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Many of you Literary Talmud aficionados out there may be familiar with Boyarin’s famous claim about the seduction of the Beit Midrash. He suggests that Rabbis had to choose between a normal home and sex life with their wives or years of abstinence and study in the Beit Midrash. Further complicating things, in a group of stories in Ketuboth, Rabbis often accidentally missed their weekly or yearly visit with their wife because torah “pulled” or seduced them. Ben Azzai says it very clearly: though he is a master at finding verses that reinforce marriage for the purpose of reproduction, he himself refuses to marry so he will have time to learn, arguing that other people will maintain the ongoing generations of the world.

I just came across a striking gemarah that echoes Boyarin’s claim that torah and marriage/childbearing are at odds. (Yevamot 64b) The story is told that Rav Aba bar Zvada did not have any children with his wife, and so the Rabbis urge him to marry another woman (in conjunction with the first or after divorcing the first is not clear) and then try to have children again. Rav Aba bar Zvada says, “no thanks I tried once, who is to say the second will be any different.” He may be making a meaningful statement about the role of the man in a couple’s bareness, as well as perhaps hinting at a spiritual component to a person’s fate- but this is not our focus for today.

The gemarah goes on to dismiss the more spiritual explanation offered by Rav Aba bar Zvada and counters that the only reason he did not want to try again was because he was barren and knew he could not have children. Why is he barren and how can he be sure? Because he became barren due to the long length of the shiurim given by Rav Huna. Not only Rav Aba bar Zvada, but apparently 60 Talmdei Chachamim became barren because they did not relieve themselves for the length of the class they had to sit in respectfully without getting up, even for a bathroom break.

Unbelievable! What’s more crazy is that mostly the tone does not seem angry at Rav Huna. The students are not up in the arms by the violence done to their bodies from the hours in class. Rather there is a positive undertone that their devotion to learning, their ability to ignore the needs of their body, has actually earned them the right to avoid the arduous mitzvah of having children.

Honestly I am torn between being disgusted by the image conjured by this story and intrigued by the magnificence of its symbolic power. These Rabbis again, as in the Ketuboth stories, are literally forced to choose between learning and sex- in this case having children. Specifically the power of the phallus is subverted in the name of learning. Many before me have pointed out that according to Bachtin (a Russian literary theorist) the grotesque obsession with the body specifically is specifically tied to the anxieties surrounding life and death- the ability to reproduce and the danger of dying without leaving behind a seed.

While these Rabbis are deprived of the ability to actually reproduce, their devotion to Torah provides a different kind of immortality. While their teacher Rav Huna in fact castrates them, he implants in his students his wisdom reproducing his mind and his values. They too as teachers of torah and writers of law will have to reproduce themselves in the Beit Midrash, rather then in the bedroom.

Will
8/10/2009 12:45:44 am

אנא כוותך בחדא ופלגינא בחדא. I think you're right that this sugya is a reflection of a (male) ambivalence towards children/reproduction in conjunction with a sense that learning Torah (and, presumably, "teaching it forwards") provides the same benefits as (if not benefits superior to) reproduction. I don't think that the story has much to say about castration or violence to the body for the sake of Torah, though -- presumably, nothing outward has changed, including the ability to ejaculate. So from a certain perspective, this might actually be the best of both worlds -- the ability to have normal sex without the attendant "problem" of procreation. (Was that not, after all, one of the achievements of the 20th century?)

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Alieza
8/10/2009 08:31:48 pm

Castration might have been a bit dramatic- but hey it drew a response. Thanks for your comment.

I still maintain that there is a certain violence done to the body by forcing a person to ignore normal bodily needs which result in irreversible changes and inability to be a partner in conception ever again. There may even be some pain or embarrassment in the moment, depending, I suppose, on how engrossed the men are in the class (mind over body?).

And in terms of sex without procreation- in this specific sugyah the spot light is on reproduction so it is hard to tell if they are enjoying the new freedom of their infertility. My guess is they were burning the midnight oil in the beit midrash (that's not to say I think all "Rabbinic" figures were like that). Also permanent infertility is far way off from today's contraception and family planning tools. And it's a hell of a statement to embrace sterilization for the purpose of study.

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adhishek
12/13/2011 09:28:25 pm

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