After complaining about the lack of Jewish Romance novels, I received several recommendations from friends and fans. One of them, calling herself Shomeret on Goodreads, had good things to say about Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola Dunn, a novel from a very obscure historical fiction genre - Regency Romance with a Jewish heroine. Finding an e-copy in the Los Angeles public library system, I downloaded it. I am almost finished reading this delightful tale, and I admit I enjoyed it more than I expected.
True to the Regency genre, the heroine Miriam is spunky and determined not to marry the wimpy scholar her parents have chosen for her, so she runs off on an adventure to help her widowed uncle, a doctor, in his research. She meets up with two attractive young men, both of who come from once wealthy families. One is a Jew whose banker father was bankrupted when too many of his noble clients didn’t pay back their loans; the other an impoverished Earl whose father made one too many imprudent investments [of course no Regency romance is complete without a handsome, eligible nobleman]. Love is in the air, but which suitor will Miriam chose?
Shomeret writes a book review blog, and has favorably reviewed my novels, which is how I discovered her. To read Shomeret’s review of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, here it is on her blog.
Back to Valerie Rhein’s class, you may notice that I left out any mention of modern scholarly reasons why women are excluded from time-bound positive mitzvot. Also attending this session was Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Talmud professor at JTS. Prof Hauptman points outs that the Talmud mentions time-bound positive mitzvot only in connection with women. Indeed, this distinction between mitzvot exists solely for the purpose of differentiating between a woman’s ritual obligations and her exemptions; it has no other use. She postulates, and both Prof Rhein and I agree, that it is no coincidence that the exemption of women from Judaism’s essential ritual acts dates from after the Second Temple’s destruction.
When the Temple stood the social hierarchy of Jews was, from highest status to lowest, was Kohen, Levi, Israel, slave. Those who served God were at the top. But without the Temple, the distinction between slaves and everyone else was all that remained. How could the old order where those who served God were highest be maintained? Women from priestly families didn’t serve in the Temple, so it followed that with no Temple, they would still have a lesser obligation to perform rituals that took the place of Temple service. After all, women already had lower status than men in society.
However exempting women from a small number of ritual mitzvot wasn’t enough of a difference in status to satisfy the Rabbis. The cemented a woman’s lower standing by exempting her from Torah study, what they saw as the most valuable use of a Jew’s time. Leaving women ignorant of how Torah was interpreted also had the beneficial effect, for men, of making women completely dependent on how rabbis interpreted Jewish Law.
Which is why I deem it more important to study Talmud than to don tefillin. For some historical background, see this article in the Jerusalem Post
So why, following on my previous post, are women exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot? The Talmud explains that a woman’s time belongs to her husband and he might need her to do something at the same time she’s supposed to perform a mitzvah. But what about a widow or divorcee then? Why is she exempt? And if you say she needs to be attentive to her children and household, then what about the woman without children or whose children are grown? In any case, some time-bound positive mitzvot take little time to perform, like saying the Shema or hearing the Shofar. Others, like dwelling in the sukkah or taking the lulav, can be done anytime during the week of Sukkot; especially dwelling in the sukkah, since the woman has to eat somewhere that week. And since medieval times, woman have increasingly taken on these four mitzvot, to the point where the question today isn’t whether women should perform them but whether they should say the blessing when they do.
Some more modern reasons popular with the Orthodox include:  women are naturally more spiritual than men, and therefore require less demanding religious mitzvot;  women’s menstrual cycles give them a natural rhythm of time, and therefore they don’t need the time-bound mitzvot;  In God's infinite wisdom, God delineated different responsibilities for men and women according to their respective metaphysical and physiological needs. Reform and Conservative Jews are egalitarian and believe that it is discriminatory for men and women to have different ritual obligations.
However, these assume that everyone agrees what constitutes a time-bound positive mitzvot. Some rabbis in the Talmud do not accept that tefillin and tzitzit are time-bound, and therefore women should don them. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi declares that despite the Mishnah exempting them, women are nevertheless obligated to eat matzah during Pesach, hear the Megillah read at Purim, and light the Hanukah lamp – each clearly a time-bound positive mitzvah. And of course a woman must observe Shabbat and afflict herself on Yom Kippur, which the Rabbis justify because those holidays have both positive and negative mitzvot associated with them.
The bottom line is that even Orthodox women today are obligated to more time-bound positive mitzvot than they are exempt from. For more on the subject, from Orthodox and non-Orthodox viewpoints, click on the highlighted links.
