Covenant or contract? Marriage as theology.
The Jewish community has found no more central and significant form for the individual Jew to live in ... than the personal covenant marriage. In its exclusiveness and fidelity it has been the chief analogy to the oneness of the relationship with God as the source of personal worth and development. In marriage's intermixture of love and obligation the Jew has seen the model of faith in God permeating the heart and thence all one's actions. Through children, Jews have found the greatest personal joy while carrying out the ancient Jewish pledge to endure through history for God's sake.
- Eugene Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics
Clearly one aspect of the [colonial] project was carried out in the overt articulation at both institutional and discursive levels, but there was also another, perhaps mystified element that was expressed as the self-attributing superiority of the colonizer and the attribution of inferiority to the colonized. The moves to usurp the consciousness of the colonized by attempts to remake the self, evidenced, for instance, in the active suppression of indigenous systems of metaphysics or in the constant preoccupations with the manners and "the Character of the Negro" [like "the Character of the Jew"] ... were simultaneously aimed at dislodging resistance, reorganizing daily life, reconstituting identity, indeed remaking the sexual identity of those subjected to colonial rule.
- M. Jacqui Alexander, "Redrafting Morality"
In the Jewish home I was raised in, Jewish values were liberal values. There was seemingly no difference. Liberalism was filled with promise. It was through liberal lenses that my parents taught me about justice, about fairness, and about liberation. Liberalism had promised my immigrant grandparents a safe home, hospitable soil, a place to grow and to prosper by entering into the American social contract. In my family, being a citizen of the United States was considered sacred.
My narrative is situated within the various promises of a home in America made to Jews, women, and to Jewish women. Broadly speaking, I critique these promises as part of liberalism and colonialism. I look at how some of these promises have been kept while others have not. This essay is part of a larger project chronicling my attempts as an immigrant granddaughter to claim from my various homes the legacies I both lost and found in my parents' home. It is about my attempt to reclaim certain Jewish traditions lost to them as well as my efforts to lay claim to still other liberal and feminist positions in the present.
While I was in Israel in 1983, I learned a great deal about rabbinic Judaism and my own complicated place within a community of practicing Jews. I spent that year as part of an intense community of primarily American rabbinical students and other recent graduates of American universities who also wanted to know more about their Jewishness. We were each, in our own way, looking for alternatives to the kinds of Jewish homes we had grown up in. All the participants in this program had chosen to spend a year away from home to learn about and engage in classical (rabbinic) texts and practices. Although the dominant position among both the students and faculty in my program was for us to become more traditional, to follow more rabbinic practices, many of us were gnawed by questions about the distance between what we had learned in our American Jewish families about being Jewish and what we were being taught in this program. It was during this time in Israel that I began to acknowledge my need to reconcile the relationship between rabbinic Judaism and liberalism.
I learned not only about contemporary ketubbot or marriage contracts but also about covenantal theology as a liberal Jewish theology of marriage. During one of many intense conversations with my friend Morris, a rabbinical student at the time, he told me about the work of Eugene Borowitz, a leading contemporary liberal Jewish theologian. For over twenty-five years he has been the theological spokesman for the Reform movement in America, a leading advocate for liberal Judaism. Morris described Borowitz's covenantal theology as a different and more satisfying way of bridging the distance between rabbinic Judaism and liberalism. He offered me Borowitz's work as an alternative to simply becoming observant. Covenantal theology, a term coined by Borowitz for his relational theology, could allow me to bring together various strands of rabbinic and biblical Judaism with the works of various modern Jewish thinkers. Through a notion of covenant that resembled liberal marriage, Borowitz offered me a middle position that was both rabbinic and liberal.
