Review of Étan Levine, Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Levine, Étan, Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte 10; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009). Pp. v-xiv, 1-349. € 88,00. ISBN 9783447058681.

In this monograph Étan Levine, emeritus professor at the University of Haifa, distills and engages an array of issues related to Israelite and early Jewish conjugality. He justifies the study by noting that Israel has always been “a family-based people” (p. 1), whose family life is indissolubly bound to its religion and identity. By undertaking such a project, he aims to insure that, in the two-way critique that modernity has opened between classical and contemporary Judaism, the former—that is, classical Judaism—is not abandoned. “The old books provide guidance” he writes in his Epilogue, “though they don’t always answer questions they do question answers… Past traditions must be restudied in the emerging ‘global village’ that includes secularism, permissiveness, erosion of family life and moral relativism” (pp. 337-38). Toward this end Levine crafts a fourfold method for treating classical Judaic marital relations: a polyvalent hermeneutic, a tandem interest in halakah and haggadah, a heuristic interaction with relevant data, and an evolutionary sense of how reflection on the past can improve practice in the future. As he puts it, “there is surely evolution in our future as there was in our past, and if (we) can better understand what we were, it might help us become what we would prefer to be” (p. 13). Levine then embarks on his task in twelve chapters.

The first two chapters stand apart by their targeted foci on the fundamental role of marriage in Israelite and rabbinic societies, respectively. Biblical metaphor cast the relationship of God and Israel as an extended family; as such, “survival required an emphatic and coherent pro-marital policy” (p. 27; Chapter I, “Kinship and Law in Biblical Israel”). After 70 CE the Rabbis “presumed to intrude into the harboring institution of marriage” (p. 50) and by various rulings labored to sustain and intensify the biblical conception through late antiquity (Chapter II, “The Home as a ‘Small Temple’”). The subsequent ten chapters then examine how a plethora of marital issues were addressed in ancient Israelite and early Judaic (primarily rabbinic) traditions: the status of women relative to men (Chapter III, “On Gender and Legal Status”); the place of romance in marital union (Chapter IV, “Love as a Legal Construct”); non-reproductive sex (Chapter V, “Validating Human Eroticism”); restraints on sexual indulgence (Chapter VI, “Free Will, Law and the Moral Imperative”); suspicion of sexual misconduct (Chapter VII, “Woman as Sexual Suspect”); reciprocal sexual responsibilities (Chapter VIII, “Sexual Relations in Marriage Law”); abstinence and the purity code (Chapter IX, “The Time to Refrain from Embracing”); aesthetics in marital relations (Chapter X, “Love’s Body: Anticipation and Idealization”); the logistics of sexual intimacy (Chapter XI, “Lawful Conjugality: The Loving Embrace”); and the ties between sex and progeny (Chapter XII, “Children: Married Life and Eternal Life”).

Several factors weaken Levine’s contribution. First, after Chapters 1 and 2 he fuses biblical and rabbinic data and treats them both as a piece. This may follow from his concern to place modernity in dialogue with classical Judaism and, thus, treat both corpora (biblical and rabbinic) as a single canon. Historically and source-critically, however, it flattens the diversity that exists between and within each. Second, though Levine references Second Temple traditions throughout, he does not give them the systematic attention he does biblical and rabbinic texts; and, in at least one locus, he uses Second Temple writers as a foil for real Judaism: after quoting Philo and Josephus to show that “some Hellenistic Jewish polemic criticized both birth control and eroticism per se," he continues that, “in fact, Judaism (!) differed markedly” (p. 326, emphasis mine). Third, Levine’s commentary oscillates between describing what biblical/rabbinic texts state explicitly and interpreting what he deems them to mean implicitly; see, for instance, his reflection on Eve in Genesis 2 to allege that “a female’s God-granted destiny was dual: to be both a mate and a mother” (pp. 140-41). Regardless of whether this intermittent midrash is plausible or not, it toggles the substance of the book between exegesis and homily and, thus, undercuts the aim (exegesis) implied in the title. Finally, (fourth) the volume is permeated with typographical, grammatical and typesetting errors. While most are simply distracting, in at least one place they so converge as to obscure the point being made:

Sexuality was the context but not the entire text of marriage. So though surely was a wonderful delight in all knowing: a primal, instinctual satisfaction not for anything beyond knowing, in the act of knowing, Nevertheless, Jewish ethics recognized that unprincipled ‘knowing’ was hostile to the values of loving conjugality (p. 284).

These flaws notwithstanding, Levine’s effort is very important for its content and on that score merits “must read” status for this and for cognate fields of research. The sheer topic forges myriad inroads into data that have been by and large neglected. Levine exploits these frontiers by parsing his examination into an intricate network of practical (if sometimes sensitive) smaller issues, articulated with terms that ineluctably evoke fresh thought: to name a few (beyond those listed in the summary above), parental vis-à-vis individual choice of a mate; age symmetry in marriage; pre-, post- and extra-marital sex; aesthetic and hygienic expectations for spouses; visual, auditory, olfactory and temporal conditions for husband-wife sex; permissible sexual techniques; and perceived nexuses between the sex act and healthy (male) offspring. Levine elucidates each of these issues further by framing his discussions within a dynamic discourse sensitized to (though not systemically apprised of) other fields in the arts and sciences; see, for instance, his references to linguistics for issues of gender (pp. 81-84), to biology for issues of divorce (pp. 126-27, 126 n.223) and eroticism (p. 143), to physical anthropology for issues of bridal virginity (p. 245) and to the history of medicine for issues of “child spacing” (pp. 323-24). As a consequence, Levine’s work, despite its drawbacks, breaks new ground and must be consulted in any future research related to early Jewish marital issues—be they marital relations, themselves, or cognate matters related to them.

Michael Allen Daise, College of William & Mary