Open Minded Jewish Culture in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth


Written by Joseph Dunsay. After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. Find more Jewrotica writing by Joseph here.

Rated PG-13

Censorship is often the common enemy of scientists and erotic artists. Sometimes, biologists endure criticism from prudish busybodies who cannot imagine a world with so much reproductive variety. Carl Linnaeus shocked Europeans with his classification system for plants. Although Jewish culture has a reputation for being closed minded before the Haskalah, Yiddish speakers were rather open minded centuries before the Haskalah.

The earliest printed works in Yiddish include love stories written to provide an ethical alternative to French romance novels for Jewish women to read on Shabbat. Jews in those centuries also contributed much to science. For example, Toviyah Kats (ca. 1652 – 1729), one of the better known Polish Jewish scientists, published anatomy content and worked as a court physician for the Ottoman Sultan after studying at a German university and a town in northern Italy.

Jews living in Europe were more willing to tolerate and produce science and erotica in times and places where they enjoyed political equality. Yiddish speaking Jews lived for a long time under a politically independent Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 16th Century, Poland merged with Lithuania to create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which became a major European power with elected kings and a parliament of nobles. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lasted two centuries before Prussia, Austria, and Russia partitioned it. The independent commonwealth was an early experiment in democracy where Jews did relatively well.

An Israeli professor spoke at Harvard about the contribution of Jewish women to cultural capital in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He explored how Jewish women crossed and moved cultural-social barriers to play active roles in the production of culture. In a Tablet article, he discussed the political autonomy and influence Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth enjoyed for two centuries through the Council of Four Lands. This council was admired by Jews from Egypt to the Netherlands. Jewish communities outside of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth sought help from the Council of Four Lands to resolve disputes, thanks to it’s prestige. There was a time when Polish Jews enjoyed freedom and respect.

The relatively enlightened culture Jews created under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before its occupation followed by the better known insular Jewish culture under Russian rule demonstrates how cultures do not progress linearly through time from closed minded to open minded. Generations of Jews who enjoyed political rights were willing to publish erotic content geared towards women, involve women in the production of culture, and produce anatomy texts with diagrams and the Alef-Bet. Considering these past achievements, the Haskalah looks more like a renaissance than a fundamental change in Jewish traditions. Values such as respect for women’s opinions, sex-positivity, scientific inquiry, and freedom of the press have been a part of the Jewish tradition for a very long time.

After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. His LGBT erotic e-book launched in the summer of 2015.