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.


I was just rattled by this article about “victim feminism.” Marla Braverman claims that second wave feminism, in pointing out the systematic forces that work to keep women down, has created a generation of women who see themselves as victims. Consciousness Raising itself creates women who don’t feel stronger for recent gains, but rather accept that the deck is stacked against them.

The most startling claim she made is that sexual harassment victims who do not protest and or make reports immediately are part of the problem. Had we been trained to see ourselves as loud outspoken strong women then…. well then what?

Problem is, Braverman suggests that those women who report abuse after the fact are themselves adding to the sense of victimization by declaring their own victimhood and scaring more women about the invincible predators lurking around the corner. So perhaps they should have protested in the moment, she suggests.

Yes why not, women should be trained to voice their consent or refusal loudly and clearly. Maybe we can strengthen our sense of choice and voice. Yet that does not erase all the societal barriers than need to change for this utopia of women’s strength to flourish. (Maybe that’s the “victim feminist” in me). Society at large – not just women- still attributes shame to being sexually harassed and to talking about sex in general. Moreover, how do we change a boss or a professor’s awareness about his or her power, without talking about it?

I’m not sure how I would react if I was ever put to the test, but I know that I have gained from the conversation about power dynamics. I know that as a teacher I am aware of the influence I hold over my students and I try to use it wisely. I agree that all relationships: sexual or professional, work of friend, across gender lines or across power divide are complicated. And perhaps the court room, as Braverman suggests, is not the best place to begin policing some of the more nuanced cases she mentions.  Still I am not certain that the work of feminism in the societal and educational spheres can yet afford to stop raising awareness.


It’s been a while, but I’m back...
In today’s sugya (9a) the story of David and Batshevah is hinted at. The gemarah is trying to ascertain what kind of proof is necessary to accuse a woman of adultery and thereby make her forbidden to both her husband and the man with who she had the affair.

The gemarah is all tied up in knots trying to prevent any woman from slipping through the cracks. Specifically, the beginning of Ketuboth is interested in the case of a woman whose  husband claims she was not a virgin on their first night together. But is his subjective experience enough to prove that she slept with someone of her own free will during the time of their official engagement, meaning that she cheated?

In comparison to the flimsy claim, “I found her opening opened,” the gemarah cites the case of sotah, a system that demands several objective proofs in order to convict. A man who is jealous of his wife, must warn her about a specific man with whom she then secludes herself in front of witnesses. He then takes her to the temple for a miraculous test, which proves her innocence or guilt.

The story of King David and his lover Batsheva is brought as the source of the requirement for warning and witnesses. But anyone who remembers this story knows that Uriah, Batsheva’s husband, was not jealous of his wife, nor did he warn her about sleeping with the King, nor were there any witnesses. Why in the world is their story brought as the source?

“Ahh…” the gemarah replies, true, in the case of David and Batsheva, there were no witnesses and no warning and therefore after the act of adultery Batsheva was indeed allowed to return to her husband (David tried to bring her husband home from war in time so that he will think her pregnancy was due Uriah himself) and she is allowed to marry David after the affair. The absence of witnesses and warning is the reason they were allowed to stay together, and proves that these missing elements are essential in prosecution.

This sounds like a modern soap opera, or a how -to book on how to have an affair and not get caught. Why does the gemarah invoke this story, which only might teach about proof though its absence? Not very convincing.

The gemarah secretly is dying to tell this story, despite it’s inappropriateness, and at the same time it can’t. While it is obvious from the context and from later commentators that the gemarah is referring to David and Batsheva, the gemarah simply refers to “Maashe Sheaya,” a story that once happened.  Why the secrecy?

I’m leaving you with questions today: Why does the Talmud want to tell the story of David and Batsheva so badly that it brings it here as very weak proof? And if it wanted to tell their tale so badly, why disguise it as “a story that once happened"? Maybe I’ll think of an answer tomorrow.


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.


When does the marriage actually take affect? There are in affect many moments that signify the marriage: The engagement ring, the discussion with you betrothed parents, the engagement party, opening up a joint bank account for the gifts, the veiling, the chuppa, the wedding party, moving in together, and of course the sex.

According to some reads of Ketuboth, the process of marriage may take affect in stages, because the marriage itself is made up several different relationships - sexual, familial, economic, social.

One place this issue arises in on page 56a. If the husband adds on to the base price of the Ketuba, when does the wife actually acquire the rights to that money. The Gemarah tries to answer from a psychological perspective: what was the reason he added on to the basic requirement of the Ketuba? Does he promise it in order to make her happy to sleep with him, or because he is paying her to sleep with him, or he is paying for her specific level of experience or virginity- in which case she would only own this part of the Ketuba after they consummate the marriage. Or perhaps he adds the money to make her happy at the Chuppa, perhaps representing the more social or even communal element of their relationship. Then after the chuppa she would be entitled to this money.

In some ways this discussion raises the question: how central is sex? Does sex represent some kind of love and personal relationship that has already been initiated at the Chuppa. If so perhaps the promise of fidelity made at the chuppa is enough to solidify the marriage in that it hints to the consummation to come, based on the emotional (and legal) promises made. Or perhaps none of these promises and projections are meaningful until they are fulfilled and made tangible.


Had an interesting conversation with a teacher at Matan about how seriously to take categories and cases constructed by the Rabbis. Sometimes it is clear that there are fundamental values and conceptions that underlie the opinions of the Rabbis, while others – this teacher was saying- that the Rabbis are technically playing with categories without really intending the conceptual implications of their constructions.

For example- the opinions about rape discussed yesterday: When Rav Abahu says all women who are raped are forbidden from returning to their husbands what does he really mean? Here are three possibilities for the deeper meaning – or lack their of – implied by his statement.  

1) Is he making a psychological point that women are so easily swayed that they really enjoy and desire the rape. Therefore he assumes most women consent at some point during rape and truly cheat on their husband’s during the act.

2) Or does he think the fact of rape in itself is a form of bodily infidelity (despite the woman’s inability to prevent it). Then imagining women’s desire may be an artificial vehicle used to force a man to divorce his wife despite her emotional or intellectual fidelity.

3) Or is he playing a detached game of halacha; he toys with the concept of a deed that started by accident or by compulsion and ended with desire and consent. He applies it to rape as it may be applied to any of many areas of law.

The same can be asked about Rava, who acquits a woman who displays desire for her rapist. Does he see actually see the woman as super sexual? Does he create the case to be the most extreme as possible just to prove his point that rape is always rape. Perhaps he believes that a woman does not truly consent even when she feels pleasure? Or does he believe a woman who consents only because a rapist brought her to this desire to this evil inclination is ultimately not responsible. Or is it a technical point that the original impetus of an act defines rape, and any act, despite the final motivations or feelings.

I personally don’t want to believe that the Rabbis were so disconnected from their material that, as the last possibilities suggest, they thought about all deeds similarly, applying theoretical conceptions to rape without imagining and considering the cases at hand.

But perhaps the Rabbis were disengaged from the material at hand. I can fathom that good Jewish men don’t think about raping women, it is far from their daily thoughts and plans. While women, as I mentioned last post, think and dream and obsess over issues of rape even when they live in relatively safe neighborhood and take normal precautions against being alone in the wrong places. When we learn Gemarah, perhaps we search harder for the conceptual and sociological implications of these halachik stands.

But I would suggest that even if these weren’t “real” in the psyche of the Rabbis, I do think that the cases represent the imagination of the Rabbis. More on imagination next time.