Historical fantasy author Maggie Anton loves the Talmud. The lab technician turned Talmud scholar turned author believes you could find years of material in the compilation of ancient Rabbis debating the Torah. The Talmud essentially created the laws of modern day Judaism, and honestly, some of it can be pretty tedious and boring. But Anton’s found a way to open readers minds about what I call the fun stuff of the Talmud — the mysterious magic and sex bits.
Her fiction books focus on women lightly mentioned in the Talmud, like the daughters of the scholar Rashi in the Rashi’s Daughter series and Hisda’s daughter in Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice and Enchantress. Meanwhile, her non-fiction book 50 Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What emphasizes surprisingly forward-thinking rabbinical thoughts about sex.
I met with Anton in her art and family photo-filled Los Angeles home while she puttered over a beautiful chicken broth on the stove (“You’ll have to watch me while I make my soup”). I’d never seen so many books about Jewish history and life and fiction and non-fiction outside of a book store or library. I could have listened to her talk forever about a time long ago, when many Jewish men were out on the Silk Road and women were back home, running the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You really love Talmud. Can you describe your love affair with the text?
That started in 1992, or somewhere around there. I heard about a women’s Talmud class being taught by Rachel Adler, who’s a professor of feminist theology and a rabbi at Hebrew Union College. She started a women’s class because, at that time, there was nowhere for women to study Talmud. As soon as it’s forbidden it becomes more interesting.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought, “I’ve read The Chosen, I know about the Talmud.” Rachel’s class was in her dining room and there were only — I don’t even think there were 10 of us. So, I took the class. I thought it would only be a class, one semester, or something. The class went on five years. And so I fell in love with Talmud.
What is it about Talmud?
To me, studying the same Torah portions the whole cycle is kinda boring. They’re all wandering around in the desert. What we do now has nothing to do with what they did back then. We don’t have the Temple, we don’t sacrifice animals. So it was in the Talmud that I realized, “Ah, this is where today’s Judaism starts.” Talmud is the real deal. Besides, you’re not going to finish it in a year. You’re not going to finish it in 10 years!
Your Rashi’s Daughters series focuses on, well, Rashi’s daughters. I know his family lived in a Jewish community that encouraged and necessitated women to run their households as well as learn Torah. Can you talk about that?
In Rashi’s community, there were women service leaders who translated the service for the women and those women wore tefillin. Women wore tzitzit as much as men did. Everybody wore tzitzit — it wasn’t a big deal. Women blew the shofar for other women who were sick or who had a baby and couldn’t come to synagogue to hear the shofar. There were women mohels who did circumcisions. Some midwives learned how to do it. It’s in books of obstetrics from the time.
What happened to this freedom for women?
When the bubonic plague happened in the 1300s, it killed the 12th century renaissance. It killed half the people in Europe. Before that, convents were opening up, so women were going there to study. You’re starting to raise up this crop of educated women in the convent. The Church was threatened by these powerful, knowledgeable women.
So they blamed witches for the bubonic plague. Jews tend to say they blamed Jews, but if you read the Christian sources, that’s not who they’re blaming. They’re blaming witches — maybe some Jewish witches while they’re at it. But who’s a witch? Learned women. They just got rid of all the competition. Women who were knowledgeable went into hiding. And the real knowledge of healing they were not able to disseminate.
Were Jewish women actually doing magic?
The Talmud recommends expert sorceresses and the amulets they write and they give you the recipes for potions that the head sorceress gave them. In the Talmud, one of the top rabbis goes and consults the head sorceress. That just blew my mind! If there’s a head sorceress, it’s not every woman for herself. It means it’s organized.
Today you go into a Judaica shop and there’s amulets everywhere!
Hisdadukh, the mysterious heroine of your book Rav’s Daughter: Apprentice and Enchantress, is from 4th century Babylonia. What would Jewish magic have been like for her in that time and place?
The sorceresses were the healers. The guys who do magic, that’s for their own selves. They’re not helping anybody. All their spells and magic is how they can be more powerful. How they can do this or that or go to heaven and see the future. Whereas women, their spells are all for healing people.
It’s pretty clear from the amulets on the incantation bowls that are written in Hebrew and Aramaic and know the names of God and angels. I speculated, what Jewish women in ancient times would have the knowledge, and literacy, to be able to write these? And it just makes sense that it’s someone in a Rabbinic family, especially because some of the bowls quote Mishnah and have the Jewish divorce formula to divorce the demon and make them leave.
Babylonia was where astrology and astronomy came from. Jews had been there a long time, a thousand years. Since Nebuchenezzar destroyed the first Temple.
I adored Fifty Shades of Talmud and want to thank you for such a sex-positive look at Jewish sexuality. What do you think are some of the most important parts of this learning?
That was not actually a planned book. One of the rules I set for myself when I started writing about Rashi’s daughters was that I would never show them violating halakha [Jewish law]. I mean these were real historical people so I didn’t want to show them doing anything they wouldn’t have done.
The Talmud teaches that the quality of a child is proportional to the sex act that conceives the child: the more pleasure for the parents, and particularly for the mother, the better the child that comes out of that union. Thank you very much, it means better sex for women if men believe that!
Joheved and Meir [the main characters in Rashi’s Daughter: Joheved] had six kids that we know of. I thought, “God, for them to have these six fabulous kids, obviously they had the hottest sex of the millenium.” But of course it would have had to have been kosher sex. I started doing research; what exactly could they do or not do? And it turns out, for a married couple, nothing violates halakha — with consent. And that was something else that was pretty amazing. I mean, Jews really cared about consent. And it wasn’t just that silence is consent. Nah, each time she has to consent.
Believe me, that’s not the pieces of Talmud they teach in a yeshiva.
What’s your favorite part about being Jewish?
Wow. That’s a good question. Dave [to her husband in the next room], what do you think is my favorite part about being Jewish?
And I would also say the focus on education and learning. So that you don’t ever stop. You see, my husband knows me!