Contradictory stereotypes about Jewish sexuality pervade modern culture, from Lenny Bruce's hip eroticism to Woody Allen's little man with the big libido (and even bigger sexual neurosis). Does Judaism in fact liberate or repress sexual desire? David Biale does much more than answers that question as he traces Judaism's evolving position on sexuality, from the Bible and Talmud to Zionism up through American attitudes today. What he finds is a persistent conflict between asceticism and gratification, between procreation and pleasure. From the period of the Talmud onward, Biale says, Jewish culture continually struggled with sexual abstinence, attempting to incorporate the virtues of celibacy, as it absorbed them from Greco-Roman and Christian cultures, within a theology of procreation. He explores both the canonical writings of male authorities and the alternative voices of women, drawing from a fascinating range of sources that includes the "Book of Ruth", "Yiddish literature", the memoirs of the founders of Zionism, and the films of Woody Allen. Biale's historical reconstruction of Jewish sexuality sees the present through the past and the past through the present.
He discovers an erotic tradition that is not dogmatic, but a record of real people struggling with questions that have challenged every human culture, and that have relevance for the dilemmas of both Jews and non-Jews today.
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(203mm x 133mm x 22mm)
University of California Press
Publisher: University of California Press
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US Kirkus Review »
A scholarly study of Jewish sexuality that is neither sexy nor particularly Jewish. Here, Biale (Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, 1986) appears to have lost his way in the murkier realms of philosophy and theology. He's at his best when dealing with the sociological and psychological realms of sexuality and powerlessness, as noted in the nervous passions of Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Erica Jong. Elsewhere, though, his central argument sees Eros in Judaism as "the struggle between contradictory attractions...the story of a profoundly ambivalent culture." Biale consistently misses the subtleties of the Oriental, Jewish paradox of erotic spirituality with his Occidental, secular Bible-critic's sensibility that finds only contradictions. He therefore thinks it scandalous (rather than glorious) that King David's lineage is built on the incestuous seductions of the gentiles Tamar and Ruth (who lust only for progeny). Similarly, Biale cannot see how the literal level of the "Song of Songs" feeds the spiritual level with its erotic yearning for the Other. The failure to see that classical Judaism is closer to the Kama Sutra than to the teachings of St. Paul is one thing, but Biale is guilty of errors ("Jacob himself associated with the affirmation of intermarriage") and of contempt for traditionalists who don't share his view that Judaism is a derivative amalgam of Canaanite and Greco-Roman culture. His subjectivity is all too perceptible. The extensive notes and bibliography help document shifting attitudes toward romance and marriage, but a topic like this deserves a little passion. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - David Biale
David Biale is Koret Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History (1979) and Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (1986), both of which won the National Jewish Book Award.