Jews Have the Best Sex:
The Hollywood Adventures of a Peculiar Medieval Jewish Text on Sexuality

by Evyatar Marienberg

Group Notes

1. This paper is an offshoot of my ongoing attempt to understand how the regulation of marital, heterosexual sexuality has been transmitted in Jewish circles at different times and places, a project that began while I was a Starr fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard in the spring of 2008. A preliminary version of this paper was presented in the conference "Representation of Jews in the Contemporary Popular European Culture" at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, in November 2008. A slightly different version of this paper was published in the proceedings of that conference: Evyatar Marienberg, "The Holy Letter and Pop Culture Representations of Jewish Sexuality," Representations of Jewishness at the Turn of the 21st Century, Magdalena Waligorska and Sophie Wagenhofer eds. (Florence: European University Institute Press, 2010), 101-116.

2. 1194-1270.

3. See for example Joseph Kaplan, Tovia Preschel, Israel Moses Ta-Shma, Efraim Gottlieb, and Haviva Pedaya, "Nahmanides," Encyclopaedia Judaica 2nd Ed., Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik eds., vol. 14 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2007), 739-748.

4. In an article published in 1945 (Gershom Scholem, "Did Nahmanides Compose the Holy Letter?" (Hebrew), Kiryat Sefer 21 (1944-1945): 179-186), Scholem suggested that the work was composed by the Castilian kabbalist Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248-after 1305. See on him in Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Meridian, 1978), 409-411). In another place, the suggested author was Joseph of Hamdan (idem., 66). In 1963, an editor of Nahmanides' texts, Charles Chavel, suggested, without mentioning Scholem's classic article, that the Iggeret might be the work of the earlier kabbalist Azriel of Gerona (c. 1160-c. 1238). See Chaim Dov Chavel, The Writings of Our Master Moshe ben Nahman (Hebrew), vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1963), 315-320 [the two volumes Chavel published later in English, under the title Ramban: Writings and Discourses (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1978), do not include the Iggeret]. In a Hebrew translation, published in 1977, of one of his major books, On the Kabbalah and Its SymbolismScholem briefly said that he no longer holds the opinion that Gikatilla is the author of the work. Unfortunately, he did not explain what brought him to this conclusion, nor if he has thoughts regarding another possible author. In the original German edition, as well as in an English translation, both published in the 1960's, Scholem still held  that attribution (in German: Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1960), 204 n. 72, "In dem später dem Moses Nachmanides zugeschriebenen 'Iggereth ha-Kodesch des Josef Gikatilla (um 1300)"; in English: Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), 155 n. 1: "In Joseph Gikatila's 'Iggereth ha-Kodesh (c. 1300), later attributed to Moses Nahmanides"; in Hebrew: Gershom Scholem, Pirkey Yesod be-havant ha-Kabbalah u-Semaliah (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1977), 149 n. 72: "… I do not hold anymore the opinion that R. Joseph Gikatilla composed this work.") See also Shraga Abramson, "The Holy Letter Attributed to Nahmanides" (Hebrew), Sinai 90:5-6 (1982): 332-353, and Yaakov S. Spiegel, "Do We Have a New Segment of the 'Holy Letter' Attributed to Nahmanides?" (Hebrew), Kiryat Sefer 51 (1975-1976): 488-491. For a truly excellent summary of the debate (up to 1976) see Seymour J. Cohen's introduction to his critical edition of the text in Seymour J. Cohen, The Holy Letter: A Study in Medieval Jewish Sexual Morality ascribed to Nahmanides (New York: Ktav, 1976), 7-27.

5. A similar case is that of the greatest medieval kabbalistic work, the Zohar, which was—and is, in traditional communities—attributed to a rabbi of the Talmudic era when in fact it was composed by an obscure kabbalist, Moses de Leon (c. 1250-1305).

6. See the reference in the previous note. Cohen's translation was not the first translation of the Iggeret to a European language. Chavel mentions it was translated in the past to Latin and German. See Chaim Dov Chavel, The Writings of Our Master Moshe ben Nahman (Hebrew), vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1963), 320. A short time before Cohen's edition came out, an English translation of some paragraphs of the work was published in Norman Lamm, The Good Society: Jewish Ethics in Action (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 102-108.

