Thereâ€™s a famous story in the Talmud about a curious student who took his studies to the extreme. The yeshiva boy in question, Kahane, hides under the bed of his teacher, deliberately listening in on the masterâ€™s lovemaking with his wife. He is shocked by the way they chat and joke together all during the act, but tries his best to remain unnoticed. To no avail, however; in one dramatic moment, his presenceâ€”and chutzpahâ€”are revealed.
â€œKahane, are you there?â€ his teacher thunders. â€œLeave now, because it is rude!â€
It is not, and I will not, Kahane calmly replies.
â€œFor this, too, is Torah, and I must learn.â€
My Sunday afternoon class rocks the house. I mean, I knew it would–I’ve had the prof before, I’m a fan of his crazy, somewhat radical approaches to halakhic texts, and the material? Dang. It’s a class on Even Ha-Ezer, the section of the Shulchan Aruch dealing with relationships, kinda. We’re covering the issue of spilling one’s seed, homosexuality, intermarriage, the issues of a man and woman being alone together, defining Jewish lineage (Cohen and otherwise), the Jewish wedding ceremony in its varigated glories for a month-plus, and some other fun stuff.
Yesterday was priah urviah, ie the commandment to make babies. But like, as a side issue, we got into the theoretical case of a woman getting pregnant by bathing in a bathtub in which there was some, er, male seed not her husband’s. Can one fulfill the mitzvah of priah urviah by getting her pregnant that way? Should the owner of the seed get the mitzvah point, or the woman’s husband? There are several commentators with different opinions on how all that should shake down. Ineterstingly, medieval Muslim writers (doctors mostly) were also concerned with this–Averroes and the like, and/though the Jewish version of the story (including a wild story about how Ben Sira was conceived thusly) occurs earlier, in the gemara. My historian of sexuality of choice (the incredible Hanne Blank, author of the forthcoming Virgin: The Untouched History) informs me that this concern probably comes out of the fact that, at least since the Roman era, the public bath was considered a wild domain in which all sorts of interesting things happened, and it was considered a very male domain. For a woman to go bathe there (even in all-women baths) was considered somewhat risky and very, as she puts it, secular. So whether or not this conception actually ever happened, the fear and/or urban mythiness of it was pervasive. It’s also likely, she points out, a “a way to explain away inconvenient (and previously unsuspected) pregnancies, esp. in unmarried women.” Logical.
In any case, that’s the sort of craziness with which I’ll be dealing this semester. I have no idea down which side-alleys we will travel in the pursuit of knowledge and Torah. What’s fun about it all is that even the weirdest sounding things have interesting possible implications for the real world–for example, the bathtub case (and who is considered the father of the child) pings straight into contemporary issues of sperm donation, and the legal status of the donor. We also did some stuff about adoption, also exceedingly relevant. Over the course of the course I think birth control, premarital sex and all sorts of other things are going to come up for examination. I’m so excited, because this is, I think, really important learning with really profound implications for our world(s), both in the private sphere and in the more public, policy-oriented one.
Today, for a little change of pace, however, God willing (if I can get through the University registration and all) I’ll be in a class on North American Jewry. Ironic, no?
Okay. Off to have a day.