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.