Tag Archives: gender equality

Why do Jewish women Rule?

Why and when did matrilineal descent become the norm within Judaism?

In this Mother’s Day episode of the Madlik Podcast we explore the emergence and stature of matrilineal descent within Judaism, an otherwise male dominated and patrilineal religion and legal society.

Recorded live at TCS, The Conservative Synagogue of Westport Connecticut we come to the surprising conclusion that the introduction of matrilineal descent might have more to do with removing any stigma attached to a captured and redeemed single-mother and less to do with the status of the child.

Listen to the madlik podcast:

Featured Links:

Yael Deckelbaum / Prayer of the Mothers – Official video https://youtu.be/YyFM-pWdqrY

Three Part Series by Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar Institute on

MATRILINEALITY AND PATRILINEALITY IN JEWISH LAW AND COMMUNITY, PARTS 1-3

https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/matrilineality-and-patrilineality-jewish-law-and-community-part-1

https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/matrilineality-and-patrilineality-jewish-law-and-community-part-2

https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/matrilineality-and-patrilineality-jewish-law-and-community-part-3

Podcast Notes:

  1. Breaking News

As part of the historic handover of Japan’s imperial throne on Wednesday, the incoming emperor, Naruhito, will receive a sword, a jewel and official seals in a sacred ceremony that dates back thousands of years.

But the new empress, Masako, Naruhito’s wife of 26 years, will not be allowed to attend — another illustration of the diminished status of women in the imperial family, and of the challenges women face more broadly in Japanese society.

Under the Imperial Household Law, which governs the line of succession as well as most matters of protocol related to Japan’s monarchy, women in the royal family are not permitted to be in the room when the new emperor receives the sacred regalia signifying his rightful succession to the world’s oldest monarchy.

But the prohibitions go much further. Women are not allowed to reign. In fact, women born into the royal family must officially leave it once they marry, and none of their children can be in line to the throne.   NY Times April 29, 2019

  1. In the Torah

You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the LORD’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.

Deuteronomy 7: 3- 4

וְלֹ֥א תִתְחַתֵּ֖ן בָּ֑ם בִּתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תִתֵּ֣ן לִבְנ֔וֹ וּבִתּ֖וֹ לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח לִבְנֶֽךָ
כִּֽי־יָסִ֤יר אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ מֵֽאַחֲרַ֔י וְעָבְד֖וּ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְחָרָ֤ה אַף־יְהוָה֙ בָּכֶ֔ם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ֖ מַהֵֽר

  1. In Tanach

Now then, let us make a covenant with our God to expel all these women and those who have been born to them, in accordance with the bidding of the Lord and of all who are concerned over the commandment of our God, and let the Teaching be obeyed.

Ezra 10: 3

וְעַתָּ֣ה נִֽכְרָת־בְּרִ֣ית לֵ֠א-לֹהֵינוּ לְהוֹצִ֨יא כָל־נָשִׁ֜ים וְהַנּוֹלָ֤ד מֵהֶם֙ בַּעֲצַ֣ת אֲדֹנָ֔י וְהַחֲרֵדִ֖ים בְּמִצְוַ֣ת אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְכַתּוֹרָ֖ה יֵעָשֶֽׂה

  1. In Rabbinic Judaism

Wherever there is [a valid] betrothal and no sin, the child follows the male [with regard to familial status].

Which is this? This is a Kohenet, a Levite woman, or an Israelite woman who married a Kohen, a Levite or an Israelite.

Wherever there is [a valid] betrothal and there is a sin, the child follows the defective one.

Which is this? This is a widow married to the Kohen Gadol [High Priest], a divorcee or a chalutzah [the widow of a childless man released from the obligation of levirate marriage by a ceremony performed by her brother-in-law] [married] to an ordinary Kohen, a mamzeret [the female offspring of certain prohibited relationships who may not marry into the general Jewish population] or a Netina [female Gibeonite] to an Israelite, a female Israelite to a mamzer or Netina.

[With] any [woman] for whom there is no betrothal to him, but there is betrothal to others, the child is a mamzer.

Which is this? This is one who has sexual intercourse with any one of the forbidden sexual relations [mentioned] in the Torah.

Any [woman] for whom there is no betrothal either to him or to others, the child is like her.

Which is this? This is the child of a [non-Jewish] maidservant or a non-Jewish woman.

Mishna Kiddushin 3: 12

כָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁיֵּשׁ קִדּוּשִׁין וְאֵין עֲבֵרָה, הַוָּלָד הוֹלֵךְ אַחַר הַזָּכָר

וְאֵיזֶה, זוֹ כֹהֶנֶת, לְוִיָּה וְיִשְׂרְאֵלִית שֶׁנִּשְּׂאוּ לְכֹהֵן וּלְלֵוִי וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל.

וְכָל מָקוֹם שֶׁיֵּשׁ קִדּוּשִׁין וְיֵשׁ עֲבֵרָה, הַוָּלָד הוֹלֵךְ אַחַר הַפָּגוּם.

וְאֵיזוֹ, זוֹ אַלְמָנָה לְכֹהֵן גָּדוֹל, גְּרוּשָׁה וַחֲלוּצָה לְכֹהֵן הֶדְיוֹט, מַמְזֶרֶת וּנְתִינָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַמְזֵר וּלְנָתִין.

