Forthcoming Events and Lecture on Sexuality – November 2016

I will be giving the next Honest Theology lecture on Sunday 20th November at 7.45 for 8pm.

The topic will be ‘What is the Meaning and Purpose of Jewish Education?’ and it will be an exploration of the types of Jewish values we wish to bequeath to our children.  It will be an exploration of the core values of both education and Judaism, and it will challenge conventional understandings of both.  Do join us for another excellent evening of thinking and discussion.

The venue is Central Square Minyan Hall, Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11 7AH.  Booking is advised, but not essential.

Tickets and more info can be found here: http://louisjacobs.org/news/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-6/.

The previous lecture, an exploration of the complex relationship between Judaism and sexuality, can now be viewed online here:

http://louisjacobs.org/eventseries/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-5/

By way of a teaser passage, here is a short selection from it:

Humans have a powerful desire to know the answer to sex, for a book to tell them what it means.  But it just doesn’t work like that, sex is a mystery, it is a source of revelation to us, it shows us who we are, however uncomfortable that might sometimes be.  There is no right and wrong, and it cannot be reduced to another thing, to be contained, whether in the language of biology or psychology or in terms of religion and morality.  Sex lives, as we live, and it will always leave us with more questions than answers, it will always challenge what we think of ourselves and the world around us.  

Freud vs Freundel

My piece on the Freundel scandal, which explores how Rabbinic training might be enhanced to help prevent such tragedies.
It originally appeared in Ha’aretz -
http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.623397 -
though you may need a subscription to read it.
It has since appeared in The Forward, which does not, I believe, require a
subscription.
http://forward.com/articles/208221/channeling-freud-to-prevent-the-next-barry-freunde/

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice.  Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.  I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes  from a tree,  except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents,  except flax.

I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound.  Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.

It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that.  From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.

I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:

Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing.  Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task.  The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst.  To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.

To rest is to accept that we have limits.  This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.

And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments.  We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.

Shabbat 29

Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted.  The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.

The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.

Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:

(1) You are aware that you are doing the action

(2) You intend for the action to take place

(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect

(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done

(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place

(8) You do the action using only those people necessary

(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)

This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.

This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.

The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety.  The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.

Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.

Shabbat 30

There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated.  The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:

A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].

We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.

In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.

We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.

Shabbat 31

Hillel and Shammai.  I’m glad we already discussed this a little, it would be too upsetting to not discuss the significance of their differences at length.

And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.

He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah.  His response was as follows:

On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet].  On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.

‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.

‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now?  Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.

A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.

Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.

It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.

There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit.  We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.

Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace.  The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.

Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.

We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live.  We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.

Shabbat 32

We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.

One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.

I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.

We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.

And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’.  But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.

Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.

Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.

We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.

It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.

Shabbat 33

And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.

(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)

On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:

‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.

Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement.  Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation.  He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans.  His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.

He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.

When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.

Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.

On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.

We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.

Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice.  On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:

‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’

With this their minds found peace.

After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.

He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.

Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.

It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.

We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.

May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.

Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.

Pyjama Talk: Cuddling and the Law Shabbat 13, 14

We touch today on the thorny issue of how a married couple may relate to each other whilst the woman is menstruating.

Let us accept that they may not engage in sexual intercourse.  I’m sure there is a fascinating history to this prohibition, which we’ll explore at some point, but let’s leave it for now.

What we are explicitly exploring on the daf is whether or not they may sleep together in the same bed.  We seem to rule out the possibility that they may do this in the nude, for we only even ask about the case where they are both wearing pyjamas.

As a first observation, I cannot but help but be struck by the Gemara’s initial response to this question:

Chicken may be placed on a table with cheese and we are not concerned they will be eaten together. 

Never mind what we are trying to learn from this comparison, I just feel that it sounds somewhat absurd as an opening gambit in this discussion.  We do not begin by asking about the meaning of physical intimacy in married life, about the importance of a man and woman maintaining a strong emotional connection at this difficult time of the month.

