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/

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.

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.