Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Seconds of Seclusion: Sex and the Not-So-Single Sotah (Sotah 4a)

I wish I had been stuck in an airplane bathroom or riding in an elevator while learning today's Daf Yomi, which is about how long is long enough for a man and woman who are alone together to arouse suspicion. The Torah states that a woman may be suspected of adultery if she is secretly alone with another man (Numbers 5:13). The Talmud adds a few additional caveats: The woman needs to have been warned, this warning needs to take place in the presence of two witnesses, and the woman needs to have been alone with her seducer for a minimum period of time.

But how long is that period of time? כמה שיעור סתירה? The rabbis suggest a series of answers, each of which seems (to my ears, at least) laden with sexual overtones:

Rabbi Eliezer: For the time it takes to encircle a date palm. This is the Freudian/phallic response.

Rabbi Yehoshua: For the time it takes to mix a cup [of wine]. Cups are frequently associated with sex in the Talmud. In Nedarim 20b we learned that a man should not think of other women during sex with his wife because "A man should not drink from one glass while his eyes are on another." אל ישתה אדם בכוס זה ויתן עיניו בכוס אחר From Ketubot we know that a man would not sleep with a woman unless he checked her out beforehand, because "A man does not drink from a glass unless he first inspects it." אין אדם שותה בכוס אלא אם כן בודקו Furthermore, one of the three intimate labors that a woman performs for her husband (and which she is not allowed to delegate to a maidservant) is mixing his cup of wine.

Ben Azzai: For the time it takes to drink from a glass. Ben Azzai seems to require consummation. The rabbis at first do not accept his response. After all, the assumption is that each rabbi derives his answer based on his own sexual experiences.כל אחד ואחד בעצמו שיער But Ben Azzai never got married – how could he possibly know anything about sex? We know that Ben Azzai did not marry from Yevamot 63b, where this sage is attacked by the rabbis for saying that anyone who does not procreate is considered as if he committed murder. The rabbis respond to Ben Azzai, "Hey dude, practice what you preach!" נאה דורש ואינו נאה מקיים. Ben Azzai shrugs his shoulders: "What can I do? My soul's passion is for Torah." ומה אעשה וחשקה נפשי בתורה Here in Masechet Sotah, too, Ben Azzai speaks not from his own experience (presumably).

Rabbi Akiva: For the time it takes to roast an egg. Roasing an egg and fertilizing an egg are not all that different. Akiva, then, dispenses with the phallic symbol in favor of the ovoid.

Ben B'teyrah: For the time it takes to swallow an egg. Eggs, orifices, and oral activity. Indeed!

Pleymu (a student of Rabi) says: For the time it takes to extend an arm into a basket and grab a loaf of bread. Bread, too, is frequently associated with sex in the Talmud. "There is no comparison between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not" אינו דומה מי שיש פח בסלו למי שאין פת בסלו, the rabbis comment in extolling the virtues of having a spouse over remaining single. In a midrash about Potiphar, who entrusted Joseph with everything except "the bread that he ate" (Genesis 39:6), the rabbis comment that this bread refers to his wife. And in the continuation of our sugya in Sotah, we are told that "anyone who eats bread without washing first -- it is as if he had sex with a prostitute." Furthermore, snatching bread from a basket seems to suggest an illicit activity, and the extension of the arm can certainly also be phallic. Pleymu's suggestion preoccupies the rabbis, who want to know whether the loaf of bread is hot or cold; whether it is densely or loosely packed in the bag; whether it is a fresh loaf or a a stale one; whether it is made from wheat (which may slip from the hands) or from barley (which would not); whether it is soft or hard. Perhaps the rabbinic imagination, in its search for ever more graphic description, has other surfaces and textures in mind.

The rabbis' discussion goes on for quite a while, certainly for longer than it takes to roast an egg or mix a cup of wine. And so I can only wonder about the parallel sugya that was never recorded: What were their wives doing for the duration of this conversation?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Meditation on Turning Thirty

Today is my thirtieth birthday, which falls out each year during the period in which it is traditional to learn Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah that contains many ethical precepts as well as teachings relating to Jewish learning, among them the following:

Age five is for learning Torah;
Age ten is for learning Mishnah
Age thirteen is for observing the commandments
Age fifteen is for learning Talmud
Age eighteen is for marriage
Age twenty is for pursuit [of a livelihood]
Age thirty is for strength….

The Mishnah seems to suggest that a person is expected to attain certain intellectual and personal milestones at particular ages. I find myself often internalizing this way of thinking. "Before another year passes I must learn how to drive!" "I am almost thirty – I should think about having children!" "I need to finish the Daf Yomi cycle before I turn 35!" And on, and on.

There is a value in this way of thinking -- it challenges me to set goals for myself, and to strive to attain them. But the older I get, the more convinced I become that there is no such thing as a "right age" for anything.

Last night I got together with a dear friend named Mira who lives with her husband and five children in a settlement over the green line. When we first met three years ago in a Jerusalem book group, she was in a crisis because she was turning 40, and I was in a crisis because I was getting divorced. Back then, she told me that she envied me because I was so young and had my life ahead of me; I told her that I envied her because she was so stable and settled and sure of her future.