For me, Borowitz's work was a tremendous relief and comfort. It meant not having to choose between the authority of the Rabbis and my family. He not only offered me a way of reconciling these aspects of my Jewishness but also made clear to me that liberal Judaism was indeed a legitimate historical Jewish tradition and that I need not be ashamed of what I had inherited. Even now, I continue to feel grateful to Borowitz for helping me work through these issues despite the fact that I no longer find his appeal to a marital covenant compelling. He continues to offer one of very few models for how to reconcile liberalism and rabbinic Judaism. By internalizing the values of liberalism as Jewish, he gives contemporary Jews a way to engage with the legacy of rabbinic Judaism without denying their liberalism.
Eugene Borowitz was not just an important liberal Jewish thinker whose books and articles I read voraciously, he was also, quite literally, my teacher. I spent a year working with him on my master's degree at the Reform Seminary in New York. He was a generous, respectful, and engaging mentor and was the person most responsible for encouraging me to continue my own graduate work in theology, for which I am greatly indebted to him.
In many ways, this essay has grown out of this relationship. It is my way of both holding on to and letting go of Borowitz's legacy to me. In what follows, I offer a rigorous critique of his covenantal theology and ethics, specifically in relation to issues of gender and sexuality. In so doing, I address many of the limitations I have found in his marital model. I offer this critique as a constructive attempt to imagine a different vision of Jewish community. Thus, even as I retain Borowitz's promise of reconciliation, I insist on using other than liberal metaphors for embracing the traditions of liberalism, rabbinic Judaism, and liberal Jewish theology.
What I have found most disturbing in Borowitz's theology is how he makes liberal marriage into the model for the relationship between God and the Jewish people, "the chief analogy to the oneness of the relationship with God" (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 256). After demonstrating problems for women in relation to liberal marriage, I will show how these problems get exacerbated within Borowitz's covenantal theology. The sexual contract poses particular problems for Jewish feminists like me, who want to imagine Jewish communities that are more respectful of Jewish women. This is not the case in Borowitz's liberal theology of marriage. His covenantal theology as a theology of liberal marriage turns out to be oppressive to Jewish women. It is also quite literally unable to embrace queer Jews as a part of Jewish community.
The quote at the opening of this essay from M. Jacqui Alexander bears on these problems because I have found that, by thinking about liberalism and colonialism together, I have been able to gain some perspective on these issues. I have been able to see most clearly the limitations of liberalism as a home for Jews even in a theology as promising as Borowitz's. M. Jacqui Alexander's text has been a reminder to me of how liberalism became Jewish, how the history of Jewish emancipation in the West is reflected in Borowitz's theology. It has helped me remember that part of the problem is that Borowitz's work continues to be marked by the limitations of liberal discourse for Jews. In other words, Borowitz's covenantal theology not only remakes Jewish metaphysics as a version of liberalism, it also continues to demonstrate a preoccupation with the sexual manners and character of the Jews by its focus on marriage. His efforts, like my own, stand in a long line of liberal Jewish attempts to fit into Western culture by remaking Jewishness into a series of liberal beliefs and practices, and this is how, within Borowitz's covenantal theology, the sexual contract becomes Jewish. By offering a unified liberal position with a single set of relational norms, Borowitz makes rabbinic Judaism and liberalism appear to be one and the same thing, a more encompassing form of liberalism. Jewish marriage and liberal marriage are no longer distinguishable.
For these reasons, Borowitz's theology is not a place I can continue to call home in any simple way. In what follows, I address the strategic limitations built into liberal marriage's sexual contact. I then offer a close reading of Borowitz's work in order to make clear some of the dangers in his particular version of Judaism. I take the time to demonstrate these problems point by point precisely because I know their allure.
The Sexual Contract
Jewish women came under the aegis of liberal states through what political theorist Carol Pateman has described as The Sexual Contract, the social contract that gave free men access to women's bodies through the contract of marriage. Following Pateman, who shows how this contract is complicit in the ongoing domination of women within liberal states, I argue that liberalism's sexual contract created and perpetuated a form of consensual subordination.