וְכָל מִי שֶׁאֵין לָהּ עָלָיו קִדּוּשִׁין אֲבָל יֶשׁ לָהּ עַל אֲחֵרִים קִדּוּשִׁין, הַוָּלָד מַמְזֵר.

וְאֵיזֶה, זֶה הַבָּא עַל אַחַת מִכָּל הָעֲרָיוֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה.

וְכָל מִי שֶׁאֵין לָהּ לֹא עָלָיו וְלֹא עַל אֲחֵרִים קִדּוּשִׁין, הַוָּלָד כְּמוֹתָהּ.

וְאֵיזֶה, זֶה וְלַד שִׁפְחָה וְנָכְרִית

  1. Rabbinic Judaism (more) 
  2. Aha Sar Ha­Birah and R. Tanhum bdR Hiyya from K’far Akko redeemed captive women… one of whom had been impregnated by a Gentile. They came to R. Ami, who said to them: R. Yohanan, R. Elazar, R. Hanina all say: When a Gentile or a slave has intercourse with a Jewish woman, the child is a mamzer. Said R. Yosef: Is it a great trick to mention many names? Rav and Shmuel in Bavel, and R. Yehoshua b. Levi and Bar Kappara in Eretz Yisrael… all say that when a Gentile or a slave has intercourse with a Jewish woman, the child is kasher! … When a Gentile or a slave has intercourse with a Jewish woman, the child is a mamzer. R. Yehoshua b. Levi says the child is mekulkal. Abaye said to him: Why do you rely on R. Dimi [to establish that Rabbi [Yehudah Ha­Nasi]’s position was that the child is a mamzer], rely on Rabin! For when Rabin came, he said: R. Natan and R. Yehudah Ha­Nasi rule permissively… Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 44b­-45b[i]

רבי אחא שר הבירה ור’ תנחום בריה דרבי חייא איש כפר עכו פרוק הנהו שבוייתא דאתו מארמון לטבריא הוה חדא דאעברא מעובד כוכבים ואתו לקמיה דר’ אמי אמר להו ר’ יוחנן ור’ אלעזר ור’ חנינא דאמרי עובד כוכבים ועבד הבא על בת ישראל הולד ממזר

אמר רב יוסף רבותא למחשב גברי הא רב ושמואל בבבל ורבי יהושע בן לוי ובר קפרא בארץ ישראל ואמרי לה חלופי בר קפרא ועיילי זקני דרום דאמרי עובד כוכבים ועבד הבא על בת ישראל הולד כשר

אלא אמר רב יוסף רבי היא דכי אתא רב דימי אמר רבי יצחק בר אבודימי משום רבינו אמרו עובד כוכבים ועבד הבא על בת ישראל הולד ממזר

רבי יהושע בן לוי אומר הולד מקולקל למאן אילימא לקהל הא אמר רבי יהושע הולד כשר אלא לכהונה דכולהו אמוראי דמכשרי מודו שהולד פגום לכהונה

מק”ו מאלמנה מה אלמנה לכהן גדול שאין איסורה שוה בכל בנה פגום זו שאיסורה שוה בכל אינו דין שבנה פגום

מה לאלמנה לכהן גדול שכן היא עצמה מתחללת הכא נמי כיון שנבעלה פסלה

דאמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון מנין לעובד כוכבים ועבד הבא על הכהנת ועל הלויה ועל הישראלית שפסלוה שנאמר (ויקרא כב, יג) ובת כהן כי תהיה אלמנה וגרושה מי שיש לו אלמנות וגירושין בה יצאו עובד כוכבים ועבד שאין להם אלמנות וגירושין בה

אמר ליה אביי מאי חזית דסמכת אדרב דימי סמוך אדרבין דכי אתא רבין אמר רבי נתן ורבי יהודה הנשיא מורים בה להיתירא ומאן רבי יהודה הנשיא רבי

6.   Reform Responsa

The concept of paternity as the determining factor in progeny being considered as having Jewish descent is a constant in the Hebrew Bible, as the authors of the Report elaborated: “both the Biblical and the Rabbinical traditions take for granted that ordinarily the paternal line is decisive in the tracing of descent within the Jewish people.” Numerous examples in the Hebrew Bible determine a child’s status by the father’s tribe. The Report further asserts, “in the Rabbinic tradition, this tradition remains in force,” citing as prooftexts examples of Priestly status–“the child of an Israelite who marries a Kohenet is an Israelite” and the Talmudic precept, “the most important parental responsibility to teach Torah rested with the father (Kiddushin 29a; df. Shulchan Aruch, Yoredeah 245.1).” Only in the case where “the marriage was considered not to be licit, the child of that marriage followed the status of the mother (Mishna Kiddushin 3.12, havalad kemotah).” The Report offers a sociological interpretation of the reason for matrilineal descent in illicit unions: “the woman with her child had no recourse but to return to her own people.[ii]

  1. In Contemporary Israel – The Problem

Lev Paschov, an Israeli soldier who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return from the Former Soviet Union, was killed while on active duty in Southern Lebanon in 1993, and buried twice. He was first interred in a regular Israeli military cemetery, but after it was discovered that his mother was not Jewish, his body was exhumed, and Paschov was buried a second time, in a cemetery for non-Jews.