There is no attempt to consider the human cost of this sort of legislation, to query whether it is indeed appropriate to be legislating here at all.  A response in this vein might have been:

‘They may not have intercourse, that much is clear.  The ways in which they take responsibility for this matter is their business.’

We touched recently on the dangers of preventative legislation, of g’zeirot, perhaps here too that lesson might have been applied.

I understand that these observations may sound weak, that it might sound as if I have no familiarity or respect for what might be called ‘Talmudic Process’.

But I do have that familiarity, if anything perhaps I am too familiar with it, and I could easily have followed this legal discussion without noting the absence of any psychological or emotional meditations.

So I mention it, because for those of us engaged in the project of trying to bring out what is profound and insightful in the halakha, who wish to show that it is often a profound merging of lofty spiritual concern and concrete practical detail, it is also important to note where it may possibly be falling short of that mark, where it might be missing something important.  This is the role of the Oral Law, to ensure that textual record never drowns out the voices of humanity in the culture, that it always finds a way to accommodate worthy and progressive criticism.

Moving into the discussion itself, I was pleased to see that the Gemara made a valiant attempt to defend the ‘pyjama rights’ of the married couple, to assume that their intelligence and awareness would serve to defuse the ‘danger’ of the situation.

In the end however, it seems to come down on the side of prevention, based not on legal or psychological precedent, but on a strange reading of a verse from Ezekiel (18:6) which comes into the discussion out of nowhere.  The verse, which seems to be part of a general  ‘call to piety’ on Ezekiel’s part, mentions a married woman just before mentioning a menstruating woman.  And we are then offered this not terribly compelling piece of logic:

Just as the ‘wife of his neighbour’, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas, so too when his wife is menstruating, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas.

The flow of the argument doesn’t seem to work that well, we seem to move from a spirit of permission to a spirit of prohibition quite suddenly, too abruptly.

What I also notice is that we begin the discussion by asking the question of the wife – ‘is she allowed to sleep with her husband under these circumstances?’  There is something of concern for her, a glimmer of awareness that she might be going through a difficult period.

By the end, as we arrive at our morally driven conclusion, the question has become about the husband, what is the right thing to do for his purity.  The wife of his neighbour and his own menstruating wife become mere objects in the discussion, things to be avoided, and we are primarily concerned about not compromising his spiritual state.

It is this focus on the man that I don’t like, this idea that we view him as a being challenged by marriage, by his menstruating wife, tempted by her, needing to tie himself to the mast like Odysseus against the sirens.

Marriage works when it is a joint venture, when two people are able to be consistently and deeply mindful of each other, when they are properly aware of the reality of each other’s existence.  One source of problems is when separation and distance set in, when the other is viewed as the cause of marital or personal difficulty.

This move will always be the easy one: the blaming of the other, the assumption that we know what they think and want, the assertion that our own better nature would like to act properly, that we are being forced by the other to compromise and sell ourselves short.

It’s an easy narrative to feed ourselves, it vindicates our own purity.  But it destroys the marriage, the possibility of togetherness, of the joint venture, of the core partnership which might make life richer.

And this is where moralism becomes narcissism, or vice versa.  The move to separate ourselves, to retreat to our own world of inner purity, to extricate ourselves from our partner, our family, our friends, our community, in the name of some higher, more moral, calling.

I’m not saying it’s never necessary to do this, sometimes it is.  But it’s a risky move, a move we should probably always treat suspiciously, a move that should perhaps mostly be a temporary one.

For if a person cannot live in any of these relationships, if they are too pure for their world, then what is the content and meaning of their morality, in what sense have they sanctified their engagement with the world?

Put more clinically, we cannot be forever detaching, dissociating and withdrawing.  That is not the path to health, the direction in which a genuine ethic should be leading us.

This shift from ‘her’ or ‘them’ to ‘him’ can also be seen in Maimonides codification of this ruling.  It is to be found in the Book of Holiness, ‘Sefer Kedusha’, in the subsection on ‘the laws of forbidden relations’.