7. Guide for the Perplexed, II:36. For Maimonides' views on sexuality, see the excellent article "Maimonides on Sex and Marriage" by Michael S. Berger in Michael J. Broyde & Michael Ausubel (eds.), Marriage, Sex, and Family In Judaism (Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 149-191.

8. For information about the theme of the impact of what the parents (in particular the mother) see or think about during the early stages of conception and gestation (a common concern that anthropologists call "Maternal Impression"), see, for example, my discussion, in Evyatar Marienberg, Niddah: Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la m"enstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003), 245-284.

9. "הדרך החמישי - באיכות החבור ". In printed editions, this is generally chapter VI because the introduction is counted as the first chapter.

10. See also Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 123.

11. Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), Yentl The Yeshiva Boy, trans. Marion Magid and Elizabeth Pollet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962).

12. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, Yentl: A Play (New York: Samuel French, 1977). The play was performed for the first time in 1975.

13. Streisand optioned the film rights to Yentl the Yeshiva Boy in late 1968. See "Yentl—15 Years." Retrieved January 4, 2009.

14. On issues such as homoeroticism, cross-dressing, and gender in Yentl, see Allison Fernley and Paula Maloof, "Yentl," Film Quarterly 38:3 (1985): 38-46; Marjorie B. Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 77-84; Yvonne Tasker, Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1998), 37-39..Bashevis Singer did not like the film, especially its ending, and wrote a rather harsh criticism of it: Isaac Bashevis Singer, "I. B. Singer Talks to I. B. Singer about the Movie 'Yentl'," New York Times, January 29, 1984.

15. In the VHS version, this scene occurs around minute 75.

16. In his introduction, Cohen seems to accept though the suggestions of previous scholars that this attribution is, at the very least, problematic

17. Cohen, 140-144.

18. Play, p. 62. Avigdor might not necessarily be the best instructor on the matter. See Avigdor's earlier description on pp. 52-53 of his first night with his wife Pesha, during which he tried, unsuccessfully, to arouse her using erotic quotes from Song of Songs.

19. Play, p. 66.

20. These differences are unquestionably related to the generally dark and even, at times, cruel representation of Jewish life and Yentl/Anshel's personality in particular by Singer versus the much nicer depiction by Streisand. In the movie, the general feeling is that Yentl/Anshel is an innocent victim of circumstances. Referring to Haddas, Anshel sings, "She's an innocent maiden, but then so am I!" Yentl/Anshel is not an evil person as one might infer from Singer's original story and play.

21. Sylvia Barack Fishman, "I of the Beholder: Jews and Gender in Film and Popular Culture," The Hadassah Research Institute on Jewish Women Working Paper Series 1 (1998): 3-4.

22. In a smart play with a Yiddish-like pronunciation, some critics referred to the film as "Vitness."

23. See Avrech very kindly answered many of my questions regarding this scene in a phone call we had on May 7, 2008. The director, Sidney Lumet (born 1924), whose parents were both involved in the Yiddish theatre scene, is known to describe himself as "culturally Jewish."

24. This is a reference to a sentence told to Emily earlier [min. 38] by a secular (and vulgar) Jewish colleague, Levine, regarding the Hassidim: "Hey, you know what I heard about how they do it? They do it through a sheet!"—[another male colleague]: "A sheet? Come-on"—[Levine]: "Yeah, they are so uptight about sex they make a hole in a sheet, and shtup away." At that point, Emily's reaction was "I'll get back to you on that one."

25. This long exchange begins around the 68th minute in the DVD version of the film.

26. Personal communication, May 2008. Interestingly enough, most critics of the film I have found were interested in the general plot of the film and did not speak about this scene. Rita Kempley though, from the Washington Post, referred to it directly: "A future rebbe himself, [Ariel] knows that their love can never be. Things get a little iffy when one night at the rebbe's she responds to a prowler in her robe and the son reads to her from the cabala a passage on vaginal lubrication. Yes, really." See Rita Kempley. ''Stranger': One Unkosher Cop." The Washington Post. July 17, 1992. Retrieved January 4, 2009).

27. Personal communication, May 2008.

28. In some moments, for example, the two protagonists sit extremely close to one another. It is even possible they happen to casually touch one another for split seconds. Such behavior is something that, certainly in a relatively public space, a hassid in good standing would unquestionably avoid. It is also not clear if Ariel is supposedly reading from a Hebrew version and translating it on the fly or, surprisingly for a smart Hassid, from an English translation. In the second case, Griffith's not knowing how to hold the book is even more surprising. Avrech told me that obviously, in his mind, Ariel reads from a Hebrew text. Nevertheless, the actual gestures of the actors in the film were done according to the director's instructions, not his .

