Sunday, October 28, 2012

I Am Forbidden: Anouk's Misleading Book

After having heard Anouk and Judy speak at the recent 'Hasidic Worlds in Fiction' event at the DC JCC, I read I Am Forbidden, Anouk's book, this past Shabbat. I was very disturbed by the book, mostly because I find it to be misleading. Just warning you now that my explanation of what is misleading will spoil the book for you, so if you want to read it, come back later.

In this book, a Satmar woman finds herself married to a Satmar man. The two of them try to have children but fail. The doctor examines the wife and doesn't seem to find anything wrong with her, so he then asks to examine the husband. In order to do this, he would need a semen sample. Alack! Shichvas Zera L'Vatala! The husband declares the Satmar Rebbe would never permit this. The woman then decides to have an affair and gets pregnant by the man she had the affair with, who was Jewish. At the same time, the man who loves her decides to give the semen sample and realizes that in fact, he is unable to sire children. He realizes that his wife's child cannot be his. Alas and alack- a mamzer!

Here are some excerpts from the book:
The fifth year of their marriage, Mila told Josef that her physician insisted on a semen sample before prescribing fertility drugs.
"But it is a grievous sin," Josef replied. "The Torah forbids it."
"Even for medical purposes? The doctor says some of his orthodox patients did do the test."
"Our Rebbe would never permit it."
"Even for couples who cannot have children?"
"Mila, how would the doctor help if the problem lies with me?"
"But if the problem doesn't lie with you, then the doctor will prescribe fertility drugs."
"The Torah itself forbids it, not just rabbinic law. No God-fearing rabbi would permit it." He hesitated. "Many women have been helped by the Rebbe's blessing."
"You ask him. I won't go to the Rebbe."
-pages 174-175 
"I'm not angry with the Rebbe for surviving; I'm angry because when it came to his life, he allowed himself to compromise, but when it comes to our lives, we cannot do the one test that would permit me to start a fertility treatment."
"It's the test you're talking about? I told you, this isn't about the Rebbe. No God-fearing rabbi would permit what is expressly forbidden in the Torah."
-page 179 
Josef reached for a Talmud treatise, searched for a clause that might permit a semen analysis, and once more failed to find it:
If his hand touches his penis, let his hand be cut off on his belly.Would not his belly be split? It is preferable that his belly be split...If a thorn stuck in his belly, should he not remove it? No...But all such, why?To emit seed in vain is akin to murder. 
-page 181
Anouk is very sneaky here. Notice that Josef never actually goes to talk to the Rebbe. He just assumes that the Rebbe would certainly forbid the semen analysis. This is very misleading. First off, the Rebbe would not forbid a semen analysis due to medical necessity. I can't speak for the Satmar Rebbe since I haven't asked him, but I know for a fact that the Bobover Rebbe permitted it and that rabbis in these communities take infertility issues extremely seriously. (True, that doesn't mean that they permit it instantly, but after one or two years of trying to have children, they do permit it.)

Secondly, Josef supposedly fails to find a clause that might permit semen analysis. There are very clear sources that permit it under certain circumstances (click here). Moreover, the fact is that this would not be shichvas zerah l'vatala. It's clearly not l'vatala since the whole point is that you are doing this for a purpose, for the purpose of analyzing the semen to see whether you can have children, thus for the mitzvah of pru u'rvu. You are not doing it to avoid pregnancy, like Onan did.

It bothers me immensely when authors mislead their (mainly secular or unaffiliated Jewish) audiences in this way. It leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth, assuming that Chasidic communities are invariably fanatical, and it's inaccurate.

Addendum: Ezra points out that this may be a historical matter, and that perhaps the situation that is recorded in the book is correct based on the time period in which it occurred. Thus, the book is only misleading if the reader applies what happened at that point in time to what would happen today, in 2012.


frum single female said...

yes, i read this book and i found it rather disturbing as least it was supposed to be fiction,which made it slightly less annoying.

chaynobody said...

I am sorry, but I dont find this misleading at all. The fact that the husband would ASSUME that he knew that there could be no heter is probably quite likely indeed (even if it may have been an incorrect assumption), especially for Chassidim who have been taught from very young that Shichvas Zera Levata is absolutely the worst possible aveirah.

Gavi said...

