November 15, 2019

Sex in the Talmud uncovered in different ‘Shades’

According to a pious tradition, the unmarried men in a yeshivah were asked to leave the study hall whenever the rabbi began to teach one of the passages of the Talmud that frankly address the subject of sex, an act known in talmudic usage as “the mitzvah act.” Now, thanks to a rollicking but also illuminating new book by novelist Maggie Anton, we can all find out what the bachelors were missing. 

In “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press), Anton draws on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and writing, as well as her sly sense of humor, to open our eyes to “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?”

Of course, this is hardly the first time that Anton has pushed the envelope on matters of gender in Jewish tradition. She is beloved by her many readers for the award-winning novels in the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and, more recently, the “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, both of which extract the mostly hidden female offspring of ancient Jewish sages from obscurity and bring them fully and dramatically to life on the printed page.

Anton, following the advice of Rashi to always begin a lesson with a joke, “because students will learn better when they are laughing,” opens “Fifty Shades of Talmud” with what happens to be my single favorite Jewish joke of all time. (The punchline of the joke, at least as I tell it, is: “It might lead to dancing.”) And, she explains, not without another moment of humor, that the Talmud, which began in distant antiquity, remains the foundational document of Rabbinic Judaism to this day: “Even those Jews who don’t do Judaism,” she cracks, “it’s Rabbinic Judaism they don’t do.”

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. The divine commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” she points out, was understood by the Talmudic sages as an obligation imposed on men only. “[T]he Sages not only let the woman off the hook, but they also recommended ways for her to avoid pregnancy (some of which probably worked).” At the same time, she quotes a saying that honors the woman’s experience of sex: “Why does the Talmud call marital relations the holy deed? Because if done well, the wife cries ‘Oh God’ many times.”

She also points out that the Talmud can be almost prudish when it comes to sex. No word exists in the Talmud for “penis,” she writes, and the rabbis instead euphemistically used names of other body parts. “As you can imagine, this can lead to passages that actually denote limbs, feet, or legs sounding quite salacious.” When it comes to female genitalia, however, they confined themselves to the Hebrew phrase “Ha makom,” which literally means “that place.” Here, too, Anton is quick to point that “since Ha Makom is one of many names for God, this can lend an unholy connotation to some holiday texts.” 

Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. And Sheppard both captures and enhances the spirit and the substance of Anton’s text: “Better stand back,” Adam tells Eve in the caption to one drawing at a moment before they have realized their nakedness, “I’m not sure how big this thing gets.”

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”