I return after many months to this blog, about bodies of literature and the heft of words, for I've reached that feeling - which uncannily revisits me every year- that I need to write. A golem of matter has been forming, a skeleton of an article, a theory, or some words, outlines and shadows of so many “forms” that I begin to search for the spirit which can give life to them, blow into their nostrils or carve the name of God on her forehead.
Today I read Lacan (Seminar 20, Lecture 5) who talks of the "other satisfaction" – which I take to be intellectual as well as sexual. In my tentative understanding, this different type of pleasure "does not stop being written" and "produces the jouissance that shouldn't be/could never fail."
(Making sense of Lacan is like making sense of a piece of Talmud, whose lines trip over themselves, and you are sure there is a mistake in the manuscript but you have no way to be sure other than testing your own logic. And in that black hole you write yourself into the lines.)
You can never stop writing, nor does text stop writing itself. Perhaps that is the "other satisfaction" - recognizing the limitlessness of the chaos of interpretation and taking part in it. "It shouldn't be" – for you can never write the truth or write the text again – but it "could never fail" because interpretation has infinite reincarnations. Like desire we are always revolving in the continuous loop of seeking perfection - of partners, of touch, of fullness. Desire is precisely the absence of perfection. And yet it can never fail, because in the moment there are no measurements, no others, no truth (Can we truly be in perfection– there is only before and after, fantasy, desire, memory and so on).
And so too you can never stop writing. Perfection is out of our reach but only just one more sentence out of reach, forever.
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.
Someone told me recently that I sound bitter in this blog. I took a short break to think about how I can make feminist points that may at times reflect frustration, anger or plain surprise without having the public think I’m a ranting extremist bra-burning feminist. (I like my bras thank you very much). On the other hand I see no reason to trade in my express loud feminist boom for the sweet, barely audible, nice- Jewish girl’s voice I used most of my school days.
Beyond the rhetoric, I do want to convey to my readers the nuanced voice of good scholarship and luckily the Gemarah is quite a nuanced book. Of course this may mean that my posts are a bit longer...
Yesterday’s daf brought up the topic of women’s role in rape. The bible itself makes a point of saying that an engaged woman who is forced into sex is not guilty of adultery, a distinction the Bible makes seemingly in contrast to other societies it knows. Hence the woman’s desire and/ or consent is the deciding factor as to whether the sex is considered rape or adultery, which would result in capital punishment at worst or at best in being forbidden to return to her husband.
So if the woman’s feelings during the rape determines the identity of the act, this might seem quite women focused. Not quite. R. Abahu, the first voice in this discussion, worries that a rape victim may have enjoyed part of sex, even if the beginning was against her will, therefore all victims of rape may not return to their husbands. The burden of proof is on the woman to scream out for help from beginning to end. And without such proof, he assumes that the physical act of sex is likely to bring pleasure to the woman.
It is nothing new that the Gemarah attempts to come to a conclusion based on statistics without taking an interview with the individual women whose life and marriage is at stake. Of course I would have to agree with the Gemarah that such a woman is partial and may choose to lie if she indeed felt desire or pleasure during the rape. She wouldn’t want to be forbidden from returning to her previous marriage and even within that marriage she probably would have a hard time speaking openly to her husband about this extramarital sexual experience. However in this vacuum of her forced and traumatic state of mute, the assumptions of women’s experience of sex are determined by the Rabbi’s imagination about women’s sexuality.
Do some women feel bodily pleasure during rape? Is that measurable? Do some women orgasm during rape? We discussed this at great length here at Matan. Mot women did not think that women feel pleasure during rape. Maybe I’m going out on an essentialist limb here, but my gut reaction is that sexual feelings may be more psychological for women. Only a phallic man would assume that a woman being raped will be likely to feel pleasure.
But more importantly a woman should not feel guilt (emotional or actually meted out through punishment) for feelings evoked by the violent act of another! Rava (our feminist hero for the daf- sort of) counters R Abahu and says even if a women says I want to hire the rapist and pay him for him to continue- meaning she desires him and consents- she is not held responsible. If the beginning was rape the entire act is rape.
While Rava uses the most extreme case he can imagine, one where the woman falls in love with the rapist, clearly his statement also exonerates the woman who resists at the beginning and resigns herself, stopping to struggle during the rape. He does not require visual proof from start to finish that every moment of the act was rape and not consensual.
This issue was eerily echoed in a Shabbat meal this past week. A group of women were discussing their own living nightmares about how they would react if they were attacked. Almost all these women said they would not struggle, they would given in keep quiet and hope the man wouldn’t kill her when he was done. Let me note these were not meek women. These women would all be misunderstood by R. Abahu who doesn’t understand the complicated network of reasons that silence and paralyze women).
One woman at our Shabbat table had been to a self defense class. She explained that one should yell and resist from start to finish. If the rapist isn’t allowed to ever feel in total control then you are more likely to get away. You don’t want to be waiting passively to find out what will happen at the end. Surprisingly, unbeknownst to R. Abahu, by requiring women to resist loudly to prove that she is not consenting, he is in fact describing the self defense of the moderns- not how to defend yourself in court after the fact, but during the rape itself.
This is a very touchy and complicated issue and I hope to learn more as the dapim march on.