Sunday, June 7, 2015

Some of My Best Friends Are Putzes

Dr. Ruth Westheimer got some attention a few days ago by saying some stupid things about rape and consent in a TV interview.  Amanda Marcotte was one of many online pundits who gave her a good dressing-down.

Here's a partial transcription of Westheimer's remarks:
I am very worried about college campuses saying that a woman and a man—or two men or two women, but I talk right now about women and men—can be in bed together, Diane, and at one time, naked, and at one time he or she, most of the time they think she, can say “I changed my mind.”

No such thing is possible. In the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, it says when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out of that and we have to take that very seriously, so I don’t agree with that.
It sounds like Westheimer's trying to be a kosher Camille Paglia.  I'm not going to address her remarks about consent, because Marcotte and others have done that more or less ably, including some of Marcotte's commenters, who referred to their own experience for counterexamples.  But I noticed an annoying tendency among the commenters to dismiss the Talmud, though they clearly had no idea what it is.  Well, I mean, like, who cares what a bunch of dead white men said like millions of years ago?  We're modern enlightened people and we have science, which totally proves that you can get naked with someone and they can't rape you, so there!  We don't need your Stone Age Talmud!

I'm not a Talmudist, not even Jewish.  I'm a goyisher atheist, but I have picked up some shiny bits of information in my reading about the human heritage.  The Talmud is not the Jewish Bible -- that would be what Christians call the Old Testament.  The Talmud is a huge, complex text made up of Mishnah and Gemara.  The Mishnah was compiled around 200 CE; according to tradition it preserves in writing the Oral Torah, the discussions of Jewish scholars and authorities from the time of Moses down to, roughly, the destruction of the Second Temple around 70 CE.  This is probably not true, any more than the written Torah was written by Moses, or the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by seventy scholars in seventy days, or the New Testament gospels were written by some of Jesus' original followers.  The Gemara is commentary on the Mishnah, which accumulated over three or four centuries.  To add to the complexity, there are two Talmuds, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian, but the Babylonian one has priority for most use by rabbis and scholars.

Overall, the Talmud is an archive of "legal" debate among scholars.  I put "legal" in quotes because there's a tradition among Christian apologists to see rabbinic Judaism as a system of cold, soulless legalism, abetted by the fact that the Torah (which means "instruction," somewhat euphemistically) is referred to as nomos, or "Law," in the Greek of the New Testament.  To oversimplify so we can move along here, rabbinic Judaism is a system of warm, soulful legalism.  It is, like any legal or religious system, thoroughly human in its origins, implementation, and function.  As you might guess, then, it's usually inaccurate to treat the Talmud as a monolithic authority, as Westheimer did.  There's an old joking proverb: Two Jews, three opinions.  The Talmud is, like law or philosophy or theology or literary criticism, or science for that matter, a record of dissent and debate.  My first suspicion when I read Westheimer's claim was that if I looked at the text in its context, it would be a lot less direct and clear than she wanted people to believe.

One of Marcotte's commenters referred to the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism as "primitive."  No, it's not.  In a previous post I quoted a technical definition of "primitive" from the sociologist and Hindu monk Agehananda Bharati's book, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Ross-Erikson, 1976).
"A primitive society, by anthropological criteria, is a small, band-like society structured entirely on kinship lines, which does not deploy fulltime specialists for anything" (142).  Two things about this: 1) it's not derogatory or racist to use the word "primitive" in this way, just as there is probably a definition of "tribal" that isn't derogatory or racist, but either word can be used to put down what one doesn't like in one's own allegedly "advanced" culture, just as "childish" can be; 2) by Bharati's definition there are still "primitive" aspects of modern Western society, but these are not necessarily bad: friendship, kinship, taking care of others as amateurs rather than as specialists, without expecting cash payment for doing so.
I remarked to the commenter that he might as well have referred to the Talmud as fat or gay as call it "primitive."  He countered that the Talmud isn't fat or gay, but it is primitive, so there.  If you use "primitive" to mean "something I don't like," then yes, the Talmud is primitive.  If you're using the word in anything like the anthropological sense, however, it's not.  (There are other valid uses of "primitive," as in the arts, but he didn't mean those either.)  Ancient Judaism -- the much older Hebrew Bible, I mean, as well as the Talmud -- was the product of a literate society with fulltime specialists such as priests, scribes, and teachers.  You could call it "primitive" to mean that it was a long time ago and didn't have printing or telescopes or cell phones, but then the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, or the Roman Empire, or the sages of Vedic Hinduism, or the Buddha would be primitive too, and I doubt the commenter had them in mind.