For many Israelis, the macabre end of Paschov’s brief life journey was deeply disturbing. How was it possible that someone could be welcomed to Israel under the Law of Return, serve the Jewish state’s army, and die defending his adopted homeland, and still not be considered Jewish enough to be buried alongside his comrades?[iii]

  1. Return to Patrilineal descent in Israel

Responsa of Rabbi  Ben­Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the chief rabbi of Israel in the 1940s and 1950

…From here we learn,that a patrilineal Jew brought by his father for a conversion should be accepted by the beit din. Even though this child is called the child of the Gentile woman, he is still considered zera yisrael (of Jewish stock)… everyone agrees that children of a Jewish man born to a Gentile woman are called zera yisrael, therefore, when the father brings him to convert, the child reverts to his original lineage. Responsa Piskei Uzziel Be­She’eilot Hazeman #64[iv]

 

…מכאן אנו לומדים במכל שכן כשגוי זה הוא בן ישראל מנכרית ואביו מביאו להתגייר שבי”ד נזקקים לגרותו משום דאע”ג שהוא נקרא בנה של הנכרית אינו יוצא מכלל זרע ישראל… הלכך כשאביו הביאו להתגייר חוזר הילד לעיקר זרעו, … הא למדת דבן הבא מן הנכרית נקרא זרעו של ישראל ועובר עליו משום ומזרעך לא תתן להעביר למולך, הלכך אם בא לגיירו מצוה עלינו להזדקק לגרותו כדי לכפר עון האב מאחרי הגרות ולבל ידח ממנו נדח. ואין לחוש שמא יגרר אחרי אמו דאדרבא אם דוחים אותו ועוקרים אותו ממקור חייו וזרעו שהוא אביו ודאי שיטמע בין הגויים ויכפור באלהי ישראל, וישנא תכלית שנאה את היהדות ותורתה…

 

  1. Feminist Response – Irony

I hope it is not impertinent, for someone writing thousands of miles distant from the great country in which the women’s liberation movement has made such rapid strides, to express astonishment that the clamor to change an ancient law which makes Jewish status depend on the mother should have originated in that very country.

There is no problem of Descent, Lous Jacobs[v]

10. Feminist Response – The Jewish Community’s “Need” to Punish Men Who Intermarry

Judith Hauptmann, a Talmud scholar widely known for her work in advancing feminist scholarship of Judaism … proceeds to argue that the modern Jewish community should not rescind matrilineal descent because doing so would have the effect of removing a punishment against Jewish men who intermarry.[vi]

  1. Matrilineal descent Redux

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh  Genesis 2: 24

 

עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

Rashi  ONE FLESH — Both parents are united in the child.

לבשר אחד. הַוָּלָד נוֹצָר עַל יְדֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם וְשָׁם נַעֲשֶׁה בְשָׂרָם אֶחָד

 

Genesis 17: 21

וְאֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אָקִ֣ים אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק אֲשֶׁר֩ תֵּלֵ֨ד לְךָ֤ שָׂרָה֙ לַמּוֹעֵ֣ד הַזֶּ֔ה בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הָאַחֶֽרֶת׃

But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman[vii]. Exodus 2: 1

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִ֖ישׁ מִבֵּ֣ית לֵוִ֑י וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־בַּת־לֵוִֽי

[i] MATRILINEALITY AND PATRILINEALITY IN JEWISH LAW AND COMMUNITY, PART 1 Rabbi Ethan Tucker

[ii] 1 “Reform Movement’s Resolution on Patrilineal Descent,” Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent, adopted on March 15, 1983. Can be accessed at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/source/Judaism/patrilineal1.html

[iii] WHAT, NOT WHO, IS A JEW? Daniel Gordis March 1, 2011

[iv] MATRILINEALITY AND PATRILINEALITY IN JEWISH LAW AND COMMUNITY, PART 2, Rabbi Ethan Tucker

See also: https://books.google.com/books?id=MlImAQAAIAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=Irregular+marriages

[v] Originally published in Judaism 34.1 (Winter 1985), 55-59.

[vi] Patrilineal Descent–an Examination of Non-Lineal Descent.” Judaism, Winter 1985, pp. 46-50.

[vii] Laws regarding a Bat Levi as relates to the redemption of the first born son: If the father is a kohen or a levi, or if the mother is the daughter of a cohen or a levi, there is no mitzvah of pidyon haben (Shulchan Aruch 305:18).

If a boy is born from a non-Jewish father and a bas levi, there is also no mitzvah of pidyon haben since his mother is the daughter of a levi. However, if a boy is born from a non-Jewish father and a bas kohen, a pidyon haben is performed. Since the daughter of the kohen has violated her kedusha by having relations with a gentile, she loses her hallachic status as a bas kohen (Shulchan Aruch 305:18). Similarly, if a bas yisroel has a child with a non-Jew, a pidyon haben is performed. The Aruch Hashulchan comments that in this scenario it is difficult to ascertain who is obligated to perform the pidyon haben. The father, who is not Jewish, is obviously not obligated to perform this or any mitzvah. The mother is exempt as well, as this mitzvah is never the obligation of the mother (as we shall explain). Rather, in this case the child should perform his own pidyon when he reached the age of thirteen. Other poskim disagree and feel that the beis din should perform the pidyon right away- see Igros Moshe Y.D. 195 and Sheilas Yeshurun page 140.