Even in the nineteenth century, marriage did not fit neatly into the legal category of contract. As Schouler, a nineteenth-century legal scholar, claimed:
We are then to consider marriage, not as a contract in the ordinary acceptation of the term; but as a contract sui generis, if indeed it be a contract at all; as an agreement to enter into a solemn relation which imposes its own terms (cited by Pateman, 155).
The ambivalently contractual nature of liberal marriage works against women. As there is no written contract, it is difficult to argue that any specific practice or behavior goes against the agreement. And how much agency does "agreement" really imply? There is an internal contradiction in the term "consent," by which one is presumed to agree to something that someone else has already determined. Within a liberal marriage ceremony, a woman need only voice her assent to becoming a wife, thus agreeing to the terms by which the liberal state has already defined what a wife is supposed to be: subordinate to her husband. And secondly, as Pateman explains in her 1989 article "Woman and Consent," the very question of consent points to a fundamental problem within liberalism, since there is little to assure that such consent is ever really granted (The Disorder of Women, 71).
In marriage, consent signifies two things. First, it justifies the contractual nature of the institution by making marriage appear to be an equal exchange. The problem is what such a reading effaces. By using consent in this way, the institution of liberal marriage covers over the historical necessity of the institution for women with few other cultural, economic, or social options. Second, once she is married, it is precisely a women's consent that can be used to justify all subsequent infringements on her agency by her husband. This is especially true in the case of marital rape. Not only does a wife lose her sexual agency, she also loses her right to equal protection under the law. Under the laws of coverture that remained in effect in the West until the mid- to late nineteenth century, once a woman consented to marriage her legal voice literally was subsumed by her husband. Legally, they were considered of "one mind" - the man's.
Finally, the couple's saying "I do," agreeing publicly to subject themselves to the terms of the state!s version of proper marriage, begins but does not complete the transaction. This contract can only be validated by an act of heterosexual intercourse. In other words, consummated heterosexuality is mandated by the state for a marriage to be valid. Not only has the sexual contract of marriage come to define the proper roles of men and women as rigidly heterosexual, but there also continues to be overt hostility toward other forms of social organization and sexual expression.
This is the ambivalent legal tradition that Jewish women entered into with the emancipation of "the Jews" in the West.
Rabbinic = Liberal
According to Borowitz, in an essay entitled "On Homosexuality," the rabbis "saw in generative, heterosexual marriage a major, if not the major, human embodiment of the Covenant between God and Israel" (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 277). For him, liberalism's version of procreative heterosexual marriage is the norm. He builds on modern Jewish thinker Martin Buber's notion of the intimacy of the "I-Thou" relationship as his theological ideal. Borowitz argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people becomes "the bidding that arises from intimacy; in other words, he [Buber] replaces halakhah with the marital I-Thou" (213). As Borowitz explains:
We have an old-new model for such open, unsettled, but mutually dignifying relationships, namely, "covenant," now less a contract spelled out from on high than a loving effort to live in reciprocal respect. As the pain of trying to create egalitarian marriages indicates, we cannot know early on what forms and processes most people will find appropriate to such relationships. We can, however, accept covenantal relationship as a central ethical challenge of our time and pragmatically learn how we might sanctify ourselves by living it. For some such reason, I take it, God has given us freedom and opened history to our determination. (223)
In this way, Borowitz's own work offers marriage as a model for describing the relationship between God and Israel. As will become clear at the end of this essay, it also plays a crucial role in his ethics.
Despite Borowitz's enthusiastic embrace of marriage as the "I-Thou" relationship of choice, this particular passage also suggests some of the ambivalences within his position. According to Borowitz, the marital covenant both is and is not "a contract spelled out from on high." Despite this qualification, the asymmetries of the original contract remain intact.
By appealing to a less rational and more loving category of value, Borowitz tries to affirm right relationship without being too specific about the content of this engagement.
