Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Misogyny (part 1)

Parshat Ki Teizei

This week's topic is one that I've pushed off a couple times.  It's one of the hardest ones to write for me.  Although, since this issue was one of the major moral areas that I disagreed with the Torah (and Orthodox Judaism as a whole), I would be remiss if I didn't discuss it.

One of the difficulties I have with talking about this topic, is that I often butt up against a standard religious response.  If I'm talking to a guy, he will say, "My wife/sister/daughter doesn't think Judaism is misogynous.  Who are you (a male) to tell her otherwise?"  Of course, a similar response is often offered by women, except they're able to use themselves as the example.

To this I have two responses.  First, misogyny is not the sole domain of men.  Women can be misogynous too!  If I had time I could point our various psychological studies that point this out, but this is not the area I wish to discuss, so you reader, will have to do your own research if you don't believe me.  The second response is specifically for the male religious people.  I would say, perhaps they do think Judaism is misogynous, but they won't tell you because you are dismissive of their issues, as you currently are being dismissive of my issues.  Then, if needed I can mention various female scholars, such as Rachel Adler who left Orthodoxy for the explicit reason of its misogynistic tendencies.  Nevertheless, it is with some trepidation that I write about this topic, but I feel that I must.

While writing this topic it kept growing longer and longer.  As such, I decided to split it into two weeks.  In this week, we will look at the view of women in the Torah, and a little bit in the rest of Tanach. We will see that the Torah reflects a previous era of thinking in which women are automatically a lower class than men, a way of thinking that only has been overcome very recently and never completely. We will see numerous examples of women as lower class citizens.  Next week, we will move into how traditional Judaism treats women.  We will look at some Rabbinic statements on the matter and discuss some of the basic apologetic answers for the poor treatment of women.  Then, we'll look at the treatment of women in various sects of Judaism today.  I will note that while these posts will both be substantial, there is no way I can be exhaustive in any of these areas.  I am guaranteed to miss some statements, even possibly highly relevant ones.  Feel free to point them out in the comments!

Women are Subservient

We begin this topic, well, at the beginning.  In the story of Adam and Chava (Eve) the Torah gives it's first value judgment for women as a whole.  After they get kicked out of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) God tells Chava:
Unto the woman He said: 'I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.'
Clear and succinct, men shall rule over women.  This type of subjugation is made clear throughout the Torah. For example, we will look at the laws of vows, which make it clear that women are the property of their husbands.  First we look at what happens when a man makes a vow (Num. 30:2-3)
2 And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. 3 When a man voweth a vow unto the LORD, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. 
Seems what you might expect.  Surely one might expect the same behavior for a woman.  Let's see what the Torah says on the matter (Num 30:4-7)
4 Also when a woman voweth a vow unto the LORD, and bindeth herself by a bond, being in her father's house, in her youth, 5 and her father heareth her vow, or her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father holdeth his peace at her, then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. 6 But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth, none of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father disallowed her. 
Basically a woman's father has the right to overrule any vow a woman makes.  After all, she is his property according to Torah law.  But maybe this is only talking about a young girl who isn't mature enough to know what she's saying.  The next verses shows that the right of revoking a woman's vows transfers from the father to the husband upon marriage (Num 30:7-9)
7 And if she be married to a husband, while her vows are upon her, or the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; 8 and her husband hear it, whatsoever day it be that he heareth it, and hold his peace at her; then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. 9 But if her husband disallow her in the day that he heareth it, then he shall make void her vow which is upon her, and the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; and the LORD will forgive her.
The husband also has the ability to overrule a woman's vows.  The next couple verses indicate that a widow or divorcee can actually have agency over her own vows, and then it repeats the married woman laws (Num 30:11-14)
11 And if a woman vowed in her husband's house, or bound her soul by a bond with an oath, 12 and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her, and disallowed her not, then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. 13 But if her husband make them null and void in the day that he heareth them, then whatsoever proceeded out of her lips, whether it were her vows, or the bond of her soul, shall not stand: her husband hath made them void; and the LORD will forgive her. 14 Every vow, and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may let it stand, or her husband may make it void.
There is only one reasonable conclusion in these verses.  A woman is not an equal partner in marriage, but a minor one.  Her husband enjoys significant control over her actions.

Another view showing the inequality between men and women in the Torah, comes from this week's parsha.  Specifically with regard to rape, and rape victims.  The following verses are oft quoted in the context of misogyny (Deut 22:28-29):
28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days.
Religious apologists are quick to point out that "forcing" the guy to marry his rape victim is actually a positive situation for the rape victim.  They assume that she has some choice in the matter and can nix the arrangement if it's not to her liking.  This is the standard interpretation in Judaism today, but is not clear from the Torah. However, the biblical context is easily recoverable. In the iron age Israelite society, the rapist is treated as someone who stole something from the woman's father.  And what he stole was his daughter's virginity. According to the Torah, the virginity was worth 50 shekels.  There is no indication that the Torah cares at all what the woman lost with regard to her own well-being; the Torah only cares about the financial implications of a father who can no longer command a large dowry for his daughter!  We'll look a bit more about the worth of virginity in the next section.

