Category Archives: women’s rights

purim torah

purim

Did you know that on Purim we celebrate the acceptance of the Torah.

The Talmud reveals that the original acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, was under duress and therefore non-binding:

And they stood under the mount (Exodus 19:17)

וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ, בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר

R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them (Esther 9:27) what they had already accepted.

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם

את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה – , מוטב ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא

בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש . דכתיב

קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר

[Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath 88a]

One wonders what was going through Raba’s mind that Purim popped into his head in terms of the final acceptance of the Torah…. What was he thinking… or drinking?[i]

Maybe Raba was on to something.  There’s something special about Purim and the Esther Megillah. Purim is the last Biblically ordained holiday and the scroll that we read on the evening and morning of Purim is actually the last book of the Torah.  Could it be that for Raba, Purim and the Book of Esther represented the last chapter, the Jewish people’s last chance and God’s last word? Could it be that for Raba, Purim celebrates the last echo of revelation?

If we are right, then Raba’s association of Purim with the acceptance of the Torah is both profound and ironic given that the Book of Esther’s claim to fame was so tenuous. Megilat Esther does not contain God’s name, was not written in or mention the Promised Land of Israel and includes highly unorthodox behavior including Esther’s marriage to a non-Jew, probable ingestion of non-kosher food (Megilah 13a) and no reference to any Jewish practices or the Temple. [ii]  It’s inclusion in the Canon (Torah, Prophets and Writings – Tanakh) was openly debated. [iii]

To my mind, the winning Talmudic argument for including the Scroll of Esther in the canon of the Hebrew Bible provides an insight into Raba’s understanding of the last revelation.

The Talmud[iv] asks “What is the source in Torah for Esther?  And cites Deuteronomy 31:18  “I will surely hide my face from you on that day” playing on the meaning of the name “Esther” to hide.

In a brilliant essay, Richard Elliot Friedman identifies the underlying plot of the Hebrew Bible.  He writes:  “Specifically, the major unifying component of the biblical plot is the phenomenon of the continually diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh among humans from the beginning of the book to the end, the phenomenon of Deus absconditus or, in the book’s own terms, Yahweh hammastir panav [hiding my Face]…”. Over a number of pages, Friedman shows how there is a clear transition, from Eden, when God takes care of everything through Noah, where Noah must build his own ark and to Jacob where Jacob must steal his own birthright. “Something is happening. For whatever reason, Yahweh is transferring (relinquishing?) ever more control of the course of human affairs to members of the human community.”

“In Moses’ own time, ..the people’s experience of the divine is mediated through Moses, or “masked” through the Kabod [glory] and the anan [cloud], or channeled through a series of layers…. Finally, Yahweh’s last words to Moses before summoning him to Abarim, he says, “I shall hide my face from them..” “After Moses, prophets are to experience only dreams and visions….” [v]

Commenting on The Book of Esther, he writes: “The narrative from Genesis to Esther has come full cycle from a stage on which God is alone to one on which humans are on their own. Through no longer in control of miraculous powers, humans have arrived at complete responsibility for their fortunes.”

For my fellow Feminists, interested in the connection between Eve and Esther go to the footnote[vi], but be assured that the Humantasch is the antidote for the Apple of Eden!

(see The Hiding of the Face: An essay on the literary unity of Biblical Narrative, by Richard Elliot Friedman in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).

On Purim, let’s celebrate the final giving and acceptance of the Torah. The lesson of reading the Esther Megillah with a blessing (the only one of the Ketuvim to be read with a blessing)  is to finalize what began at Sinai. On Purim we accept the end of revelation and the end of magical thinking and complete acceptance of our responsibilities as humans. We masquerade to remember, that at this giving of the Torah, we do not see or hear God, He is hidden from us and maybe we from Him. We exchange food with each other in the way that two lonely humans touch. Whether lovers, neighbors or strangers, that touch, hug or deliver a box of welcome-brownies we show that we are not alone. We experience real Simcha knowing that we as a people and as individuals have survived against all odds. And….  and like survivors since Noah after the flood… we might need a drink.  And finally, we celebrate women.. who may get us into trouble.. but more often… like Esther… save us.

