Talmud after dark: Maggie Anton finds the ribald in Rashi

Like many seeds for a book, the thought of writing about rabbinic discussions of sex came from an offhand comment made by a stranger. Talmudic scholar and novelist Maggie Anton was speaking to a Hadassah chapter in New Jersey last fall. The audience was entirely women, and she decided to impart some of the funnier commandments and prohibitions related to sex that she had encountered in her studies. The women in the audience were laughing and having a good time, she said, and one stood up and suggested she write “50 Shades of Talmud.”

“In the car, on the way back to where I was staying, I thought, ‘You know, actually, I could do that,’ ” she said.

Anton is the author of the popular series “Rashi’s Daughters,” based on the great medieval talmudic scholar who had three daughters and no sons. Little is known about the girls save for their names (Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel) and that they married their father’s finest students, but it’s believed that they were scholars of Torah and Talmud at a time when women were forbidden to study the sacred texts. Anton’s trilogy imagines what their lives might have been like. 

Anton continued her research into the lives of women in Jewish history by focusing on fourth-century Babylonia, where the Talmud was being created, and the prevalence of sorcery and the occult among rabbinic families. That led to her books “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1: Apprentice” and “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter.”

Anton was raised in a secular, socialist household in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in North Hollywood. Her parents didn’t belong to a synagogue, but they spoke Yiddish and enrolled her in one of the kinderschule in the San Fernando Valley run by the Workmen’s Circle.

“I certainly had a Jewish education. I just did not have any kind of religious education,” she said with a laugh.

Her family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, but she never learned why. She learned about Jewish religion by reading the fictional “All-of-a-Kind Family” series of children’s books by Sydney Taylor, about an early 20th-century immigrant Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Those books inspired Anton’s series about Rashi’s daughters. Anton wanted “to do for Rashi’s family what Sydney Taylor had done for the immigrant family, where you’re embedded with the family, and you eat with them, and go to services with them, and you celebrate all the lifecycle events and you celebrate the holidays with them.”

Anton was a voracious reader as a child. One book that changed the direction of her life was Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Growing up in the 1950s, she rarely heard adults discuss the Holocaust. “Exodus,” which follows Ari Ben Canaan as he helps Jewish refugees escape a British detention camp in Cyprus and arrive in Palestine, celebrated the birth of the new Jewish state and helped Anton develop a newfound pride in being Jewish.

“Reading ‘Exodus’ is when I realized that if I had lived in Europe, my whole family would be dead. That people wanted to kill me just because I was Jewish,” she said. “Being Jewish was suddenly more important to me, even though I wasn’t doing anything about it. It seems silly now, but I vowed, ‘My first son is going to be named Ari,’ after the hero in ‘Exodus.’ I actually told that to guys I was dating. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Years later, she met her husband, David Parkhurst. They married at Temple Akiba in Culver City and had a son together. And true to the vow, they named him Ari. The family moved to Glendale, and for the first time in her life, Anton didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood.

“We realized that Jews aren’t all over the place. If we want to be part of a Jewish community, I guess we’re going to have to find a synagogue,” she said. The couple befriended Rabbi Ken Weiss and joined a chavurah he had formed. (Weiss died in 2014.) They attended a beginning Hebrew class. Her husband learned to chant Torah and served as a president of Temple Sinai of Glendale.

“I sort of got dragged along a little bit on this, and he was getting much more ahead of me in terms of Jewish education and learning. So in 1992, when I heard about a woman’s Talmud class being taught by Rachel Adler, I signed up for it, partly because I heard she was a great teacher,” she said. “Mostly I was interested because I knew women weren’t supposed to study Talmud. All you have to do is forbid something and it immediately becomes more attractive.”

Anton fell in love with Talmud. Her discovery of Rashi’s daughters and the lives of 11th-century French talmudic scholars led her to write her best-selling trilogy. She spent four years writing the first draft, and didn’t tell her husband or children that she was writing a book until it was finished. Penguin Books published the first book in 2005, which happened to mark Rashi’s 900th yahrzeit.

Talmud continues to be her passion to this day. She retired from her job as a clinical chemist at Kaiser Permanente in 2006 to write full time. “50 Shades of Talmud” is Anton’s first attempt at nonfiction. Mixed in with centuries of rabbinic teachings, Anton finds philosophical treatises, permissions and prohibitions related to marriage, intimacy and sex. Compared to her previous works of fiction, “Fifty Shades of Talmud” is far shorter — just shy of 120 pages — and filled with illustrations, pithy quotations and proverbs. It’s written in a breezy, irreverent tone, without academic jargon. In fact, the introductory section about the origins of the Talmud comes with a warning: “This section contains historical details that may cause boredom, listlessness, or lethargy.”

“My stealth goal in writing all these books is to get more women and more liberal Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, to study Talmud. I mean, Talmud has been the monopoly of Orthodox men for so long,” she said. “But now we have really good English translations. There’s no excuse why a whole lot more Jews shouldn’t be studying Talmud.”

“50 Shades of Talmud” will be released on March 24 (Purim).

Troublesome numbers

The most fascinating, intriguing and philosophically engaging book of the Tanakh (if we are allowed to indulge in ratings) is undoubtedly the first one — Bereshit, or Genesis. It tackles questions of creation and destiny, society and government, as well as the different facets of human behavior, sibling rivalry, envy and miscommunication.

Vast literature has been written on and around Genesis, and its narrative influenced many novels and poems. But as fascinating as it is, Bereshit cannot be read as a novel. As Erich Auerbach explains in his best-known book “Mimesis,” whereas Greek, and later on Western literature, sought to create the background for each scene, both physically and historically, by providing detailed description of the protagonists’ lives and surroundings, the Bible –and especially Genesis — is extremely laconic and taciturn, never revealing more than necessary.