Covenant as Unique Relationship
I now turn to the internal workings of Borowitz's notion of "covenant." What constitutes a covenantal relationship? What distinguishes it from all other relationships? Uniqueness is critical. According to Borowitz:
The first and most formative experience in the development of Jewish spirituality was entering the Covenant. As traditionally put, the one God of the universe made a pact with Abraham, renewed it with his descendants, confirmed it in the Exodus, and made it specific in giving the Torah to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. (Renewing the Covenant, 2)
Borowitz argues that the history of the Jewish people as a distinct people is characterized by their unique relationship with the one God of all creation who sought them out among the nations. It involves a special loyalty and a special promise. Through Abraham and his descendants, "all human beings might one day come to know - that is to obey - God. In return, God promised to make Abraham's family a mighty nation, to give them a land, and to protect them throughout history" (Renewing the Covenant, 2). In other words, God secures Abraham with not only a home but also a future. He promises him immortality. In Borowitz's contemporary reading of this covenant, submission to God is transformed into heterosexual procreative marriage. By talking about "a marital I-Thou relationship" and not directly about submission in marriage, Borowitz tries to have it both ways (the old and the new). He obscures the absolute power differential between the parties to the covenant and how these connections translate into the relationship between a husband and wife. He simply repeats the pattern.
Contract or Covenant?
In order to show the connections between his theological covenant and the liberal marriage contract, I now focus on a few key passages from Borowitz's latest theological work, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, that demonstrate his position and its limitations, as I understand them. According to Borowitz, the covenant between God and Israel is not a "contract" but a "relationship." Nevertheless:
the autonomous self makes sense only in terms of each person's ineluctable bond with God, the source of our dignity and the criterion of its correct use. Our tradition spoke of this as the (Noahide) covenant, a term whose legal origin conveyed a sense of seriously contracted specific obligations. (285-86)
Despite his reluctance to speak about covenant as contract, Borowitz acknowledges its legal/contractual roots and affirms them.
Borowitz then uses the language of relationships as a way of tempering his understanding of God's power over Israel within this contract:
Opposing a heteronomic understanding of it [covenant], I reinterpret the term through the metaphor of personal relationships, which communicates duty without depriving either participant of selfhood and autonomy - an experience as characteristic of direct relationship with God as with persons through whom we know God indirectly. (286)
Although Borowitz's explicit reason for turning to the language of relationship is to rethink the power dynamics between the partners in the covenantal relationships (God and humankind, and God and Israel), there is a contradiction. On the one hand, Borowitz supposedly gives up the language of contract in order to oppose a heteronomic understanding of covenant that gave God power over God's partners, while, on the other hand, as the earlier part of this particular passage makes clear, Borowitz is committed to reaffirming God's absolute power; this is what troubles me.
Even in Borowitz's resistance to the language of contract, there is an uncanny resemblance between his covenant and the sexual contract. Here too it is not clear "if indeed it be a contract at all; as an agreement to enter into a solemn relation which imposes its own terms." In other words, Borowitz's covenant also sets its own terms. For him, there is a tension between the desire for loving egalitarian relationships and an abiding commitment to a God who continues to have power over Israel.
Borowitz wants it both ways. As he explains,
God and the individual self are the two axes around which my faith pivots, but I do not consider them to be of equal significance. For all my insistence on a somewhat curious "independence" of the self, I know that it derives its value from and is subordinate to God. Primacy can never be in serious doubt here since the One creates and the other is created. Yet the creatures have such stature with God that, on occasion, they may argue God's justice, as it were, face to face.... Summoned by God to personal responsibility, my piety expresses itself as a personal activism that finds its motive and standard in my being privileged to serve God as a covenantal partner. (31) [my emphasis]
In this passage, Borowitz brings together autonomy and heteronomy. Since human dignity is contingent upon human createdness, God must always remain primary. God's power, as such, is not lost in the transition from the language of "contract" to "relationship." The shift in metaphor simply affirms a greater degree of autonomy for human beings without challenging the basic structure of the covenant as a relationship between unequal partners. God's ultimate power is never questioned; autonomy simply gets scripted as an act of God's benevolence, which allows Borowitz to speak of his own piety as "privileged servitude." It is only "on occasion" that it might be possible to address God "face to face."
