A Jewish mother runs down the beach screaming, “Help! My son the doctor is drowning!” You’ve probably heard that one before, or else the one about the two Jewish mothers in Washington Square: “My son is in medical school.” “NYU?” “And why not me?” These are just a few of the jokes—Sarah Silverman has a particularly dark version—playing on the idea that what Jewish parents want more than anything in the world is for their children to become doctors. In fact, Jews have been associated with medicine for a long time: In Christian and Muslim societies where most avenues for advancement were closed to Jews, being a doctor was a rare way to get ahead. (Maimonides, for instance, was a doctor at the court of the Muslim ruler Saladin.) Which is why it was so surprising to discover, in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, that the Talmud strongly advises Jews not to become doctors: “The best of doctors is to Gehenna,” says Rabbi Yehuda. That is, even the best doctor goes to Hell.
This remark comes in the mishna in Kiddushin 82a, near the end of the tractate, where the rabbis are discussing the best and worst careers for Jews to pursue. “A person should always teach his son a clean and easy trade,” says Rabbi Meir, and he means clean in a double sense. Some jobs are literally dirty and foul-smelling, such as being a tanner, who deals with animal hides and toxic chemicals. The world needs tanners, of course, but if you can avoid doing that job, you should, simply because it’s so unpleasant. “It is impossible for the world to continue without a perfumer and a tanner,” Yehuda HaNasi says, but “fortunate is he whose trade is as a perfumer, and woe is he whose trade is as a tanner.”
He follows this up with a rather disturbing corollary: “Likewise, it is impossible for the world to exist without males and without females, yet fortunate is he whose children are males, and woe is he whose children are females.” This saying occurs on the very last page of Tractate Kiddushin, which is the last page of the whole of Seder Nashim, the group of tractates dealing with laws about women, marriage, and family. And it is hard not to take Yehuda HaNasi’s insult as a kind of motto for the Talmud’s whole attitude toward women. The world needs women, and women need to be accommodated; much of Jewish law is designed to safeguard the rights and even the privileges of women; but the basic assumption of female inferiority is inescapable. Of course, there are many ways to palliate Yehuda HaNasi’s statement. For instance, one might argue that he believes boys are preferable because they can do more mitzvot, or because they can study Torah, or because they don’t require a dowry. But the point remains that once a culture believes that boys are a blessing and daughters a necessary evil—as many cultures have and still do today—sexism and misogyny are sure to follow.
Indeed, the other reason that certain jobs are undesirable, in the Talmud’s eyes, is that they are conducive to sin—and this includes jobs that bring men into regular contact with women: “The sages taught: Anyone who has professional dealings with women in practice is bad.” The Gemara gives several examples of such trades, including carders of wool—who would sell wool to women for spinning—and launderers. Because they are so often in the company of women, their opportunities for sexual sins are multiplied; and so no man from these professions is allowed to become a king or a high priest.
For most men, however, dealing with women is not a professional necessity, and it should be avoided at all costs. Several pages of chapter 4 of Kiddushin are devoted to the various precautions that should be taken to keep men away from women, lest they be driven wild by their sexual urges. We already know, for instance, that a man and woman who are not married cannot be secluded together; the mere fact of their being in private is presumptive evidence that they have sinned. But the mishna in Kiddushin 80b goes further, adding that a man cannot be secluded with two women, either. You might think that the presence of a second woman as chaperone would remove the temptation to sin, but as the Gemara explains, “women are of light mind” and both of them might fall prey to seduction.
On the other hand, it is permitted for a woman to be secluded with two men. The assumption here seems to be that, since men are not of “light mind,” at least one of the two will keep his head and refuse to allow the other to have sex with the woman. Yet the Gemara hastens to qualify this point: It is only men who are “fit,” that is, who have trustworthy morals, who can be secluded with a woman in this way. With men who are “steeped”—that is, steeped in sin and lust—a woman may not be secluded “even with 10,” since it’s possible that all 10 will want to sin with her. Indeed, the Gemara speaks of an incident where 10 men smuggled a woman out of her house on a bier, pretending that she was dead, and then all 10 had sex with her.
This gang rape is a sign of the brutality of male sexuality once provoked—and for the rabbis, it is very easily provoked. They have little faith in the ability of even the most pious men to restrain their lust, telling a series of stories about famous holy men who almost succumbed to desire. On one occasion, Rav and Rav Yehuda were walking on a road behind a woman, and Rav advised Yehuda, “Raise your feet and walk away from Gehenna”: that is, just walking behind a stranger on the street would be enough to provoke uncontrollable lust. Yehuda objected, citing the rule that it is permitted for a woman to be secluded with two men. But Rav retorted that the two of them might not be among the “fit”: Even such great sages should not trust their self-control.
Another story concerns Rav Amram, who was actually known as Amram the Pious. Perhaps for that reason, a group of women who had been redeemed from captivity were brought to stay in his house; to safeguard them, the women slept on the upper floor, and the ladder connecting it with the lower floor was removed. Yet in the middle of the night, Amram caught a glimpse of one of the women, and was so overcome by her beauty that he “grabbed a ladder that 10 men together could not lift, lifted it on his own and began climbing.”
The power of lust inspired him with superhuman strength; but he stopped himself in time, and when he was halfway up the ladder, he cried out, “There is a fire in the house of Amram.” This woke the household and the neighbors, who came running and found Amram on the ladder, clearly on his way to the women’s room. The sages scolded him for this behavior, saying that he had brought disgrace on them. But Amram replied, “Better that you be shamed in Amram’s house in this world, and not be ashamed of him in the World to Come”: that is, better to be embarrassed than to actually commit a sin that would lead to divine punishment. Then Amram cast out his own evil inclination, which emerged from him in the shape of a pillar of fire: “See, you are fire and I am mere flesh, and yet I am superior to you,” Amram boasted.
This is told as an inspiring tale about Amram’s continence, which triumphed over his desire and even over his self-respect. But it is also, when you think about it from the women’s point of view, a story with a horrifying message, which is that every man is only a step away from becoming a rapist. The presence, even the existence of women is seen by the rabbis as an intolerable provocation, which has to be avoided by keeping women in strict seclusion. A man, according to Shmuel, is not allowed to be alone even with his own mother (though the rabbis as a whole do not agree with this extreme position). Indeed, Shmuel would not even allow a man to be alone with an animal, lest he be seized with an urge to commit bestiality: “Abaye removed the animals from the entire field he was in,” and Rav Sheshet made sure there was a fence between him and his animals. This is an almost demented view of male sexuality, which certainly gives a new meaning to the famous dictum in Pirkei Avot, “Build a fence around the Torah.”
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.