The matter is not about love, relationship, intimacy.  It is not about dialogue and togetherness.  It is about the forbidden, about personal holiness, about what a man may or may not do in his quest for individual salvation.  (By contrast, Maimonides’ Book of Love is concerned with Torah, with prayer, with God.)

The Gemara then presents two potentially dissenting voices, Rabbi Pedat and Ulla.

The case of Ulla is particularly interesting, we are told that:

When he would come from the house of study would kiss his sisters on their breasts. 

The Gemara is a bit flummoxed by this act of intimacy, by the love for his sisters and his unashamed expression of it.  It claims he is contradicting himself, for in another place he proscribes any acts that might bring a forbidden relationship closer to realisation.

I’m not sure there really is a contradiction, I think there is something enlightening here.  In certain circumstances, perhaps genuinely innocent ones, a great deal of physical contact may go on without anything illicit being stirred or brought to life.

In other circumstances, where something forbidden is in the air, is on one’s mind, the subtlest look or gesture can serve to bring the act closer, a few carefully chosen words may easily add fuel to the fire of the fantasy.

The case of Ulla shows us that it is hard to legislate in this arena.  What might in one time and place be completely commonplace and harmless might in other circumstances be provocative and inflammatory in the extreme.

I find this whole area very tricky, on the one hand the Rabbis are quite Freudian in their approach: ‘everything is about sex, don’t deceive yourself’.  On the other hand, they don’t seem to see the problematic side of treating sexuality as taboo, of foisting it onto the woman, of making it about individual holiness, rather than about related intimacy.

So, if I’m honest, I think there are big costs to their approach, there are large areas of these matters that need reconsidering, perhaps even just expressing differently, being spoken about more delicately.

But I also get that the sublimation being advocated here, for there can be no doubt that this is what motivates the disavowal of sexuality, is a potentially significant contributor to the energy underpinning the entirety of Rabbinic culture.  And it’s hard to imagine in any straightforward terms what an alternative culture would look like, what the effects would be on religious intensity and practice, what other knock on effects might follow.

It’s definitely easier to stick to the established law, to claim that the weight of tradition and history make it unimpeachable.  But I would never say that in a therapeutic setting, so why would I say it in an honest assessment of the culture, why would I think that the Divine is not capable of containing and absorbing my unsettling questions?

It’s weakness of faith that tries to quash questioning, and I don’t really get how that became admirable.

We just need to keep thinking about this stuff, to keep reading and debating and figuring out how it works in real life.

In case the feeling lingers that I’ve been too squeamish, that really there’s nothing in this Talmudic discussion that’s problematic or disturbing, let’s look at the story it ends with:

It once happened that a certain scholar who had studied much Bible and Mishna  and had served many scholars died in middle age. His wife took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them: ‘ It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days:  my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishna, and served many scholars , why did he die in middle age?’   No man could answer her.

On one occasion I [Elijah the prophet] was a guest at her house,  and she related the whole story to me. Said I to her, ‘My daughter! how was he to thee in thy days of menstruation?’ ‘God forbid!’ she rejoined; ‘he did not touch me even with his little finger.’ ‘And how was he to thee in thy days of white garments [after the cessation of menstrual blood]?  ‘He ate with me, drank with me and slept with me in bodily contact, and it did not occur to him to do other [engage in sexual relations].’

 Said I to her, ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he did not show adequate respect to the Torah!’

Really?  Is this what we think of God, that he spends his time killing people on account of their failing to keep up with the latest Rabbinic stringency, no matter how pure and far from genuine sin they might be?  Is this our theodicy, that wherever tragedy strikes there must be someone who valued marital relationship more than Rabbinic anxiety?

