Talmud 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 house!"

When 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 you."[*]

Illustration 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.


[*] BT, Kid. 81a [back]

Selection from Prof. Judith Hauptman's new book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman' Voice - a mind-opening reading of classic rabbinic texts using feminist sensibilities. The Westview Press. Copyright © 1998 by Judith Hauptman. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Dr. Judith Hauptman is professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York).

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