We’re all full of ideas and knowledge and images that swirl together in our brains all the time. Most of the time we don’t pay much attention to it, but the whirlpool just plops something irresistible out at us.
And there it is, glistening at our feet, foam-covered, waiting. In this case, it’s “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis had to Say about You-Know-What,” a short book that’s taking its author, Maggie Anton, on a book tour that will include Jersey City and Fair Lawn (see box).
Ms. Anton, the novelist who wrote the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and the more recent “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” (and who has a wide-ranging intellect — she also is a clinical chemist and worked in that field for three decades), has been entranced by the Talmud since she first encountered it 25 years ago. She’s studied it seriously ever since — in fact, and non-coincidentally, one of her teachers, first in class settings and then in chavruta, was Rabbi Aaron Katz, at whose shul she will be speaking next week — and used much of what she’s learned in her books.
The Talmud is huge, though; much of what she’s learned (and continues to learn) has been stored in her brain. Swirling. Coming closer and closer to the surface…
And here it is.
“I was doing a massive book tour, and I was speaking to a whole bunch of Hadassah branches,” Ms. Anton said. “Typically, men don’t come to these meetings. I was telling them about some of the interesting things that I’d learned. A lot of it was what the rabbis said about sex. When you’re talking only to women, you can say a lot more than you can if it’s mixed.
“And then a lot of them said ‘You really should write about it.’” Even though the odds are that many of her readers will be men.
As she knew, the rabbis in the Talmud say a great deal about a huge number of subjects. Sex is among them.
“At first, it was so surprising to me, how progressive the rabbis were,” Ms. Anton said. “We are talking about guys who lived more than 1,500 years ago, more or less.” (The Mishna, the Talmud’s inner section, was compiled about 200 CE, and the Gemara, which surrounds, explicates, and dances its ideas into wild intellectual and fanciful flourishes, was compiled around 500 CE.)
“So I thought that I really could write ‘Fifty Shades of Talmud,’” she said.
And the ideas came flying at her.
“I immediately realized how I could do the cover,” she said. “I will just substitute the tallit for the tie.
“Someone later said that I really should have used tefillin,” she added. “But I said, first of all, many people won’t recognize tefillin. Also, they’re black, and wouldn’t show up as well.”
It was really easy, she said. “I went to my synagogue” — Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles, where she lives — “borrowed a black-and-white tallit, and used my husband’s iPhone to take the picture. And I had the cover!”
Next, the content. “I had done so much research for my books that when I went back to my notes, I found more than 90 sections on sex,” Ms. Anton said. She picked 50; although she has enough material for a sequel she has no plans to use it. “There is a good reason why most of it didn’t make its way into this book,” she said.
There is so much material in the Talmud because “it is so vast,” she said. “It discusses everything. The rabbis had no idea that what they were saying was going to become Jewish canon. And considering that the first commandment in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply — that means that you are commanded to have sex.
“It’s interesting that even though the Torah is quite clearly talking to both Adam and Eve, the rabbis used Talmudic finagling to make it apply to men only,” Ms. Anton continued. “Only men are commanded to procreate.
“I do not see that at all as misogyny,” she added. “It allowed women to use birth control.” Pregnancy and childbirth always could be enormously dangerous; that’s true even now, and certainly was more true before the development of modern medicine. Some women always and most women at some time in their lives could not carry babies to term without risking their own lives. “How could God have given us a commandment that would have made so many women die?” the rabbis wondered. “So God excused women from the commandment, which allowed them to use contraceptives. And the rabbis expanded that even more, by making it almost obligatory for a woman whose pregnancy would be dangerous to use contraception. Those women must use it, they said, and other women may use it.”
But contraception? They didn’t have birth control pills. What did they know? “They had sterility potions, there was a kind that was kind of permanent and another that was temporary; you had to take it once a month. They had something that you’d insert after you smeared it with spermicide. We actually have the recipe for some of the spermicides, but they don’t give the exact amounts. Medical scholars have looked at them and said yeah, they would have worked, but there’s not much difference between a dose that would have been ineffective and a dose that would have killed you. So it would have had to have been someone very experienced, as a midwife or an herbalist, to have known exactly how much each woman could take. And the thing the spermicide was put on was the soft part of raw wool, the same stuff they’d use for a baby’s swaddling. It was very soft and absorbent.
“Also the rabbis stressed that men are obligated to satisfy their wives sexually. Women only got to have one husband, although men could have more than one wife, so if his wife didn’t satisfy him he could get another one. But a woman can’t do that. So the rabbis said that the husband was obligated.
“They don’t only tell you what to do, but how to do it. And in some places, that part gets pretty clinical.”
Some of the issues the rabbis touch on are current, Ms. Anton said. “Rape and consent are trending subjects right now. The rabbis back then absolutely agreed that a woman had to consent. Silence was not consent. And even a wife had to consent.
“When I started looking through this stuff, I realized that yes, it will be fun, but there are a lot of progressive things in it. It puts some of the rabbis in a very good light.”
Now, when she tours to talk about this book, “I’m getting a lot more men in the audience,” Ms. Anton said. “And I dedicate this book to Rashi, who said that a teacher should always start every class with a joke. In between the jokes and the quips and the cartoons, there are serious things.
“I hope that people will be able to hear what the Talmud really says, and to understand that there are very worthwhile things in it, even for us today.”
Who: Novelist Maggie Anton
What: Will talk about her new book, “Fifty Shades of Talmud”
Where: At two local synagogues, open to the public
When: Saturday, November 5, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Havdalah party, 7-9 p.m.
Where: Congregation B’nai Jacob, 176 West Side Ave., Jersey City
Why: Ms. Anton is scholar-in-residence
For more information: RabbiAaron1@gmail.com,
When: Monday, November 7, 8 p.m.
Where: Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, 10-10 Norma Ave., Fair Lawn
For more information: RFlanzman@aol.com
And also: The meeting is free; books are on sale for $10