 

The mishna taught that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur.

However, what is the special joy of the fifteenth of Av? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: This was the day on which the members of different tribes were permitted to enter one another’s tribe, by intermarriage. It was initially prohibited to intermarry between tribes, so as to keep each plot of land within the portion of the tribe that originally inherited it. This halakha was instituted by the Torah in the wake of a complaint by the relatives of the daughters of Zelophehad, who were worried that if these women married men from other tribes, the inheritance of Zelophehad would be lost from his tribe (see Numbers 36:1–12).

What did they expound, in support of their conclusion that this halakha was no longer in effect? The verse states: “This is the matter that the Lord has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: Let them marry whom they think best; only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry” (Numbers 36:5). They derived from the verse that this matter shall be practiced only in this generation, when Eretz Yisrael was divided among the tribes, but afterward members of different tribes were permitted to marry. On the day this barrier separating the tribes was removed, the Sages established a permanent day of rejoicing.

 

א”ר שמעון ב”ג לא היו ימים טובים לישראל כחמשה עשר באב וכיוה”כ: בשלמא יום הכפורים משום דאית ביה סליחה ומחילה יום שניתנו בו לוחות האחרונות

אלא ט”ו באב מאי היא אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל יום שהותרו שבטים לבוא זה בזה

מאי דרוש (במדבר לו, ו) זה הדבר אשר צוה ה’ לבנות צלפחד וגו’ דבר זה לא יהא נוהג אלא בדור זה

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Sinning for God

Esther’s Purim message and how women save the world

Using Esther and other Biblical heroines we explore a feminist take on a Rabbinic theme of women sinning for the sake of heaven and for a greater good….

Listen to the madlik podcast:

The podcast was recorded in front of a live audience at a Kavanah session at TCS – The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT.

——————————–

notes:

Esther

Esther sent a message to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise, and so will I go in to the king, not according to the custom” (Esther 4:16). Rabbi Abba said: It will not be according to my usual custom, for every day until now when I submitted myself to Ahasuerus it was under compulsion, but now I will be submitting myself to him of my own free will. And Esther further said: “And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). What she meant was: Just as I was lost to my father’s house ever since I was brought here, so too, shall I be lost to you, for after voluntarily having relations with Ahasuerus, I shall be forever forbidden to you. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 15a)[i][ii]

לך כנוס את־כל־היהודים הנמצאים בשושן וצומו עלי ואל־תאכלו ואל־תשתו שלשת ימים לילה ויום גם־אני ונערתי אצום כן ובכן אבוא אל־המלך אשר לא־כדת וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי עד אשר לא כדת אמר רבי אבא שלא כדת היה שבכל יום ויום עד עכשיו באונס ועכשיו ברצון וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי כשם שאבדתי מבית אבא כך אובד ממך

Tamar

Ulla said: Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with her father-in-law, Judah (see Genesis, chapter 38),] and Zimri ben Salu also engaged in licentious sexual intercourse [with a Midianite woman (see Numbers, chapter 25).]  Tamar engaged in licentious sexual intercourse and merited that kings descended from her and she also merited to be the ancestor of prophets [e.g., Isaiah, who was related to the royal family]. Conversely, with regard to Zimri, several multitudes of Israel fell due to him.

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Greater is a transgression committed for its own sake, i.e., for the sake of Heaven, than a mitzva performed not for its own sake.

The Gemara questions this comparison: But didn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav said: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot even not for their own sake, as it is through acts performed not for their own sake that good deeds for their own sake come about? How, then, can any transgression be considered greater than a mitzva not for the sake of Heaven?

אמר עולא תמר זינתה זמרי זינה

תמר זינתה יצאו ממנה מלכים ונביאים זמרי זינה נפלו עליו כמה רבבות מישראל

אמר ר”נ בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה והאמר רב יהודה אמר רב לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן

Yael

Rather say: A transgression for the sake of Heaven is equivalent to a mitzva not for its own sake. The proof is as it is written: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Hever the Kenite, above women in the tent she shall be blessed” (Judges 5:24 Etz Hayim p 425), and it is taught: Who are these “women in the tent?” They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Yael’s forbidden intercourse with Sisera for the sake of Heaven is compared to the sexual intercourse in which the Matriarchs engaged.[iii]

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: That wicked one, Sisera, engaged in seven acts of sexual intercourse with Yael at that time, as it is stated: “Between her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; between her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27). Each mention of falling is referring to another act of intercourse.

