Hopefully you recall that I blogged about how our Talmudic Sages viewed rapes. That was a preview of a longer post I wrote for the JOFA [Jewish Orthodox Feminist Assn] blog on My Jewish Learning website. There I explain how the Rabbis completely overturn what the Torah says in Deut 22:28-29, where the rapist pays the victim’s father 50 shekels and must marry her [while her redress isn’t even mentioned]. Clearly this text, which is unfortunately what the average person might think is the “official” Jewish position, offers no advice or consolation for women today. Thus I try to fully explain, with links to my sources, how the Talmud interprets the Torah into something entirely new – monetary damages paid to the victim herself. And of course, she needn’t marry the rapist. To read the whole article, here is the My Jewish Learning link.
Lately I’ve been busy organizing books tours for "Fifty Shades of Talmud." After sending out e-blasts to my 4000+ email contacts before and after the pub date, I received invitations to speak to quite a few Jewish groups. Thankfully a few on the East Coast came with offers to pay my travel expenses, no small matter since I live in Los Angeles. Even better, these groups were okay if I piggy-backed their event with others in the region. Thus I have planned an East Coast book trip between Oct 28 and Nov 16 that starts in Baltimore and takes me north through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York [Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester]. You can find my jam-packed schedule here and see if you live near any of my speaking venues.
I am also scheduling programs in California, where travel expenses are less of any issue. Tomorrow I’m flying up north to teach two sessions at Limmud Bay Area, which takes place over the weekend at Sonoma State Univ. I’ve heard they expect almost 400 attendees. I do my first presentation, “Fifty Shades of Talmud: How and Why I wrote this Book,” on Friday night. Here’s the description: Maggie Anton will discuss how the research behind her "Rashi's Daughters" historical novels, which take place in 11th century France in the household of the great Talmud scholar, led her to start studying what our Sages had to say about sex. Surprised and impressed at their comparatively progressive views, she decided to share the best of what she'd learned in her newest book.
My second presentation will be a grand finale on Sunday afternoon, “What the Talmud Actually Teaches about Sexual Relations.” The description: Any Talmud student knows that our Sages debate all sorts of subjects in great detail. So it should come as no surprise that they also discuss every aspect of sexual relations—how, when, where, with whom—often in startlingly explicit fashion. Author Maggie Anton reveals how Jewish tradition is progressive in many respects—and more bawdy, than one might think.
For many Jewish communities, including my synagogue, Shavuot ended tonight. Others celebrated Shavuot for only one day, so the festival ended last night.
Briefly, Shavuot is one of the three major festivals detailed in the Torah [Pesach and Sukkot are the other two], when Jews gathered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for special sacrifices and ceremonies. After Rome destroyed the Temple and killed most of its priests, the Talmudic rabbis instituted new ways to observe Shavuot. One of these is to link Shavuot with the giving of the Torah; thus we read the Ten Commandments in synagogue and may even stay up all night studying Torah.
Another Rabbinic innovation was to read one of the Ketuvim [books found at the end of the Hebrew Bible] along with the Torah portion at each of the festivals. Pesach got Song of Songs, Sukkot got Ecclesiastes, and Shavuot got the Book of Ruth. In addition, to cement the importance of new [non-biblical] “holidays” established by the Rabbis, the Book of Esther was read at Purim and Lamentations at Tisha b’Av. These five books are now known as the Megillot [plural of Megillah], but in honor of Shavuot I’m focusing on only one, Ruth.
I assume [and hope] that everyone here has read Ruth. If not, you can read a summary and lots more info at that Internet fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. What I want to deal with is the problem of Ruth the Moabitess marrying an Israelite and after his death still regarding herself a member of his family so that she then marries another Israelite and bears him a son who becomes King David’s grandfather. The Talmud considers Ruth a righteous convert, and today converts to Judaism quote Ruth, “your people shall be my people and your God my God,” as part of the conversion ceremony.