This double move of promise and effacement is also evident in Borowitz's attempts to align himself with traditional Jewish thinking:
Our tradition supplies us with a most evocative metaphor for this awesome tie between the Transcendent and the human: brit, covenant. The Torah daringly asserts that, despite the disparity between them, the one God of all the universe enters into intimate partnerships with humankind. It understood God's covenants with the Children of Noah - humankind - and the Children of Israel as contracts between partners mutually bound by the stipulations of their agreement. (107)
Here again he only makes a metaphorical distinction. He remains committed to a God who has power over him in order to prove that there is no difference between what he terms as "liberal and orthodox faith."
Both [liberal and Orthodox faith] affirm the transcendent preeminence of God and ascribe some independent dignity to humankind. We radically diverge, however, over the issue of the proper balance or relative significance we ascribe to God's sovereignty and to human will. (241)
The structural arrangement is the same; the difference is only a matter of degree. In fact, Borowitz goes on to say that
different social circumstances aside, the underlying relationship between God and the people of Israel has remained substantially the same.... Hence much of what they did as their Covenant duty will likely still lay a living claim on us. (291)
I have highlighted these passages in order to make clear both the selectivity of Borowitz's reading of rabbinic tradition as well as the tension between his claims to continuity and to change. I have also highlighted these passages because they make clear what is troubling about Borowitz's theology for Jewish women: his theological reiteration of the asymmetries within the sexual contract poses dangers for Jewish women precisely because they are uttered in the name of love. As in the sexual contract, liberalism offers a means to make both of these claims simultaneously.
The Persistence of the Liberal Marriage Contract
Borowitz argues that through his old-new approach to the covenant, he can get rid of the most egregious aspect of the rabbinic tradition without fully doing so. Instead, under the sign of "relationship," he continues to reaffirm God's power over Israel.
This dynamic becomes clearer in looking at how Borowitz uses the term "marriage." On the surface, the kind of marriage he seems to advocate is egalitarian, but he also argues that love commands. In terms of marriage, this translates into the power husbands hold over their wives. By talking about this inequity in terms of love, Borowitz avoids any discussion of power. He conceals the fact that marriage, as analogous to the covenant with God, demands submission. In this way, Borowitz not only replicates the liberal dynamic I have already described but even makes it holy.
As Carole Pateman argues, liberal marriage also links consent with subordination. "Contract is presented as freedom and as anti-patriarchal, while being a major mechanism through which sex right is renewed and maintained" (Sexual Contract, 15). Similarly, Borowitz's covenant also gestures toward equality while reinforcing structural inequities. Thus, as Pateman argues, "with the establishment of marriage and the pretence of a contract, men's domination is hidden by the claim that marriage allows equal, consensual sexual enjoyment to both spouses" (159). Here again, men's domination of women is cloaked and disguised. It is precisely because of this that I have insisted on giving close readings of Borowitz's text to make explicit how these dynamics operate in his text.
In Borowitz's case, the cloak is love, relationship as opposed to contract, which only makes the issue of power that much more illusive. Unlike Pateman, who argues against feminist appeals to contract because "the feminist dream is continuously subverted by entanglements with contract" (188). Borowitz presumes that relationships can offer freedom, although he never fully relinquishes his reliance on contractual inequities to define this relationship. Since Borowitz's assessment of contract is so close to Pateman's, this repetition is particularly striking as well as disappointing. As Pateman explains, "Contract always generates political right in the form of relations of domination and subordination" (8). By contrast, Borowitz writes: "When the biblical motif of covenant is restated as relationship rather than contract - giving expanded scope to the human partner - this hallowed notion can effectively symbolize our postmodern spirituality" (31). Despite this, as in liberal marriage, there is an inequity of power given to the subordinate partner by the one who continues to command. The fact that there is still a partner who commands is crucial to the perpetuation of the relationship.
