Jews Have the Best Sex: The Hollywood Adventures of a Peculiar Medieval Jewish Text on Sexuality
By Evyatar Marienberg
Journal of Religion and Film, Vol.14:2 (2010)
Abstract: According to quite a few books and films produced in the last few decades in Europe and North America, sex is widely celebrated in Jewish sources. In “authentic Judaism,” kosher sex between husband and wife is a sacred endeavor and a key to heavenly bliss both on earth and beyond. This representation of Jewish attitudes about sex is highly problematic and is often based on only one medieval Jewish source commonly known as The Holy Letter. This paper discusses the use of this text in two Hollywood films: Yentl (1983), and A Stranger Among Us (1992).
Since the fourteenth century, a Hebrew kabbalistic text on marital sexuality, known as Iggeret ha-Kodesh (may be translated as The Holy Letter or The Epistle on/of Holiness), or Hibur ha-Adam ve-Ishto (The Union of Man and His Wife), has been evoked in various works. Often, it was attributed to Moses ben Nahman, known in traditional circles as Ramban and in more scholarly ones as Nahmanides. This paper explores how this medieval text has been used in two films from the last two decades of the 20th century.
Nahmanides, one of the greatest Jewish minds of the thirteenth century, was a man of many talents. His works encompass Jewish law, Biblical and Talmudic exegesis, ethics, and more. As it is often the case with renowned authors, his fame caused some works that he did not actually compose to be also attributed to him. This has been the case for centuries with Iggeret ha-Kodesh. Although some doubts about Nahmanides’ authorship of the Holy Letter were raised centuries ago, it was Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), in many ways the father of the academic study of Kabbalah, who was the first modern scholar to seriously tackle this issue. Today, following Scholem’s and other scholars’ conclusions, the Iggeret is generally believed to have been composed at the time and place where Nahmanides lived, Catalonia of the thirteenth century, but certainly not by him. Certain kabbalistic concepts found in the letter, particularly vocabulary, the fact it is not hinted at in Nahmanides’ biblical exegesis, as well as a lack of such an attribution in the earliest mentions of the work, all point to this conclusion.