor Jewish leaders not just for their wisdom, but for a quality that the Jerusalem-based site’s co-creator David Abitbol calls “badassery.” (1)

Jewrotica’s deviation from the rabbinic model of rabbis as avatars of the Torah to rabbis as avatars of “badassery” is a complicated one as sexiness and sexuality have a rich and complex history within Judaism. Jewrotica aspires to use the Internet to give voice to Jewish sexual expression across practices, genres and denominations. The sexiest rabbis are one example. They include a brilliant orthodox rabbi who uses Twitter and Facebook to connect with his congregation, a Reconstructionist rabbi who caters to the GLBT crowd, a 63-year-old rabbi with many ex-wives, a Conservative rabbi who mixes prayer with jogging, a Reform rabbi who is the mother to five children, a Conservative rabbi who is also a lesbian Hebrew Priestess, as well as a Grateful Dead fan rabbi (2). This diverse crowd of rabbis exist easily side-by-side on Jewrotica’s website.

Ayo Oppenheimer, the founder of Jewrotica describes the website as “a spankin’ new project with the power to provide a voice for Jewish sexual expression and meaningful conversation. Jewrotica is an online community-in-the-making and a database of delicious and grin-inducing Jewish stories and confessions” (3). Giving a voice to Jewish sexual expression in itself is nothing new to the Jewish community. The Talmud abounds with rules and advice about sexual practices where almost nothing is taboo as long as it takes place within the bounds of marriage. Take for example the wedding contract. The husband agrees to feed, clothe and bring his wife to orgasm on a regular basis. The Talmud goes into detail on what exactly defines a regular basis and connects the frequency of intercourse to the husband’s occupation. For independently wealthy men, it is every day, for common laborers twice a week, for donkey drivers once a week, for camel drivers once every thirty days and for sailors once every six months (4). The rabbis of the time felt it was necessary for women to understand that depending on their husband’s occupations their sexual needs might be met on a more or less frequent basis. Based on this example, giving a voice to Jewish sexual expression is deeply ingrained in the rabbinic tradition, and at the time of writing it was revolutionary for women’s rights in the context of Middle Eastern culture.

However, the Talmud not only contains uplifting passages for women’s sexuality, but degrading ones as well. Take for example the ritual of Sotah. When a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he takes her to the Temple in Jerusalem and forces her to drink a potion. If she is guilty her stomach will enlarge (Lev 8). In the Talmud Mishnah 1:5 and 1:6 this practice is discussed at length and becomes pornographic:

If she says “I am innocent [pure],” they take her up to the eastern gate which is at the entrance to the gate of Nikanor […] and a priest grabs her clothing. If they are ripped, they are ripped, and if they are undone, they are undone, so that he reveals her breast and uncovers her hair. Rabbi Yehudah says: If her breast is beautiful, he does not reveal it, and if her hair is beautiful, he does not uncover it. (Lev 14)

The degradation of public humiliation and exposure for women which at the same time serves as titillation for the male readers of the Talmud points to the other side of the spectrum in the complexity of sexuality in rabbinic culture. The Talmud as a text written by male rabbis never gives voice to women’s sexuality from women themselves. And a woman’s voice itself is considered a source of sexual stimulation leading to many Halachic bans on women singing in public, in choirs and even lullabies to their children when men are present (5).

Today this has changed across the denominations at least for non-orthodox Jewish women, where women themselves have become the authorities and the voice of their own sexuality. Unfortunately, the situation has remained virtually unchanged for orthodox and ultra-orthodox women and this is one area where Jewrotica and the Internet are providing post-rabbinic and post-denominational theological functions for these women’s sexuality and sexual expression. Ayo Oppenheimer, through the capabilities of the Internet, intends to extend this Jewish sexual voice beyond rabbis and yeshiva students staying up late in houses of study examining in detail tantalizing pages of the Talmud. The Internet and Jewrotica are enabling a safe place for all men and women to express their sexuality. Oppenheimer explains the reach and possibilities of her website:

Jewrotica is a hub for Jewish sexual expression. Erotica is a key part of what we do and there is something new, rich and – yes – arousing about using our cultural heritage and vocabulary in the writing of quality erotic work. But Jewrotica is so much more than just the erotic stories – we are a starting point and a platform for all things pertaining to relationships, romance, sex, sexuality and gender as they relate to Jewish culture and tradition. In addition to the erotic fiction and poetry, we feature a sexual education series, a weekly Jewrotic commentary on the parsha (Torah portion) called Double Mitzvah, an advice column, reflective essays, true confessions and more. We provide a safe and positive environment for our community to explore sexuality in a Jewish context, and we serve as a catalyst for frank, educational and positive conversations about sexuality in more traditional communities. (6)

Through the Internet Jewrotica is allowing Jewish sexual expression to burst out of the confines of the Talmud and the marriage bed and empower men and women to explore their sexuality in light of Jewish tradition, but where the interpretation of and decisions related to their sexual experiences is left to them and not to Jewish institutions or rabbinic authorities. According to Aviva Woolf in “50 Shades of Jew,” “the website is making an effort to give people a voice and permission to ask questions and to really decide for themselves what they think is sensual, interesting or downright weird.” Through the anonymity of the Internet, Jewrotica lends a safe and positive ambience for sexual exploration and conversations for all Jewish communities, but especially for the traditional orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities. The anonymity afforded by the Internet allows writers to have a safe space to explore their sexual experiences, interpretations and fantasies, especially if they are uncomfortable openly sharing them.

Oppenheimer in her editor’s column broaches how “[…] that despite being part of a sex-positive religion, many Jewish young adults often feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with teachers or religious leaders” (7). Many young Jewish adults found their Jewish day schools ill-equipped when it came to sexual education and when it was discussed it was only discussed within the confines of marriage. One young adult, Amalia Marks, puts it this way, “[Jewrotica] provides a necessary forum for people to submit their experiences as religious (or not so religious) Jews struggling with or rejoicing in their sexuality […] I think this website offers the modern Orthodox community a healthy way to face the elephant in the room—pre-marital sexual activity in the Jewish community—that is widely ignored” (8). The open form of the Internet and the anonymity provided by it is allowing Jewrotica to bypass rabbinic and denominational theologies and give space to publicly explore theological functions, such as pre-marital sex. Pre-marital sex as such is not new, but providing a space to speak about it is and can help integrate pre-marital and other sexualities into contemporary Jewish theology.

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Jewrotica is a spankin' new project with the power to provide a voice for Jewish sexual expression and meaningful conversation. Jewrotica is an online community-in-the-making and a database of delicious and grin-inducing Jewish stories and confessions. Join us!