In order to strengthen the connection between covenant and marriage, in Renewing the Covenant Borowitz reveals a romantic portrait of this ideal relationship, which again I not only find unconvincing but extremely disturbing. In Borowitz's account marriage becomes miraculous:
We also easily speak of relationships extending through 'time despite the harsh reality that the immediacy of encounter begets only a temporary certainty. It sometimes manifests such quality that we hope it will recur, allowing acquaintance to ripen into friendship, perhaps even love, or almost miraculously, the love that elicits the pledge of self for the life we call marriage. (275-76) [my emphasis].
Here Borowitz values endurance and certainty. Even in the worst situations of neglect and abuse, only marriage is fully suited to achieve such a holy relationship.
We often do not understand why those most dear to us occasionally hurt us, sometimes very deeply. Little injures us more than parents, children, friends, lovers, or spouses not being there when we need them; should they withdraw willfully, we will suffer most intensely. Yet, miraculously, love often survives such traumas. Every relationship lives out of the faith that the meaning we once knew together might at any moment return and thereby be renewed - and that is as true of religion as it is of the love of persons. Though we cannot make sense of their acting this way, we may be willing to "bear" with them, to accept the burden of the pain they have caused us - not the least by showing themselves capable of betrayal - and to forgive them. Sometimes we can do that because of what we have meant to one another; sometimes we do it freely, staking our lives on what this torment has taught us about the depth of our love. (130)
This passage says much about Borowitz's understanding of love as submission. What makes this passage even more disturbing is that it is presented as part of a larger discussion of Buber's response to the Holocaust, which Buber describes as a breach in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Borowitz relates his vision of love as submission to Buber's understanding of the Holocaust.
After the Holocaust, Buber could no longer make people the exclusive source of interpersonal evil. He now daringly suggested that there are some terrifying times when God, as it were, withdraws from us despite our seeking God. Absence is the worst evil. For Buber the problem of theodicy then becomes not understanding "how" or "why" our good God ever countenances our suffering or "hides his face" from us, but contemplating how we might still maintain or regain a loving relationship with God despite our anguish. (130)
Borowitz suggests an analogy between God's absence in the Holocaust and when a loved one withdraws. He then goes on to use this analogy to argue that those who have been hurt, even deeply abused, must be forgiving of their abusers. In the face of the Holocaust, he writes, "we try to respond to God in love though evil overwhelms us, caring despite not understanding" (130). Borowitz concludes this section of his book by reaffirming his commitment to this vision of submission to God as a loving relationship. He writes: "Nurtured by that love, we pray to be able to go on trusting God even when we are wounded and do not understand our momentarily unrecognizable Lover" (131).
According to this analysis, Borowitz accepts the premise that either blames the Jews for God's absence, or makes God's absence a matter of God's capriciousness in the Holocaust. In so doing he accepts that suffering and abuse are not only necessarily a part of loving relationships but also a part of the covenant with God.
In response to this problem, Borowitz offers the miracle of love, which ultimately operates outside of the realm of human agency. Love must be given by God. This disturbing vision of submission to God within a covenantal home offers little comfort to those who suffer, and makes it that much harder for them to leave an abusive home. What bothers me about this model of Jewish covenantal community and home is that, aside from effacing aspects of the rabbinic tradition, it ends up perpetuating a liberal fallacy in its efforts to make Judaism contemporary. It assumes that marital relationships are loving and safe even in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. For me this does not offer much security.
From Theology to Ethics: "Proper Sexuality"
Marriage links Borowitz's ethics with his theology. In his ethics, covenant translates literally into the demand to marry. In this way it operates as the normative unifying core of his liberal Jewish position, "the chief analogy to the oneness of the relationship with God" (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 256).
