On Jewish communal sex-that-is-not-sex

featured On Jewish communal sex-that-is-not-sex

Continuing our series, Keith Kahn-Harris revisits Jews & Sex from a more sociological standpoint.

Featured image: The Naughty Jewish Boys Calendar

In 2018, American Jewry became embroiled in the then-current ‘#MeToo’ movement when multiple allegations of sexual harassment by the prominent sociologist of Jewish life Steven M. Cohen were made public. Cohen did not contest the allegations and stated that he was ‘engaged in a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair’. Since then he has mostly dropped out of sight.

Responding to the affair, three American-Jewish historians, Kate Rosenblatt, Ronit Stahl, and Lila Corwin Berman, co-authored an article in The Forward in which they argued that Cohen’s behaviour could not be disconnected from his research and writing. Much of his work addressed issues of intermarriage, fertility and ‘Jewish continuity’, that have been a central part of Jewish organisational communal concerns since the 1980s (and not just in the US). Rosenblatt et al. argued:

Most troubling about the data-driven mode of Jewish continuity conversations are its patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronistic assumptions about what is good for the Jews. We learn that single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples are all problems. And we learn that the Jewish community, should it want to survive, must step into the role of calling out and regulating those problems….The continuity crisis — and its prescriptions about how to regulate primarily women, their bodies, and their sexuality — has its own productive energy that can be harnessed to convince donors to open their pocketbooks and support the very research and programs that prove that the crisis exists.

This article, and others like it, identify the problematic impact that continuity discourse can have on Jewish communal life. Injunctions to Jewish marriage and fertility can end up othering and policing those whose sexuality does not ‘fit’ and can end up putting enormous pressure even on those who are straight and do indeed want to find a Jewish spouse.

None of this necessarily negates the results of research carried out by Cohen and other Jewish communal social researchers that demonstrates that, at least under current circumstances, intermarried Jews are more likely to be Jewishly less active than in-married ones. And in one respect the authors of the Forward article missed something important in the nature of continuity discourse. Cohen’s writings, for the most part, do not exhibit the detailed and prurient interest in sex that he displayed in his ‘private’ life. In fact, continuity discourse rarely openly engages in talk about sexual activity at all – and therein lies its strangeness and its limitation.

I made a similar point in a review of Nathan Abrams’ 2008 edited collection Jews And Sex, that I wrote for the Jewish Quarterly. Recalling my work for the short-lived UK organisation Jewish Continuity, I noted that amidst all the effort to commission research on those oh-so-crucial Jewish ‘singles’, no one was investigating Jewish sex lives and sexual attractions. That is still the case, at least in the UK: Despite the continuing anxiety about Jewish continuity, no Jewish organisation has ever sought to investigate the mechanism through which Jews come to make babies with other Jews. Nor has there been any academic work on the subject in the UK.

In my review, I stated that Jews & Sex left me with ‘a lingering feeling of disappointment, heavy on representation but thin on sociology.’ That was a little harsh in that the collection was focused on Jewish sexuality in art and culture. But it does exemplify an odd duality: Post-war Jewish cultural expression has often been highly interested in sex and its representation and is often created by those who are organisational estranged from organised Jewish community with all its anxieties about continuity; Jewish organisational life is preoccupied with continuity but can rarely represent or engage with sex in an open way.

One could even say that organised Jewish communal life is often reliant on increasing sex yet can only engage openly in the practices that lead to sex (getting Jews together with other Jews) or the outcomes of sex (Jewish babies and their upbringing). What happens in between isn’t just left as a ‘black box’, at times its existence at all is suppressed. This leads to tacitly mixed messages about sex in Jewish communal life.

Jewish organisations are, in fact, very good at creating the conditions for sexual expression (including, but certainly not limited to, sexual harassment and exploitation). Summer camps and Israel tours are laboratories for the exploration of sexuality. At the same time, while part of the aim (acknowledged or unacknowledged) of Jewish youth provision is to encourage Jews to partner with other Jews, sexual activity beyond kissing is often frowned upon or actively proscribed. There are very good reasons for this of course. Unbounded adolescent sexual activity may lead to coercive sexual activity in some cases. But there is little acknowledgment that the messages are mixed, to say the least.

The Cohen affair, therefore, exposed not the dark underbelly of the organised Jewish community’s obsession with regulating sex, but the dangers of an unacknowledged obsession with regulating sex. To talk of Jewish continuity without talking about sex leads to an absence that can easily be filled with sexual exploitation.

Jews & Sex demonstrated that Jews have distinctive preoccupations with sex that are expressed in Jewish cultural activity. The problem is that Jewish arts and culture are often so separated from Jewish organised communal life that no number of Annie Sprinkles or Portnoy’s Complaints can fill the absence in Jewish communal sex talk. The challenge, it seems to me, is to find ways of encouraging cultural responses to sexuality within organised Jewish communal life.

Otherwise, Jewish life will be marked by a continuing preoccupation with sex-that-is-not-sex.

Art by Gus Condeixa

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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