In the tractate Hagigah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Ilai the Elder states that if a man sees that his sexual desire is overcoming him, he should dress all in black, go to a town where no one will recognize him, and then he can do what his heart desires. It’s a proposal that sounds somewhat shocking to secular ears today. For me, it’s become more than that; as one of the sources presented in a class I’m taking at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on “Sex and Halacha (Jewish Law),” this story, along with several others, has precipitated a not insignificant crisis in my understanding of how Judaism is practiced today.



For years I’ve wanted to believe that the creeping Orthodox obsession over sex and extreme ways to prevent it outside of a sanctioned framework were modern inventions; an over-compensated response from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world to the increasing lewdness in Western society with its media-fed twerking and reality show soft-core porn.



But what we’re seeing playing out today – with battles over gender segregation on buses and in health clinics, male soldiers walking out of ceremonies when a woman sings and a lengthening list of prohibitions to keep adherents from even entertaining forbidden sexual thoughts – it turns out is not recent at all. It goes back thousands of years, to the days of the Talmud, which presents in great detail a Judaism that is relentlessly repressive when it comes to not just sexual but physical contact of any kind (outside of marriage, that is). And that’s left me very disturbed.



Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, who is teaching the class, didn’t mean to upset me. The goal of her 4-part mini-course is simply to present the sources for what we are seeing today without judgment and for the most part, she’s stuck to her neutrality.



Still, it’s hard for me to not draw my own conclusions and, as someone who loves Jewish tradition, when confronted with rabbinic rulings that strike me as out of sync with modern society and the way I want to see Judaism flourish today (pluralistic, embracing of outside culture, even hip), my usual answer – “well, we all pick and choose, whether we admit it or not, so I’ll just choose to ignore this” – comes perilously close to not cutting it this time.



Rosenfeld is a powerhouse when it comes to analyzing traditional Jewish approaches towards sexuality. Her PhD dissertation was entitled "Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic." She co-authored the book “The Newlywed''s Guide to Physical Intimacy," and was named one of the “36 under 36” by the Jewish Week in 2008.



Her class at Pardes covers the specific halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to three contentious topics: shomer negiah (not touching someone of the opposite sex other than your spouse), premarital sex, and masturbation. In the first session last week, Rosenfeld wanted to cast a wider canvas before diving in to the nitty gritty of the law, and chose to share several Talmudic tales, which show that the rabbis truly struggled with questions of sexuality; that these touchy subjects weren’t just taken for granted. She wanted to make her overall topic “more human,” she explained.



Nevertheless, the underlying message in the examples she brought seems to be that men simply cannot control their sexual urges.



So we heard about Elezar ben Dordia who, we are told in the Talmudic tractate of Avodah Zara, traveled the world looking for “harlots” to sleep with. When he heard about a particularly expensive prostitute, he traveled “seven rivers for her sake.” (What happened when they finally hooked up is graphic in a surprising way: the woman passes gas during intercourse leading ben Dordia to ultimately repent.)



We also learned the story of Rabbi Amram the pious, who had the job of ensuring that women captured during war were kept safe from other men who would, in keeping with the Talmud’s perspective, naturally want to have their way with them. Rabbi Amram sequestered the women in an attic and removed the heavy ladder so no one could climb up. But “when one of them passed by, a light fell upon the skylight” and he saw her. Rabbi Amram was so overcome that he was compelled to move the ladder into place (“which ten men couldn’t move together, and [yet] he moved it alone”) and began to ascend. He caught himself at the last minute and yelled out “fire!” alerting his students to stop him before it was too late.



Since clearly men have the self-control of giant-sized bunnies, the pious must do their utmost to prevent such weaklings from sinning. Thus it says in the tractate of Sukkot that when a certain Abaye heard that a presumably unmarried man and woman were planning to go on a journey together, Abaye followed them for the equivalent of five miles until it was clear they were just walking and not hankering towards something more. Abaye then said to himself, “If it were I, I could not have restrained myself.” He is then visited by an old man – Elijah the Prophet perhaps – who teaches him “the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination.”



And indeed, the great ones had some very upsetting practices. Rosenfeld described an ancient custom where leading rabbis had the practice of taking a “wife for a day” when traveling. It’s not clear exactly for what purpose. Polygamous sex? Or perhaps, she suggested, it was more of a temporary “engagement” such that when “something is permitted there is less temptation.” (That has implications of its own that don’t bode well for the long-term sustenance of a marriage.)



Let’s be clear: Judaism is not an ascetic sect. As Rabbi Shmuely Boteach has made a career of telling us, Judaism is decidedly pro-sex. Just not outside of marriage. And so we have a heated discussion in the tractate of Kidushin about the proper age for a man to be wed. Some say the ideal age is 14 – essentially, as soon as a boy hits puberty. (Girls are not really included in the debate.) Others give a range up to age 16 and possibly even 18. But “as soon as one attains twenty and has not married,” Rabbi Hisda says that his bones should be “blasted.”



The point is clear: human beings crave sex and we will naturally have licentious thoughts – so we must marry our children off as early as possible so those actions will be sanctified. Never mind if marriage at such a young age is questionable for a teenager''s mental well being. And in the meantime, keep the sexes apart as much as possible.



Now here’s the rub: I’m not advocating that promiscuity and sex outside of a committed relationship (marriage or otherwise) is healthy. And I certainly have problems with the highly sexualized culture of today’s mass media. The rabbis conclusion that the higher one’s position, the more likely one will succumb to temptation is sadly played out daily among our world leaders.



But it’s not hard to see how this kind of overbearing approach to sexual expression gets turned into laws that govern more than guide. There must more creative ways to approach the challenges of modernity than trying to legislate away any form of natural human behavior. How can we acknowledge what people are doing and feeling and give that room for expression without abandoning the principles that have sustained us all these years? Without such moderation, it’s a slippery slope from the stories Rosenfeld presented in the Talmud to spitting on little girls in Beit Shemesh for not dressing in ways considered by some to be appropriate.



The next three classes in Rosenfeld’s series will go into details on specific Jewish laws and their origins. Maybe there will be some surprises that leave me more optimistic. I certainly hope so.



I wrote about Rosenfeld previously in this review of a provocative talk she gave together with sex educator Beverley Damelin in Jerusalem in 2009.



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