Even before he began to address the issue of queer Jewish relationships in his ethics, Borowitz had defended monogamous, procreative heterosexual marriage over and against both feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In "Reading the Jewish Tradition on Marital Sexuality," an essay originally published in 1982, he asked:
If women should now similarly channel much of their sexual drive into the pursuit of success and power, what will become of the sexual primacy of the marital bed? How, we must now wonder, can liberal Judaism today combat the destructive power of a society bent on exploiting the new sexual freedom for women? (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 268)
So as early as 1982, Borowitz was worried about the traditional marriage bed. In this essay, he recognized that marriage was not the exclusive context in which sexuality was being expressed but, nevertheless, he reaffirmed its centrality and importance to the liberal Jewish community. In order to be more inclusive, he set up a hierarchy in which he included the following options: the freedom of a "mutual-consent ethics," the restrictions of a "love standard," and the even greater restriction demanded by a "marriage standard."
This gradation allowed Borowitz again to have it both ways. He could recognize a series of different sexual ethics while still maintaining his commitment to the one and only marital ideal. "What we require, therefore, is something far more pluralistic, a ranking rather than a comprehensive rule, a hierarchy rather than a single, synthesized principle" [my emphasis] (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 246). Thus, Borowitz made explicit the hierarchy within liberal pluralism. Only from a single unified position could he tolerate other possibilities. The liberal position he takes necessarily reduces, translates, and harmonizes differences - an approach that becomes even more apparent in his response to gay and lesbian Jews.
Given that heterosexual procreative marriage is the critical metaphor in Borowitz's theological and ethical writing, it is not surprising that the issue of queer Jews in the rabbinate would be so troubling for him. In his essay, "On Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, a Covenantal Response," (Exploring Jewish Ethics, 270-86), his metaphor for the covenant becomes prescriptive. To sanction queer Jewish expressions of love would require an explicit interrogation of this central tenet of his liberal theology and ethics.
As in his earlier essays on sexuality, differences are tolerated and not sanctioned. In addressing the question of whether gay and lesbian Jews should be rabbis, he first deals with right relationships and then with the role of the rabbi in relation to other Jews. Marriage is not just the ideal sexual relationship; it is also a model for the asymmetrical relationship between a rabbi and his or her congregation.
When it comes to sexual relationships, Borowitz is utterly consistent. Heterosexual procreative marriage remains his ideal. In this essay he writes, "Positively, I hear us asserting that the special imperatives that devolve upon Jews because of the covenant necessitate our special devotion to the heterosexual, that is, the procreative family" (279). As for rabbis, they too are accorded special privilege:
(1) to be a rabbi is not a Jewish right but a title bestowed as a special Jewish honor; (2) rabbis, in fulfillment of their special community status, ought to set an example of Jewish ideals.... [R]abbis ought, more than all other Jews, to be exemplars of living by the Covenant.... [It] is as model more than anything else that the rabbi teaches Judaism. (281-82)
Because rabbis must embody the covenant, they must engage in the kind of sexual relationship most clearly associated with covenantal responsibility: heterosexual procreative marriage. By looking at the question of ordination in this way, Borowitz leaves himself little choice but to reject the possibility of queer rabbis, essentially defining them out of contention.
If we are dedicated to the Covenant with its special standards, then we should require of our rabbis, insofar as we are able, that they exemplify them. I am, therefore, against the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis. (282)
Despite his efforts throughout the essay to account for other positions, queer relationships are excluded from his definition of covenant. Instead, he goes so far as to encourage bisexual Jews who want to become rabbis to choose to be straight:
Does our Judaism have a preference as to the decision a fully bisexual person makes with regard to his or her sexuality? To me, the answer is quite clear. Given the choice, the Covenant requires Jews to elect the heterosexual option because in that mode they can, at least in principle, directly fulfill their duty to create the Jewish biological future. (281)
Additionally, Borowitz demands that lesbian and gay potential rabbinical students remain closeted, offering them a version of "don't ask don't tell." His position is that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Jewish Seminary, should not accept all students "without regard to sexual preference," and he argues that if gay and lesbian students are to be accepted, they should not openly reveal their sexual orientation:
A far less desirable but nonetheless workable additional alternative is for homosexuals to come to the College as a number have done over the years, staying "in the closet" until ordination. (283)
This is as generous as he gets. Borowitz suggests that it may be possible for closeted gay and lesbian rabbis eventually to become a critical mass that could promote change from within the Reform movement.