Purim as a holiday celebrating the acceptance of the Torah, is transformed.  Think of the audience participation… the shouting, cheering and booing as a variation, maybe an improvement on the custom to solemnly stand as the Ten Commandments are read. Look to the side at the cross-dressing Jew standing next to you, and reflect that now that we are all alone, we are also all together, and yes, we all stood at Sinai and maybe we didn’t look that different than this crazy mixed multitude in attendance.

L’Chaim!

Esther


[i] As long as we’re connecting the story of Purim to the giving of the Torah, we might as well mention the Fast of Esther.

Before Esther goes, uninvited to the King to  plead for the Jews she tells Mordechai:

‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ (Megilat Esther 4:16)

A three day fast appears in only one other place:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19: 12)

[ii] see A Jewish Reading of Esther, Edward L. Greenstein, pp 231 – 233 in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987.

[iii] Reb Judah said in the name of Samuel “The scroll of Esther does not defile the hands (unlike a Sefer Torah) and as such was not divinely inspired [Megilah 7a). “All of the Hebrew scripture is represented at Qumron (Dead Sea Scrolls) except for the Scroll of Esther [and] it is possible that the sectarians did not observe the Purim festival and rejected the book which enjoins its observance. (see pp 106-107, 113 – 114 and note 301, The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture by Sid Z. Leiman, Archon Books, 1976)

[iv] Hullin 139b

[v] The last major public miracle… is that of Elijah at Carmel (Kings 1:19). … In a fascinating juxtaposition.. is followed by the portrayal of Elijah at Horeb. Again we see a lone prophet on Horeb/Sinai, but Elijah’s experience there is a reversal of Moses. In the place of the supreme theophany come three phenomena… (earthquake, wind, and fire), each followed by the specific qualification “Yahweh was not in (it),”.. With the destruction of the Temple at the conclusion of the Book of Kings, the last channel is removed. The prediction that Yahweh’s face will be hidden is fulfilled… Yahweh plays no apparent role whatever in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and he is not mentioned in Esther.

[vi] Friedman continues: “Seen in the light of the increasing responsibility ascribed to humans through the course of the narrative, Esther is no less interesting,… Woman, Eve, has been blamed for millennia for entering upon the course of action that brought humans out of their initial state of harmonious relations with Yahweh (Genesis 3). It seems only fair, ironic, and appropriate that the narrative concludes with a story in which humans, now in a world, in which the presence of god is hidden, turn to a woman as their chief hope of rescue. One may interpret the Eve-to-Esther connection differently, but one can hardly ignore it. Each of the Bible’s bookends has a woman’s face carved on it.”

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temples on the move

parshat pekudei

The Bible spends an inordinate amount of time prescribing, describing and cataloging the construction of the Tabernacle. You’re forgiven if you missed the punch-line:

33 ….. So Moses finished the work.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
36 And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys.
37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.

The climax is that after all the effort… the glory of God actually filled the place. Anti-climactic you say! Well, think of all the temples, synagogues, and shrines that are sterile and empty of all things divine and most things human. Think of all the building campaigns that drag on and on and when finally completed lose all sense of original and ultimate purpose and mission.

To put into perspective the accomplishment of receiving God’s glory into the Tabernacle, it’s a little known fact that there were many Jews who believed that the glory of God never favored the Second Temple with It’s presence. That’s right… the Western Wall of the 2nd Temple that pious Jews pray at, framed a temple that lacked its most basic requirement.. God’s glory.