Indignities towards women

This week's parsha offers us a view to how the authors of the Torah were often oblivious to the plight or embarrassment of women.  For example, let's look at the story of what happens when a man dislikes his new wife (Deut 22:13-19)

13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, 14 and lay wanton charges against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say: 'I took this woman, and when I came nigh to her, I found not in her the tokens of virginity'; 15 then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders: 'I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; 17 and, lo, he hath laid wanton charges, saying: I found not in thy daughter the tokens of virginity; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. 18 And the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him. 19 And they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. 20 But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel; 21 then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die; because she hath wrought a wanton deed in Israel, to play the harlot in her father's house; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee. 
The first thing to notice is that the Torah attaches high value to virginity, specifically the physical virginity (which based on an intact hymen).  There is a specific value of a woman that is tied to her status as a virgin or not.  The test requires "tokens of virginity" the Hebrew word used for this is simlah or garment.  They're actually looking for a bloody bedsheet in the literal meaning. The next thing to notice is that there is no indication that the law cares about how the woman feels in the matter. The issue here is a breach of contract between the husband and the father of the bride. If the bride is wronged, it's the father that gets recompense.  However, if the husband is wronged, the daughter is killed. It doesn't take an expert in biology to know that virginal sex will not always result in a bloody sheet. Yet the Torah would kill a woman over the absence of this sign.

I've probably already belabored how disgusting these verses are, but before we move on, we should probably directly compare them to the other story about a "cheating" wife.  This is of course, the story of the sotah.  I won't quote it in full, but it appears in Numbers 5:11-31.  The basic story is that a woman is suspected by her husband of cheating, and she is forced to undergo an embarrassing public "witch-trial" on nothing but the husband's accusation.  No evidence required. The trial results in the woman having to drink a magic potion, with the results that a cheating woman will die from it and a non-cheating woman will get pregnant from it.  Again, the Torah doesn't even care if the woman even wants to be pregnant. Nor does the Torah provide any punishment for the husband who forced his wife to undergo the embarrassing ordeal. Several times it indicates that just jealousy is sufficient cause for this trial. Finally, as just a last jab at the absurdity of this all, if you happen to not believe in magic potions, you realize that only a cheating woman actually gets the "positive" outcome!  The non-cheater will be under suspicion because she didn't get pregnant!

Moving on, it's necessary to discuss some of the laws of menstruation.  It says (Lev 15:19-20)
19 And if a woman have an issue [i.e. menstruation], and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And every thing that she lieth upon in her impurity shall be unclean; every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.
This sections goes on for a while, it requires women to separate themselves from society for a week when they are menstruating, and another week afterwards.  It finishes with (Lev 15:31-33)
31 Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile My tabernacle that is in the midst of them. 32 This is the law of him that hath an issue, and of him from whom the flow of seed goeth out, so that he is unclean thereby; 33 and of her that is sick with her impurity, and of them that have an issue, whether it be a man, or a woman; and of him that lieth with her that is unclean. 
The JPS translation is a bit lacking here, but it is possible to see that the Torah authors view menstruation as a negative stigma on a woman.  Perhaps in a time period when women were always pregnant this wasn't such a burden on women, but in later times the idea of a woman having to completely isolate herself during half of her adult life is obviously problematic.  Even today there is a fear among the right wing of coming into contact with a woman who is menstruating, so much so that far right wing individuals insist on separation of genders in all situations. We'll see some examples of this next week.

Finally, we'll look at one more instance of misogyny before moving on.  Later in this week's parsha we learn what happens if a woman grabs another man's testicles during a fight (Deut 25:11-12)
11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets (i.e. testicles); 12 then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall have no pity.  
According to the Torah, the sanctity of a man's balls are of such importance that a woman who grabs them in self-defense loses her hand.

The Worth of a Woman

We've already seen that the Torah attaches a specific value to the virginity of women, but what about women in general?  What assets or qualities does an ideal woman have according to the Torah authors?

The short answer is that the Torah authors, unfortunately in line with today, are always eager to attach physical attractiveness to their female heroes.  Nearly every positive woman in the Torah is described as beautiful.  These include Sarah (Gen 12:11), Rivka (Rebekah) (Gen 24:16), Rachel (Gen 29:17), or Esther (Est. 2:7).  It's hard to come up with more examples, because prominent women are so rare in the Tanach. There is one notable exception here but we'll get to her later.

The second characteristic in which a woman's worth is important is in her ability to bear children, specifically male children.  That there is a marked preference for male children is fairly obvious. The story of women struggling with infertility and feeling inadequate because of it is a common biblical theme, it occurs to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah (mother of Shmuel (Samule)). Of course, when a couple fails to conceive the blame is always attached to the woman and never the man. The usual biblical solution to infertility is to provide an additional woman for your husband to sleep with.  This is the solution employed by Sarah and Rachel.