I prefer the silence of the Rabbis to the presumptions of Elijah the prophet.  Maybe they had suspicions about his sensual nature, but they were at least embarrassed enough not to suggest that this was the cause of his death.  I cannot begin to think of how the poor wife must have felt after Elijah berated her like this, making her share in the culpability for her husband’s death:  ‘If you hadn’t tempted him, forced him to lie with you inappropriately, demanded warmth and intimacy from him, then he’d still be here today.’

It’s a sick and heartless comment, but it is one that we risk repeating if we are not willing to approach these matters with sensitivity, with openness, with an awareness of their complexity.

In questions of sexuality we are indeed dealing with the most powerful currents in our nature, but we are foolish if we think that we can easily opt for the safe approach, if we think that blanket prohibitions – no pun intended – will be either effective or without cost.

To keep love alive, to allow the unexpected to grow in the soil of our relationships; these are the challenges we must sometimes defend.  May we be granted the wisdom and integrity to have insight in these matters, and may we retain the humility to see where silence might sometimes be our best response.

The Inclination towards Fantasy Berakhot 61

The daf today is concerned with the evil inclination, tracing its origins to the moment of creation, reflecting on the myriad ways it perpetually haunts us.  It is compared to a fly that lies in wait between the entrances of the heart, waiting for its chance to enter.  It is also compared to a grain of wheat, which also looks for an opening, ready to expand and leaven when an opportunity arises.

They’re definitely onto something these Rabbis, we all have a little grain of mischief and selfishness inside us, which can lie dormant for extended periods but which will blossom and come to life when given half an opportunity.  It will often start with the smallest thing, a very mild slackening of our attention and caution, perhaps when we accede to one drink too many of an evening, or when we first stick our nose into business where it doesn’t really belong.

Before we know it we’re immersed in something, and it can be an almighty struggle to extricate ourselves from it.  We might be watching ourselves with a modicum of disbelief – ‘is this really me?  How did I fall from grace so quickly?’  And if the mischievous impulse is particularly sly it might turn the questioning to its own ends – ‘doesn’t this show that all my righteousness and goodness until now was just a sham, that this is the real me, this craven depraved creature appearing before my eyes?’

I’ve heard it compared to a little monster, our capacity for darkness: once he’s fired up and let out of the cage he just doesn’t want to be put back in.

And it is with this keen psychological awareness that the Rabbis offer the following advice:

A man should not walk behind a woman on a path [as he will look at her constantly]…And anyone who walks behind a woman in a river has no portion in the World-to-Come.

Tosafot, who don’t say much in these last pages of Berakhot,  are quick to offer the following explanation:

This applies if he does this regularly, for he will eventually fall prey to the temptations of adultery and he will end up in hell.

If a man spends his days admiring the feminine shape, no matter how pure and noble his intentions may be at the start, he is opening the door to temptation, to the pesky fly which is just waiting for a sniff of opportunity.  The flesh is weak, sin is always waiting, and if we want to escape the personal hell into which it can lead us into then we would do well to keep an eye on our eyes.

There is a recognition here of the huge effort that goes into sustaining the civilised and virtuous state of mind, and of how little it takes to undermine that effort.  In this sense the Rabbis are deeply Freudian, their take on man shares his realistic and sober assessment of our nature.  They do not share the enlightenment or liberalist optimism, pervasive to this day, wherein man is basically good, where he is born in purity, and it is only the poisons of society which corrupt him.  They are all too conscious of how corruptible he really is.

This consciousness informs their next insight:

One who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her, even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not be absolved from the punishment of Gehenna.

At a first glance this sounds absurd – who does that, who makes such a roundabout effort to catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and finds it a turn on?

But it happens.  The Rabbis are not saying that it always happens, that every man who sees a woman’s hand is wildly turned on.  For the most part, for most people, it can be a deeply insignificant moment.

But when a man is in a frenzy of obsession, when an imbalance in his libido causes him to invest parts of a woman’s anatomy with near magical powers, when she becomes the locus of his fetish; at that point anything is possible.