On attitudes to women and sex, and rape in particular, the modern, enlightened West would also have to be referred to as "primitive."  Modern Western science has been -- well, I'll be nice and just call it "terrible" on these matters.  Think of the brilliant scientists (both male, of course, but aided and abetted by female colleagues) who, based on their evidence-based research, recommended that young men be required to take rape-prevention classes before they were issued driver's licenses and young women be advised not to wear tight sweaters.  Steven Pinker was embarrassed by the stupidity of the recommendation but still defended Thornhill and Palmer in The Blank Slate (page 371) -- they were so not justifying rape! -- by adducing the authority of Camille Paglia.  Then remember Michael Ruse -- philosopher of science, champion of Darwin against the Bible-thumpers -- showing his complete inability to grasp the difference between rape and consensual sex, or between rape and crapping on your boss's Persian rug.  There must be male scientists who are better than this, but I don't know of any.  Advances in thinking about rape came from man-hating, hairy-legged feminists, not from Science.

Some of the commenters pointed out that women were forbidden to study Talmud until recently.  The determined resistance by male scientists to letting women work in the sciences must not be forgotten either.  (Especially since there is still a drive to erase the achievements of women scientists from the history, sometimes by tokenizing them.)  It's not really that hard to remember, since it is still with us, if slightly less virulent.  Yes, even now in the primitive times of the twenty-first century, male scientists are trying to explain away the lesser numbers of women in the sciences by blaming it on women's supposed innate lack of interest in science, or their supposed lack of compulsive competitiveness, or even because their brains aren't organized to do science like men's are.  You can condemn religious traditions for male chauvinism and misogyny, and you should; but you must also be aware of the same tendencies in Science.

Also relevant here is current scientific thought on homosexuality, which incorporates conceptions of gender and sexuality that could perhaps be called "primitive"; certainly they are descended from concepts that are ancient. As I've said before, where but on sex/gender do the primitive myths and misconceptions of the masses get respect from enlightened scientists, who seem to be under the impression that they invented them themselves?

But I digress.  When I read about Westheimer's statements I began wondering almost immediately: Did the Talmud say what she said it says, that "when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out of that and we have to take that very seriously"?  I thought I recognized a Yiddish proverb invoked by Philip Roth in Portnoy's ComplaintVen der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd -- When the prick stands up, the sense (or judgment) lies down in the ground.  This is of course an alibi made by men themselves, and has no scientific standing.  For one thing, the putz doesn't have a brain, as Westheimer implies: sexual desire is mostly in the brain a couple of feet above the gonads.  For another, sexual desire can impair judgment, but it doesn't destroy it altogether; an aroused person can still hear the words "No" and "Stop."  If a person is taught that he (or she) is not responsible for what he does when aroused, he will not even try to behave responsibly.  As Marcotte pointed out after Westheimer protested that she wasn't defending rape, "no rape apologist in the history of rape apologies has ever admitted to rape apologizing."

But did Ashkenazi folklore take this proverb from the Talmud?  I realized I'd better try to find out, and it turned out to be easier than I expected.  The writer of this helpful article tried to ask Westheimer for a reference for her Talmudic wisdom, but the Doctor was out.  The writer then talked to some rabbis, who recognized the proverb but didn't think it came from the Talmud.  Indeed, they said, that the Talmud is extremely anti-rape and pro-consent.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose books about sex and Judaism include “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery” and “Kosher Lust,” said, “I know Dr. Ruth and very much like her, but anyone in the Jewish community should strongly object to what she said. Consent is offered by a woman, and it can be withdrawn at any moment."

