Obscene Jews

'Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture,' by Josh Lambert.

Philip Roth author 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Philip Roth author 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews are no prudes. Sex permeates the Hebrew Bible, from Isaac “playing” with Rebekah while Abimelech peeks, to Leah paying Rachel in mandrakes for the sexual favors of their husband Jacob, to a special commandment condoning intercourse with a sexually attractive non-Jewish woman captured in time of war. Of course there are King David and Bathsheba.
And this is just a small sampling of the Bible’s untrammeled treatment of sex.
Certain parts of the Talmud and Halacha read like sexual guides, with graphic discussions of what precisely constitutes “the act,” and details on the husband’s obligation to provide his wife with sexual fulfillment. There is even a story about a student who hides under his rabbi’s bed so that he can learn proper sexual practices.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the rabbis advocated a free and unrestricted exploration of sex – or any other issue, for that matter. Rather, treatment of the sensual was always done within the framework of legal discussions that aimed to arrive at kosher Jewish practice. Unlike in Greek culture, this was not unbridled intellectual roaming in whatever direction one’s curiosity led.
Nevertheless, it was perhaps this cultural tradition of frankness with regard to matters of sex – albeit relegated to matters of Halacha – that made the Jews of the modern era particularly well-equipped to tap into the tremendous powers of the libido, to take advantage of the many possibilities offered by an uninhibited approach to sex, or to indulge themselves in prurient explorations of all manners of scientific and artistic pursuits – from Sigmund Freud’s sexual theories, to Philip Roth’s sexual obsessions in Portnoy’s Complaint and other works, to Lenny Bruce’s and Larry David’s comedy, to pornography (according to scholar Nathan Abrams, “secular Jews have played a disproportionate role in the adult film industry”).
This is a tantalizing thesis, but you won’t find it in Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture. Author Josh Lambert makes it clear at the outset that he is adverse to such simplistic generalizations because they smack of “essentialism” – the ultimate sin of the humanities and the social sciences in the post-modern era.
As Lambert puts it, “one cannot responsibly make general, trans-historical claims about Asian American musical culture or homosexuals’ attitudes toward religion – or, for that matter, about ‘the Jews’ (as both anti-Semites and philo-Semites regularly do) because ethnic, racial and sexual identities and affiliations are almost never tidy or stable enough to pin such generalizations on.”
And he goes on: “As inconvenient as it may be for the cultural historian, there simply is no unifying dynamic that can explain the variety of Jews’ engagements with obscenity.”
Lambert accuses even renowned historian David Biale of adopting an essentialist approach in the last chapter of his Eros and Jews, which sums up more interestingly and more comprehensively American Jews’ attitudes toward sexuality than Lambert manages to do in an entire book devoted to nearly the same subject.
Instead, Lambert presents an approach that recognizes “the internal diversity of ethno-racial groups and the contingent, historically specific character of the culture these communities present to the larger society at any given moment.” All this means that we cannot really formulate any overarching theory or theories about the ethno-racial groups for fear that we will stereotype them, set them up for attack by bigots or, God forbid, be very un-PC.
The result is a series of idiosyncratic studies of a handful of Jewish cultural figures – mostly writers – many of them relatively obscure, who have used obscenity and sexuality in their work. He outlines four general themes: how sexual openness in art was used by writers such as Robert Rimmer in The Harrad Experiment to fight the sexual oppression that Rimmer and others believed was the cause of anti-Semitism and racism; how Jewish publishers like Horace Liveright or writers like Henry Roth were willing to take more risks with the censorship because they sought prestige; how Jewish human rights lawyers like Harriet Pilpel, who championed abortion, and writers like Philip Roth, in works like Portnoy’s Complaint, grapple with the issue of Jewish reproduction and continuity; and how Orthodox writers such as Manis Friedman, Shmuley Boteach and Wendy Shalit have advocated traditional Jewish sexual modesty – for Jews and non-Jews – as a way of enhancing sexual relations with one’s spouse, while at the same time engaging in graphic descriptions of sex that are far from modest.
However, Lambert devotes far too much space in his book to marginal individuals and works, while completely ignoring other, more central trends and artists. For instance, he devotes 10 pages to an in-depth analysis of the anachronistic The Harrad Experiment, a 1966 book about a fictional college in Northeast America (Harrad = Harvard) where a program is designed to achieve sexual sanity – and political liberalism – by encouraging free sex. He devotes another 10 pages to Call it Sleep and Henry Roth’s motivations for writing it, which are intensely personal: overcoming through literature his embarrassment at having an incestuous relationship with his sister.
In contrast, Bruce – who did more than many to push the limits of free speech by using egregious obscenity in his stand-up acts – is barely mentioned, nor are neocons like Irving Kristol, who as early as 1971 argued forcibly in favor of censoring pornography. Indeed, an entire chapter in Lambert’s book could have been devoted to the neocons and their approach to censorship.
A cursory hypothesis would argue that having “made it” (a play on Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 Making It), Jews could allow themselves to be as conservative as the goyim.
So apprehensive about being labeled “essentialist” or “un-PC,” Lambert restricts himself to a microscopic and not particularly interesting focus on a few artists, lawyers and publishers. The things he has to say about these artists might be undeniably true, but who cares? Is this what post-modernist social and cultural studies have come to? Lambert seems to have abandoned altogether the scientific method – the positing of theories that explain general trends in society – and replaced it with a series of boring in-depth analyses that tell us little about American Judaism as a whole.
Lambert makes a colossal understatement when he writes toward the end of his book, “It would certainly be possible to produce a fuller cultural history than has been offered in this book of the roles played by Jews in the representation of sexuality in the United States.” Since this is a book about obscenity, the best response to that confession would be, “No s***.”