אלא אימא כמצוה שלא לשמה דכתיב (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נשים שבאהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

א”ר יוחנן שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותה שעה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כז) בין רגליה כרע נפל שכב בין רגליה כרע נפל באשר כרע שם נפל שדוד

Lots Daughters         Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Avin said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa said: A
person should always come first with regard to a matter of a mitzva, as in reward of the one night that the elder daughter of Lot preceded the younger for the sake of a mitzva, she merited to precede the younger daughter by four generations to the monarchy of the Jewish people. The descendants of Ruth the Moabite ruled over the Jewish people for four generations: Obed, Yishai, David, and Solomon, before the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose mother was Naamah the Ammonite. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nazir 23:b)

א”ר חייא בר אבין א”ר יהושע בן קרחה לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשכר לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה

זכתה וקדמה ארבעה דורות בישראל למלכו’

Eve

Starting with Eve and that damned apple, women have been depicted (and mostly condemned) as the willful and wily seducers of men: …Even the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, a woman who is the apparent victim of rape, is blamed by some of the more misogynistic rabbinical sages for provoking her rapist. And a minority tradition in the rabbinical literature reaches a similar conclusion about Lot’s daughters: “Lot is a warning example to men to avoid being alone with women, lest [they] should entice them to sin, as did Lot’s daughters.”

However, “an open-eyed reading of the Bible reveals that women play a crucial and dynamic role in the destiny of humankind, in both Jewish and Christian tradition. Inevitably, a woman figures decisively in the recurring theme of “the birth of the chosen one,” starting with the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible and culminating with the Virgin Mary in the Christian Bible. As we have already seen, Lot’s daughters and Judah’s daughter-in-law are examples of how the bearer of the “chosen one” is not passively impregnated with the seed of a patriarch; rather, these women take it upon themselves to defy the will of powerful men and sometimes God himself in order to bring about the crucial birth. Indeed, the Bible frequently singles out “the woman as initiator of events,” as Ramras-Rauch puts it. “From Eve through Sarah and Esther, women have shaped sacred history through word and deed.””[iv]

Contemporary Feminist Interpretations of the “Sin” of Eve [v]

Mieke Bal[vi] does not see the action of eating the fruit as sin. Rather, Bal views the woman’s choice to eat as a way to gain the wisdom that will make her like God. Ironically, her choice also fulfills God’s intention of humanity made in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). By choosing to eat and gain knowledge, including sexual knowledge, the woman makes the continuance of the species possible, even though the individual will not be immortal. Her choice is a choice for reality. Her choice puts an end to the fantasy of individual immortality. It opens up reality as we know it.

Lyn Bechtel asks, why, if humans were created immortal, were they also created sexual? If they were created immortal, why were they made of finite clay? Why after eating the fruit do the humans fear their nakedness rather than death? Why is it considered punishment for Adam to be sent into the world to be a farmer, when Genesis 2:5 tells us that humans were intended to cultivate the ground? Bechtel interprets the Adam and Eve story as the story of human maturation…. Thus it is better to interpret this to mean that those who eat will become aware of the reality of death. That is what gradually happens as we mature. … After the humans mature, they are ready to enter the world where they will take up their life’s work, the work God intended them to do from the beginning. Although Bechtel sees the story as androcentric, she does not believe it is sexist. In addition, her reading has the advantage of placing life in the real world in a positive light. It is not a punishment for sin, but the world God created for mature men and women to share as partners.

Dutch scholar Ellen van Wolde discusses this problem in her treatment of the Adam and Eve story, which is similar to Bechtel’s. She sees the clue to the whole story in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” She writes: As man leaves his father and mother to become independent, so man, male and female, leaves YHWH God by means of his transgression of the prohibition in 3:1–7 to become independent. . . . The realization that verse 2:24 presents man’s process of development in a nutshell and the realization that a similar behavior can be observed in man’s attitude towards YHWH God, makes the reader aware of the fact that Gen 2–3 is really one extensive description of this growth.  Van Wolde sees the transgression as a necessary disobedience, because freedom is the one thing that God could not build directly into the universe. Freedom cannot be conferred. It can only be grasped.

Carol Meyers, one of the most important recent interpreters of the Adam and Eve story, treats Genesis 2–3 as a narrative of human origins, as a story that explains why certain human conditions are as they are, and as a parable or wisdom tale.  … The prominent role of the female rather than the male in the wisdom aspects of the Eden tale is a little-noticed feature of the narrative. It is the woman, and not the man, who perceives the desirability of procuring wisdom. The woman, again not the man, is the articulate member of the first pair who engages in dialogue even before the benefits of the wisdom tree have been produced. This association between the female and the qualities of wisdom may have a mythic background, with the features of a Semitic wisdom goddess underlying the intellectual prominence of the woman of Eden.

[i] See also Tosefot Ketubot 3b “Lidrosh”

[ii] According to Rabbinic tradition, Esther was married to Mordechai: The verse states: “And when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). A tanna taught a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: Do not read the verse literally as for a daughter [bat], but rather read it as for a home [bayit]. This indicates that Mordecai took Esther to be his wife. (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 13a)

ובמות אביה ואמה לקחה מרדכי לו לבת תנא משום ר”מ אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית

[iii] Alternative reading in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Horayot 10b: Who are these “women in the tent”? They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and Yael is more blessed than they are. Apparently, a mitzva performed not for its own sake is a negative phenomenon.

אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק גדולה עבירה לשמה ממצוה שלא לשמה שנאמר (שופטים ה, כד) תבורך מנשים יעל אשת חבר הקיני מנשים באהל תבורך מאן נינהו נשים באהל שרה רבקה רחל ולאה

[iv] Kirsch, Jonathan. The Harlot by the Side of the Road (pp. 58 and 251-252). Random House Publishing Group.