When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he was acting out a disdain shared by the majority of Jewish sects of time:

The second temple.. although authorized by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was built by a gentile king and was never authenticated by an overt sign of divine favor. Second Isaiah, … is aware that some Jews do not approve of God’s plan (“Woe to him who strives with his maker, and earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making’? Isaiah 45:9). The old men who had seen the first temple in its glory cried at the dedication of the second temple (Ezra 3:12) – apparently tears of sadness, as they contemplated the puny temple that was before them. In the second century B.C.E., the temple’s problematic status was revealed to all. The high priests were corrupted and the temple was profaned by a gentile monarch.… Herod the Great rebuilt the temple magnificently, but his detractors viewed him as a “half-Jew,” he completely debased the high priesthood, appointing men who had even less claim than the Maccabees to be legitimate successors of Aaron.

Shaye J. D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University (quoted above) argues that it was the implicit false claims of the second temple that were primarily responsible for the emergence of sects such as the Essenes of Qumran and Dead Sea Scroll fame, the early Christians and even the Rabbinic Pharisees.  [From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J. D. Cohen (Nov 1988) pages 131-132]

Today, in America, as Judaism confronts new challenges, we don’t expect the glory of God to grace our congregations, but we do look for validation by attendance. If in the first millennium, Jews left the temple because God’s glory was absent, in the second millennium we can register the absence of God’s glory when the Jews are missing.

As Solomon Schechter, the founder of The Jewish Theological Seminary and patriarch of the Conservative Movement said:

“Every generation,” the ancient Rabbis say, “which did not live to see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple must consider itself as if it had witnessed its destruction.” Similarly we say that every age which has not made some essential contribution to the erection of the Temple of Truth … is bound to look upon itself as if it had been instrumental in its demolition. For it is these fresh contributions and the opening of new sources, with the new currents they create, that keep the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion and impart to it life and vigor. But when, through mental inertia and moral sloth, these fresh sources are allowed to dry, stagnation and decay are sure to set in. The same things happen which came’ to pass when Israel’s sanctuary was consumed in fire. [Inaugural Address, delivered November 20, 1902, Seminary Addresses and other papers by Solomon Schechter, The Burning Book Press, 1959 p 18]

Boredom, not the glory of God, is what characterizes our modern day temples… as Jay Michaelson wrote recently in The Forward describing a friend’s choice of Synagogue:

Lifelong liberal, egalitarian Jews, my friend and his wife nonetheless chose the Orthodox synagogue. Perhaps surprisingly, she was more comfortable there than he was. Yes, my friend’s wife said, she resented being excluded from participation in ritual, but at least at the Orthodox synagogue, she had access to some meaningful prayer experience. The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.

It seems to me that those of us who are in the shul business…. and there’s no business like shul business …. spend too much time discussing rituals, standards and ideology… as important as these issues might be.  Whether it is same-sex marriage, egalitarianism, musical instruments, microphones on the Sabbath or even mechitzot (separation of men and women). These are important items but they have no bearing on whether our sanctuaries are boring or inspired.

Perhaps it is the set standards  of Orthodox congregations, especially Chabad congregations which spares them the debate on these ritual issues and which permits them to focus on inspiration.  I know that my Orthodox friends may disagree, but I just can’t accept the premise that egalitarian seating and a microphone contributes to the sterility and boredom in many progressive synagogues.  We have to move beyond our standards and focus on that which engages and inspires us. (read Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer for more on this)

As a member of a Conservative Synagogue I worry about Shechter’s  “stagnation and decay” and take solace that Shechter’s movement gave birth to Havurah and Recontructionist Judaism.  At it’s core, the Conservative Movement, which today shows little movement, should be the petri dish for Jews to become more knowledgeable and for knowledgeable Jews to explore and create.  Most of all, the Conservative Movement needs to stop it’s incessant and pointless fixation with defining it’s place in the middle and instead provide an avenue for Jews to experiment and branch out.

As Scott Shays writes:

American Jewry needs the Conservative Movement to reinvent itself as a broad-spectrum association based on practice, not theology that encourages its members to reach achievable goals. Through these efforts, Conservative Jews will pioneer and illuminate the vastness of terrain between Reform and Orthodoxy.  Conservative Judaism can become the first “post-denominational” movement for Jews who feel disaffected from the way the traditional Movements are structured.  [Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry by Scott A. Shay, 2006 Devora Publishing pp 24 – 25]

At the end of the day, the message of the tabernacle; the first successful Jewish temple, was not so much that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” The real battle cry of the tabernacle was that “whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward.”

