Yishai Kiel’s new book Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud analyzes Talmudic texts that deal explicitly with sex in order to situate rabbinic society at the crossroads of a number of late-antique cultures. Through convincing close readings of Jewish material alongside compelling parallels in Greek, Syriac, and Pahlavi texts, Kiel illustrates how Babylonian rabbis used the language of sexuality to negotiate their Iranian context, their Palestinian heritage, and the myriad of concomitant challenges posed by western and eastern Christian thought. This book is highly recommended for scholars and students of rabbinics, early Christianity, and Iranology, especially for those who are interested in the history of sexuality.
Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud is divided into two sections. Part I consists of four separate programmatic essays each on a single facet of sexuality as evidenced by the Babylonian Talmud. Chapter 1 sketches a portrait of a distinctively Babylonian rabbinic view of sexuality in which procreation and physical gratification resulting from sexual intercourse are seen as positive and yet distinct from the danger of sexual desire. In this schema, sexual acts are seen as essentially positive, whereas sexual desire is seen as dangerous and negative. This is opposed to the more optimistic view held by Palestinian rabbis that the Evil Inclination (יצר ברע) can be controlled. Kiel argues that in the Babylonian context, sex and celibacy should not be seen as binary options, but as complementary strategies for diminishing desire.
Chapter 2 treats the apparently widespread phenomenon of absentee husbands in Jewish Babylonia. Some scholars had the habit of leaving their wives for extended periods to devote their lives to the "other woman" of Torah, whom they encountered in the scholastic settings. Here Keil makes much of the discourse of asceticism in other cultures, drawing heavily from Steven Fraade's working definition, and performs a number of close readings on narrative sections. An especially important contribution in this chapter is Kiel's attempt to show how Zoroastrian texts can be integrated into the discussion of increasing academization in Jewish and Christian centers of learning in the late Sassanian period. This, he argues, while scholars of rabbinics have been quick to juxtapose Jewish centers of learning with Christian ones like the school of Nisibis, much less has been made of potential connections with hērbedestān, which also contain (temporarily) celibate sages. He compares texts which depict Moses and Zarathustra productively to show many tantalizing parallels; though as usual, the claims of commonality depend on the assumption that texts that reached their final form long after the Muslim conquest of Persia accurately reflect earlier ideas.
Chapter 3 shows how sex-acts and the discourse surrounding them, what Kiel terms "sexual etiquette and identity demarcation," served as modes of creating cultural boundary markers between Jews and both Christians and Zoroastrians simultaneously. For example, Keil shows how rabbinic statements about Persian "modesty" in both eating and sex seem to correspond with actual Iranian practices. However, he rejects, at least in part, the claim that this disparity in rabbinic opinion reflects a broader dispute within the Rabbinic community over how much to "accommodate to" and how much to "resist." Instead, he proposes that the Rabbinic discourse is best understood by proximity to Persian sexual practices. Palestinian rabbis were free to praise Persion sexual custom, but Babylonian rabbis were so preoccupied with keeping themselves distinct from their Persian neighbors that they felt the need to constantly demarcate borderlines.
Chapter 4 treats parallels between rabbinic treatments of the Garden of Eden with Zoroastrian traditions in order to show not only how and where the rabbis borrowed from their Persian contemporaries but how they reshaped these syncretized traditions to their own purposes. Each of these chapters is perfectly compelling in its own way, although they read as variations on a theme and do not build to a compelling synthesis. The conclusion remains, as it does with many other cultural studies, somewhat banal: Babylonian rabbis were caught somewhere between Christian Roman Palestine and Zoroastrian Persia.
It is in part II where Keil makes his major contribution to the field. The five chapters which make up this section do what the first part does not, namely to argue that the rabbis of the Talmud were an integral part of the messy soup of Late Antiquity in Sassanian Persia and that the Rabbinic views regarding incest must be seen in light of and as part of the discourse which included Christian, Zoroastrian and Manichaean voices about what is termed xwēdōdah in Pahlavi. As such, as much as Babylonian rabbis were caught in between cultural landscapes and maintained cultural boundaries with non-Jews, they must also be seen as part and parcel of the Persian east in late antiquity. In part II, chapter 5 introduces us to the Pahlavi doctrine of xwēdōdah, the Zoroastrian doctrine of next-of-kin marriage and the counter polemics which ascribe to it such earthly benefits such as purity of lineage and an increase of love, along with eschatological concerns. Chapter six turns to "Noahide Law and the Inclusiveness of Sexual Ethics." Famously, in addition to the Sinaitic law thought to have been transmitted by God to Moses directly, rabbinic literature sees another body of law as mandated in the biblical text, a simpler set of fewer laws which are enjoined upon all of humanity through Noah. Here Keil actively engages with recent scholarship on this body of law, especially with recent studies by David Novak, Devora Steinmetz, and Christine Hayes. He argues against global treatments of Noahide law, arguing that while, "Palestinian sources tend to apply inclusive and 'nearly-universal standards to sexual behavior to Jews and non-Jews alike..., the BT exhibits a distinctly particularistic approach that gives rise to fundamental differences between Jewish and non-Jewish norms.'" I find this chapter largely convincing- though more time might have been spent dealing with numerous counterexamples, at which Kiel hints without specifying. Chapters 7-9 contain excellent close readings of parallel passages in the Talmudic and Pahlavi corpora.
Both sections of the work are immensely useful. Specialists in the field will find more to grapple with in Part II, which might well have constituted a book in its own right. The individual chapters of Part I ought to find their ways onto reading lists for doctoral candidates, and should be assigned in seminars on ancient Judaism. The only real drawback to the book is that the two halves feel somewhat bifurcated, as Keil's considerable talents are used much more effectively in the second part.
Yishai Kiel's Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud is a fine example of the burgeoning maturity of the academic field of Talmud. The breadth of his training and knowledge, evident on every page of this book, is remarkable. Not only is he well trained in the textual transmission of rabbinic literature, as his extensive use of manuscripts and Genizah fragments make abundantly clear along, but he has mastered the entirety of the "traditional" commentary oeuvre. He reads not only Greek and Latin so as to situate Roman Palestinian documents within the context of the period of their composition and promulgation, but also Syriac and Pahlavi so as to do the same for documents from the Sassanian East. Through careful textual comparison, Kiel demonstrates how sexuality is a prime locus for rabbinic exploration of what makes and ought to make Jews and Judaism distinct from others.
Dr. Noah Bickart was recently the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale Department of Judaic Studies and will begin teaching at John Carroll University in the fall.
 See Steven Fraade, "Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism," in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible to the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Green. (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 257
 Richard Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); idem, Migrating Tales: The Talmud's Narratives and Their Historical Context. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).
 p. 185.
 I treat one such counterexample in a forthcoming article on anal sex in rabbinic literature.