The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism

Synopsis

What does it mean to be a Jewish woman today? To an Orthodox woman, it means living a religious way of life in which serving God totally defines her self-perception and her role as wife and mother. For the secular woman, it means having a sense of belonging, although not necessarily to a specific Jewish community. Most contemporary Jewish women fall somewhere in between, but at the core of all of their identities is a complex interweaving of religious and ethnic elements, a shared history, and a collective memory of periods of prejudice, persecution, wandering, and resettlement.

Focusing on Jewish women in the United States and Britain, Adrienne Baker examines such issues as women's role in religious law, the spectrum of synagogue observance, the mother's role as conveyor of tradition, conversion and inter- faith marriages, and sexuality. In particular, the book examines the impact of feminism on Jewish women and their culture, uncovering the counterinfluences of tradition and new freedoms on women's lives.

Excerpt

Danya Ruttenberg

THERE'S A FAMOUS story in the Talmud about a curious student who takes his studies past the point of what might generally be considered in good taste. Kahane, the yeshiva boy in question, hides under the bed of his teacher, deliberately listening in on the master's lovemaking with his wife. He's shocked by the way they chat and joke together during the coital act but tries his best to remain unnoticed. To no avail, however; in one dramatic moment, his presence—and chutzpah—are revealed.

“Kahane, are you there?” his teacher thunders. “Leave now, because it is rude!”

It is not, and I will not, Kahane calmly replies.

“For this is Torah, and I must learn.”

In Judaism, every aspect of human life is a holy piece of Torah, worthy of thought, study, and consideration—and sex is certainly no exception. The Talmud compares the penis sizes of its most venerated Sages and discusses in euphemistic, but excruciating, detail the positions in which a married couple is permitted to make love. Jewish law devotes pages and pages to the prohibition against sex with a menstruant, down to instructions on how to comport oneself if, mid-coitus, it appears that the female partner has just gotten her period. One law code tells us that a widow should not own a dog, because, it seems, there's some suspicion about what a woman who's already tasted the pleasures of the flesh might do with her pet.

In some ways, the tradition's approach to carnal matters indeed appears to be steeped in the wisdom of the ages—such as the mandate that a couple set aside time for sex as often as is reasonably possible. The definition of “how often,” in ancient sources, depended on the restrictions inherent in the male partner's livelihood but attempted to be realistic and fair to both parties. The Talmud, for example, tells us that a man who worked as a donkey driver (and was required to come home once a week) could not . . .

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