by Lawrence Bush
From the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Jewish Currents
ONE OF THE MOST STRANGE AND EVOCATIVE STORIES in the Talmud tells of Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia, who is so into sex with prostitutes that he fords seven rivers to get to one with a hot reputation. “During foreplay, she broke wind,” says the text (in Avodah Zara, which means “strange worship” and deals alot with idolatry). The woman then utters a joke — or is it a curse? — “As this wind will not return to its place, so Eliezer ben Dordia will never be received in penitence.”
These words throw the rabbi into a frenzy of repentance. Like the character in the American gospel song, “Oh Sinner Man,” he runs to the sea, the mountains, and other parts of the natural world, asking them to beseech mercy on his behalf. After being rebuffed again and again, Eliezer at last realizes, “The outcome depends on me alone!” He then weeps himself to death, literally — at which point a divine voice announces his acceptance into yener velt, the world-to-come.
I was reminded of this story when our editorial board member Myriam Miedzian and her husband Gary Ferdman posted a November post-election article at the Jewish Currents website concerning the many male politicians, both Republican and Democratic, who have been swallowed up in sexual scandals over the three decades. “Given what we know about testosterone levels and power,” they wrote, “combined with the availability of young women attracted by power, it seems likely that among politicians… and other powerful men… rates of extramarital affairs will continue to be considerably higher than among the general male population.” Among the responses Myriam and Gary recommend are increasing the number of women running for office and exercising “due diligence” about male candidates’ sexual histories: “Weeding out the bad sexual apples and electing more women would lead to increased confidence that politicians’ sense of responsibility towards constituents will outweigh illicit sexual urges. It would help restore confidence in elected officials, and have the added bonus of increasing the quality of our government.”
WHATEVER I MAKE of Eliot Spitzer’s or Anthony Weiner’s or Bob Filner’s “indiscretions,” why should they have me thinking about a story from the Talmud? Granted, those three men are Jewish, but Gary Hart, Strom Thurmond, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Craig, John Edwards, and plenty of other political dickheads are not. Why should their escapades prompt me to reference some ancient Jewish text?
I’ll answer the question with a question: What other sources of ethical insight about sexuality are available to me?
I like to interpret the tale of Eliezer ben Dordia as a wisdom story about men’s immense capacity to sexually objectify women — and the deep repentance that can and should occur when something like that fart finally makes us realize that women are, first and foremost, human beings. Myriam and Gary correctly perceive that men in power often have a harder time breaking through to this recognition: Our leadership structures are tragically set up to empower high-testosterone alpha males, who in many ways are least fit for ethical leadership. Judging from cultures worldwide, however, as well as from biological and psychological evidence, I would say that sexual objectification comes naturally to most men, at all rungs of power. We tend to evaluate women for their “It” factor before their “Thou” factor — and we must consciously restrain and train ourselves not to indulge in this if we are seeking to become mentshn.
Various cultures reckon with this problem in various ways, none particularly appealing. Societies that are bound to yesteryear’s traditions, such as Arab Muslim and Orthodox Jewish culture, address ubiquitous male lust by covering up women in modest clothes and denying them free rein in society. A woman is refused a place leading prayer, according to Jewish tradition, because her voice will incite men to lust; a woman must be behind Muslim men kneeling at prayer, according to Islamic tradition, lest the men be driven to distraction by the sight of her backside. To varying (and some extreme) degrees of harshness in such societies, women are kept in “protective custody” because men cannot restrain themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum are societies that have been loosed from tradition by modern capitalism. These tend to take the problem of sexual objectification and turn it into marketing opportunities. Sexual desire and material desire are woven together in a sticky media web that stretches from bedroom to shopping mall to hotel room and back. Young women’s fashions are entirely immodest, and fifty-foot-high lingerie ads showing half-naked women greet immigrants in airports and tourists in cities. Pornography, with its retrograde portrayal of all women as nymphomaniacs in heat, is as easy to access as tap water. Cosmetic surgery is a billion-dollar industry perched at the top of a mountain of image-making. We are all kept in a vague but constant state of sexual arousal, anxiety about our sex appeal, and unease about our desires.
I AM A 62-YEAR-OLD HETEROSEXUAL MAN who has lived with the same woman for nearly forty years, married for nearly thirty-five. I figure we’ve made love at least three thousand times. I came of age in the era of rising feminism and sexual liberation, when brave Betty Dodson was teaching about female anatomy and orgasms through speculum-and- masturbation circles, and Betty Friedan and her younger sisters-in-arms were turning my father’s generation of progressive men into the last that would never cook a meal or change a diaper. The birth control pill, as well as changes in laws governing abortion, divorce, and censorship, were rapidly transitioning America from a Puritannical culture — in which the young women in my high school were forbidden to wear blue jeans, gay sex was a crime, and premarital sex was a major life decision — into a “Woodstock Nation” of widespread social and sexual experimentation.