[v] See: Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes – Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible by Alice Ogden Bellis, 2007 chapter 2 The Story of Eve

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Jerusalem is the capital of Israel

Jerusalem is and will always be the capital of Israel – my thoughts.

I despise the concept of Intersectionality, which at its core holds that if you believe in one thing you must believe in another. For example: If you object to the discrimination of people based on sexual preference and you support LGBT rights then you must also support the delegitimization of all Israelis as oppressors and colonialists… and support BDS.

As a student of the history of ideas, nothing could be more regressive and repressive than suggesting that if you hold one truth, you must hold another. Innovation occurs not only when new ideas are conceived but also when existing ideas are combined in novel ways. I love nothing more than when women’s rights groups include both pro choice and pro life feminists. I dream of the day when fundamentalists embrace environmentalism and global warming because, after-all, God created the world and left us humans as custodians.

Which brings me to Jerusalem, the de facto and historical capital of Israel.

Here is something that both those Jews and Israelis on the right and on the left can and should agree upon. We should savor such opportunities.

Those of us on the left (I am guilty as charged) should welcome the opportunity to join all informed Jews and Israelis in acknowledging the historical and unbroken ties of the Jewish people to Jerusalem as our capital. As in… Next Year in rebuilt Jerusalem… ירושלים הבנויה (not necessarily… greater Jerusalem).

The fact that Trump has spoken this truth is actually a blessing in disguise since it sugar-coats this truth to our Palestinian brothers and sisters in the most light-handed way possible. Trump is not known for speaking the truth, so when he does speak the truth (even a broken clock is right twice a day) it is arguably easier to swallow.

We in the West, on the left and the Palestinian leadership do our Palestinian brothers and sisters no favor by reinforcing an unattainable belief that a united Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian State.

West Jerusalem was liberated by the Jewish State of Israel in the 1948 war initiated by the surrounding Arab States and supported by the indigenous Arab population (aka the Palestinians), and is not up for negotiation as long as the State of Israel exists.

There are other truths that we (Jews and Israelis on both the right and left) can and should embrace.

Notwithstanding the proclamations of another institution which has a problem with the truth (UNESCO), the Temple Mount was first and foremost…. the Ancient Hebrew’s Temple Mount. The fact that from time immemorial conquest of a foreign nation entailed the conquerer erecting their Temple on the ruins of the vanquished’ temple erases historical truth no more than does the piss of a dog marking territory previously inhabited by a prior canine.

The Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, and other historical facts are not negotiable. As far as I am concerned the Muslims are welcome to keep their mosque on the Temple Mount and maintain the status quo as long as they respect and protect the right of all religions to pray there (which, regrettably, they don’t.. another un-truth).

So does truth-telling destroy the non-existent peace process? Or should we ask whether treating our Palestinian brothers and sisters as children who cannot handle the truth destroys any chance for compromise and realism?

Does truth-telling undermine the honest-broker status of the West? Or should we ask whether propping up a Palestinian leadership which profits from and feeds it’s people ahistorical and unattainable untruths promotes conflict resolution?

I can say and ask all of the above and still believe in a Two-State Solution and mourn the injustice (as in אי צדק) of the Occupation. So much for Intersectionality…..

[Sorry for the picture, but it got your attention.]

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a gracious ruse and a crooked path

Parshat Yitro

Judaism has long valued attribution and respect for Intellectual Property. Any student of the oral tradition (Mishna, Talmud, Midrashic literature) knows the lengths to which our scholars go to correctly identify their sources.


The Talmud even argues that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – “whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life).”[ia]

This concept of honoring and revealing one’s sources goes back to the Bible. One cannot but take notice that when the Bible takes leave of the narrative of Genesis and the Exodus and enters the real business of providing a legal code, it abruptly introduces Jethro; Moses’ father in law, a local pagan minister and tribal leader.

Jethro is credited with providing a common sense hierarchy and organizational tree for the Judicial Branch. In fact, a whole section of the weekly torah readings is named after Jethro. This is extraordinary given that this same weekly portion contains the Ten Commandments …. but it is Jethro who gets top billing. Read the text:

And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ….. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.…Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God.”.…. And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” …. “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: …. you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace. Exodus 18 1 – 23

At least as regards the structure of the Judiciary Branch, the Torah does not suffer from a Not Invented Here mentality and for that it distinguishes itself from many ideologies and idialogues… But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jethro is used to introduce more than just a pre-existent or pagan system of courts incorporated into the Divine Law. Note that Jethro also “took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God”. As the Etz Hayim commentary correctly notes: “These are the two main types of sacrifices offered in ancient Israel. The first, olah, was wholly consumed by fire on the alter as a tribute to God; the second, zevah, was partially offered up, and the major portion eaten at a festive meal.” So the Torah, in suggesting that much of the laws to follow were “borrowed” from the existing culture and religion of the day, does not limit itself to Judiciary reform… it includes also the ritual law, including the sacrosanct priestly code of the temple and it’s sacrifices.