This disparity led readers and commentators throughout the ages to try and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, which can be done in 70 different ways. In some cases, unfortunately, this interpretive endeavor yielded strange and even inedible fruits. Many readers, who cannot distinguish between the original, biblical text and the later interpretation, find themselves alienated from Torah study, a lamentable situation that requires remedy.

Case in point is Rivka’s age when she married.

A while ago I heard a speaker describing the generosity of Rivka by saying, “We know that she was only 3 years old, which made it much more difficult for her to give water to all the camels!”

We know? How? Most people will say: Rashi says so! Very good, but where did Rashi take it from?

The calculation setting Rivka’s age at 3 was done by the author of a Midrash called Seder Olam, or World’s Chronology, whose working assumption was that events juxtaposed in the Torah happened immediately one after the other. He assumed that if Sarah’s death at 127 years old is mentioned in the Torah immediately following the akedah (binding of Yizchak), then it happened right after the akedah; since Sarah was 90 when he was born, Yitzhak would therefore be 37 at the time of the akedah. Furthermore, since the news about Rivka’s birth is inserted between the akedah and Sarah’s death, and since Yitzhak married at 40, his wife was 3 years old.

This Midrash, quoted in Rashi, is taught without hesitation to kindergardeners through 12th-graders. Would we tell our children that story if it did not refer to biblical characters?

How would we feel cheering on a cute flower girl (or better yet, toddler) marching down the aisle at a wedding, only to find out that she is actually the bride? Can you imagine casually telling your kids that their 40-year-old cousin is marrying their 3-year-old next-door neighbor, with whom they don’t play because she’s too young and often breaks their toys?

Of course not, we would be disgusted and appalled. We would label the man a pedophile and a pervert. We would notify the authorities and warn our children to keep away from him.

Why then are we willing to accept that scenario when it comes to the patriarchs of our nation?

This question entails one of the greatest dilemmas of teaching and understanding Tanach, particularly Torah, and especially in Orthodox schools. To what extent are we obligated to accept the Midrash that has become so inextricably intertwined with the biblical text that even learned, well-versed scholars have a hard time telling them apart?

The answer to that question is that the rule has been long established by the early sages, mostly from the Sephardic school of thought, that rabbinical interpretation of the non-halachic parts of the Torah should be approached cautiously.

The first to voice this opinion was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), followed by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (950-1013) in his introduction to the Talmud. Later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides in their respective philosophical works, HaKuzari and Guide of the Perplexed, both explained that there are different types of midrash on the non-halachic parts of Torah and that they can be understood as allegories, metaphors or stories meant to convey a message.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rivka was 3 years old. To the contrary, her role as a shepherdess; the way she interacted with Abraham’s servant, with her family and with Yitzhak; and the statement at the end of the parsha — that Yitzhak’s love for her comforted him after his mother’s death — all point to a mature girl, whose youngest age was probably 17 or 18. Not only that, but Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes that Yitzhak’s age during the akedah was around 13, which given Yitzhak’s age of 40 at the time of their marriage would make Rivka a 27-year-old bride. At Yitzhak’s wedding, the bride might have been weeping, but it was definitely not over a lost pacifier.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Guide to Torah fleshes out flat characters in stories

“Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary,” by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (Yashar Books)

Besotted with Torah.

That’s the phrase that springs to mind when reading Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s “Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary.”
The title is somewhat academic, and I have to admit that it does not make the book sound user-friendly. But make no mistake, this lovely and lively volume is a valuable addition to traditional Torah study and to the layman’s library.

One of the first maxims any budding Torah scholar learns is: Aseh L’cha rav — find yourself a teacher. For it is understood that no one can study Torah alone. The corridors of Torah study are an endless maze that can only lead to confusion and frustrating dead ends. Everyone needs a guide, and even the most brilliant talmudic students in the finest yeshivas must have a study partner.

Etshalom’s book cannot replace a study partner; no single book can do that. I’m sure that Etshalom would agree with me on this point, but his book is not meant to do that. Etshalom’s book is meant as a sort of introductory field guide to Torah.

Let’s admit something right away: When we read the narratives in the Torah, we often say to ourselves, “Gee willikers, this story is really weird; this narrative makes no sense. Do people really act this way? Did people ever act this way?”

This is why you have to study with a teacher. This is why you have to scrutinize the text using Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France), the greatest of all commentators, so that you can, as Etshalom says, read between the lines.

I’m a screenwriter and novelist. I think in terms of fully realized characters. I insist on the primacy of characters that act and think in coherent ways, with what’s called in the trade: internal logic. I’m also conditioned to think in terms of plots that work in three acts and have setups and payoffs. I look for stories that end with neat fades to black; stories that are tidily resolved with no narrative problems left dangling.
This rarely happens in the Torah.

Thus, reading the stories in the Torah can be a frustrating experience. So much is left unsaid. Biblical dialogue is so spare it makes Hemingway look positively chatty.
But in truth, the bare bones tales are without literary peer — the basis for almost all Western literature. Etshalom uses traditional Torah sources, plus some of the newer disciplines of archaeology, philology, Assyriology, Egyptology, anthropology and literary theory to disclose the internal logic of the characters and to reveal the full magnificence and truth of the Torah narratives. He’s like a hugely gifted screenwriter filling out a skimpy outline stage by stage (on occasion, Etshalom even refers to the biblical characters as “actors”) so that finally the director can see the epic that he is going to shoot.

In his passionate and eye-opening second chapter, “Entering the Character’s World,” Etshalom analyzes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here Etshalom introduces the reader to his principal methodology of parshanut — understanding the portions:

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