Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America

Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America

Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America

Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America

Synopsis

"Contradictory stereotypes about Jewish sexuality pervade modern culture. Are Jews obsessively neurotic (as the films of Woody Allen and the novels of Philip Roth suggest)? Or are they less repressed because their culture never embraced celibacy? In a myth-shattering journey through the sexual culture of the Jews, award-winning historian David Biale demonstrates that Jewish tradition from the Bible and Talmud through modern America is a story of persistent conflict between asceticism and gratification, between procreation and pleasure. Beginning with Philip Roth's scandalous novel, Portnoy's Complaint, the book then discusses sexual subversions in the Bible and proceeds to cover such topics as law and desire in the Talmud, the displacement of sexuality in Hasidism, and Zionism as an erotic revolution. Eros and the Jews concludes with a fascinating discussion of the ambivalent role of sexuality in modern American Jewish culture. With broad historical strokes, the book pursues the tension between procreation and sexual desire in a culture which required that everyone marry. Biale shows that from the period of the Talmud onwards, Jewish culture continually struggled with sexual abstinence, trying to find ways to incorporate the virtues of celibacy, as it absorbed them from Greco-Roman and Christian cultures, within a theology of procreation. Biale explores both the canonical writings of male authorities and the alternative voices of women and popular culture. Drawing on works ranging from the Book of Ruth to the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, from medieval Yiddish literature to the films of Woody Allen, and from the teachings of Hasidism to the memoirs of the founders of Zionism, the book shows that the contemporary dilemmas of Jewish desire, from intermarriage to the meaning of erotic pleasure, have their analogues in the past." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

This book had its origins over ten years ago, in a casual question from a colleague about the role of sexuality in I. B. Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool." Singer's stories revel in magic and the demonic, forces that he associates with sexuality. As I thought about Singer's idiosyncratic view of the role of Eros in Eastern European Jewish culture, I wondered whether he had created it himself or whether he was not perhaps embellishing upon some long-standing traditions. Little did I realize that I was embarking on a quest that was to lead me back from the modern period to the Middle Ages, talmudic culture, and finally the Bible itself.

Thinking about Singer led me first to investigate the literary culture of the Jews of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. These writers, both highbrow and low-brow, created the Hebrew and Yiddish literary tradition to which Singer was heir. I became particularly interested in the autobiographies and other writings of the maskilim, the Jewish disciples of Enlightenment (Haskalah). As opposed to Singer, who drew upon popular culture, these writers held that traditional Jewish society suppressed erotic desire and created stunted and neurotic Jews, rather like Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy. I suddenly realized that a novel like Portnoy's Complaint, with which this book begins, was not so much the bizarre creation of an obsessed American Jewish writer as it was another link in a long literary tradition.

Reading these nineteenth-century authors, I was skeptical that the Jewish culture they were describing reflected the real historical tradition. After all, did not Judaism, as opposed to Christianity, affirm sexuality as a healthy expression of this-worldliness? I noticed that the maskilim were particularly concerned with Hasidism, the eighteenth-century . . .

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