And the Rabbis did not say that at that point a man is ill, he is disturbed, he is somehow sub-normal.  No, they did not use the clinical terms of the DSM IV to distance themselves from the phenomenon in front of them, from phenomena they knew intimately from personal experience.  They make it clear that it can happen to a man who is full of Torah and good deeds, who in every other way and to all outer appearances is thoroughly upstanding.

The Rabbis knew the heart of man, they knew the craven spirit that was always hovering in its environment, and they issued their warnings accordingly:

‘Do not think that you have no such inclination, and do not think that you will forever be immune to its charms.  Treat it with respect, for otherwise it will lead you to personal ruin and destruction, to a hell of your own making, it will pervert your imagination and give you no rest until you have acted its bidding.’

Indeed, in this spirit Rav Shimon ben Pazi was known to say:

Woe unto me for my Creator  and woe unto me for my inclination.

We have a great many inclinations for the positive, but we also have powerful inclinations for the worse, particularly when the fires of sexuality come to life.  There is no sense in protesting it, for we were created this way, but when we try to disavow or deny it, when we delude ourselves that it holds no sway over us, that is when we are worthy of woe, for that is when we are at our most painfully vulnerable.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Nakedness and its Vicissitudes, or, It’s all in the Mind… Berakhot 24

Nakedness is something of a hot topic in the Jewish world nowadays.  It seems that we can’t go long without hearing of some new demand for further separation of the sexes, for woman to cover up another part of their anatomy, for the purity of the male mind to be protected at all costs.

Today’s daf presents some of the key material on the topic, and it’s well worth reading it carefully to see what’s being said.

First up, we have the opinion of Shmuel, who says that if one is in bed naked with another, they may turn in the other direction and recite the Shema.  And this applies even if it is his wife, for his wife is considered like ‘his body’.

What does this mean ‘like his body’?  Surely not that she will therefore not cause him to have sexually inclined thoughts.  That would be very problematic.  It may be a challenge for married life to retain the vigorous zest of its earliest days, desire may well be less intense for that which is familiar, but it is surely too must to say that she could not provoke him at all!

Rather, I think we may read that the level of intimacy between a man and his wife is so complete, so natural and unproblematic that he may, with a mere turn of his body, engage in the meditation of Keriat Shema.  A happily married couple have attained the original intent of Genesis, they have become one flesh.  More than this, they have returned to the state wherein nakedness was not wholly coupled with shame, where clothing was not a secretive mask required for human interaction.  Only after the initial sin did Adam and Eve intuit that they needed to clothe themselves, to hide something of their essence, to create a barrier between what was happening on the inside and the outside.

Rav Yosef makes a curious objection, he thinks that only when in bed with his wife would this twist and Shema move be permitted.  But if a man was in bed with another person, who may be more likely to evoke sexual thoughts, then he cannot turn and recite Shema.

It seems, amazingly, that the Shema would be the problem, but that there would be no intrinsic issue in lying in bed naked with a person who fills one with desire.  I can’t imagine many contemporary Rabbis saying this, perhaps there really was a radically different sexual ethic in those times.

We soon get another flavour for how far removed from our own sensibility these Rabbis were.  Referring to the ‘Twist and Shema’, they ask:

And what about the buttocks?  Are these not considered a problematic form of nakedness??

We must say that this provides support for Rav Huna, who holds that buttocks are not nakedness. 

Brilliant! – Ladies who are pestered on buses to cover more of their arms should state that they follow Rav Huna and show the man their buttocks.  That would help the man put things into perspective.

And we then adduce further support for Rav Huna from the following idyllic image, which reads like something from a 1960s acid assisted love festival:

A woman sits and separates her challa naked, despite the fact that she must recite a blessing over the separation of the challa, because she can cover her genitals in the ground, but a male, [whose genitals are not covered when he sits], may not do so.

There is disagreement as to whether her buttocks are in fact being exposed, and therefore as to whether this is conclusive support for Rav Huna.  But either way, it is clear that her legs, arms, shoulders and breasts are very much exposed, and nonetheless she is encouraged to separate her challa and make a blessing!

