Anton, Maggie. “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What”, Banot Press, 2016.
Sexuality in the Talmud
I do not remember hearing that the Talmud was amusing and seductive but Maggie Anton’s new book, “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” quickly changed that. She has found fifty actual Talmudic discussions, and added fascinating quotes that are both appropriate and inappropriate from famous people (from Mae West and Amy Schumer to George Washington and Gandhi) and we see the Talmud like never before. We gain a new perspective “on what the ancient Jewish sages say about our most intimate relationships”.
Anton takes us on a tour of sexuality within the Talmud as we read what rabbis have to say about sexual relations. We see that Jewish tradition is progressive in many respects and is even racier than we could have imagined. While I did not really know about this aspect of the Talmud (although I had heard a few things), I did know that Maggie Anton is a terrific writer and I have read all of her books and especially enjoyed the “Rashi’s Daughters” series. I had great confidence that she could make reading the Talmud fascinating which she does with her own knowledge of Jewish history and a bit of humor. I once took a course in Talmud where no one dared to smile and that was surprising to me because there is a great to smile about in it. It is as if Anton has awakened the Talmud that has been sleeping for a long time. Suddenly those dry texts take on a new life and they do not sound so holy after all. Just look at it from this perspective—-the first commandment we meet in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply and as far as I know there is only one way to do that. It is a man’s obligation to have sex with his spouse yet there are times when this is not allowed. The original text has no specification as to how, when or where to be fruitful…. That came later and along with that came the Talmudic rabbis who not only filled in the blanks, they created them. I find it somewhat amusing that this kind of situation interested the rabbis but evidently it because they thought about it for quite a long time.
Undoubtedly there will be those that say that Anton has gone to far trying to find a sexual interpretation of the holy books. Those of us that have read her other books know how far she will go. In both the “Rashi’s Daughters Trilogy” and in her “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, Anton elevates women and gives them life. They move from being cameos in history to become fully developed characters who have something to say and say it.
Going back to the Talmud, Anton shares what rabbis have to say about “size” and how couple please each other leading up to intercourse and how often sex can take place. We see that there are many requirements and prohibitions around sex and the Talmud is specific with what it has to say. Some of this is quite shocking but I do not want to spoil your fun by giving examples. I will share this tidbit because it is not only fascinating, it empowers women— the rabbis felt that it was a wife’s right to have sex but a husband’s obligation to engage in it. Therefore women are to enjoy sex as much as men.
What Maggie Anton has done here is to find those sections of the Talmud that deal with sex and add a bit of humor by comparing what is written to the present and/or adding anecdotes to show that Judaism is a “sex-positive religion” (Think about that the next time you are at services and looking at your rabbi). The ability to have sex is a gift from God as well as a commandment not just for procreation but also as a way for a couple to bond.
I immediately thought back to when I was a kid and the rabbi was considered to be the paragon of holiness. I certainly could not conceive of him having sex with the rebbetzin but they must have since they had a slew of children. I love that one reviewer said that if he had known this back then, he would have paid more attention at Hebrew school.
Anton adds cartoons and various quotes about sex to make this more than a read—- it is a delight and while I doubt I will see this book in any rabbis’ study, I cant help but hope that one day I will indeed see it there.
Can we call the Talmud racy and bawdy? I think we can. Our ancient rabbis evidently thought ahead and what they did not overtly think about has now been exposed in a very amusing way.