Berner offers Jewish approach to issues of sexual expression

The image of a human being defiantly arguing with heaven may seem foreign, and even blasphemous, to most Christians. Such a concept of "God wrestling," however, is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, according to Leila Gal Berner, visiting professor in the religion department and rabbi of Bet Haverim in Atlanta.

Berner discussed "Values, Tradition and Challenge: A Jewish Approach to Sexual Ethics" on Feb. 27 as part of the Sexuality and Religious Ethics lecture series being sponsored by the Provost's Office and the School of Theology.

"As my friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has described it, I have been engaged in a passionate, long-term bout of `God-wrestling,'" said Berner, whose congregation is predominantly gay and lesbian. "Just as Jacob wrestled with the divine angel and emerged as `Israel'--the one who has struggled with God and humans--and prevailed, so I and many other lesbian and gay Jews have wrestled with Judaism and have prevailed. Rather than run from our tradition, we engage with it through a re-evaluation of its sacred texts and teachings and a reframing of a Jewish ethic of sexuality based on deeply-rooted Jewish values."

Berner discussed some of the texts, teachings and values that characterize Jewish tradition and the ways in which they address the issue of sexual ethics. "The Torah sees the world and everything in it as essentially good," Berner said, citing references from Genesis. "This goodness includes sexual activity. For the most part, Judaism rejected the negative teachings about sex that later became prevalent in Christianity. In fact, rabbis throughout the Talmudic period and Middle Ages often spoke of sexual relations as a blessed part of God's creation."

What Jewish tradition stresses, Berner explained, is the quality of sexual relations, rather than the genders of the individuals involved. Judaism, she said, encourages sexual expression in the context of loving, caring and committed relationships. Prohibitions on adultery, incest, bestiality and other practices are present in the texts, Berner explained, because their focus on pure physical gratification degrades the quality of sexual expression and is hurtful to those involved. Judaism, however, acknowledges the expression of sexual desire within the context of a strong relationship as one of God's blessings, and the enjoyment of that blessing, Berner said, is as applicable to gay and lesbian Jews as it is to heterosexual Jews.

Berner also cited Rabbi Bradley Artson's assertion that "there is not a single act in the Hebrew scriptures which deals with homosexual acts in the context of consensual homosexual love." The Torah, Berner said, does not address the issue of "the constitutional homosexual," those who are emotionally and sexually attracted exclusively to others of the same gender. She offered Artson's explanation for this: "Torah had no awareness of the possibility of such a person. . . The idea of two men or two women loving each other, living together, nurturing each other--and in that context making love--became an imaginable self-identify only with modernity. The Torah did not prohibit what it did not know."

To those who oppose Berner's views on the grounds they contradict Jewish tradition, Berner offers two responses. One is a challenge to the authenticity of a legal framework designed by men exclusively for heterosexuals. The other is the Jewish tradition of chutzpah klapey shamayim, chutzpah toward heaven, "in which an individual shakes a fist at heaven and argues," Berner said. "And in the argument, in the engagement, in the struggle, a deeper rootedness occurs and more profound relationship with God emerges."

--Dan Treadaway

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