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What the Talmud Can Teach Us About Sex and Consent

Ancient Jewish texts contain a blueprint for dealing with the modern crisis around sexual violence and consent

Merissa Nathan Gerson
October 03, 2018

Working on an ELI talk (akin to a Jewish version of a TED talk) on sexual consent I researched ancient rape laws this year: rape in war, rape in marriage, rape of a stranger. What I learned was that the Talmudists, a cisgender male group of rabbis who sat around and discussed Torah in all its nooks and crannies, predicted the same problems of sexual violence and coercion in the fifth century that consume our culture in 2018. They gave the tools a long time ago, embedded in the Jewish textual canon, to establish a sexual culture of consent.

As the nation calls out abhorrent sexual behaviors left and right, I am immersing myself in Jewish texts where the rabbis strongly prohibited this type of sexual boundary violation and abuse of power through sex. I take comfort in how vocally they declared opposition and I find power in my own tradition’s blueprint, a guide for how to teach prevention for the future. Sourced up from Judaism and Talmud, the time for consent education is now.

In Mishneh Torah, Rambam, the famous philosopher and Talmudic commentator living in the Middle Ages, speaks at length about forbidden sexual acts. What stands out to me are the passages about normative heterosexual monogamist marital sexual relations. He laid out the following rules applying to a husband in bed with his wife:

Not only is consent vital, defined here as a resounding full-bodied
yes, but these same texts speak of the importance of female pleasure, of female sexual initiation, and of female sexual satisfaction.

While this is all contained inside of a heterosexual monogamist gender binary, it is still groundbreaking material. Even ancient Jewish texts rooted in the past can provide a model for protecting and enhancing female sexual safety and pleasure in the modern world.

These commentaries, however, aren’t perfect. They are homophobic, xenophobic, sexist and outright misogynist in waves. Yet, this ancient conversation around consent remains groundbreaking and vital in our current cultural predicament. Underneath the pervasive problems around sexual violence in the United States right now is this very old Jewish blueprint for action.

Why didn’t I learn this in my 18 years of Hebrew school growing up in Washington, D.C.? And why haven’t we been teaching this material, aside from a few exceptions like Shalom Bayit and the new wave of Moving Traditions and Sacred Spaces, in synagogues far and wide today?

I didn’t learn about Rambam until I went to yeshiva in my late 20s. I learned about holidays at Hebrew school, about flowers and candles on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. I did not, however, learn about consent, periodic abstinence, or conjugal obligations. I was taught to fit in well to the dominant culture rather than how I might preserve a vital Jewish heritage less easily assimilated into the modern American way of life.

Dina v malkhuta dina is a law also from the Talmudists that says Jewish communities, as they nomadically wander the earth, are to listen to the law of the land where they live. This applied to Jews in Morocco, Jews in China, Jews in Iran, Argentina, Spain, and Russia, too. In America, out of deference to Puritan tradition, we omitted open discussion of sexuality. So, somewhere along the way, we tucked away the majority of our canonical texts and laws around sex and the body.

Another facet of the law of the land according to Talmud is this: When the host culture and its government threaten the spirituality of the people, it can be overridden. A culture of rape, of “pussy grabbing,” of sanctioning the diminishing of female voice, cisgendered or otherwise, the diminishing of female pleasure—this is not a Jewish value.

Unlike in American popular culture, there is a long-standing Jewish tradition of discussing everything ad nauseum. No detail goes unturned in Talmud. That means that when rape occurs in a dramatic biblical scene, as if a movie, it is then discussed by the rabbis. Boundaries around touch, around female pleasure, are explored—and traumatic scenes, when taught by the right rabbi, become vital teaching moments.

Consent laws are not part of the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy but this year these ancient passages on sexual morality and “safe touch” were used to begin a conversation. Rabbis across the world joined together this year reading a script inspired by כן Means Yes, my consent education initiative, and similar efforts from powerhouse rabbis like Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and Rabbi Mary Zamore, to establish a standard for sexual boundaries informed both by ancient demands and by modern needs.

In times of lawlessness and moral degradation we find and renew our own obligations to draw boundaries, to uphold standards of care, of kindness, and of caution to protect our most vulnerable community members. Consent education should begin as early as preschool. This means beginning a conversation about body ownership, about asking before touching, and learning caring, mutually desired touch. This is part of what it means to be spiritual, to be loving, to be healthy, to be alive, and to be Jewish.

In the Jewish tradition of repentance, when one man rapes, we must all step forward as a community to learn from it and enforce prevention, repair, and change. While he is personally accountable for his own repentance, we are collectively to learn, and some to suffer, from his mistakes. At this moment, there is a loud, resounding call for consent education. Fortunately for us, the blueprint is right there in the Jewish textual canon.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.

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