29. Obviously, Ariel's declaration that this book is "the Kabbalah" is problematic, considering the evident fact that Kabbalah is a genre, a body of literature and knowledge not contained in any single book.

30. By speaking of "myths," I do not claim they are false. I plan to explore, in a later study, the notion that observant Jews use a perforated sheet while having marital relations.

31. Personal communication, January 2009.

32. The translation is that of Seymour J. Cohen in his previously mentioned English edition, chapter 6, with a few changes. According to an edition published in Efraim Ariel Buchwald (Bnei Brak: n.p., 1990)as an annex to his edition of another related medieval work, Sefer Baalei ha-Nefesh (with which I plan to deal in an upcoming book), the words in brackets are absent from the version that Buchwald considers to be the best available. Nevertheless, as they appear in other versions, as well as in many popular editions and in Cohen's translation, Avrech had a perfect right to use them.

33. Cohen: "she is receptive."

34. Cohen: "And as you enter  the path of love and will." It is possible that the meaning is less graphic and thus that it should be translated as "when you exchange/discuss/communicate with her" (similar to another Hebrew expression "להיכנס בדברים ," which although literally means "to enter in words," should be translated as "to talk," to "exchange words.")

35. Or: "so that."

36. Leviticus 12:2. This reading, even if it is most certainly not the original intention of the Biblical text, is possible.

37. "ולפיכך יש לך להכניסה תחלה בדברים שמושכין את לבה ומיישבין דעתה ומשמחין אותה, כדי שתקשר דעתה בדעתך וכוונתה בכוונתך. תאמר לה דברים קצתם מכניסין אותה בדברי חשק ואהבה ורצון, וקצתם מושכין אותה ליראת שמים וחסידות וצניעות. ומספר עמה בדברי נשים חסידות וצנועות, היאך יצאו מהם בנים הגונים וכשרים, ראויים לכתר עליון, בעלי תורה ויראה והוראה ... [ויכניס אותה בדברים אלו, מהם אהבים ומהם עגבים, ומהם יראת שמים]... סוף דבר, כשתהיה בודק בעצמך ותראה שאתה ראוי לשמש, עשה שתהיה דעת אשתך מוסכמת לדעתך . וכשאתה מתחבר עמה אל תמהר לעורר בה התאוה, כדי שתתישב דעתה, [ותכנס עמה בדרך אהבה ורצון, בענין שתזריע היא תחלה, כדי שיהיה הזרע שלה כחומר והזרע שלך כצורה, כענין שנאמר אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר] ."

38. In the Hebrew " (דברי) עגבים," in Cohen's translation "erotic passion."

39. See, for example, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

40. See Jonathan M. Hess, Germans, Jews and the Claims of Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

41. See an interesting recent debate on similar issues at commentisfree/2007/sep/21/weneedanewsexualrevolutio (last accessed February 13, 2009).

42. One could have easily brought many examples to show other, less positive traditional Jewish statements about sexuality, but two that are more or less contemporaneous with the Iggeret ha-Kodesh and come from two of the most important Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, should suffice to show the complexity of the matter. The first one is from Maimonides (1135-1204), in his Guide for the Perplexed III:8: "This is chiefly the case with the sense of touch, which is a disgrace to us as Aristotle said, and which is the cause of our desire for eating, drinking, and coitus. Intelligent persons must, as much as possible, reduce these wants, guard against them, feel grieved when satisfying them… Man must have control over all these desires, reduce them as much as possible, and only retain of them as much as is indispensable" (Friedlander's translation from the Judeo-Arabic, with some modifications). Another important author, a generation later, is Nahmanides (1194-c. 1270), to whom the Iggeret ha-Kodesh was erroneously attributed. This paragraph is from his unquestionably authentic commentary on Leviticus18:6: "You should know that coitus is a rejected and despised matter according to the Torah, unless if it is for the survival of the specie. And coitus that does not lead to procreation is forbidden" ("ודע כי המשגל דבר מרוחק ונמאס בתורה זולתי לקיום המין, ואשר לא יולד ממנו הוא אסור ").


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