Shrewdaic Studies

Serpent and Eve 1Stained whiteboards. Walls pained yellow or sickly green. Scraped up floors and gray windowpanes. The smell of sweat and the after-odor of Chik-fil-A.

It’s my classroom, the classroom I’ve inhabited for decades, in various states and a number of universities. The most amazing things happen in that worn space, that aging, decaying structure. It’s divine.

Last week, in my class “God and Sex in Hebrew Bible,” I told my students that there is a pun going on in Genesis 3.

“The serpent is arum,” I said, “usually translated as ‘shrewd.’ But arum can also mean ‘nude.’ Adam and Eve are described as arumim after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Are they nude or shrewd?”

Discussion ensued. A student raised a hand:

“If the serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals, if he had so much knowledge he even knew what God would or would not do if they ate, why wasn’t he punished for that?” the student asks. “Why is he only punished after he passed knowledge on to Adam and Eve?”

“Snap!” another student said. “Snap, snap, snap,” the student continued, with finger-fomented percussion.

A contribution from another quarter: “Is that whole scene between the serpent and Eve sexual? Is eating the fruit meant to symbolize a sexual act?”

I took the opportunity to tell the class that there is a midrash that claims the serpent saw Adam and Eve having sex and immediately craved a little nookie for himself (Bereishit Rabbah 18:10). The student, in turn, speculated that the sharing of the fruit with Adam might be another sexually charged act.

“I always knew the world began with a threesome,” the student said.

We all laughed.

In my classroom, my students are asked (not just permitted) to treat the text as a site for multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations. They do have to argue from the text, from what they have learned about its authors and the culture it comes from, but they are free to be creative, to speculate. We try to avoid retrojecting our assumptions; modern ideas do not generate ancient agendas. Ancient Israelites had no acquaintance with the Devil, with the capital D.

YHVH is a character in a narrative in our classroom setting. The texts we study are not the word of God but a human product. Whatever they once thought was “the original” is a product. Luck may have played a role in its transmission; certainly human choice did. The Book of Yashar once was on the best-seller list for ancient Judeans; it fell out of favor, disappeared, or was, at some point, dropped from the list of “must-reads” for later generations.

We know of a short version of Jeremiah and a long one. One is found in the Septuagint, the other in the Masoretic Text. How will my students decide which is “better” or “more important”? Why didn’t the Book of Jubilees make the cut for our canons? How about the Book of Enoch?

Once they get over all the shock value, they begin to realize: what we have of biblical literature extends far beyond any bible. It is a rich, vast corpus.

Take away the blackboards and whiteboards and smelly leftovers from fast food joints. Imagine a small sanctuary with windows looking out towards the naked, gray branches of wintering trees.

I am in conversation with congregants. YHVH is not just a character for most of us, but our questions and our freedom to ask them is equally untrammeled. Jewish tradition has enshrined the right to treat our texts as earthly products. The humanness of the authors and their characters is not just appreciated but valorized. Torah, we believe, is accessible, human, altogether ours. It is not too baffling for us to understand; it is not unreachable or incomprehensible (Deut. 30:11-13).

In any setting, I am nourished by this fact: These texts ask us to think. About ourselves, about our world, about all that is human and (perhaps) divine, too.


Valentine’s Day — Jewish Style

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. Now: Imagine having a Valentine’s Day each and every week. That, folks, is totally Jewish.

I explained this fact to a young couple who recently began conversion classes with me. We were chatting after services were over. We’d all chanted the Kiddush and the motzi and had started noshing on little miniature cheesecakes and other delectables.

I asked them if they knew about the “special rules” about Shabbat practice.
They did not. So, in very gentle language I spoke about the way Judaism encourages intimacy. “Intimacy,” I said, “creates bonds. Torah tells us that a husband has to make sure his wife is, um, regularly made happy so the bond is strengthened and renewed. The husband’s obligation is good for their entire life, even when there is neither the possibility nor the wish to have children. It’s a double mitzvah on Shabbat!” I smiled.

They got the idea. They smiled. Our temple’s Director of Religious Services, who had joined the conversation, also smiled.

Said director decided to help out by summarizing Talmudic discussions about exactly how happy a man had to make his wife each week. I noticed that she did this with a certain verve.

Just in case you need a refresher, here’s the text: “The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer” (M. Ketubot 5:1).

The rabbis also insisted that loving couples should be nude during intimacy. Otherwise, the husband must divorce his wife so she can find a righteous dude who knows how to behave in bed: “R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her ketubah” (Ketubot 48a).

Some rabbinic direction even includes how to progress through foreplay. I am not kidding. In the spirit of Rabbi Hillel, I say unto you: Go, and google.

Why did the rabbis decide it was especially meritorious to be intimate on Shabbat? They were especially concerned about balancing the need for study with the need for a family life. Some came to the conclusion that once a week was essential for scholars, and that since all work stopped on Shabbat, Shabbat was the perfect time for play.

Rashi calls the “Sabbath a night of enjoyment, relaxation and physical pleasure” (Rashi commentary on Ketubot 62b). Elsewhere Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but laypeople also should engage in this practice Friday nights (Rashi to Niddah 17a).

The rabbis claim’ that if a woman is the first to achieve “satisfaction” and becomes pregnant, she will surely give birth to a boy who would be a Torah scholar. Harumph, I say. The child could be a girl who might grow up to be a rabbi…

When we had concluded our explication of the double mitzvah deal on Shabbat, I turned around to get some more cheesecake.

I cast my eye upon the remains of the challah.

When we had unveiled the challah, I certainly had noticed it was in the shape of a heart and had raised it high for everyone to see. I exclaimed about its general liveliness. Crowded by the many children, I hadn’t much paid attention to the details.

Go back and look at the picture above. That was our challah.

I don’t know about you, but that has to be the most curious arrow I have ever seen.

I pointed this out to my Director of Religious Services.

“What does that look like to you?” I asked.

“It’s an arrow,” she said. “No, wait, no, um, oh my,” she said. “Oh my.”

I pointed it out to the treasurer, who began giggling uncontrollably. When she could control herself, she asked: “Should I tear it off?”

I won’t repeat what I said in that moment. You might find it rather unrabbi-like.

On the way home, in the cold and the dark, I looked at the stars twinkling overhead. I was happy that we had had a challah like that at our oneg. I hoped that whoever had made it, male or female, had gone home that very Friday night to a beloved, male or female, and engaged in an intimate pursuit of happiness.

Love, and its beautiful expression, should be a double mitzvah at any time.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Happy Shabbat.