Unfortunately, while your analysis of the halachic parameters of the case are mostly correct (let's leave the technicalities of how to obtain said semen sample for now), there is a reality to contend with that many chareidim don't ask she'elot in this area, instead transgressing more severe prohibitions.

The culture of silence around infertility must change to have meaningful dialogue and pesak.

ezra said...

I keep a google alert on "I am Forbidden" in order to find where this novel is being discussed, because it is of great relevance to my life and moved me deeply. There are many substantive discussions of it on the internet, but I have also been struck by how some Orthodox people have been eager to find a technical flaw in the plot, perhaps as a way to not have to deal with the novel itself.

The passage the blogger quotes begins with: "The fifth year of their marriage, Mila told Josef that her physician insisted on a semen sample before prescribing fertility drugs."

From the precise dates given regularly in Markovits's novel, "The fifth year" of Mila and Josef's marriage is the year 1963.

The first IVF baby was born July 25 1978.

So 1963 was fifteen years before medical science found ways to remedy some forms of male infertility. At that time, rabbis far less stringent than the Satmar Rebbe forbid emitting "seed in vain" under any circumstance. It isn't until after 1978 that some rabbis--but not the Rebbe of Satmar--, some rabbis more lenient than Feinstein and Teitelbaum, came up with a "heter" (permission) to collect semen during intercourse by ejaculating in a pierced condom (male masturbation for a semen sample is forbidden to this day in strict ultra-Orthodox communities).

Chana the Curious would seem to know better than to assert that what is true for one segment of Orthodox Jews in 2012 was always true for all Orthodox Jews since Sinai.

But I sometimes wonder if the motivation is a desire to
discredit a hyper-accurate and challenging novel that sees much beauty in Orthodox Judaism, but also makes its readers think.

I am curious to learn which it is in Chana's case.

Critically Observant Jew said...

I'm sure you're aware of recent article re: IV feeding on Yom Kippur for people who shouldn't be fasting. If Anouk's description is correct, then unwillingness of the husband falls into the same category as getting an IV because one "must" fast on YK.

BTW, this is not something new. Listen to this lecture by R' Rakeffet:
There, he describes how many great people fall into the unwillingness to follow halacha (re: YK specifically), and instead do what's ingrained in the psyche (i.e. fast)

Chana said...


That's an interesting point you make (about the year in which this book is supposed to take place). I hadn't thought of it, so perhaps you are right that that makes what she writes about more valid. In the interests of not misleading people, if it were me, I would still have added a section at the back of the book explaining that this is not common practice.

Also, I'm pretty sure you're wrong about your statement "male masturbation for a semen sample is forbidden to this day in strict ultra-Orthodox communities" but I will look into it.

I think you could stand some work on your tone and your assumptions about me, though.

ATF said...


Before jumping to conclusions, you should read some other posts by Chana the Curious about books that may seem critical of the Orthodox world.

Unorthodox -

Hush -

ezra said...

Thank you, Chana for your reply. I am sorry if I made assumptions about you (though, I think you'll see that I phrased my characterization as a hypothesis - "perhaps as a way...sometimes I wonder if...I am curious to see")

I'm also sorry if you did not like my tone. I have tried in the below to use an entirely neutral one, though I do think it is important to pursue this topic.

I should point out that I chose the tone of my previous comment in response to your blog post, in which you call a novel "misleading" that I (and other halachically trained people) appreciate for its painstaking verisimilitude. And then later you say "Anouk is very sneaky." Such words set a tone whenever they are used, but could be particularly dangerous when used in talking about a world that tries to discredit those who question it. I am sure you know that the novels you praise, "Hush" and "Unorthodox" have been subject to many attempts to discredit them as misleading. I admire both books, and since I think I Am Forbidden is on a higher plane of artistic sophistication, it would be a particular shame if the title of your blog indicated to people that it may not be accurate, especially as you have not offered an example of something misleading in it.

I appreciate that you seem to acknowledge that you may have been wrong about what you deemed to be misleading (and I expect that you will learn the same about your thought that ultra-orthodox communities like Satmar permit masturbation in fertility treatment, though I look forward to hearing what you learn).

Do you have an example of a novel that offers disclaimers of the sort you describe, e.g. "this is an accurate depiction of the time it describes, but some things are different now"? You can see how, by the same logic, the author might have needed to include a disclaimer that although the book portrays atrocities in central europe during WWII, central europeans rarely commit such atrocities now, and although the novel includes a student rebellion in france in 1968... etc.

