As I was shown into the interfaith spiritual center of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel to my first Beit Midrash (house of learning), I had no idea what I was getting into. Initially drawn in by the title of “Various Positions: Sex, Superstition and Deviant Behavior in the Talmud,” I still had plenty of reasons to doubt whether this program was for me. Rattling around in my mind was the obvious question: What was I—an atheist, non-Jewish, gay man, with no knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic—doing at a reading of sacred Jewish texts normally reserved exclusively for straight male observant Jews? If I had been born a woman I would have fit precisely the radical bill—totally inverting the intended audience of Talmudic texts.
But this was no ordinary Beit Midrash. Our instructor, Rabbi Benay Lappe, is a queer Talmud scholar, and there were other queer students in the class. While one or two male participants wore a kippah, the rest of us betrayed too easily that we were just another group of sleep-deprived students running there straight from class and enjoying the free dinner and break from studying. When we started studying the passage from the tractate of Nedarim (Vows), I could barely identify the characters of the Hebrew alphabet and only knew a handful of Hebrew words. But Rabbi Lappe had told us from the very beginning, “Some of you will read the whole text and all the commentaries, while some of you will get through four lines in the entire six weeks.”
And the language skills slowly followed. After one session of working with my chevruta (learning partner), who was also a beginner, I adjusted to reading from right to left. After two sessions, I learned cursive script so that I could take notes in Hebrew. After three sessions, I picked up the order of the alphabet so as to better use the dictionary. And by the end of the program, I could pronounce Hebrew words from sight with relative accuracy and no hesitation. Still not much, but it’s a start. What’s more, since these basic skills were co-learned and tested by me and my chevruta, rather than drilled into us, we felt like we really internalized and earned them.
After one of the later sessions, Rabbi Lappe said to us, “Now, you didn’t finish the whole section. But tell me, did you think of anything else for the past two hours or were you totally immersed in finding meaning in the text?” Despite there being plenty of things to distract us in our busy lives as students, both of us confidently shook our heads. “That’s a spiritual exercise,” she said.
Beyond the mechanics of reading the text, I was shocked that the selection we read revealed a true diversity of rabbinic opinions on matters as sex. The first sages we encountered said exactly what I expected: they insisted on having sex only in certain positions, only at certain times of day, without looking at the genitals, lest the resulting offspring be born with disabilities as a result of their parents’ transgressive sex. We puzzled as a group over these superstitions and how weak they seemed as rationales for how to love. But it didn’t even take our skepticism for the conversation to soon change its course, thanks to competing rabbinic opinions that immediately followed. This final section outlined sex fitting with true kedushah, sacredness, through the typical Talmudic method of suggesting the ideal though apodictic outlines of what to avoid: having sex out of fear or coercion, while fighting, out of resentment, while drunk, amongst other people, etc. Yet these came off only as anecdotal suggestions as to what led to success (mainly beautiful children) for some, not authoritative prescriptions.
With this change in content, the tone of the text softened. From at first making unconvincing connections between certain kinds of sex and the resulting quality of one’s children, the text shifted course to make the case for emotional sincerity and love toward one’s partner. While the earlier prohibitions on certain kinds of sex (always presumably heterosexual, of course) lurked in the background, this later focus led us as a group to move away from the mechanics of “what tab goes in what slot,” as Rabbi Lappe put it.
Despite its seeming impenetrability, the text forced us to step back and actually think about what sex is even for, and what place it has in a meaningful life. More importantly, it led us to engage with a fundamental part of human life that is often overlooked and polarized between the conservative position of not having sex until marriage to the free-for-all mindset that abounds on college campuses (or brothels in the Talmud). By placing these extremes on a spectrum of values, Rabbi Lappe made more room for everyone in-between to consider, say, premarital or same-gender sex, without giving up the truly sacred aspects of sex that make it meaningful. She thus led us to an understanding of sex that, in her words, was “a little more nuanced than today’s ‘as long as it’s consensual.’”
As a gay man who felt excluded by the Catholic tradition I was raised in, I’ve always had a bit of contempt for religious teachings. However, Rabbi Lappe’s radical interpretation of a traditional text led me to think that I’ve just been doing religion wrong my entire life: I had been accepting dogmatic interpretations of sacred text rather than probing it for meaning on my own terms. In true Talmudic fashion, Rabbi Lappe ended our last session on a humbling, and yes, incredibly Jewish, note: “I hope not that you are no longer confused, but that you are now confused on a much higher level.”
As a non-Jewish Jewish Studies major, I have long gotten plenty of raised eyebrows about what draws me to Judaism. But this Beit Midrash finally helped me distill what that draw is: Judaism is a collaborative quest for authentic answers to the fundamental question of how to live. This endless task is, for me, the core of Judaism and what keeps me coming back for more. Having studied Talmud, I can’t think of a better way to genuinely consider and reconsider one’s own values, both spiritual and intellectual, than probing such a text amongst a similarly invested spiritual community. While these others can’t answer fundamental questions for us, they can help us translate them—sometimes literally—into our own language.
This post originally appeared on http://juchicago.tumblr.com.