I do see that this is talking about a woman on her own, there is no suggestion that a man may be in her presence and make a bracha, but the it is powerfully clear that we are potentially very comfortable with nakedness.  I take this to be encouraging, it suggests that we are not as afraid of our bodies, of the bodies of others, as one might have supposed.

Indeed, there is something beautifully domestic about it all, the woman separating challa as she bakes the family bread, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat, and she does it whilst sitting in the grass, again with an Eden like innocence, her hair tumbling down her shoulders, perhaps with some flowers in it, as the warm Mediterranean sun caresses and soothes her.

Snapping back to the halakha, some significant heavyweights – Rashba and the Magen Avraham – accept this ruling about buttocks, they are not even considered problematic for the recitation of the Shema.

Thus far, all seems well, there is an acceptance of the post Edenic condition in which nakedness is at some level incompatible with making a bracha, but there is no sense in which nakedness is altogether threatening, in which its presence might somehow undermine the foundations of religious life.

Indeed, there’s an imperative to keep things in perspective:

Rav Mari said to Rav Pappa: Does it constitute nakedness if one’s pubic hair protruded from their garment? Rav Pappa said about him: A hair, a hair.

In other words, a hair is just a hair, let’s not get carried away and start looking to cause trouble.

Or, he might be saying: “I understand that some men may have a fetish for pubic hairs, and perhaps you, Rav Mari, include yourself in this category.  I appreciate that the sight of one may cause untold stimulation and excitation, and who knows where that might lead one.  We do not, however, legislate on the basis on the basis of personal fetish, it is neither in principle nor in practice acceptable to make demands on a woman’s attire due to whatever excessive sexuality a man may read into a situation.”

In this spirit, the Talmud continues its exploration of the female body.  It cites Rav Yitzchak, a later Amora, who holds that a tefach, a hands-breadth, of a woman’s flesh is considered nakedness.

It is not clear what he is referring to, and at this point the Talmud drops a bit of a bombshell:

If you say that it comes to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth in her, didn’t Rav Sheshet say:  Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.

And there we have it, one of the most popular statements for justifying attacks on what women choose to wear.

Let’s unpack this.  First of all, Rav Yitzchak wasn’t talking about this, he was talking about Shema, and we do not accept his opinion.  We accept the more open minded opinions already cited.  So the common phrase ‘Tefach Be’Isha Erva’ actually has no application, it is, essentially, rejected.

Now, onto Rav Sheshet.  How are we to square this with everything more accommodating that we’ve seen above?

First of all, I think we have to note that the verb used here is ‘mistakel’, which suggests an intense form of staring, ‘gazing’, as the translation above has it.  We are not entertaining the idea that a chance sighting of a woman’s little finger is in anyway the same as seeing her genitalia.  What I think we are talking about, however, is the power of fantasy, of the imagination.

There is a recognition that if a man has lustful feelings towards a woman, then even the slightest glance at part of her body, at a finger or toe, at the passing shadow of her form, will be enough.  It will contain the power to carry his weakened and subservient mind into a world of illicit possibilities.

This is to take Rav Pappa’s thought to its conclusion, we cannot possibly legislate for all instances of sexual provocation, because perhaps ninety percent of that provocation is happening inside the mind of the man, with only incidental assistance from the external world.  It’s a very Kleinian worldview.  His mind is in a state where it is disposed towards lust and desire, perhaps in general, perhaps with regard to one specific woman.  And in that state, no matter what we were to do, even were we to banish him to a cave on his own, he would come to think lustful thoughts.

So the burden is upon him, not upon the woman.

The plot thickens, it turns out that Rav Sheshet, who made the comment about the little finger, was blind (TB Shabbat 109a, 119a), possibly since birth.

Where to go with this?

On the one hand, he is hardly the most realistic judge of what is and is not sexually provocative in the realm of sight.  That just has to be an indisputable reality.