Even if such disclaimers were an accepted practice, I think in this case it would distract from the more central ethical issue in Markovits's novel. What troubles me most as a reader is not the implications of the emerging laws of fertility treatment, but the implications of the ancient laws that render Rachel, Judith and her siblings mamzers. I am not aware of any alteration of those laws in Orthodox Judaism, and certainly not in ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Since reading this novel, I find myself struggling with what this means for me and am eager to find a forum to discuss it.

Shasdaf said...

There are lots of articles about the permissibility. E.g., Tradition 29:4 (1995) by Rabbi J. David Bleich (note 10) which basically says:
most lenient is R. Jacob Emden, She'ilat Ya'avez, I, no. 43. She'ilat Ya'avez (though his view is rejected by most authorities as an isolated opinion. Cf., however, Ziz Eli'ezer, XIII, no. 102 and the sharp rejoinder of Igerot Mosheh, Hoshen Mishpat, II, no. 69, sec. 4.

So Ezra, keep in mind this shaila was discussed by R. Yaakov Emden in the early 1800s and even earlier in a diagnostic setting even though there not not a therapeutic setting (at least not like IVF) at that time.

ATF said...


After considering your points, I think some people would still consider the following sentence about the book - from Chana's post - accurate:

"It leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth, assuming that Chasidic communities are invariably fanatical, and it's inaccurate."

As for Anouk Markovitz - watch this video from 21:00 and on. Notice how she keeps using the word "fundamentalist" for "Orthodox" without ever coming out and saying "Orthodox Jews are fundamentalist." Sneaky indeed.

I'm curious about what you wrote "Since reading this novel, I find myself struggling with what this means for me and am eager to find a forum to discuss it."

Why look at blogs discussing the novel rather than reading halachic blogs, forums, books/sefarim or asking halakhically knowledgeable rabbis?

Chana said...


Yes. Many books include an Acknowledgements or Afterword section by the author where the author explains which parts of the book are historically accurate, which aren't and what documents were used in attesting these facts. Some examples that come to mind include 'A Discovery of Witches' by Deborah Harkness, 'Girl in a Blue Dress' by Gaynor Arnold and 'A Seat At The Table' by Joshua Halberstam. It is not inappropriate to expect that Markovits do the same, especially when it comes to supporting assertions about practices in this community.

I do still think the book is misleading, as the audience it will reach will likely not consider historical realities (if this historical reality is even true! which I am not yet convinced of) vs. today and will assume that semen samples are forbidden today as well. I know this is certainly the case of many of the people who assembled to hear Judy & Anouk speak at the JCC.

As for the issue of mamzers, this runs into one's conception of halakha. Berkovits and Soloveitchik are two who fundamentally disagree in this realm; Berkovits thinks halakha is fluid and Soloveitchik thinks it is not. More on that at this link. Orthodox Judaism cannot overturn the designation of mamzers as a halakhic category; it is not something that we can simply alter in the same way that in halakhic divorce, a man gives his wife a get, not vice versa.

Anonymous said...


Pages 81-82 of Community, Covenant and Commitment is relevant to the link you provide in the comments. It makes Berkovitz and Soloveichik sound more similar in ideology than your presentation as I understand it.

In the know. said...

BTW, I think that part of the current Rabbinical leniencies permitting certain Semen-testing is due to many new advancements in medicine.

IVF is a sort of last resort.
Today there are procedures and drugs that increases and revitalizes a male's sperm-count.
But the sperm has to be tested first, of course, before any Doctor will begin any process.

ezra said...

Thank you for the addendum to your post that clarifies that, in the one instance you provide, I Am Forbidden is not inaccurate. I think it is an admirable step in the direction of intellectual honesty on your part, but it still has a “perhaps” quality, and the use of “sneaky” and “misleading” remain, so I still think I should continue to respond to your post and your more recent comment

I try to live within a framework of intellectual honesty in which it would be a serious matter to imply that something is false or misleading if you provide no examples of it being so. I think I’m right to detect that you are not substantiating the assertions in your blog post and are instead saying “I have a hunch that I’m still right, but since I can no longer claim that I was misled, let me instead say that I’m worried that other people – such as the people I saw at a reading - might be misled.” Presumably those readers did not ask you to protect them from the novels they read.