It is Ruth’s origin in Moab that raised problems for the Rabbis, since in the rest of the biblical literature Moab is associated with hostility to Israel, sexual perversity, and idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:3–6 goes so far as to exclude an Ammonite or a Moabite from "the congregation of Adonai; even to their tenth generation." Despite this, we have Ruth the Moabitess being King David’s great-grandmother. This Mishna proposed a simple remedy: “An Ammonite and a Moabite are forbidden to marry into the congregation and their prohibition is eternal, however their women are permitted immediately.” [Yevamot 76b]. This starts a debate over how the Mishna was derived, with the some saying the Torah’s use of the masculine for Ammonite and Moabite thus permits females, and others saying that the males were excluded because “they did not greet the Israelites with bread and water on the road from Egypt” – which could only apply to the men since the women would have safely stayed inside their tents. Ultimately, Ruth the Moabitess is, retroactively, permitted, making King David a kosher Israelite.
Scholars today consider Ruth a counter-narrative to the message of Ezra-Nehemiah [neither of whom rate their own biblical book], where marriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were broken up. The Babylonian rabbinic community welcomed converts, so it’s not surprising that they canonized the book of Ruth, thus teaching that foreigners who convert to Judaism can become good Jews, foreign wives can become exemplary followers of Jewish law, and there is no reason to exclude them or their offspring from the community.
Because of the shocking situation in Santa Clara, there has been a big media focus on rape recently. Although my new book FIFTY SHADES OF TALMUD: WHAT THE FIRST RABBIS HAD TO SAY ABOUT YOU-KNOW-WHAT is mostly a light-hearted look at our Sages discussions on sexual relations, I do have a serious section on rape, some of which I share with you here.
To the Rabbis’ credit, they treated a sexual assault victim the same as anyone else injured during an attack. They did not hold her responsible for somehow encouraging the assault (for example, how she dressed or where she walked). The rapist, like other assailants, had to pay compensation for her medical expenses, time she was unable to work, any permanent impairment, her shame and embarrassment, and the pain she suffered. While deciding how much a rapist paid his victim as recompense for pain, one rabbi proposed none at all since the maiden would ultimately have suffered the same pain on her wedding night. But his idea was angrily rejected because, the Talmud declared, “There is no comparison between losing her virginity under the bridal canopy and losing it on a dung heap.” (At least one would hope not.)
[Bava Kama 83b84a, Moed Katan 8b, Ketubot 39b, Yevamot 34a]
Bad judgment and carelessness are not punishable by rape.
Unlike most societies, even modern ones, the Rabbis forbid marital rape. To clarify that a couple should only use the bed if the woman was willing, the Sages agreed that between a man and a woman, if she said yes she consented, and if she said no she didn’t. Silence was not consent. The Torah verse from Proverbs 19:2, “he who is hasty with his feet is a sinner,” was interpreted to mean that it is forbidden to force your wife in marital relations, the result being children of bad character. [Kiddushin 13a, Yevamot 53b54a]
Another section of Talmud teaching about “bad sex produces bad children” condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed did cause bad children, including: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her; (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were drunk, (5) and one of them was asleep. Note that the first two would be considered rape today and the last two are problematic because consent is impossible. [Nedarim 20b]
Today is Election Day here in California. Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee, but we don’t know the California results yet. I haven’t posted for a week because I’ve been spending most of my free time making phone calls for Hillary Clinton at my nearby Westchester campaign office, including today [although most people I talked to had already voted]. Until this week, I hadn’t done any of this kind of hands-on campaigning for almost fifty years. During my teens I was active in Young Democrats. My father was on the Democratic County Committee [you know, that list of people near the top of the ballot where you have no idea who they are and what exactly they’re running for] and I spent quite a few elections getting out the vote and then partying with the victors.
Then came 1968, my freshman year at UCLA. I was still too young to vote, but definitely old enough to party. Thus I was celebrating Robert Kennedy winning the California presidential primary at the Ambassador Hotel downtown when he was assassinated there almost exactly 48 years ago. That trauma ended my political activism [although I never missed voting once I was 21] – until I grasped the enormity that Trump would be the Republican nominee. I had voted for Clintons whenever they were on a ballot, so I gave Hillary a few small donations. But after the misogyny and rudeness displayed by Bernie Bros in Nevada, I bit the bullet and signed up to volunteer. It seemed bashert that there was a Clinton campaign office less than 2 miles away.
