ELI Talks: Merissa Nathan Gerson

There are hundreds and hundreds of references to sex and sexuality in Torah. God sometimes has breasts, gender queer bodies are referenced over and over again, and there is a long history of dicussion of the body in all its forms, just like the commentaries of Torah discuss every other asepct of life, ad nauseum.

Like Hollywood renders everything under the sun in their films, Torah illustrates a myriad of sexual and gender scenarios from consensual well-side sex to rape, gang rape, and more. The difference, though, between Torah and Hollywood: these texts discuss the frightening realities of the non-consensual sexual encounters rendered in the scenes of Torah.

The following passage is one set of instructions meant for a heterosexual monogamous committed cis-gendered couple. It is what it is, according to a certain framework. However, we are able, with a particular lens, to glean lessons from this text.

What the below text reveals, that is vital in our times: the rabbis, the Talmudists, the commentaries and beyond - all written by men alone or in groups - were paying attention to the nuances of consent. This is a Jewish man with power talking about why rape is wrong.

(יב) וְכֵן אָסְרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁלֹּא יְשַׁמֵּשׁ אָדָם מִטָּתוֹ וְלִבּוֹ מְחַשֵּׁב בְּאִשָּׁה אַחֶרֶת. וְלֹא יִבְעל מִתּוֹךְ שִׁכְרוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ מְרִיבָה וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂנְאָה וְלֹא יָבוֹא עָלֶיהָ עַל כָּרְחָהּ וְהִיא יְרֵאָה מִמֶּנּוּ. וְלֹא כְּשֶׁיִּהְיֶה אֶחָד מֵהֶן מְנֻדֶּה. וְלֹא יָבוֹא עָלֶיהָ אַחַר שֶׁגָּמַר בְּלִבּוֹ לְגָרְשָׁהּ. וְאִם עָשָׂה כֵּן הַבָּנִים אֵינָן הֲגוּנִים אֶלָּא מֵהֶן עַזֵּי פָּנִים וּמֵהֶן מוֹרְדִים וּפוֹשְׁעִים:

(12) Similarly, the sages forbade a man to have marital relations while thinking of another woman. Nor may he initiate sex while drunk, nor out of spite or hatred, nor may he rape her or initiate sex while she is afraid. Nor may they have sex while either of them are excommunicated nor after he has decided to divorce her. If [the husband] does any of those things, the children will not be proper [citizens] but brazen, rebellious [people] and criminals.

We could talk for weeks about sex and Torah, about how to understand it, how to read it, how to deal with mysogyny or imbue feminism, or how to understand both mysogyny and feminism co-existing side by side. But we don't have time to bend our minds like that.

The following passage is just another example of "conjugal rights," and again, in a heterosexual monogamist cisgendered married relationship, this is a little list of rules showing how often a man, depending on his job, needs to return home to pleasure his wife.

It also looks at how to solicit, to ask, which is, it seems, he shouldn't ask at all. See the part that says, "Even when he is with her, he should not seek his own pleasure, but be like someone paying his debt that he owes her at her schedule." Yes, you read that right: he is at her service.

This servicing can be seen as horrible or wonderful, both or neither, but for our lesson here it is simply highlighitng a shift from how sex education is often taught in America, or shown on American screens: here, the woman's needs, the woman's pleasure, the woman's desire and her agency, voice, and solicitation of sexual acts are all validated.

That is, if we take it out of context, wildly revolutionary.

(א) איך יתנהג האדם בתשמיש מטתו. ובו יז סעיפים:

אם היה נשוי לא יהא רגיל ביותר עם אשתו אלא בעונה האמורה בתורה הטיילים שפרנסתן מצויה להם ואין פורעים מס עונתן בכל יום. הפועלים שעשו מלאכה בעיר אחרת ולנין בכל לילה בבתיהם פעם אחת בשבוע ואם עושים מלאכה בעירם פעמים בשבוע. החמרים אחת בשבוע. הגמלים אחת לשלשים יום. הספנים אחת לששה חדשים. ועונת תלמידי חכמים מליל שבת לליל שבת וכל אדם צריך לפקוד את אשתו בליל טבילתה ובשעה שיוצא לדרך אם אינו הולך לדבר מצוה וכן אם אשתו מניקה והוא מכיר בה שהיא משדלתו ומרצה אותו ומקשטת עצמה לפניו כדי שיתן דעתו עליה חייב לפקדה. ואף כשהוא מצוי אצלה לא יכוין להנאתו אלא כאדם שפורע חובו שהוא חייב בעונתה ולקיים מצות בוראו שיהיו לו בנים עוסקים בתורה ומקיימים מצות בישראל וכן אם מכוין לתקון הולד שבששה חדשים אחרונים יפה לו שמתוך כך יצא מלובן ומזורז שפיר דמי. ואם הוא מכוין לגדור עצמו בה כדי שלא יתאוה לעבירה כי רואה יצרו גובר ומתאוה אל הדבר ההו.

(1) If a person is married, he should not be too frequent in his relations with his wife, but rather according to the schedule specified in the Torah. Idle men, who have means of living and do not pay taxes, their schedule is once every day; hired hands who work in another town and sleep every night at their homes, once a week; and if they work in their own town, twice a week; donkey drivers, once a week; camel drivers, once in thirty days; seamen, once in six months; the schedule of Torah Scholars is from Friday night to Friday night; and every man should visit his wife on the night she immerses, and before he embarks on a journey unless it is for a mitzvah matter. This applies [even] if his wife is nursing a child; and [if] he realizes that she is soliciting him and seeking to please him and preens herself before him so that he would pay attention to her, he must visit her. Even when he is with her, he should not seek his own pleasure, but be like someone paying his debt that he owes her at her schedule, and to fulfil the obligation of his Creator, so that he may have children who study Torah and keep mitzvot in Israel; and so too if his intent is for the benefit of the fetus, since during the last six months it benefits it, causing it to come out purified and lively, it is good; and also if he intends to restrain himself through her in order to prevent him from lusting after sin, since he sees his urges getting the better of him and lusting after that thing.

These are just a few examples of the massive list of conversations in the Jewish textual cannon around nuances of sex, pleasure, gender, sexuality and more. A question we then need to ask: Why did so many of us have no idea Judaism contained all of this information in its lexicon? Why didn't we learn about sex at Hebrew School (maybe you did, I didn't) and why didn't we parlay these ideas to our communities?

Because, we are adaptations of Jewish people, as all Jewish people are. There are a lot of reasons and that, again, is a long course we can't launch into today - but here's the long and short. We didn't learn about sex at Reform and Conservative Hebrew Schools (most of us) because from host culture to host culture we lived according to the laws and rules and taboos and mores of each country and each community. And because in much of Europe and America sex was by the Puritan book, meaning it was silenced and repressed. Jews couldn't just waltz in talking about sex and the body.