On another level, what we do have, what we must be dealing with, is his imagination.  He must imagine that to see this part of a woman, a woman one desires, is as much as to see her nakedness in its entirety.  And he is right, to an extent.  In the realm of the imagination, of fantasy, the smallest symbol can be the key to the whole image, can trigger a vision of the totality.  He is presenting us with an imagination fully formed, in its most excitable state, and he is right to suggest that in this condition, the smallest glance could be overpowering, intoxicating.

We must be in the realm of the imaginary, I was sure of this before I was reminded of Rav Sheshet’s blindness, now I am utterly convinced of it.

We then have another two famous examples of what constitutes nakedness in a woman.

One is the leg, and the verse used to support this is from Isaiah.  Well, actually a verse which talks about a leg is next to a verse which talks about nakedness.  And the nakedness isn’t physical, but sounds more metaphorical, existential:

“Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen” (47.3)

I take it that we are in the realm of what might provoke an excitable male, of musings on the fickle side of man.  But what I do consider is that perhaps the anxiety around nakedness is provoked by this idea of Isaiah’s, as follows:

In our nakedness we do experience shame, and therefore we seek to avoid shame, and we do so by avoiding nakedness, and not just our own, but nakedness in general, perhaps in particular of those who evoke shame in us.

In psychoanalytic language, this would be a form of projection, a kind of displaced transference, wherein we direct our powerful emotions at very much the wrong object.

And this happens again with the next quotation, which seeks to establish the female voice as ‘nakedness’.  There the quotation is from The Song of Songs, that powerful and sensual love song which gave some of the Rabbis so much trouble.  And what better way to deal with that than to use it to reduce the amount of sensuality in one’s environment, to clamp down on the unease that it brings about.

Rashi seems to be thinking this way, he comments, perhaps ironically:

Since the verse exalts the voice so highly, we learn from there that it is a source of desire (ta’ava).

So both of these assaults on the female body can be read as expression of male unease and anxiety.  And the fact that they are not generally taken as legal rulings, neither in the Talmud nor, universally, in the codes, gives us more room for this provocative and challenging reading, for us to ask what was really going in this discussion.

We are given a variety of conflicting views, and it’s important to distinguish the manner in which we ought to read them all, if indeed that manner has been clearly established.  I believe that a close reading of the text makes the issues a lot less black and white than commonly assumed, and that it also makes for a richer, more psychologically interesting discussion.

Sensuality evokes unease, that is what it means to live outside Eden.  But how we manage that, how we act it out, that we do have control over, and it is demanded of us that we do so in as honest and considerate a way as possible.

Dirty Dream Number Two Berakhot 22

There is a somewhat head-spinning discussion today about what someone is allowed to read, study or pray following an emission of semen.

In a heartening admission of just how hard the discussion is to follow, the narrator of the Talmud says the following:

It’s clear that all the Ammoraim and Tannaim are arguing with Ezra’s decree [i.e. requiring purification after emission], let us see what Ezra himself actually decreed!!

Perhaps it’s difficult to appreciate this line without having endured the discussion up until this point.  That said, anyone’s who’s gotten lost in Talmudic dialectics will surely like the idea that once in a while the text is able to be self-conscious about it and to itself demand some clarification.

Going back to the discussion itself, the rejection of Ezra’s decree is finalised in the following story:

Once a certain disciple was mumbling words of Torah in front of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Betera, [as he had suffered an emission of semen in the night].  He said to him: My son, open your mouth and let your words be clear, for words of Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness, as it says, “Is not My word like fire?” (Jeremiah 23:29).  Just as fire is not susceptible of uncleanness, so words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness.

I think there are three key points to take from this story.

Firstly, the idea that words of Torah do not become impure or unclean is a powerful one.  It follows from this that we may view them as a kind of oasis of purity, an inextinguishable source of life, a refuge from the filth and muck that life sometimes catches us in.  No matter how dirty or fallen you may feel, do not think you are too unworthy to engage in Torah.  It is the tree of life, your mortal wretchedness is no match for its power.

