This is Torah, and I Must Learn

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A164 Thesis3

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Written by C. Garbell. Garbell, a first-time Jewrotica writer, is a graduate of NYU in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication.

Garbell wrote “Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic” for her senior honors thesis in May 2013. The thesis, which was overseen by Professor Brett Gary, is dedicated to “those friends, teachers, and surprising men who have forced me to recon with my Judaism and with myself”. The piece is being published on Jewrotica over four consecutive days, and this is part three. Part two is available here.


Rated R Rav Kahana lay under the bed of Rav, who was carousing and speaking frivolously with his wife about sexual matters; afterward, [Rav] had sexual intercourse with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: “You appear to me like a hungry man who has never had sex before, for you act with frivolity in your lust.” He [Rav] said to Kahana: “Are you here? Get out! It is improper for you to lie under my bed!” [Kahana] said to him: “This is Torah, and I must learn.” (42)

Rav was right, Kahana was indeed acting inappropriately. And yet there was an inherent truth in his defense, “for this is Torah, and I must learn.” Torah is every aspect of life, and not simply the Five Books of Moses, the Old Testament. It is the Talmud – the Oral tradition that Orthodoxy views as the complementary half of the Written Torah, both which come from God. It is every law code, parable, and commentary, every bit of philosophy, contemporary responsa, and argument over what it means to be Jewish. Torah creates an entire framework in which to relate to and make sense of the world. Jews are a people of the book in the most literal sense, for it is this textually embedded tradition that has allowed for millennia of evolving sustainability and is what makes Judaism Jewish (43). Torah, “the teaching,” is knowledge, but it is also the creation of knowledge through the power wielded by those with traditional access to knowledge.

It is an acquaintance with knowledge and thereby the means of production that allows for the continued creation of further knowledge. Historically (and quite often in much of the present) this is a power wielded by male rabbis over life and the body in order to contain and delineate between what is sacred and what is ordinary – from the orgasm that conceives to the box that holds the body after death. While the juridico-discursive aspect of this power can often be destructive or harmful, overly regulatory and set in its ways, it can also be deeply productive in the creation of worlds of meaning, systems of belief and value, of sacrity, sanctity, and pleasure.

In Ellen Willis’ 1977 Rolling Stone article, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” she explains after a long encounter in an Orthodox Jewish community,

For the people around me Torah was not a straitjacket but a discipline,
shaping and focusing their energies toward the only meaningful end.
It was an arduous discipline, but one that was no more inherently
compulsive than my own search for the precise adjective, or the care
with which feminists analyzed the minutiae of sexual relationships.

This continued production of power and of spheres of knowledge is an essential idea in Torah; for it is indeed an “etz chaim,” (45) a living Torah that is mutable and shifting, varied and complex in its application across the generations, yet still loyal to it’s logical architecture and literary structure. “Lo bashamayim hi” the Rabbis once shout at God in a parable in the Talmud – God had been interfering in an argument over the interpretation of a law, and the Rabbis must remind Him that the Torah “Is not in heaven.” (46) It has been given to human beings to serve as their guide on earth, and to be interpreted as they are able. God gave them this tool and must let them use it. As such, “Eilu vEilu divrei Elokim chaim,” “these and these are the words of the living God.” (47)

The multiplicity of ideas and interpretations that naturally arise in the investigation of a Godly text must each be right in their own way, even if at the end of the day one practical application must be chosen. Each of these concepts comes to illustrate that the Torah – the breadth of human knowledge that is contained within that one small word – is a living, breathing guide to life, one that creates community and ideas of sacred space and time while allowing for ideas and arguments and new interpretations to arise and flourish as context and culture allow.

This idea of a living source of knowledge that is constantly transmitted allows for parallels between it and the enlivened qualities of media and the way that knowledge is transmitted in the age of the Internet. In Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce explores the idea of the “liveness” of technology, following the development of five forms of media- telegraphy, wireless, radio and network broadcasting, television, and TV and computers. Sconce speaks of a technology that has become like a living extension of the human “nervous system,” transmitting a spark of consciousness (48) and creating a “temporal immediacy amid spatial isolation.” (49)

Torah does that from generation to generation, bridging space and time to speak in the moment and beyond the moment. Technology, particularly the internet today, transmits a similar of-the-present “sentient immediacy,” continuing the “revelation” that accompanies each new addition to the vast world that is the Web. I argue that is the modern Torah in the modern technology, transmitting and creating knowledge, balancing power and allowing for discussion to flourish, all the while creating community around the world through a re-imagined space of Torah that reproduces old knowledge while creating new.

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C.G. is a graduate of NYU in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. C.G. wrote “Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic” for her senior honors thesis in May 2013.