Yes, I know it has been over a week since my last post. Whether I call them reasons or excuses, I’ve been occupied with caring for a sick granddaughter, being sick myself, organizing financial records to prepare for income taxes, and in between all those, doing research for my next historical novel. But I still have more to report about Limmud UK.
One of the presenters was Valerie Rhein from Bern, who spoke about women’s exemption from TIME-BOUND POSITIVE MITZVOT. The division of commandments into these categories comes from the Mishnah, with no specific mention in the Torah. Thus the Rabbis had to figure out which mitzvot fell in which category [easy], and then come up with reasons why women should be obligated in some and exempt from others [not so easy]. Prof. Rhein focused on the 21 commandments mentioned in the Talmudic discussions found in Kiddushin 33b-35a and Berachot 20b. Seven of these mitzvot are non-time-bound, woman obligated [e.g. mezuzah, returning a lost object], seven are time-bound, woman not obligated [e.g. sukkah, shofar], four are time-bound, woman obligated [e.g. matzah, Kiddush], and three are non-time-bound, woman not obligated [e.g. procreation, Torah study].
She listed each commandment, the Torah verse on which it is based, and which group is addressed. For example procreation is commanded to both Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:27, while eating matzah at Pesach is directed at the whole congregation of Israel in Exodus 12:3. The reason this topic is so interesting, and so full of apologetics, is that there are too many exceptions to the rule that women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot and obligated to non-time-bound positive mitzvot for the Rabbis to ignore. Not to mention why women should be exempted from mitzvot based on time.
I will get to some of the arguments, both Orthodox and Progressive, in my next post. For more on the subject, see this My Jewish Learning article
The last session I presented at Limmud UK was actually an interview by Gilad Halpern of TLV 1, a Tel Aviv radio station. Interviews, especially those in real time, can be a challenge since I rarely get the questions in advance. Thus I have to be quick on my feet to give what I hope will be an erudite and entertaining reply with a minimum of hesitations. And Heaven forbid I can’t come up with an answer.
He questioned me about my new book for about 15 minutes, during which I explain that, among other things:  the Rabbis came to the astonishing conclusion that if a man wants to have sons, he should ensure that his wife comes to orgasm first;  the Talmud teaches that a father and mother each provide seed to create a child, unlike the Greeks and Romans, who believed than a man’s semen contained an entire miniature infant while the woman merely furnished a place for the baby to grow,  the big difference between Jewish positive and Christian negative views on sex arises because for Jews it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to procreate, while for Christians the ideal is to be celibate like Jesus.
To learn more, you can listen to the entire interview on a podcast from the Tel Aviv Review.
Back to what I learned at Limmud UK in December, this from Zev Farber, who attended my presentation on “Talmud After Dark,” which focused on some of my favorite sections from Fifty Shades of Talmud. One of these was a discussion from Nedarim 20 of how parents’ bad sex is responsible for their bad offspring, where the Ministering Angels inform us that “children are born lame because their parents overturn the table.” Apparently the Talmudic rabbis weren’t sure what ‘overturning the table’ meant because they made several suggestions, each of which refers to some unapproved sexual position [i.e. woman on top, from behind, anal]. From this one can assume that, according to the angels, normal/approved sex takes place in what we would call the ‘missionary’ position.
We have another piece of Talmud where a woman consults a rabbi because she “set a table for her husband, but he wanted to overturn it.” The rabbi tells her that this positions is permitted to them, and the woman departs without another word. Whether she was objecting to her husband’s desire or merely wanted to make sure it was authorized, the text doesn’t say. It also doesn’t say what exactly ‘overturning the table’ is.
However, Zev Farber introduced me to Noah Bickart, who addresses this very subject in his article on “Turning Over the Table.” He posits that, judging from Greek and Roman erotic artwork from this era, the most common sex position was from behind. In addition, because this was how animals mated, it was considered the natural position. Furthermore, it is in this position that the woman would appear most like a table.
Based on this, I am now skeptical that ‘man on top/woman facing him below’ was the normative position of sexual relations for the early Rabbis, particularly those in Israel and other lands ruled by Rome. This may have changed hundreds of years later in Babylonia, or was in the process of changing. In any case, we should all be wary of placing assumptions from today’s perspective on another culture in the past.