Last night, over hot apple cider in a cafe in a quiet Jerusalem alleyway, it became clear that the tables had turned: I was on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and Mira was planning to divorce her husband, something she has wanted to do for a while. Both of us were considerably happier than we were three years ago, though there was a certain wistfulness that I sensed when I rubbed my bare arms to stay warm in the chilly evening air. Having experienced the pain of divorce, it is hard to see someone else celebrate such a moment, especially when the couple in question has five children. And while a birthday is always a cause for celebration, it is also hard to accept that time can never be retrieved, and that some decisions are indeed irreversible.

Is thirty really an age of strength, as the rabbis declare? I should like to think so. But I should like to think every age is a time of strength -- the strength to face whatever challenges happen to lie in front of us at that particular moment. With the small candle in a ceramic jar flickering on the rickety cafe table, I close my eyes for a moment and wish for this strength to steady my steps in the years that lie ahead.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Nazir: Prakim Bet and Gimel

Perek Bet: הריני נזיר

"I'm a Nazir from figs that are dried."
If the vower has thus specified
Does his nezirut take?
Hillel says, "Goodness sake,
No." Says Shammai: "He meant what he cried."

If a cow lies there sprawled in the sludge
And you shout "Get up!" but it won't budge
You say, "I'm a Nazir
If you move from right here."
Does that take, though you meant just to nudge?

A drunk woman looked at the wine
In her goblet. She shrieked, "I decline
To drink one more drop
I'm a Nazir. I stop
When it comes to all fruit of the vine."

"When I vowed Nezirut, I was sure
That the rabbis would let me drink more
I would not make this slip
Had I known I can't sip."
Does it hold once he knows what's in store?

"I'll be a Nazir and I'll shave
Off another who does thus behave."
Says another, "Me too!"
Then what are they to do?
Shave each other! Much trouble they'll save.

Says a man to his messenger, "Go
Find a wife for me. Whom? I don't know."
From that moment each dame
Is forbidden. That same
Woman could be his new wife – Oh no!

A woman is not like a chick.
No, a woman – her place is more fixed.
A chick may go roam
Far away from its home
But a woman to her home she sticks.

A messenger cannot revoke
Any vows that his master's wife spoke.
Just the husband may say
To his wife, "Vow? No way!"
Only he can, and no other bloke.

"I'll be a Nazir if a son
Will be born to my wife. Yes, just one."
If the son is stillborn
Then the father, forlorn,
Can consider his vow as undone.

A Nazir who completes thirty days
Brings his sacrifice, then crosses ways
With a dead man. He's thus
Impure. Although he must
Shave he cannot do so as it says.

A man who has had two emissions
On his seventh day has a remission
Once the pascal lamb's brought.
Though he may feel distraught
He need not keep Pesach Two's traditions.

Perek Gimel: מי שאמר

"Behold, folks, I am a Nazir"
Shave on day thirty-one. But come hear:
If you shaved on day thirty
To feel, say, less dirty
You get off OK, have no fear.

Say "Nazir, I" in a cemetery
Not a wise thing to do – no, not very.
Yochanan says: Nazir!
Lakish: Get out of here!
What you've done, all agree, is contrary.

To a graveyard one comes in a box
Or a closet or trunk shut with locks
Some friends take off the lid
From the place where he hid
He's impure from his hat to his socks.

A Nazir who touched many dead
(He touched one, and then look where that led!)
He may bring just one lamb
(Er… or was it a ram?)
Just one sacrifice falls on his head.

A woman vows "I'm a Nazir"
Then her husband says, "Come again, dear?"
Does she still bring a bird
If he nixed what he heard?
Did he uproot, or chop with a spear?

Queen Heleni's son went to war
She cried, "I cannot deal any more!
I'll become a Nazir
If he comes back safe here
I vow seven years – no wine," she swore.

"That man vowed Nezirut – he vowed twice."
"He vowed five times, my words are precise."
These two men disagree
Each says, "Listen to me"
Hillel rules, "Just two months should suffice."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Nazir Perek Aleph (כל כינויי נזירות)

A person may say many words:
"Behold they're upon me, the birds"
"Nazik" and "Naziach"
"Eheh" and "Paziach"
He is thus a Nazir (it's absurd!).

The tractate "Nazir" – this we find
Close to "Sotah," that is, right behind:
Why? If one sees a dame
Who has been through that shame
He will swear he will drink no more wine.

If he says "Eheh" he's a Nazir
Maybe he means to fast? Swear off beer?
If that's all that he mentioned
We guess his intention
Because when he vowed one passed near.

"I will be like that man whose own eyes
Have been gouged by those Philistine guys"
With these words he alludes
(Though his language his crude)
To the famed Samson, so we surmise.

A "Samson Nazir" never shaves
(Don't get busted by Philistine knaves!).
He does not break his vow
And need not bring a cow
If he steps by mistake on some graves.

As a "lifetime Nazir" you may cut
Off your hair every thirty days. But
If you come near the dead
It's not "off with his head"
Still, he's stuck in the sacrifice rut.