In a parenthetical comment, Borowitz tells queer rabbinical candidates that it will not be so bad spending five years of their lives in the closet. "This depersonalizing situation will be somewhat mitigated these days by the significant number of students who will give such colleagues their full personal support during their studies" (283). This final statement is especially telling, for instead of providing institutional support for these students, Borowitz uses the personal good will of other students as a way of mitigating the most egregious aspects of his own institutional position.
Finally he claims that his objections to queer families are about protecting the biological future of the Jewish people:
Homosexual families can model the Covenant insofar as it involves interpersonal faithfulness in a lifetime. But when it comes to procreation, they divorce loving faithfulness and the generation of Jewish children. The love comes down along one line, so to speak, the generativity along another. To be sure, Jews who cannot have children are encouraged to adopt them; a pattern of such split relationships is known among us and has been transcended, but it is not our preferred state. (279)
Even within heterosexual families, he is worried about maintaining the terms of the sexual contract. "These ethical imperatives [the equality of women and children's rights] have resulted in a restructuring of the family that is still under way, a restructuring that has subjected the Jewish family to great strain" (280). Given this turmoil, Borowitz argues that liberal Jews like him "are loath to do anything that might weaken it [the family] further" (280). The question is, who is really threatened by such changes?
What is striking to me about these assertions is that they illustrate the instability of the sexual contract even, and perhaps especially, as a theological position. I have raised these issues to make clear how narrow and confining I have found even Borowitz's covenantal theology. Given the singularity of his position, Borowitz provides me with little space to participate in what he calls "covenantal community." By drawing connections between Borowitz's unified liberal theology and ethics, I have tried to make clear the material implications, the limitations, and the dangers posed by this kind of theologizing of the sexual contract as a vision of Jewish community and home.
Unlike my father who was never quite able to put together liberalism and Jewishness in any sustained way, Borowitz offered me a model for doing just this. He offered me a theological position that included both rabbinic Judaism and liberalism. With Borowitz, I thought that I did not have to choose between the Rabbis and liberalism His work gave theological weight and authority to my own liberalism. The problem was that his position did not offer me enough room to grow and change.
By presenting a theological version of the sexual contract as Jewish, Borowitz's work incorporates rabbinic Judaism under the cloak of liberalism, where there is presumably no more difference. I have offered a close reading of Borowitz's work in order to make clear the dangers involved in such efforts. Although Borowitz's work offered me a more secure vision of liberalism as a Jewish home with God, it did not offer me liberation, justice, or even protection. The legacy of liberalism for contemporary Jewish women in the United States is complicated. Like my grandmother, many Jewish women fought hard for a place within the American dream and, despite their loyalty, these women, their daughters, and granddaughters have had to face time and again strategic limitations and prohibitions built into liberalism's promise of home
Alexander, M. Jacqui. "Redrafting Morality: The Postcolonial State and the Sexual Offenses Bill of Trinidad and Tobago," in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourde Torres. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Borowitz, Eugene. Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenantal Responsibility. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
-----. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1958.
Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.
-----. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989.
LAURA LEVITT is Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University where she also teaches in the Women's Studies Department. She is coeditor, with Miriam Peskowitz, of Judaism Since Gender (New York: Routledge, 1997).
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|Title Annotation:||women in Jewish marriages|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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