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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life cycle: the wheel goes 'round / b.Sanhedrin 92a

The term “life cycle” is tossed around a lot. Certainly, a community experiences birth, growth, marriage, aging, and death, and then more births in its midst. But does an individual experience a life cycle? I was born, I go through various stages of life, and then I die. How is that a cycle? For the Rabbis it was a perfect cycle: birth, all the stages of life, death, resurrection/rebirth. The belief in resurrection of the dead affirmed for them a true life cycle.

We are still amidst the Rabbis’ epic effort to prove that resurrection of the dead derives from the Torah. They have pulled out nearly all the stops, threatening the loss of olam haba (the world-to-come), citing numerous verses creatively interpreted, and envisioning court cases before Alexander the Great that affirmed their view. Very near the bottom of daf 92a is a passage I take as a unit (though far more learned and esteemed scholars of Talmud disagree).
And R. Elazar said: Whoever looks at a woman’s genitals, his bow will be empty, as it says, Your bow is stripped bare (Habbakuk 3:9).

And R. Elazar said: Be forever in the dark and live.

R. Zeira said: Also we have learned this: We do not open windows in a dark house to see its plague [referring to mishnah Nega’im 2:3]. Learn from this.

R. Tavi said in the name of R. Yoshiyah: What is the meaning of the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water (Proverbs 30:16)? What is the connection between the grave and the closed [barren] womb? It is to teach you [that] just as the womb takes in and expels, so too does the grave take in and expel. And in fact these are a kal va’chomer: If a womb, into which things are deposited quietly, and from which things emerge noisily, then [concerning] the grave, into which we deposit things noisily, isn’t it logical that things emerge [from the grave] amidst great noise? From here [we have] a response to those who say that resurrection of the dead does not derive from Torah.
The Rabbis are attempting to prove resurrection from Torah. R. Elazar opens with an image of marital intimacy, the quintessential act that brings new life into the world. If you look at your wife’s genitals in the course of lovemaking, however, your bow I stripped bare. (Please see my note at the bottom of this blog post for more on whether R. Elazar was standing on solid ground with this claim.) At first glance we might think that the verse from Habbakuk applies to the wife, but R. Elazar surprises us and applies it to the husband: the man who looks at his wife’s genitals will suffer either impotence or sterility (I’m not sure which; perhaps he means either). This behavior will result in the diminution of life - a kind of death. Lovemaking intended to engender new life, will achieve the opposite.

Understood this way, his counsel to “be forever in the dark and live” makes sense. He cannot see what he shouldn’t be looking at in a dark room. In other words, give up those romantic candles and buy room-darkening blinds. Perhaps there is a very subtle hint here of where we’re going. Being in the dark to generate new life parallels or foreshadows the dark of the grave, which precedes rebirth by resurrection. From birth to death to life after death.

R. Zeira offers us much the same message, but in citing Nega’im (the tractate about tzara’at, skin afflictions that affect people, clothing, and homes) he suggests that this behavior will bring a plague upon your house. All the good of intimacy gives way to loss, death and disease if you don’t “follow the rules.” From birth to death.

We begin with a fertile womb that doesn’t conceive because of inappropriate sexual behavior. The images of male sterility (diminution of life, death of the potential to have children) and plagues sets us up for R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16. R. Tavi quotes a snippet from the middle of the verse. (The entire verse, with R. Tavi’s phrase bolded, is: The leech has two daughters, “Give!” and “Give!” Three things are insatiable; four never say, “Enough!”: the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water, and fire that never says, “Enough!”) R. Tavi uses this excerpted phrase to equate the grave and the womb, and then apply the argument of kal va’chomer (a fortiori argument) to them. The argument goes like this: Proverbs 30:16 juxtaposes “womb” and “grave” to tell us that they evince the same phenomenon. Sperm is quietly deposited into the womb, but the baby that emerges is noisy. The process goes from quiet to noisy. The grave must therefore follow that same pattern. We deposit the body into the grave amidst the noise of crying and mourning; therefore (1) something must emerge from the grave (as from the womb); and (2) what emerges must be extremely noisy. In the minds of the Rabbis this must mean that people are resurrected to the noise of the messianic age. Hence we derive resurrection from Proverbs 30:16.

Then why the conversation launched by R. Elazar before it? The passage begins with an image of life and procreation -- a couple engaged in lovemaking. Conception and birth. R. Zeira introduces the idea of plague -- it may cause death. Conception, life, then death. R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16 “proves” resurrection of the dead. We have the process: birth, life, death, rebirth/resurrection.


This passage initially caught my eye because it opens with a claim similar to one found elsewhere in the Talmud, in masechet Nedarim, daf 20. There the Rabbis handily and brilliantly dismantle the claim that a husband should not look between his wife’s legs at her genitals.

Nedarim 20 features a protracted discussion of sexual practices, arrived at by branching off from the main topic twice. R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claims to have learned four things from the Ministering Angels: a man should not engage in anal sex with his wife, nor kiss her genitals, nor converse with her while engaged in lovemaking, nor even look at her genitals. (Puritanical, no? It was H.L. Mencken who defined Puritanism as, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” R. Yochanan b. Dahabai sounds like he’s from that school.) The Rabbis then recount Ima Shalom’s testimony that her husband, R. Eliezer, engaged in the most modest sex imaginable, never uncovering more than a few square inches of her skin at a time. The Sages then cleverly turn her testimony upside down and use it not only to permit talk during lovemaking, but to laud it. The notoriously strict and stringent R. Eliezer now becomes the model for a liberal attitude toward marital intimacy. But wait! R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claimed he learned the four prohibitions from heaven. The Rabbis are able to dismiss R. Yochanan b. Dahabai’s rules altogether by saying that “Ministering Angels” is merely a polite term for rabbis; hence his rules are simply the opinion of some. In fact, they now tell us, a husband and wife may do whatever they wish because -- as R. Yehudah haNasi unequivocally affirms -- Torah does not regulate consensual sexual acts between a husband and wife. Torah is concerned only with emotional states, especially those that might lead to violence.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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