Limmud NY 2010: Drinking, Sex, and Megillat Esther

Shabbat is over at Limmud NY, and once again I’m skipping the big havdalah event to write up some quick thoughts on the past few hours.

The Shabbat sessions at Limmud are interesting because there’s no writing (at least in theory–I did see some people breaking the rules) and no AV help. This means you’re likely to have the more traditional text reading discussions on Shabbat, and indeed I went to two traditional text classes today, and both were fabulous (also a Limmud tradition).

The first was a new Jewish sex ethic, taught by Mahara’t Sara Hurwitz. The class was a late addition to the schedule, and didn’t come with any kind of description, but to no one’s surprise, there were lots of people crowded into the room where she spoke, listening to Hurwitz examine a number of traditional sources about the Jewish approach to sex. I didn’t hear anything that was especially new to me–she was only talking about sex within marriage, and her point was essentially that sex is a vital piece of marriage, and then when a marriage is encountering problems more often than not one of the keys to fixing the problems is reviving the sex–but I did notice that all of the texts we looked at, and all of the texts I know of on this subject really focus on the woman’s enjoyment of sex, and not on the man’s. As a woman, of course, this appeals to me, but I wonder what it means for marriages where women become uninterested in sex.

Halakhah basically says that whenever a woman wants to have sex with her husband he has to go along with it, even if she only hints at it (assuming she’s not in niddah, of course). The same does not hold true for men. There’s nothing that says that if a man wants sex his wife should just close her eyes and think of England. Again, I can see how if I was married I might find this to be a great policy. But if I was a man, I can being very frustrated by it. It’s almost like a man’s desire is simply too basic to be a part of the equation at all, and that’s weird (and somewhat depressing). I don’t think it’s really likely to be a big problem in most marriages, but I was definitely interested, and the session was fabulous.

The second session I loved today was about the history of the Book of Esther. Taught by Aaron Koller, a professor at YU, we talked about the way that the messages in the megillah challenge many of the traditional messages we get in other books of the Bible. For instance, in Esther, the heroine is intermarried and seems to be very assimilated, but it is through this assimilation that she is able to affect change, and ultimately save the Jewish people from genocide. At the time of the story of Esther there was a Temple standing and functioning in Jerusalem, but none of the observant Jews making sacrifices in the Temple were in any position to save the Jews. It was a woman, who was married to a pagan. Pretty fascinating stuff, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed by Koller’s style as a teacher. He was really warm and engaging and seemed very comfortable and a real expert on his subject matter. I definitely want to go to his other sessions.

Later tonight I’m excited for lots of schmoozing time, some more drinking (we got started on that at the Tisch last night), a possible chocolate tasting, and thoughts on the story of Dinah as it relates to abuse by authority figures.

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