If one vows, "Nezirut! Nezirut!"
He becomes a Nazir twice, to boot.
He shaves on day thirty
And then brings a birdie
At day sixty, so we compute.

"I'm a Nazir to Kalamazoo"
Vows a man. But how can that be true?
Count the days that it takes
To walk there (feet will ache!)
Nezirut lasts that long, we construe.

Says a man "All my house now I sell
Top to bottom." But he does not spell
Out which parts are included;
The buyer concluded
He'd also acquired the well.

If he vows, "A nazir! I am one!
For the number of days of the sun!"
That is three sixty five
Months; Alas, to survive
That has to this date never been done.

"I'm a Nazir Pentagon!"
That is Greek for "five." He takes upon
Himself 150 days
Or so Sumachus says:
Vow in Greek, Nezirut is still on.

Narcissus (Nazir 4b)

Said Shimon HaTsadik, "I never ate
The sacrifice of a Nazir but once:
A strapping youth with fair eyes, shoulders straight
Came to the Temple. There the lad confronts

Me. I say, "Son, why do you wish to shear
These curly locks that graze your neck? Pray tell!"
Says he: "I was a shepherd, south of here
I went to draw fresh water from a well--

"I leaned over the water, stricken dumb
By my reflection. 'Bum!' I cried, 'Forswear!
You'll end up as a worm! A tiny crumb!
Renounce your vanity. Shave off that hair!'

So no more Nezirut. My curls are God's."
"May there be many like you," Shimon nods.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Stopping for the Siren

When the siren went off all over Israel at 10am this morning for Yom HaShoah, I watched as the country came to a momentary standstill. From my third-floor office overlooking the Jerusalem municipal swimming pool, I watched swimmers freeze mid-lap and stand at attention in the water. Just beyond, on the busy shop-lined artery of Emek Refaim, I saw merchants leave their stores and stand in the doorways; I saw drivers turn off their engines, get out of the front seat, and stand beside their vehicles; and I saw burly strong-armed workers stop unloading groceries from a truck and put down their crates for two full minutes of silent commemoration.

This memorial siren will go off twice again next week, on the evening and morning of Yom Hazikaron. It has been sounded every year on Yom Hashoah since the early 1960s, and, as such, might be considered a national symbol. It is even the subject of a video installation, as I learned two nights ago when I went to an exhibit on contemporary Israeli art that opened this week at the Israel Museum. In this video, called “Trembling Time,” the young Israeli artist Yael Bartana filmed the Ayalon Highway as the siren sounded at the start of Yom Hazikaron. Using slow-motion photography and the reverberating sound of the siren, Bartana shows how time comes to a halt even on the busiest thoroughfare.

I wish I could say that when the siren went off this morning, I was entirely focused on the victims of the Shoah. I wish I could say that my head was in the right place, that I was absorbed in solemn reflection and engaged in heart-felt prayer. While I was grateful to have the time to commemmorate, I found myself, in those moments, also marveling at what it means to stand still. I am not a person who likes to stop – “How dull it is to pause,” I often find myself quoting from Tennyson. I would rather walk for 45 minutes than wait five minutes at a bus stop. When I come to a red light, I usually walk to the next corner instead of waiting for the light to turn green. In my work, too, I rarely take breaks; instead I usually do three things at once, regarding my efficiency as an aesthetic of sorts. And so stopping--for a siren, or for anything--is very much against my nature.

And yet Judaism is a religion that demands that we stop. Each week on Friday afternoon, we have to put aside whatever we are doing for at least 25 hours and greet Shabbat. (“Creative people have often told me that they find this impossible,” Avivah Zornberg once commented.) We stop the rhythm of our normal days for holidays -- for celebrations as well as commemorations. Our lives unfold on an axis of personal time--our jobs, our needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those we love--but always against a backdrop of sacred time. We move not just at our own pace, because with every step we take we are pulling along behind us thousands of years of Jewish history, like a cumbersome bag of oddly-shaped objects which is constantly bumping against our heels. As Jews, we cannot move forwards without looking back at what we are carrying along behind us, and occasionally even sitting down on a bench for a while to open the bag and examine one or another of its contents.

When the siren goes off for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, I remember what it means to live simultaneously in personal and sacred time. I want to keep going about my daily business, but instead I stop and attune myself to the sacred rhythm in the streets and shops all around me. When I open my mind in this way, I am flooded with memories that are not just my own. I think of the Holocaust survivor I visited last week who told us about her beloved brother whose identity card photo, which is all she has left to remind her of him, hangs over her sickbed in a moshav north of Tel Aviv; I think about the soles of shoes I saw at Yad Vashem, which the Nazis had made from pieces of Torah scrolls; I think about the mother of a good friend who came to Israel as one of the 1700 Jews who left Hungary in 1944 on Kastner's train. In these moments of reflection, I would like to believe that the world can be repaired also when we only stand and wait. And if those two minutes sometimes feel like an eternity, I tell myself that perhaps this is because they bring us ever closer--as individuals, and as a people--to the Eternal.