November 16, 2018

Sex & Text

Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: “Let your house be wide open to guests. Treat the poor as members of your household, and do not indulge excessively in conversation with the woman.”

This was said concerning one’s own wife: How much more so does it apply to the wife of another. Hence, the Sages have declared: “Anyone who indulges excessively in conversation with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and ultimately will inherit Hell.”

Avot 1:5


I’ve been teaching Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to UCLA law students and undergraduates for several years now, and this Mishnah invariably makes my life difficult. “Don’t talk too much to a woman”!?

This is Jewish wisdom?

Well, yes, it is. But in ways that we might not initially recognize. And it tells us how great Jewish texts can challenge our assumptions about language, God and how we live our lives.

One could, of course, simply take the view that the text means what it says and says what it means. That seems to be the response of the ultra-Orthodox, who have decided that women cannot be heard from or seen, or even sat next to. They get unexpected support from many modern quarters.

The great scholar Jacob Neusner observes that traditional Judaism was sexist, and, so, from this Mishnah we should simply “sadly walk away.”

Reform Rabbi Kerry Olitzky notes that “however we understand the phrase … we modern Jews reject the premise entirely.”

William Berkson’s JPS commentary takes a similar tack, referring to the passage as “narrow-minded” and “wrong-headed.”

Such views are themselves, however, somewhat narrow-minded. In Judaism, the text virtually never means what it says and says what it means. Instead, we need to look more closely.

Here, our first model should be the great Modern Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who focused on the precise Hebrew word translated as “conversation.” That word is sicha, and Hirsch noted accurately that it does not mean serious conversation (that would be diyyun) but rather “merely idle talk and gossip.” This interpretation flips the entire Mishnah on its head: Rather than saying that men should ostracize women from important matters, the passage actually suggests that men and women should not separate themselves when it comes to serious conversation. The interpretive process can generate an egalitarian result.

We need not stop there. Whenever we see an injunction such as is found in Avot 1:5, we can’t assume that it always applies. Under what circumstances and contexts? The great 13th-century Rabbi Yonah Gerondi argued that the whole passage was simply referring to a menstruant woman and thus the laws of family purity: In the same way that the Torah refers to sexual relations as “knowing” a woman, all that “talking” means here is sex during her period, which is forbidden. These laws also raise important issues concerning gender equality, which I hope to deal with in a subsequent column, but it is a far cry from banishing women from the public sphere or intellectual life. Hirsch ingeniously placed the line in the context of the mistress of the household preparing to open it for scholars and the poor, referred to in the beginning of the passage; in other words, it means don’t bother your wife with frivolities when she is trying to engage in a mitzvah. Here, too, context truly changes meaning.

This mode of interpretation is crucial to understanding sex and text: Simply because a passage appears to establish or reinforce gender hierarchy does not mean that it does. It might be limited to particular situations and contexts, and not subordinate women at all. And more importantly, our tradition encourages such a way of reading.

But why bother with all this? If we have to reject the text’s plain meaning to reach an acceptable result, isn’t it just a waste of time? Not at all. The act of interpretation is itself one of the fundamental practices of what it means to be Jewish. Wrestling with God means wrestling with text. It allows us to engage in a conversation across generations, across literally thousands of years, enabling our voices to ring through time. That’s about as far as possible from wasting time.

In Judaism, the text virtually never means what it says and says what it means.

More importantly, though, it forces us to grapple with an even more challenging meaning of Pirkei Avot’s words. The Mishnah is not establishing gender hierarchies, but rather warning us of sexual danger. “Don’t talk too much to a woman” is about passion, not inequality. Here again, a 19th-century Orthodox writer, Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, grasped a core principle of the Mishnah.

“Man’s strongest passion,” Lehmann noted, “is sexual desire. Even though this emotion is God-given for the preservation of humanity, its effect can also be destructive if it arouses man to lose his self-control and incites him to transgress Divine laws. … wild passion breaks through all barriers; the soundest principles yield to it.”

Although the recent sexual harassment scandals implicate the abuse of power far more than sexual desire, Lehmann’s admonition reminds us that sex and danger are intimately linked.

Sexual freedom has brought tremendous good to men and women, LGBTQ and straight, throughout the world, but it also brought enormous costs. For example, you don’t have to be a prude to recognize that out-of-wedlock births harm children’s chances for success in life, and such births skyrocketed after social norms concerning sexuality liberalized in the 1960s. Similarly, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to recognize that desire can cause suffering. Love is wonderful. Unrequited love is devastating. Jealousy, bitterness and resentment all come from desire, and they all corrode the human spirit. The rabbis identified the Evil Inclination with sexuality for precisely this reason.

That does not mean that we should sweep sexuality under the rug (or back into the closet), and lead repressed lives. But it forces us to scrutinize our own sexual desires unsparingly, and examine aspects of our personalities that we would prefer to ignore. Politically, it forces us to recognize the costs of sexual liberation, even as we advocate for it. These conclusions do not give us a lot of comfort. Nor should they.

If we just rejected the seemingly hierarchical implications of Avot 1:5, we would miss all of this. Wrestling with text is difficult and complicated, but it yields enormous riches. How should we, as individuals and citizens, regulate sexual desire? What will empower us to channel our passions constructively? If we find that sexual expression has harmful social effects, what should we do? Avot demands we confront these questions. For Jews, dodging them is not an option.

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.