This is a radical thesis… to say the least. It is one thing to say that the Torah was open to some practical input regarding the structure of the judiciary.. it is quite another to say that the Torah borrowed its core rituals and laws of purity from the local practices of the ancient Near East. Far be it from me, your friendly blogger, to be so audacious. For this, I go to a higher authority… Moses Maimonides in his classic work The Guide for the Perplexed.[i]

The Hebrew word for Perplexed – Nevuchim) first appears in the Torah in the mouth of Pharaoh… Exodus 14:3 who sees that the Jews look confused and perplexed… and are living up to their latter appellation of Wandering Jews…

And Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel: They are perplexed in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.

וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם, הַמִּדְבָּר.

Buried in Part III, chapter 32 of The Guide, Maimonides makes a radical suggestion (quoted in full in the footnote[ii]); namely that all the laws of the Temple and Priesthood are only borrowed conventions, designed to move his Chosen People and humanity in a new direction. Maimonides calls this a “gracious ruse” a concept perhaps borrowed from the second-century-C.E. philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias who developed the theory of divine condescendence (Greek synkatabasis; cf. Arabic talattuf Hebrew:   הערמה האלהית  ibn tibbon )[iii] where God, in His Torah, not only “speaks in the language of man” but also legislates using existing social norms and customs, as limited as they may be. Similar to the Lurianic Kabbalistic concept of contraction (Tzimzum), God and His Torah, so to speak, descends into the muck of the crooked timber of humanity to enrich the human condition.

Even rituals such as fasting, tzizit, mezuzah, tefillin, supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship… even the festivals and the Shabbat, are not the goal… but means to a goal and were ultimately poached, absorbed or modified from existing pagan practices. According to Maimonides, it is our job, 2,000 plus years later to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing. It is our job, nay mitzvah, to study comparative religion of the ancient Near East and to try to distinguish what parts of the teachings and commandments of the Torah are “borrowed” steps and which contain within them ultimate goals.

Maimonides realized the radical nature of such a suggestion.  He writes:

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry.

This is truly a paradigm shift for our task in studying the Torah is now turned on its head.  Not only are we implicitly obligated to use comparative religion, anthropology, archaeology, Near Eastern studies, linguistics, sociology and common sense to understand the context and antecedents of Biblical law and narrative, but we are challenged to discern not the letter of the law but rather the direction in which it points.  Torah is less a book of laws and more a path… an arguably crooked and perplexing path.. but one we are dared to follow.

Happy are they that are upright in the way, who walk in the torah of the LORD.  (Psalms 119: 1)

אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ–    הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה


[ia] Why redemption, for properly attributing source material? The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews. See also: the Gemara (Nazir 56b) which states that when there is a long line of attribution, you need only mention the first and last.

[i] By way of introduction; Maimonides, wrote his seminal philosophic work: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim) in such a way so that it would enlighten those inquirers for whom it was intended but whose most heterodox and controversial ideas would be buried “in dispersed chapters” (see Epistle Dedicatory and see Leo Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing.)

[ii] It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars,  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; … He selected priests for the service in the temple; …He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan (literally “gracious ruse”) it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; …In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom (literally “gracious ruse”), according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. …As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit anyone who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed,” in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. xii. 26): in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: …. and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of zizit (Num. xy. 38); mezuzah (Dent. vi. 9; xi. 20); tefillin (Exod. xiii. 9, 16): and similar kinds of divine service.

Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. …. Isaiah exclaimed,” To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. i. 11): ….For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at all about burnt-offering and sacrifice. ….. …. The Psalmist says:” Hear, 0 my people, and I will speak; 0 Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 1. 29).– Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

[iii] See A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason By Guy G. Stroumsa Harvard University Press, 2010 page 93

For a source of Temple as gracious ruse in the Midrash, see:

מדרש אגדה תרומה:

“דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה … ועשית את המזבח עצי שטים” – כל עניין המנורה והשולחן והמזבח והקרשים והאהל והיריעות וכל כלי המשכן – מפני מה? אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה: ריבונו של עולם, מלכי הגויים יש להם אוהל ושולחן ומנורה ומקטר קטורת, וכן הוא תכסיסי מלוכה, כי כל מלך צריך לכך, ואתה הוא מלכנו גואלנו מושיענו – לא יהיו לפניך תכסיסי מלוכה, עד שיוודע לכל באי עולם כי אתה הוא המלך?

אמר להם: בני, אותם בשר ודם צריכים לכל זה, אבל אני איני צריך, כי אין לפני לא אכילה ולא שתייה, ואיני צריך מאור, ועבדי יוכיחו כי השמש והירח מאירים לכל העולם ואני משפיע עליהם מאורי, ואני אשגיח עליכם לטובה בזכות אבותיכם.

אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה: ריבונו של עולם, אין אנחנו מבקשים את האבות (ישעיה ס”ג), “כי אתה אבינו, אברהם לא ידענו וישראל לא הכרנו”. אמר להם הקב”ה: אם כן, עשו מה שאתם חפצים, אלא עשו אותם כאשר אני מצווה אתכם… שנאמר “ועשו לי מקדש…” “ועשו מנורה… ועשו שולחן… ועשו מזבח מקטר קטרת”.

Spinoza poached this idea from Maimonides in A Theological-Political Treatise Chap. V : “The patriarchs, did not sacrifice to God at the bidding of a Divine right, or as taught by the basis of the Divine Law, but simply in accordance with the custom of the time: and, if in so doing they followed any ordinance, it was simply the ordinance of the country they were living in, by which (as we have seen before in the case of Melchisedek) they were bound.”  p. 73 1951 Dover publication Elwes translation.