For those who want to read the entire 19-page article, here is a link to the PDF
The new winter issue of Lilith Magazine is out, and it contains both an excellent article by my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe and a nice review of Fifty Shades of Talmud. Of course I want to share some quotes from the review:
“It is worth finding a place to peruse this slim volume in which Anton compiles fifty Talmudic discussions about every aspect of sexual relations. These discussions are interspersed with black-and-white cartoons featuring Adam and Eve and rabbis in togas, as well as pithy quotes about sex, many of them—like many of the statements in the Talmud—anonymous, and others attributed to luminaries ranging from Voltaire to Gandhi to Woody Allen … for those who would not otherwise open a volume of Talmud, Anton’s book offers, perhaps, a titillating way in. ‘Rabbis are men, too,’ she asserts, laying bare many rabbinic views on sexuality that may seem surprisingly progressive to the uninitiated. She shows how the rabbis were encouraging of good sex, and very permissive when it came to what a married couple may do in bed.”
To me, however, the most astonishingly progressive thing the Talmudic rabbis do for women’s sexuality is, by exempting us from procreation, they therefore permit a woman to use contraceptives without having to ask her husband’s permission or even inform him. Thus our Sages give women control of their reproductive lives. Something we do not have in this country even today.
Click on this link to Lilith's complete article.
For all my LA folks who wondered when I’ll be doing programs near home. Well, starting on Monday, Jan 16, I'll be speaking about "Talmud After Dark" at 8 venues in and around Los Angeles and the SF Valley. Some events are in the evening and some during the day, most are free but those serving food will cost you a donation. All will include book sales/signings of my new book. I hope I see lots of my local friends and fans.
Here are the details:
Jan 16 - 1 pm. Women of Leisure World meets in Clubhouse 3, Room 2. 1421 Northwood Rd, Seal Beach, CA 90740
Jan 17 - 10 am. Long Beach NCJW luncheon. The Grand, 4101 E Willow St, Long Beach, CA 90815
January 18 - 7:30 pm. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd, West Hills, CA 91304
Jan 21 - 11 am. Shabbat drash at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Jan 21 - 7 pm. Lev Eisha winter retreat. Brandeis Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Brandeis, CA 93064
January 22 - 1 pm. Temple Beth Ami, 23023 Hilse Lane, Santa Clarita, CA 91321
Jan 23, 2017 - 7 pm. NaAmat Women Mitzvah chapter. Location tba at private home, San Fernando Valley, CA
Jan 28 - 3 pm. VBS Sisterhood retreat. Brandeis-Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Simi Valley, CA 93064
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually liked this "book" more than I expected to, judging from all the critical reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. This is NOT a novel, but the script of a play. That means we get no interior monologues, not a whole lot of action, and no detailed descriptions of people, places, clothing, etc. Most of the text is dialogue, with only a hint of what the characters are thinking or feeling [that is the actors' jobs, which is why the same play can seem quite different with different actors]. And, unlike the books with their myriad characters, we have only a minimal cast here.
But the plot, always J. K. Rowling's strong suit, is as good as ever. It was so compelling that I read this book in two days, needing only a few hours each day because, this being a script, most pages have less than 100 words and some have less than 30. Without giving away any spoilers, I think it is a great plot device for a couple of characters to use a Time Turner to go back in time [to when Harry Potter was at Hogwarts] to try to prevent some bad thing from happening, but of course there are unintended consequences.
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Before I move on to different subjects, here are the other quotes I appreciated from Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness”:
“In general, Papa always used to say to us, better a little less to organize and reorganize and a little more to help one another and maybe to forgive, too. He believed in two thins: compassion and justice. But he was of the opinion that you always have to make the connection between them: justice without compassion isn’t justice, it’s an abattoir. On the other hand, compassion without justice may be all right for Jesus but not for simple mortals who have eaten the apple of evil. That was his view: a little less organizing, a little more pity.” [p.161]
“Heredity and the environment that nurtures us and our social class—these are all like cards that are dealt out at random before the game begins. There is no freedom about this; the world gives and you just take what you’re given, with no opportunity to choose … the question is what each person does with the cards dealt to him. Some people play brilliantly with poor cards and others … squander and lose everything even with excellent cards. But even the freedom to play well or badly depends ironically on each person’s luck, on patience, intelligence, intuition, or adventurousness. And in the last resort surely these too are simply cards that are or are not dealt to us … and if so, then what is left of our freedom of choice?” [p.166]
“But there's also an upside-down sort of happiness, a black happiness, that comes from doing evil to others. Papa used to say that we were driven out of paradise not because we ate from the tree of knowledge but because we ate from the tree of evil. Otherwise, how can you explain black happiness? The happiness we fell not because of what we have but because of what we have and other haven’t got? That others will be jealous of?” [p.173]
“There are lots of women who are attracted to tyrannical men. Like moths to a flame. And there are some women who do not need a hero or even a stormy lover but a friend. Just remember that when you grow up. Steer clear of the tyrant lovers, and try to locate the ones who are looking for a man as a friend, not because they are feeling empty themselves but because they enjoy making you full too. And remember that friendship between a woman and a man is something much more precious and rare than love: love is actually something quite gross and even clumsy compared to friendship. Friendship includes a measure of sensitivity, attentiveness, generosity, and a finely tuned sense of moderation.” [p.505]
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Israeli writer extraordinaire Amos Oz is both a family saga spanning over fifty years and a first-person view of Israel’s turbulent birth, as seen through the eyes of a child coming of age in Jerusalem.
