Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

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Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shabbat 86 - Semen, Sex, and Sin

One of the more common “ritual contaminants” that can make someone or something tameh [ritually impure] is zera [semen, literally “seed”] or other sexual discharges. The Mishnah text debated today considers a woman who has a sexual discharge after three days unclean based on what the Torah describes as the preparations for the Israelites to receive divine revelation in Exodus 19:15 – “be ready by the third day; do not come near a woman.” The implicit assumption in these instructions, it must be noted, is that the audience is men (excluding women, who may be excluded from the revelation as well). But the practical result for later generations is the assumption that sexual relations, because of the emission of sexual fluids, are inherently a source of impurity for both.

The Talmud goes on to debate on which day Moses offered these instructions to avoid sexual contact, since it is assumed that the 10 Commandments presented in Exodus 20 were offered on Shabbat. And what time of day did he warn them? One objects that it could not have been morning, since “Israelites are holy and do not cohabit [literally “use the bed”] during the day,” so he would not have needed to warn them in the morning. Why would daytime sex be profane? Obviously, because one could see nudity! This is clarified by exceptions to the daytime prohibition – if the house is dark, it is permitted. And a rabbinic scholar [talmid khakham] can make darkness with his “garment” [literally tallit, or prayer shawl!] and proceed.

Love and sex are complicated issues for modern ethics because the restrictions and taboos of earlier generations seem quaint, antiquated, or simply offensive. For example, our Talmud page also explores what hypothetically happens to semen in non-Jewish women, whose bodies are assumed to run differently because they are not worried about mitzvot [commandments], and also animals (!). So the old rules are rejected, but absolute freedom has physical and emotional consequences as well – from heartbreak to pregnancy and disease, and an undermining of the emotional intimacy of pair-bonding (straight or gay) that is a powerful factor in human happiness. While sex and the human should not be “impure,” entering this Paradise can still be risky business.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
www.kolhadash.com