Compare also to “the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative” (Italian – Iranian Hall of Mirrors, NY Times, Roger Cohen.

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Honor Thy Sources

Parshat Yitro

Anyone who has seen the Golden Globes multiple award winning movie; The Social Network, knows the ethical and legal value of the history of an idea. Deciding whether Mark Zuckerberg came up with the key elements of Facebook on his own, or whether he “borrowed” the idea from the Winklevoss twins is a $65 million dollar question. Judaism has long valued attribution and respect for Intellectual Property. Any student of the oral tradition (Mishna, Talmud, Midrashic literature) knows the lengths to which our scholars go to correctly identify their sources.

The Talmud even argues that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. From Pirkei Avot (6:6; cf Hullin 104b, etc): kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). Why redemption, for properly attributing source material? The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews. (see)

This concept of honoring and revealing one’s sources goes back to the Bible. One cannot but take notice that when the Bible segues between the narrative introduction of Genesis and the first chapters of Exodus (creation, the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt), and enters the real business of providing a legal code, it abruptly introduces Jethro; Moses’ father in law, a local pagan minister and tribal leader.

Jethro is credited with providing a hierarchy and organizational tree for the Judicial Branch. In fact, a whole section of the weekly torah readings is named after Jethro. This same weekly portion contains the Ten Commandments but it is Jethro who gets top billing. Read the text:

And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ….. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.…Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God.”.…. And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” …. “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: …. you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace. Exodus 18 1 – 23

At least as regards the structure of the Judiciary Branch, the Torah does not suffer from a Not Invented Here mentality and for that it distinguishes itself from many ideologies and idialogues… But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jethro is used to introduce more than just a pre-existent or pagan system of courts incorporated into the Divine Law. Note that Jethro also “took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God”. As the Etz Hayim commentary correctly notes: “These are the two main types of sacrifices offered in ancient Israel. The first, olah, was wholly consumed by fire on the alter as a tribute to God; the second, zevah, was partially offered up, and the major portion eaten at a festive meal.” So the Torah, in suggesting that much of the laws to follow were “borrowed” from the existing culture and religion of the day, does not limit itself to Judiciary reform… it includes also the ritual law, including the sacrosanct priestly code of the temple and it’s sacrifices.

This is a radical thesis… to say the least. It is one thing to say that the Torah was open to some practical input regarding the structure of the judiciary.. it is quite another to say that in fact, the Torah borrowed its core rituals and laws of purity from the local practices of the ancient Near East. Far be it from me, your friendly blogger, to be so audacious. For this, I go to a higher authority… Moses Maimonides.

By way of introduction; Maimonides, wrote his seminal philosophic work: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim) in such a way so that it would enlighten those inquirers for whom it was intended but whose most heterodox and controversial ideas would be buried “in dispersed chapters” (see Epistle Dedicatory and see Leo Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing.)

The Hebrew word for Perplexed – Nevuchim) first appears in the Torah in the mouth of Pharaoh… Exodus 14:3 who sees that the Jews look confused and perplexed… and are living up to their latter appellation of Wandering Jews…’ Maimonides gives the following explanation. I quote at length because it is so revolutionary and rich with powerful implications for understanding the practical (halachic) teachings of the Torah.

Buried in Part III, chapter 32 of The Guide, Maimonides writes:

It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars,  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; … He selected priests for the service in the temple; …He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan (literally “gracious ruse”) it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; …In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom (literally “gracious ruse”), according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. …As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any one who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed,” in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. xii. 26): in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: …. and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of zizit (Num. xy. 38); mezuzah (Dent. vi. 9; xi. 20); tefillin (Exod. xiii. 9, 16): and similar kinds of divine service.

Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. …. Isaiah exclaimed,” To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. i. 11): ….For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at all about burnt-offering and sacrifice. ….. …. The Psalmist says:” Hear, 0 my people, and I will speak; 0 Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 1. 29).– Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

Maimonides is saying that all the laws of the Temple and Priesthood are only borrowed conventions, designed to move his Chosen People and humanity in a new direction. Even rituals such as fasting, zizit, mezuzah, tefillin, supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship are not the goal… but means to a goal. It is our job, 2,000+ years latter to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing. It is our job to study comparative religion of the ancient Near East and to try to distinguish what parts of the teachings and commandments of the Torah are “borrowed” steps and which contain within them ultimate goals. As he writes:

The chief object of the Law, as has been shown by us, is the teaching of truths; to which the truth of the creatio ex nihilo belongs. It is known that the object of the law of Sabbath is to confirm and to establish this principle, as we have shown in this treatise. In addition to the teaching of truths the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. (ibid)

So when we review Biblical injunctions and prohibitions such as: “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22) we need to ask whether this is a prescriptive law based on an ultimate goal or a descriptive remnant and an accommodation to a then current social bias. The same holds true for all gender and class bias found in the Torah as relates to women, slaves, the deaf, dumb and handicapped.

By honoring our sources a whole new universe of discussion and enlightenment is possible. Let the learning begin…

This blog is written in memory of my father-in-law Shimon Wexler; Shimon ben Aharon u’ Miriam

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