I admit that the early chapters are slow going, with lots of run-on sentences full of lengthy and detailed descriptions. It took me a while before I accepted that I didn’t know exactly what year the story had started. The first hundred pages appeared to take place after the Holocaust and before the State of Israel was established. Then the scene and timeframe abruptly jumps back to 1921 Russia where we learn, through their own words, how the author’s parents and grandparents immigrated to Palestine while the remainder of his family were eventually murdered in Eastern Europe.
I was soon hooked, both by the story and writing. Oz has the rare ability to switch time, locale, and point of view without interrupting the narrative flow or losing the reader [at least he never lost me]. Sometimes he is redundant, giving us the same tale from different characters. It was only towards the end, when I grew disappointed at not learning more details of how he and his wife fell in love, that I realized he was protecting the privacy of his living family. All the people whose lives he so thoroughly and intimately detailed were dead. But then he redeemed himself to me when, nearly at the end, he provides a sex scene guaranteed to warm the heart, and perhaps other body parts, of any would-be cougar. Oz also gives the reader some wonderful words on his writing process, which as an author myself, I commiserate with completely.
“I have written various words, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, and bits of dismantled sentences, fragments of expressions and descriptions and all kinds of tentative combinations. Every now and again I pick up one these particles, these molecules of texts, hold it up to the light and examine it carefully, turn it in various directions, lean forward and rub or polish it, hold it up to the light again, rub it again slightly, then lean forward and fit it into the texture of the cloth I am weaving. Then I stare at it from different angles, still not entirely satisfied, and take it out again and replace it with another word, or try to fit it into another niche in the same sentence, then remove, file it down a tiny bit more, and try to fit it in again, perhaps at a slightly different angle. Or deploy it differently. Perhaps farther down the sentence. Or at the beginning of the next one. Or should I cut it off and make it into a one-word sentence on its own?
I stand up. Walk around the room. Return to the desk. Stare at it for a few moments or longer, cross out the whole sentence or tear up the whole page. I give up in despair. I curse myself aloud and curse writing in general and the language as a whole, despite which I sit down and start putting the whole thing together all over again.” [p.268]
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I write this from Heathrow Airport, bringing to a close my week at Limmud UK. Yesterday was a final jampacked day of learning and socializing with new friends. Breakfast was followed by “Commanding voices – Talmud in a new light,” where a British Reform rabbi taught about the Rabbis created Hanukah with its attendant mitzvot of kindling special lights despite no mention of Hanukah in Tanach. We were a small group of so it was more of a Talmud shiur, albeit non-Orthodox, than a lecture. I definitely want to try something like this at home.
Next up was “Tell me Texts – the weird and wonderful,” where Zev Farber discussed the Talmud sugia where Abaye’s study hall is invaded by a dangerous demon that is only destroyed when a pious visiting rabbis is forced to spend the night there and battle it. Zev and I hit off earlier in the week and shared several meals, including one where two other rabbis had a heated discussion over biblical criticism and its limits. Indeed, one of the great benefits of Limmud was sharing meals with other participants.
After lunch Gilad Halpern interviewed me about sex in the Talmud for the Tel Aviv Review Show on TLV1 RADIO. Eventually my episode will be available on podcast, at which time I will certainly share it. Then I participated in the Limmud Book Club, like most book clubs made up completely by women, where we discussed Alice Hoffman’s “Marriage of Opposites,” about the life of painter Pizzaro’s mother. My contribution was not as an author, but as someone who had recently visited St. Thomas, where Hoffman’s historical novel is set.
I really wanted to attend the closing Gala, but I had to be ready for my ride to the airport at 5 am. And I still needed to pack. I close this post with a link to Zev Farber’s organization