Still, in light of your willingness to post an addendum, which I do genuinely admire, it occurs to me that your misunderstandings may stem from a lack of direct experience or understanding of the world of Satmar and how it differs from the world of modern orthodoxy. You cite some religious authorities, but surely you know that the figures you cite, while central to modern orthodoxy, are not shaping decisions in Satmar. I don’t think I Am Forbidden makes any misleading suggestion that it is set in a modern orthodox community, but I do think you mislead if you suggest that Berkovits and Soloveitchik are significant influences on legal decisions in Satmar. Soloveitchik taught Talmud to women at a University – are you aware of how anathema every aspect of that sentence is to Satmar?

Another commenter points out that in a talk Markovits used the word “fundamentalist” rather than “orthodox” and the commenter borrows your word “sneaky” to describe this word choice. I just watched the video and and it seems to me that Markovits is clearly making the intellectually honest distinction the commenter would want her to make: She uses the words “fundamentalism” and “ULTRA-Orthodoxy” to describe Satmar (as opposed to orthodox or modern-orthodoxy) and it seemed to me that Markovits was perfectly clear in her novel – e.g. the character Zalman’s railing against Zionism – that she is writing about Satmar, not modern orthodoxy.

ezra said...

(continuing the previous...)

I will look at the other examples you provide of novels with afterwords, but I downloaded the first one you list and it seems a bit absurd as a comparable. Here’s the description of the novel from the author’s website: “When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy.... For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery…. Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont.”

Harkness is a historian, so one sees why she might have been eager to explain what parts of her novel about witches, daemons, and vampires ARE based on historically accurate documents. I looked for the disclaimer you said would be there at the end of the book – a disclaimer that I assumed would clarify what things were historical and what things were imagined or which things are different in 2012 than they were at the time of the novel - but instead found a conventional acknowledgements, some suggestions for further reading, and a statement that she did her own translations.

How is that comparable to the Markovits novel – a vampire-free novel in which neither you nor I have produced any instances where it departs from historical facts or law as it is applied in Satmar ? Should the disclaimer you wish Markovits would write point out that her inclusion of the biblical story of Tamar may be sneaky and misleading because it presents the biblical story without clarifying that Tamar’s behavior is not representative behavior of all biblical women?

You say “the issue of mamzers… runs into your conception of Halacha” but surely you understand that for an ultra-Orthodox person, presuming to form one’s own conception of Halacha is itself a sin. You do seem to acknowledge that it isn’t only ultra-Orthodoxy that has fixed conceptions about mamzers. So this issue of unbending law – the one that the novel is most centrally about – is still very much with us. It is because ultra-orthodox and orthodox women fear for the status of their children, because they fear their children might be considered mamzerim, that the issue of Agunoth (women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce) is so poignant--it is because these women fear they may give birth to mamzerim that they cannot remarry. And it is still the case that a mamzer conceived in the context of the previous generation (the one depicted in the novel), or conceived under other circumstances 200 years ago – would still, in the 2012 that I think you are hoping is more enlightened, give birth to generations of mamzers.

Chana said...


I don't have the time to go into this in depth, so I will be brief.

First, the Deborah Harkness book was an example. If you didn't find it sufficiently comparable, look at 'A Seat at the Table' instead.

I am married to a man who grew up in the Bobov community in Boro Park. So yes, I think I understand the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and the Hasidic community. (This is why you should not make assumptions about me, incidentally, and my so-called "misunderstandings" about the Satmar community.) This is also why I become irritated when people mislead others about the nature of the Hasidic community- my family on my husband's side is living that lifestyle.

As an aside, I dislike the term "ultra-Orthodox," denigrating as it is, and would suggest it is not the best term for Hasidim. Anouk calls Hasidim "fundamentalists"- fine, she has the right to that term, given that she suffered in that community, although I find that designation offensive as well.

I was quoting Soloveitchik & Berkovits to YOU about Orthodox halakha and why it cannot change, not to people who are part of the Hasidic community.

I am not sure what your point is about agunot not remarrying. Yes, it is very sad. They cannot remarry and if they were to do so, their children would be mamzerim. So...where are you going with this?