I rooted for every anti-repressive innovation that came down the pike, from “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! … The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” (Allen Ginsberg) to the Scandanavian film, I Am Curious Yellow; from Lenny Bruce’s dirty-word rants to Philip Roth’s hilariously pornographic Portnoy’s Complaint; from gay bathhouse orgies to Erica Jong’s “Mile High Club”; from Annie Sprinkle’s mixture of titillation and sex education to “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (Stephen Stills). Today, however, I see all that “free love” of my younger days degraded into highly commercialized sexuality, endless titillation, and loveless, misogynistic imagery. Pornography, in particular (yes, I look, there are naked women there!), is mostly so formulaic, pre-feminist regressive, and just plain wrong about female sexuality that it shames me as a man and makes me wonder what younger men and women are assuming about sexual “norms” if online porn is their main teacher.
In fact, porn is a primary source of sex education in America, since meaningful, open-minded discussion of sex is quite rare in everyday life and nearly absent from the media. On college campuses, one of the other few sites of ethical exploration outside religious forums in our society, discussion of sexuality is so intertwined with issues of rape and gender oppression that it provides little of personal relevance to me. So I ask again, from where should my guidance come about the issues that concern me now: the cultivation of long-term desire, the adjustment to aging bodies and slackening hormones, the ongoing temptations of the va-va-voom culture?
OBVIOUSLY, JUDAISM CARRIES PLENTY OF BAGGAGE that disqualifies it as a source of inspiration in these matters. It is a system of thought produced almost exclusively by men of bygone centuries, who seem possessed by the idea that women are weak-willed, carnal creatures who ruin the salutary efforts of men restrain their yetzer ha-ra, the lustful urge. The ancient rabbis regularly resorted to misogyny in their efforts to drain the lust out of men, as in Shabbat 152a: “A woman is a pouch full of shit, her cunt full of blood, yet all men run after her.” So fearful were they of male sexual need — and the power it might concede to women — that their ideal man seems rather uninterested in sex. (“Rabbi Yohanan said: A man has a small member. If he starves it, it is satisfied; if he satisfies it, it is starved” —Sukkot 52b.)
Moreover, even when Jewish texts do celebrate and honor sexuality — by recognizing, for example, the human need for intimacy (“This one, at last, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” Genesis 2: 23), or by suggesting that the special hours of the sabbath be a time for love-making, or by including the Song of Songs in the Torah — the tradition nevertheless confines tastes and orientations to a narrow box. Fantasizing while having sex, lewdness while having sex, rough sex, make-up sex, drunken sex, sex during an emotional crisis, and, of course, non-heterosexual and (most) extramarital sex, are all considered “non-kosher” by traditional Jewish sources. While I may lead quite a straitlaced sexual life, I’m enough of a child of the Sixties not to want to take lessons from such uptight party-poopers . . .
But then there is the story of Eliezer ben Dordia and the farting woman. It is a story that reiterates, at least according to my interpretation, the one clearly useful teaching I have found in Judaism about sexuality: that its glory for men lies in its humanizing potential for devek, cleaving, i.e., intimate attachment, while its power to harm lies in objectification, in seeking to use women as tools of gratification or subjects of power — a notch in the belt, an elixir, a fantasy vessel, even an object of worship. Yes, there is a degree of objectification active like spice in most sexual encounters (that’s me, not the rabbis, speaking); power, fantasy, and desire are mysteriously intertwined, fed by the visuals, the unconscious mind, and the who knows what else. If the “It” factor rather than the “Thou” factor dominates our sex lives, however, we are probably, like Eliezer ben Dordia, headed towards unhappiness — unless we do a little weeping and rehumanize ourselves.
I HAVE LONG THOUGHT OF JUDAISM as, first and foremost, a civilizing project for men. Especially in its portrayals of the “sages of Israel,” the Talmud presents a masculinity marked by strength of character (self-restraint, kindness, the capacity for change) rather than by physical or martial strength. Talmudic masculinity seeks dialogue rather than taciturn stoicism; it strongly distrusts the “alpha male” power of Rome, which dominated the world during Talmudic times; it honors the nurturing aspects of male identity and celebrates devoted friendships between men.
Notwithstanding all the sexism, traditionalism, and rigidity about gender identity and sex roles in Judaism, there is something about the tradition’s masculine paradigm that promises more receptivity to feminist influences than the action-hero masculinity of American mythology. In this, as in other realms, Judaism is a counterculture, at least in the eyes of this child of the Sixties.