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Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture.

WHATIS FEMINIST revisionism to make of "Judeo-Christian civilization"? The insurgent feminism of the sixties and seventies grandly repudiated all its works and ways. Today's feminists look for loopholes. Among Jewish scholars, for example, Bernadette Brooten proved a decade ago that women held the title "Head of Synagogue" in some Diaspora communities. The theologian Judith Plaskow points out that goddesses were worshipped by Israelite women for centuries. Letty Cottin Pogrebin cites Biblical chapter and verse to contend that the Jewish commitment to social justice demands equal rights for women and Plaestinians. Ilana Pardes analyzes "counter-texts" with feminist implications in the Bible.

All such projects urge us to remember that nothing in culture is ever monolithic; we can find bits and pieces of a usable past. But until now I would not have expected to see protofeminist values in Talmud, that hugely encyclopedic and utterly male compendium of rabbinical discourse, compiled during the first six centuries of the Common Era, which has formed the basis of all subsequent Orthodox Judaism. Nor would I have anticipated a Talmudist like Daniel Boyarin, who is also an accomplished postmodern theorist and committed feminist.

Boyarin opens Carnal Israel, his study of Talmud and gender, with a provocative endorsement of Augustine's complaint that Jews were "indisputably carnal"--that is, that they rejected Christianity's dualistic separation of body and spirit. What the Church Fathers meant as an accusation is for Boyarin a confirmation that Judaism is rooted in the flesh. Thanks to this rootedness, he argues, Jewish tradition affirms the body, human sexuality and women's procreativity in ways unthinkable within Christianity.

"Tradition" for Boyarin is necessarily the site of cultural contest; he presumes that textual conflicts within Talmud encode historical conflicts over issues of practice. Talmudic writing represents resistance to a variety of "Hellenic Judaisms," including those of early Christianity, but it also registers differences between the major rabbinical communities of Palestine and Babylonia during the first six centuries CE. Palestinian Jews were partially Hellenized, and influenced by Platonic idealism, therefore more philosophically dualistic and inclined to asceticism; Babylonians were more Jewishly conservative, hence pro-sex. On the other hand, Palestinian Jewry may have accepted women as scholars, while the Babylonian community did not.

Throughout rabbinical texts, however, human corporeality is understood as God-given. Where Hellenized cultures reject the body as the soul's temporary prison, rabbinical writing endorses material life. After urinating or defecating, a Jew is supposed to bless the God who created orifices and hollows without which existence could not be sustained. Marriage is viewed as a "return to the condition of completeness" of the original Adam. Sexuality belongs to humanity's edenic state whether the Adam of Genesis I is interpreted as androgynous or as male, and sex is commonly endorsed as a good in itself as well as the source of procreation. Virginity and celibacy are frowned on for both men and women; sexual renunciation was "not an option" even for the more Hellenically and ascetically inclined schools and individuals.

Men were expected to satisfy their wives sexually (how frequently this was required is a subject or livery debate) and to arouse them through tender speech. Marital rape was condemned. Women might indicate their desire for sex through discreet signs and signals if not speech--although one source argues ingeniously that a sexually aggressive woman will produce children of superior wisdom. Boyarin even cites a curious tale in which a disciple hides under his rabbi's bed to hear the master talking and laughing with his wife during intercourse; when rebuked, the disciple responds, "It is Torah, and I must learn it."

Talmudic discourse is of course exclusively male, and the obligation to "take care of" wives assumes female inferiority and dependency. Moreover, Boyarin demonstrates, male sexual obligations existed in constant unresolvable tension with the obligation to devote one's life entirely to Torah study, which often took place far from home. Torah is both grammatically and figuratively the "other woman" of many complicated disputes. How long should a man be permitted to stay away from home, either with or without his wife's permission? We find tales of rabbis who forget to return at the appointed time from the House of Study, and die at the moment a tear drops from the wife's eye. Then there is the exemplary "romantic" story of Rabbi Akiva--initially an unlettered shepherd whose wife Rachel (his master's daughter) encouraged him to remain in the House of Study for 24 years while she lived in dire poverty. Evidently designed to encourage good Jewish wives to emulate Rachel's devotion, the tale reveals how problematic an issue this was.

