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The Sage and the Bathhouse

August 15, 2013 | By

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bathhouseQ: What’s worse than a rabbinic sage frequenting a den of public nudity and sex adorned with statues of pagan goddesses?

A: A rabbinic sage discussing Torah in that den. Read on:

The Mishnah relates an incident of Rabban Gamaliel’s visit to an Acre bathhouse festooned with a statue of a nude Aphrodite, the Roman goddess of love and sex. As the story goes, a gentile patron approaches the rabbi and reminds him of the Torah’s prohibition against visiting sites of idolatry.

Refusing to “discuss Torah” inside of the steamy bathhouse, Gamaliel exits and observes how ostensible goddess worshipers, in the words of the Mishnah, were walking around the statue “naked, having just ejaculated, and peeing.” Since the pagans themselves treated the figurine as an “adornment,” rather than a sacred object, Gamaliel insists that he could hardly be accused of condoning idolatry.

Skirting the broader issue over the propriety of a sage of Israel frequenting the bathhouse, Gamaliel’s refusal to discuss Torah in that setting seems to be a tacit acknowledgment of the impropriety of his presence there.

We’re still waiting for the miniseries adaptation to find out whether Gamaliel went back for more.

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