Maggie Anton just wants you to study Talmud.
If you managed to miss scholar Maggie Anton’s five novels – the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and the two-part “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” – maybe her newest work will get your attention.
“Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say” about you-know-what has already snapped up the 2017 Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in the religion category.
The book is introducing many Talmud-curious readers to the surprising rabbinic discussions around the most basic of human interactions. Laced with jokes and quotes by luminaries like George Washington, Mae West and Billy Crystal, the book reveals how Jewish tradition is more progressive in many respects – and more bawdy – than one might think.
Anton will discuss “Fifty Shades of Talmud” at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills on Tuesday, Oct. 17, presented by Women of Emanu-El.
Born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, where she still resides, the author was raised in a secular, socialist household, reaching adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults.
In 1992, Anton joined a women’s Talmud class and, to her surprise, fell in love with Talmud, a passion that has continued unabated ever since. Intrigued that the great Talmudic scholar Rashi had no sons, only daughters, Anton researched the family and decided to write novels about them. Thus was born the award-winning trilogy, “Rashi’s Daughters,” to be followed by National Jewish Book Award finalist, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice” and its sequel, “Enchantress.”
While researching “Jocheved,” the first book of “Rashi’s Daughters,” Anton began focusing on sex in the Talmud.
“The Talmud teaches that the quality of the child is proportional to the sex that conceived that child,” Anton says. “Jocheved and her husband, Meir, had six fabulous children – four boys and two girls, all scholars. So they clearly had the hottest sex in the millennium. I had to write hottest-halachic-sex-in-the-millennium sex scenes, so I had to do a lot of research to figure out what was permitted and what was not permitted. As it turned out, I was lucky: there was nothing that was not permitted for married couples with each other, and the Talmud details every kind of thing you could do.”
In 2015, while on her “Enchantress” book tour, Anton spoke at a Hadassah brunch event in New Jersey. “By then, I was already an expert on sex in the Talmud and I found that, when I talked, if I brought in some of the fun stuff I’d learned, it would make the lecture a lot more enjoyable,” Anton recalls. “During the Q&A, one of the ladies raises her hand and says, ‘You should write Fifty Shades of Talmud.’ So I went back to my notes and picked out the 50 most interesting sections of Talmud and translated them into English and made them kind of feminist and lighthearted.”
Dedicated to Rashi, Anton’s latest book also borrows one of the great scholar’s renowned pedagogical tricks. “Rashi essentially advised teachers, ‘Always start your lesson with a joke; the students will learn better if they’re laughing,’” says Anton, who peppered her book with jokes and quotes that match the various commentaries.
Anton’s goal as a writer isn’t just to tell a good story; it’s to get more women and liberal Jews to study Talmud, the compendium of Oral Torah composed after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem as a way to preserve Judaism, despite the loss of its physical locus.
“Talmud is no longer the monopoly of old men in black coats sitting around a table from which the rest of us are excluded,” she says. “It’s very accessible: we have good English translations and the Talmuds are online. A lot of the halachic arguments end with elu v’elu – ‘this one and this one are both right; follow whoever you want.’ I think that’s why it’s really important for my fellow liberal Jews to study Talmud: to see how diverse, authentic, and authoritative the opinions are, and that, according to Jewish law, there’s not just one right way to do things.”
“Fifty Shades of Talmud” may be a good place to start. After all, says Anton, “if a book about sex in the Talmud is not enough to get people curious, I haven’t done a good job.”
* * *
How to go
What: Join the Women of Emanu-El for an evening of conversation, book signing and dessert with the author of “Fifty Shades of Talmud,” Maggie Anton.
When: Tuesday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m.
Where: Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, 2020 W. Brown Deer Road, River Hills.
Cost: Free and open to the public. Books will be available for $6.95.
Contact: Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.