PART OF BOYARIN'S agenda derives from his affection for Talmud's heterogeneity, its systemic includion of plural views, contradictions and counter-arguments on every conceivable theme, its repre-sentation of conversation without closure. When Rabbi X contradicts Rabbi Y, even if one view dominates, "according to the Talmud, the very reason [the text] cites rejected and minority opinions is to preserve them, that they might be available for future authorities who would see reasons to revive them."

What of women who might wish to study Torah themselves? One of Boyarin's most fascinating chapters traces an occluded, almost erased, debate between Palestinian and Babylonian sources. The former apparently took it for granted that women did so--one text remarks that gonorrheics, menstruants and parturients are permitted to study Torah and religious law, but men who have had nocturnal emissions are not--while the latter rejected the possibility, insisting that "a man who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her lasciviousness."

Here a key figure is the single female named by Talmud as an authority, Beruriah. In all versions of her story, Beruriah is not merely pious and learned but occasionally defeats her husband, the great Rabbi Meir, in the wisdom of her judgments. According to Babylonian tradition, however, Beruriah once laughed at the saying that women were "light-headed," meaning wanton; in response, her husband made one of his students attempt to seduce her. After protracted refusals, Beruriah succumbed and then hanged herself.

For Babylonian and later medieval Jewish culture, despite the scandal for Meir, the dominant conclusion was that learning was indeed dangerous for women. Boyarin's moral? "The Babylonian tradition (of excluding women from learning) achieved hegemony in medieval and post-medieval Jewish culture," and the memory of a counter-tradition was almost erased--yet oppositional positions existed and still exist. Orthodox women today study Talmud to a limited extent both in the US and in Israel, with Beruriah as their model. And although Boyarin does not quite dot his i's on this one, every Jewish feminist I know agrees that women's status within Orthodox communities will improve when and only when women become Talmudic authorities.

If a major line within feminist thought contends that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, another line proposes that masters, tools and houses are never one but many, not absolute and transhistorical but historically contingent. Demystifying digs into patriarchal hegemonies will inevitably turn up buried treasure. What existed in the margins of the past may form the prototypes of the future: so long as even one strand of Western culture does not rest on hatred and horror of women and female sexuality, there's hope for us all.

Boyarin's concluding chapter surveys some feminist debates in order to align himself with Judith Butler's opposition to dualism and defense of the sexual body, and with Mieke Bal's approach to Biblical texts as occasions for locating gaps and inconsistencies. If the specific loophole of endorsed carnality uncovered in this appealing book seems painfully small, a temporary defense against the dominant bodyhatred and misogyny of Western philosophy and religion, it is all the more precious. Carnal Israel represents Christian and Jewish solutions to the tensions of gender as complementary trade-offs. Where the Christian Fathers theoretically grant females equal spirituality before God (provided they reject their sexuality), the Jewish ones affirm female sexuality on earth (provided it submits to male dominion). Might we order one from column A and one from column B?

I find Boyarin's stance appealing, his fusion of Talmudic scholarship with postmodern literary theory brilliant, his arguments convincing. One point he might have pursued further concerns the role of Jewish wives as breadwinners in families where the men were occupied with the high-status but no-income pursuit of Talmud. He mentions that his own grandmother was one such shopkeeper, but not that the pattern was common among pre-bourgeois Jews.

I wonder also why he fails to cite one of the best-known legends about Akiva: that it was he whose massive authority prevailed to ensure that the Song of Songs--that most extended and beautiful Biblical counter-text, in which female desire is elaborately uttered in a woman's voice, patriarchal authority is minimized almost to vanishing point and God is not named--was canonized in Torah. Is it because admitting the Song of Songs as holy scripture depended on allegorizing it as an expression of the love between God and Israel? Boyarin associates allegory with Platonic dualism and misogyny, and considers it alien to rabbinical thinking in the Talmudic period. The exceptional case of the Song of Songs would add an exciting wrinkle to his theory.
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Author:Ostriker, Alicia
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1520
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