I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to help out last Friday when Hillary spoke in Culver City and Bill in Santa Monica. So when they asked for volunteers to work Hillary Clinton's rally at Long Beach City College yesterday afternoon, I jumped at the opportunity. The night before I couldn’t sleep because I was haunted by flashbacks of the Ambassador Hotel and terrified that I might witness a similar disaster in Long Beach. But I refused to give in to such magical thinking, and ultimately spent 5 hours Monday afternoon and evening volunteering at the event. First I walked the long line of people waiting to enter and handed out instructions on how to make "get out the vote" calls at home. Then I did "crowd control," walking the now even longer line to update people about security, probable wait times, and trying to answer questions even though I wasn't sure of the correct answers. Finally we got inside the gym, where Hillary gave a rousing speech to her enthusiastic supporters – made more memorable when the AP declared her the presumptive nominee in the middle of her talk. Like everyone else, I took photos with my cell phone. I don't know how she does it; I came home exhausted.
Recently Rabbi Rachel Adler of HUC in Los Angeles sent me a link to an article about the controversy over what to do with the many Babylonian Incantation Bowls, now in collections throughout the world, which may have been looted. As part of the research behind my Rav Hisda’s Daughter series of historical novels, I learned a great deal about these artifacts that date from the fourth to sixth century. Thus I am well aware that the majority of the incantation bowls we have today were unearthed as a result of the various Iraq wars that started in 1991, "in the political chaos and economic collapse that followed the first Gulf War." Indeed, one of the points I bring up when I talk about them is a comment somebody made years ago when I spoke at the UCI Faculty Club: "That explains the whole debacle in Iraq since 1991. They dug up all the bowls and let out all the demons."
The article asks, “What do ethics and decency demand? While some are adamant that the incantation bowls should be returned to Iraq, other scholars argue that Jewish Aramaic bowls are part of Jewish history, not of the modern Iraqi state.” Personally, I am unequivocally opposed to returning them to Iraq, where no Jewish scholars would be permitted to study them. Just because we don't know the exact location where each bowl was found doesn't negate their value as the only archaeological evidence we have for the Jewish community that produced the Talmud. It is what's written on these bowls that's important, especially since we know where enough of these bowls have been dug up to say that they were buried under the periphery of houses throughout Babylonia. It probably doesn't matter if they were found in what was Nineveh, Machoza, or any number of towns along the Euphrates River.
Thousands upon thousands of these bowls are now in the hands of museums and private collectors, so many that the price has gone down sufficiently that nobody counterfeits them anymore. I own two such bowls myself, which I bought from a reputable antiquities shop in Old Jaffa in Israel. If the Iraqi government, such that it is, wants some, they can send their own archaeologists to dig up more themselves. There are apparently plenty more bowls where those in the Schoyen collection came from. To read the entire, quite lengthy article, here is the link
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found this novel an unforgettable look into the private lives of "ordinary" [i.e. not royalty] women in early 19th-century China. The foot-binding scenes were fascinating and horrific, yet these are exactly the kind of things that men's history ignores, details that would be unknown if not for historical novels like this. The only reason I didn't give Snow Flower and the Secret Fan five stars is that I had difficulty accepting Lily's inability to understand and forgive her childhood friend; their estrangement seemed more like a plot point that something that would actually have happened.
Still, the friendships among women in a world where men were paramount, their relationships with their natal families before and after they married, the clothes and marriage rituals - these are the details I look for and savor in historical fiction. And the importance of describing details of women's lives in times when we only have men's recorded history is exactly why I write my historical novels. To bring forgotten and ignored women of the past to life again.
View all my reviews
Wednesday night I had the bizarre experience of arguing with half a dozen young male Bernie Bros who I encountered as they were putting up a lighted sign saying “Vote Bernie” on an overpass fence over the 405 Fwy. I couldn’t resist stopping my car and challenging them by accusing them of helping elect Trump. One man kept saying that Trump was a boogeyman; I think he liked the word without knowing what it meant, since Trump is very real, not imaginary, evil. They all insisted that Clinton was the menace. They pretty much regurgitated every Republican smear I’ve heard against the Clintons for twenty years, but gave me no arguments why I should vote for Bernie. When I questioned where they got their information, one told me to “Google it.” I immediately chided them by asking if they believed everything they read on the Internet, and getting no answer, I drove home.
The next afternoon I did something I haven't done for almost 50 years. I spent several hours at the local Democratic headquarters cold-calling registered Democrats in my area, reminding them to vote in the upcoming California presidential primary. Fifty years ago I was making calls to help Robert Kennedy; Thursday I was urging Democrats to vote for Hillary Clinton. Interesting that all the people I spoke with had voted or intended to vote for her, except for one sharp 96 yo who told me it was a secret ballot.
