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.
We learn really slowly- but sometimes when you read the same daf over and over again it becomes like those pictures where a hologram jumps out of them.
Our topic is sex. And it is very tangible as the gemarah circles closer to the intercourse itself on daf 5-6. In asking whether losing your virginity (or breaking the hymen) is allowed on Shabbat, we are all lead to picture the actual act of sex. And lo and behold the gemarah is filled with phallic images.
The detour right before the Shabbat question is all about how the body is designed perfectly. It says if you are about to hear lashon hara you should put your finger in your ear. This is why your fingers and ears are shaped the way they are, says the gemarah. I couldn’t understand what this was doing here, until I read the gemarah for the enth time and it jumped out at me as a serious phallic image.
Then the gemarah begins working through Shabbat laws and how they relate to breaking the hymen. We are being led to imagine all the different problems on Shabbat - blood being released from the womb (a strange understanding of why some women bleed when they loose their virginity) or an opening being formed, a wound being inflicted. This section really leaves you confused envisioning sex, trying to figure out how the woman is shaped, where thy hymen is and where the Rabbis thought it was.
The gemarah compares our case to another Shabbat case, that of stopping up a hole in a barrel with a rag to prevent spillage. On the one hand this case struck me as inappropriate because we were focusing on creating an opening, letting out blood, or making a wound, not soaking a rag in fluid and squeezing it out which is the focus of this case. While we might have expected a case that had to do with wounding or breaking, this case of stuffing a barrel is surprisingly related as another super phallic image.
I am left wondering if the very act of sex is potentially questionable on Shabbat – not the breaking of the hymen alone but the penetration. The idea of penetrating a woman, of changing her status through the first act of sex, perhaps even exertion on the day of rest is one that raises questions about Shabbat.
Or perhaps the rabbis were just subconsciously using images that mirror the penetration they are envisioning.