Secondly, and implicit in this one, Rabbi Yehuda ben Betera rejects what other Rabbis in the discussion seem to assume, i.e. that a person who is impure may not utter words of Torah.  Irrespective of the effect they may or may not have of the Torah, one might think that they simply are not fit, as an individual, to approach the Divine Word.

We firmly reject this, re-enforcing the idea we’ve seen before that it is precisely in our most abject and graceless state that we may need to reach out to the Divine.  We are never too far, never too low, Torah was given to elevate man, and it is precisely when he needs that elevation that it may work best.  The Torah was deliberately not given to angels, it was given to flesh and blood, to those who wake up in the night flustered and confused, dirty and disoriented.

The third lesson is that words of Torah are like fire.  Not only can they not become impure, but I think we can assume that their heat may sear and purify us, that their intensity may burn through the layers of our ego and touch something forgotten in our unconscious.

There is a mysterious vitality to fire, it’s seductive yet very dangerous, it plays to something unbounded in our imagination.  Torah should always carry some of this allure and mystique –  if it doesn’t then perhaps we’ve lost our connection to its vitality.

So, following this ruling, and, it seems, a general revolt against Ezra’s law, we may learn Torah even if we are in some sense impure, if that’s the consequence of a wet dream.

There is another discussion later on, which seems to take place in ignorance of this ruling:

Our Rabbis taught: A ba’al keri [one who experienced an emission of semen] on whom nine kabs  of water have been thrown is clean. Nahum Ish Gamzu  whispered this to Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva whispered it to Ben Azzai, and Ben Azzai went forth and repeated it to the disciples in public.

Two Amoraim in the West differed in regard to this, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida.  One stated: He repeated it, and one taught, He whispered it. The one who taught ‘he repeated it’ [publicly] held that the reason [for the concession] was to prevent neglect of the Torah and of procreation. The one who taught ‘he whispered it’ thought that the reason was in order that scholars might not always be with their wives like roosters.

There’s a lot of whispering here, there is a secret tradition, we don’t seem to trust everyone with the fullness of the truth.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai were two of the four who entered the mystical Pardes, we’re being given a glimpse of that esoteric world here.

What’s really important though is the point at the end about roosters.  It seems that roosters can mate up to 100 times a day, and there is a suggestion that this is not behaviour befitting a scholar of Torah.

And yet, paying attention to the text, this is not a point made by any of the Tannaim mentioned.  Rather, it is offered anonymously, as a possible rationalisation for a divergent reading of the story.  This different reading is attributed to Amoraim living 200 or so years later in Israel.  And the explanation is being offered by even later Amoraim maybe another hundred years later in Babylon.

So, there is no indication that this is to be taken as a final legal ruling, or even as an undisputed Scholarly Sexual Ethic.  And yet – you know where this is heading – it has become precisely that, codified thus in Rambam (Deot 5:4) and Shulkhan Arukh (OH 240:1, EH 25:2).

There seems to have been an evolution here, the ambivalent and complex sexual attitude of the Talmud – which we’ll be exploring as it arises – is being transformed into a scholarly asceticism, a demand for sublimation, a disavowal of earthly life.  There is doubtless a balance that needs to be struck here, but I think we should be aware of the way the tradition may shift in a certain direction, of the way that certain voices who no longer appeal to later generations might be ignored or repressed.

Sex and Torah both contain an element of fire.  They are both a source and manifestation of life.  I think we must tread very carefully in presuming to understand the relationship between them, in attempting to legislate for it.  A period of heightened sexuality can often concur with a burst of intellectual creativity; it is not the case that one can easily and straightforwardly timetable sublimation.

Living with spontaneity and uncertainty is living truthfully, remaining engaged with reality.  Let us not run too quickly away from those aspects of life, let us remember that Torah was given to us in this world and that it is here that we must make something of it.