The message of the Tabernacle is that our so-called “movements” should actually move! If your temple is not experimenting and taking risks to keep “the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion” it is failing you and the Jewish endeavor. If your congregation has talked about hosting an independent minyan but has flinched, if it’s only attempt to make the weekly reading of the Torah relevant is to switch to a triennial cycle .. then shame on it and you. If your shul is not moving forward, then it is moving backward and its time to imitate the Divine Glory and move .


Solomon Schechter

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Jews Unchained

The New York Times reported this week on an FBI sting operation which caught Rabbis kidnapping and beating recalcitrant husbands into giving their wives a divorce. Madlik readers want to know why…

The short explanation is that Jewish law gives a husband the exclusive right to give a Get; a writ of divorce.  Given this asymmetrical distribution of power, Jewish Law condones the coercion of an unwilling husband to release a wife from a marriage.. using any means necessary.  In The State of  Israel, the court will put a man in jail until he gives his wife a divorce.  Maimonides provides that the court can physically beat a husband until he agrees (as-if) to give a divorce; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20.  It is clear  that the Rabbis knew that something needed fixing.  We should admit as much.  As forward-thinking as our laws were when they were made 1,000+ years ago… they are backward now.

The way it currently stands, a man can withhold a divorce until his wife pays him a ransom.. In Israel, since Jewish Law controls all marriage and divorce, the problem of a “chained Woman” agunah, is not limited to the orthodox.  Any man wishing to shakedown a wife during a bitter divorce settlement can use this lever.  In the orthodox community, both in Israel and abroad… where divorce is actually on the rise, a man can operate outside of the civil law.  Even if the civil courts sanction a divorce and favors his spouse in terms of the settlement and custody, the man can still extort her for money or better terms by withholding a Get (divorce agreement). This situation gives rise to the tough-guy rabbis caught by the FBI, whose services may be necessary but whose exorbitant fees make their motives suspect.

So far the only solutions have been of the Band-Aid variety.  One solution is a novel type of Ketubah (marriage Contract) which includes the so-called Lieberman Clause… made by Professor Saul Lieberman (who in full disclosure, performed my marriage).  As recently as July 2013, The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America issued a Resolution: Prenuptial Agreements for the Prevention of Get-Refusal.  For an organization in Israel dedicated to addressing the agunah issue visit: Mavoi Satum

The Rabbis have always considered it a great mitzvah to free an agunah, to the point that they were willing to give a deep-tissue massage to the normal rules of jurisprudence… Shockingly, they were willing to accept even a woman’s testimony when it comes to releasing an agunah. (Yeb. 88a and see my favorite Jewish Encyclopedia).

The real solution, of course, is to update the status of women in Jewish Law.  Marriage should be a transaction between equals whether it’s coed or same-sex… (The Reform movement uses a partnership agreement as a model).

Regarding a women’s status in Judaism, my litmus test has always been acceptance of a woman as a witness.  I challenge any traditional scholar or Rabbi to explain why a women is not competent to act as a witness in Jewish Law and why she is put in the same legal category as a minor or the mentally handicapped.  It’s an antediluvian bias, pure and simple.

The arguments normally raised against equal, as opposed to a separate status of women with regard to prayer and ritual (time-bound positive commandments  – The glory of a king’s daughter is inner  מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא  and כָּל-כְּבוּדָּה בַת-מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה) have no bearing on being a witness.  Seating and participation in Synagogue services and women’s Rabbis are important issues, but they are sideshows to the issue of status. What we need to solve the Agunah problem is to have any educated Jew; whether man or woman, say the obvious, that women are equal in front of the Torah… otherwise, we’ll all be at the mercy of thugs.

Professor Saul Lieberman reads the Ketubah at marriage of Orna and Geoffrey Stern

Professor Saul Lieberman reads the Ketubah at marriage of Orna and Geoffrey Stern

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