For Tenth Episode, “The Joy of Text” Presents a Mini-Episode
For its tenth episode, “The Joy of Text” went with its second ever mini-episode focussing on a Talmudic text. This month’s episode, which was published a week ago, focussed on the following Talmudic text on one of the ways that someone might be able to create male children (for others, see here) (bBerakhot 60a, bNiddah 25b, 28a, 31a):
אמר רב יצחק בר אמי אשה מזרעת תחילה יולדת זכר איש מזריע תחלה יולדת נקבה
Rav Yizhak, son of Ammi, said: “A woman who seeds first births a male; a man seeds first, she births a female.”
Just as with the previous such mini-episode, Rabbi Dov Linzer provided both an explanation for the text, as well as a historical context for the text, while Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus and MaHaRaT Ramie Smith provided fascinating gynocentric perspectives, with the former also providing a medical perspective. Rabbi Linzer observed that, “This seems to be a medical comment of the Gemara.” However, he pointed out that, “More significant is how this plays out in terms of the dynamic between husband and wife and, actually, an ethos of the Gemara about the man’s responsibility to make sure that his wife is having pleasure in the sexual act.” Rabbi Linzer then went on to lay out the historical context for the statement:
From Hippocrates, there was a belief in the ancient world called the two-seed belief in procreation, which is, to some degree, similar to our idea about what we know about in terms of the egg that the woman produces, but this was more directly associated the same way the man ejaculates, so when the woman is sexually aroused and when she has orgasm, it also leads to her releasing fluids, that those fluids were necessary for the conception of the child the same way when the man ejaculates, it was necessary, obviously, the semen for the conception of the child, and when those two fluids come together, the child was conceived. So, that’s the background, and, interestingly, historically, what happened, just in terms of the larger world, is that it led to a raising of the importance of women having sexual pleasure in the act, because if a woman doesn’t have an orgasm, the belief was that you couldn’t have a child.
Once it was discovered in medical science that it wasn’t necessary for the woman to have pleasure, then that led to a decrease in valuing women’s pleasure in the sexual act. But this was the belief in the time of the Gemara. So, by saying that, when the woman gives forth seed first, she has a male child, well, it was also the reality in the ancient world, and in many places today, too, that people wanted boys rather than girls. And, therefore, what it meant is that the man has to make sure that his wife actually achieves orgasm before he does if he wants to have those male children. So it actually translated into an incentive for men to sort of hold themselves back and focus on their wives’ pleasure rather than just on their own pleasure. So, it’s interesting, on the one hand, in terms of how that becomes something that informs a larger halakhic and Torah value of the man’s responsibility to ensure that his wife is receiving pleasure in the sexual act, has an orgasm, and so on. It’s also interesting, though, to wonder about how that plays out in terms of, based on a science that isn’t actually true, that we don’t actually believe in.
Inasmuch as Rabbi Linzer tried to position this text in a favorable light, Dr. Marcus was dissatisfied with the text and then said, in a somewhat sympathetic fashion, “Every time I hear you give a talk that has a really powerful feminist message, someone jumps on you because it’s not feminist enough or then people jump on you because it’s not.” Agreeing with Dr. Marcus, MaHaRaT Smith then observed
The point you made about no matter what you say, there’s always someone who’s going to kind of…, so I feel like that about the text, too. Like when you’re learning Niddah – especially Niddah – or Ketubbot, so there are certain things that are obvious that you can point out as kind of being kind of difficult texts. I think I generally fall into the camp of looking to find any way of empowerment through the text because it’s pretty rare when you can find it. So, I happen to think it’s really beautiful that they’re talking about it.
She also pointed out that “I happen to love teaching halakhic sex ethics, because I do think there’s a lot to look into it that’s nice and empowering and to hear that female orgasm is really important, to me, is something, as a woman, as an Orthodox woman, is something that’s very important within the text and I guess I tend not to look to nit-pick the details and see ways that is offensive or problematic.”
Rabbi Linzer also brought into the discussion another similar Talmudic text on the topic (bNiddah 71a):
אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא בשכר שמשהין עצמן בבטן כדי שתזריע אשתו תחילה נותן לו הקדוש ברוך הוא שכר פרי הבטן
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Haneena, said, “As a reward for containing oneself during intercourse in the womb, in order that one’s wife may emit the semen first, the Holy One, blessed be He, gives one the reward of the fruit of the womb.”
In describing this text, Rabbi Linzer noted that “It’s not a medical point, it’s you’re being rewarded by God for this virtuous act; and this virtuous act is holding yourself back, you, the man, in the womb, that the wife may emit seed first.” In response, Dr. Marcus said that, “I like that one a little better” than the first text. She also said that, “I think what’s really fascinating is, looking at these texts, and sort of struggling with them. I think that’s what it’s about.” In response, Rabbi Linzer said, “Look, we all know that the physiological reality is that a man can ejaculate and get pleasure through the sex act before/without the woman getting pleasure or certainly not getting orgasm and so on. And for the Talmud to say that there’s a value that you’re rewarded by God for the man to hold himself back so that his wife receives pleasure, I think you can’t deny the power of that statement.”
Both Dr. Marcus and MaHaRaT Smith agreed with Rabbi Linzer on that point. MaHaRaT Smith then shared something she appreciates about the Talmud:
The Gemara talks about female pleasure: to me, that’s something I never would have guessed learning Gemara. And now, coming to these sources as a MaHaRaT, it’s amazing to see how willing our rabbis are to talk about ideas like female pleasure – and maybe they’re not in the ways that medically line up or that we would like to see it – but it’s very amazing.
There would certainly be a lot less to discuss if the Talmud had not discussed it!