“The idea that men are ravaging beasts who are controlled by their hormones and can’t stop themselves is a Neanderthal view that Judaism would never embrace. It’s a shockingly frightening excuse for rape.”

Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school, and co-host of “The Joy of Text” monthly podcast on Judaism and sexuality, agreed with Ruttenberg and Boteach. Linzer pointed to the passages they cited and also noted a passage in Berachot 62A saying that even when a man and his wife are naked together in bed, it is incumbent upon him to make sure she desires to have sex before beginning the act.
Although known for its conflicting opinions and arguments, the Talmud is notably consistent about sexual consent, Linzer said, adding that he could not think of any passage that forgives or condones sex without full consent and that “the whole issue of responsibility and culpability is a major theme in the Talmud.
This sounded very impressive. Why, the Talmud is completely in accord with modern feminism!    (Notice, however, Boteach's reference to "Neanderthal" brutishness.  We don't in fact know anything about the sexual behavior or manners of the Neanderthals.  The word has the same function here that "primitive" did for the commenter I mentioned earlier.  If the Neanderthals were contemptuous of consent, though, that would mean they weren't primitive but as modern as Dr. Ruth or Michael Ruse.)  English translations of the Talmud are available online, so I decided to find these passages if I could, and see how the rabbis expressed these modern ideas so many centuries ago.  I began with Berachot 62A online, and I cannot find anything about the necessity of a husband's ascertaining his wife's willingness to copulate there, in or out of bed.  The section is mostly a discussion of outhouse etiquette between men, mainly rabbis.  For example:
Our Rabbis taught: Who is a modest man? One who eases himself by night in the place where he eased himself by day.  Is that so? Has not Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: A man should always accustom himself [to consult nature] in the early morning and in the evening so that he may have no need to go a long distance? And again, in the day-time Raba used to go as far as a mile, but at night he said to his attendant, Clear me a spot in the street of the town, and so too R. Zera said to his attendant, See if there is anyone behind the Seminary as I wish to ease myself? — Do not read 'in the place', but read, 'in the same way as he eases himself by day'  R. Ashi said, You may even retain the reading 'place', the reference being to a private corner.
Kinky, but not relevant to rape or consent in the marital bed.  I checked other passages cited in the article.   Nedarim 20A says nothing I could find about connubial drunkenness ruling out consent, though it does contain some familiar folklore about children being marked by their parents' behavior during and after conception:
R. Johanan b. Dahabai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [sc. their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practised unnatural cohabitation]; dumb, because they kiss 'that place'; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; blind, because they look at 'that place'. But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom was asked: Why are thy children so exceedingly beautiful? She replied: [Because] he [my husband] 'converses' with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he 'converses', he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight], he replied, So that I may not think of another woman, lest my children be as bastards. — There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters;  the other refers to other matters. 
There follows some discussion of anal penetration of the wife, which the rabbis generally accept because
R. Johanan said: The above is the view of R. Johanan b. Dahabai; but our Sages said: The halachah is not as R. Johanan b. Dahabai, but a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife [at intercourse]: A parable; Meat which comes from the abattoir, may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked or seethed; so with fish from the fishmonger.
Only 37A came within a country mile of R. Boteach's account: "Ye maintain that a menstruant woman is permitted yihud [privacy] with her husband: can fire be near tow without singeing it?"  This seems to me far from "the man has to prop himself up on his elbows and subside," however, and it seems to imply that the proximity even of a menstruating wife will "singe" her husband with desire.  Or maybe not.  But on the basis of these scholars' references, I can't see that the Talmud is particularly humane or enlightened about women, copulation, consent, or reproduction.  That, however, is more because it's the work of male scholars, than because it's religious or "primitive."