Not one person preferred Sanders, and several told me how much they feared Trump becoming president. Between the misogynist bombast spewing from Trump and the Bernie Bros’, I admit I’m pretty scared too. I intend to come back to make more calls in the upcoming days leading to June 7.
Want to volunteer too? Here's the link
Last week, when I was in Scottsdale AZ for the brit milah of my newest grandson, I was interviewed about my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, for almost an hour on Skype by Eve Harrow for Land of Israel Radio. This week I finally had time to listen to the podcast, which she expertly edited down to 36 minutes, so expertly that I can’t recall what she left out. Here I explain how I came up with the idea for Fifty Shades of Talmud, how I researched it and compiled the sugiot [Talmud discussions] that comprise it.
Much of what I say here is similar to my talks to Jewish groups, so if you are considering inviting me to speak, I suggest to check out this podcast. You can listen either at the Land of Israel Radio website, or from a link at this week’s issue of The Jewish Press.
When my children were young, we went on summer vacation at a Family Camp run by the Reform Jewish movement called Camp Swig in Saratoga, California. The four of us shared a cabin for a week, doing normal camp pursuits like hiking, swimming, arts & crafts, playing games, and singing – but with a Jewish flavor. Some activities were segregated by age like when adults studied Jewish texts with a camp scholar while the kids were otherwise occupied. Everyone attended services and ate meals together, which included lengthy song sessions. Today some of our best friends are those we saw every summer at Camp Swig
We loved those weeks at Family Camp and missed them when our children grew too old to attend. I consoled myself that eventually we might be able to return with our grown children and their kids. Camp Swig, having been replace with Camp Newman, is only a memory, but this weekend I had my first taste in twenty years when we spent the weekend with our daughter’s family at Temple Akiba Family Camp high in the hills above Malibu, along with 17 other families [and Akiba staffers]. It was the same camp where my daughter attended many Jewish weekend sessions as a teenager.
The location [far from civilization with awesome views of the hills above and ocean below] and the weather [sunny with enough gentle breezes that the temperature was never too hot or cold] were perfect. The seven of us [me, my husband, daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren ages 9, 6, and 3] shared a large cabin that sleeps 16 campers during the summer. Our large bathroom had sufficient showers, sinks, and toilets that nobody had to wait. The kids loved the bunk beds where they could sleep on top and play on the bottom. The meals were very good, although I confess that I’m partial to any food that I didn’t have to cook.
Shabbat services were outdoors, with lots of singing and stories. There were games, and challah making, and lots of fun activities shared with very nice and interesting people to get to know. It was wonderful to see how the children almost immediately made friends with age-mates, to the extent that they ate meals with them instead of us grown-ups and often disappeared together to do their own independent things. No helicopter parenting here. Best of all, they are now looking forward to Jewish summer camp. I can only look forward to a week or weekend of family camp, but after waiting twenty years, I’m glad to be back.
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had my doubts when my 3 yo and 6 yo grandkids insisted that I read this book to them, but their enthusiasm and my curiosity [and seeing how short the book was] won me over. It was a blast making weird noises, coming up with songs, and all the other silly things the reader is asked to do.
Their copy came from the library but I might just buy one for myself.
View all my reviews
Years ago I signed up for Google alerts to notify me when my name or any of my book titles appeared on the Internet. When Google alerts became unreliable a few years ago, I added Talkwalker alerts as well. Usually I would get one or two a week, maybe more when I was on book tour and my venues publicized their events. Recently, alerts about actual online articles about me or my novels have been overtaken by those offering free downloads of my books.
Obviously these were violating US copyright law, so I would forward them to my publisher’s legal department. Increasingly, however, I noticed that the download website ends in .ru [for Russia] or something else other than .com, so it became clear there was nothing me or my publisher could do. I wondered how these sites managed to obtain a pdf of my novels, and it seemed odd that someone would take the time to scan every page and then give it away. But when three such alerts arrived in my email inbox in one day, I googled “free book download” for an explanation.
And found something more insidious than copyright infringement. According to Writersweekly.com, “the good news is, they probably don’t really have a copy of your book. They may simply be tricking people into downloading a virus. And, if someone is trying to download a free copy of your copyrighted book, and they get a virus instead, I call that karma.” Just like those spam emails that offered Viagra but instead just stole the would-be buyer’s credit card info. Here’s the entire article if you’re interested.