professor Judith Hauptman uses this and other anecdotes from the
Talmud to undermine the common view that the rabbis exclusively
viewed women as actively seeking to entice men. This story, like
many others, makes it abundantly clear that sexual temptation and
arousal can overtake even the most pious of men, without any seductive
actions on the part of the woman.
Several captive women
[who had been redeemed] were brought to Nehardea and taken to an upper chamber
in the house of R. Amram the Pious. Then the ladder to it was removed from
under them. As one of them passed by [an opening to] the upper chamber,
light fell from the opening [and R. Amram found himself sexually aroused].
At that, R. Amram grabbed the ladder, which ten men could not lift, set
it up unaided, and proceeded to climb it. After he had gone halfway up,
he forced himself to stand still as he cried out, "A fire in R. Amram's
his disciples came [running but, upon realizing the sexual nature of the
fire] they reproved him: "You put us to shame!" R. Amram replied,
"It is better that you be put to shame in this world because of Amram,
than that you be put to shame because of him in the next."
He then adjured [Satan, the embodiment of the sexual urge] to depart from
him, and Satan issued forth in the shape of a column of fire. He said
to it, "See, you are fire and I am flesh, yet I am stronger than
inspired by Marc Chagall's "White Crucifixion," 1938
In this story, as in many
others, a rabbi who is loyal to Jewish law finds himself sexually aroused, burning
with passion, simply by seeing the shadow of one of the women in his upper chambers.
His desire is so overpowering that he is able to execute a superhuman feat in
seeking to satisfy it. But in attempting to regain control of himself when halfway
to his destination, he summons help.
The presence of others stops him from sexual transgression. This point merits
attention. As strong as sexual desire is, it is immediately extinguished, or
at least suppressed when others appear. It was not knowledge of the law, respect
for it, or fear of punishment in the world-to-come that enabled him to accept
frustration of desire. He required the presence of other men to do so.
Note that this story demonizes the sexual urge, portraying it as an independent
being that has invaded the body of the rabbi and is later forced to leave. Rather
than view his sexuality as a natural part of himself, to be satisfied in appropriate
circumstances, he fears it and wants to be rid of it....
This source [along with many others quoted in Hauptman's book] lead to the conclusion
that the rabbis, like ordinary men, were engaged in a continuous battle with
their libido. They were hoping that the intellectual and spiritual side of them
would triumph over the physical The material [brought in the complete chapter
"Relations between the Sexes"] does not lead us to think that they
fully accomplished this goal.
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