I noted there was an exception, and the exception I was thinking of is Devorah the Shofet (Judge).  She is not described in physical terms, nor does the story really care about her child-bearing capabilities.  Devorah is a leader, and while she only gets a brief time in the spotlight, we should acknowledge that she's there.  In the next week we'll see how the Rabbis of later days ensured that it'd be impossible for another leader like Devorah to appear to the Jewish people.

Finally, there is another "possible" exception, Miryam.  I say she's a possible exception, because in the story we have in the Torah, she doesn't really do anything exciting.  She sings at Yam Suf (Red or Reed Sea) and she gets leprosy for badmouthing Moshe (Moses) but besides that she's not mentioned. However, being that in some Psalms and other places she's equated with Moshe and Aharon (Aaron) some have thought that she once played a more prominent role but was later removed from the story by authors with more misogynistic aims.  Erasure of women's accomplishments in history is something that we see all too often, and while I'm not sure there's sufficient evidence to claim that happened with Miryam, I wouldn't at all be surprised if it happened.

In Perspective

When taken as a product of its times the Torah represents a view of women that is about what you might expect for an iron age middle east society. It was more progressive than some societies, but less progressive than others. We'll see something similar next week with Talmudic statements that fit well as a product of their time.  The problem is when religions today take these proclamation as an ideal of how societies structure themselves, essentially reversing any societal progress we have produced since then. According to fundamentalists of all stripes, we should revert back towards a society we have since evolved from.

Next week we'll look at some views of Judaism from Talmudic times to today.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Parshat Shoftim

The topic this week unfortunately bears little correlation with the parsha.  However, the reason is obvious.  The topic is with regard to Jewish eschatology, that is, what happens at the end of times, both with regard to the individual soul's post-mortem journey, and for humanity as a whole.  The reason why this is unrelated to this week's parsha is because even though these ideas are central to Judaism today, the topic does not appear in the Torah at all.  In fact, it is pretty much absent from the Tanach altogether.

There will be two main topical areas.  The first will examine an assertion I made way back at the beginning of the blog, which stated that the Jewish ideas of life after death and a Messianic "Age" were adapted from Zoroastrianism.  We'll look at that assertion in a bit more detail.  The second will talk about how the idea of Moshiach (Messiah) came about and how it evolved to its present form.

Jewish beliefs derived from Zoroastrianism

Before we begin, I will note that I am far from an expert on Zoroastrianism.  So, to craft this blog post, I took out a few books on the religion from the library and all the information on these posts comes from those books.  You can find similar ideas online if you look, and as far as I know, everything I've written here is not controversial.  However, I am far less learned on this topic than I am on Judaism.  Ok, enough with the caveats.  Let's begin.

There are a lot of similarities between the later theology of Judaism and 6th century Zoroastrianism. These include things like a supreme deity that has subsumed all other deities into it.  To the Zoroastrians the deity was named Ahura Mazda [1].  Zoroastrianism also includes the idea of ministering angels [2], an idea that does appear in biblical texts, but gained a lot more specificity in the apocryphal literature and the Talmudic period.

In a previous post I mentioned that the idea of a personalized reward and punishment after death derived from Zoroastrianism.  Indeed, this kind of post-death judgment of the soul doesn't appear anywhere in Tanach.  However, it is a standard feature of Zoroastrianism.  Dhalla writes:
The doctrine of reward and retribution in the other world forms the chief part of the ethical teachings of Zarathustras Gathas [writings].  All precepts in the sacred stanzas are generally accompanied by a repeated mention of reward or retribution in this or the next world [3].
This divine judgment allowed for rectification of wrongs in this world [4] which was a superior solution to the "why do bad things happen to good people" question than those offered in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Iyov (Job).  It included a judgment of the individual where they were required to cross a bridge, Zaehner writes:
The good man's guide across the bridge is Zoroaster himself.  He leads the souls of his followers across the dreaded Bridge and conducts them into the House of the Good Mind where they will come face to face with their creator [Ahura Mazda] who dwells together with Truth and that same Good Mind.  The wicked meet a different fate: 'their souls and conscience trouble them when they come to the Bridge of the Requiter, guests for all eternity in the House of the Lie' [5]
Here we see strong echoes to the Jewish idea of a judgment of the soul where a person is judged based on his good deeds, with the righteous entering Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden).

In addition to these ideas, there are other Zoroastrian ideas that seemed to find more following in Christianity than Judaism.  These included the idea of a "holy spirit" to allow communication between Ahura Mazda and men [6] and a evil counterpart to Ahura Mazda, "angra mainyu" which is similar to Christianity's Satan [7].

However, there is one other major ideological area where Judaism appears to have nicked heavily from Zoroastrianism.  That is with regard to the end of the world.  First we'll look at how Zoroastrianism describes the end of the world, and then we'll look at how Judaism's ideas evolved.

For Zoroastrianism, the end of the world involved a pitched battle between good and evil, with good eventually winning and ushering in a new peaceful era.  In Dhalla's words:
The Gathas speak of a period when the progress of creation will stop, the evolution of the universe will reach its destined goal, as the cycle of the world will then be completed and creation and life will end.  Ahura Mazda will come at this time with his Holy Spirit and with Khushathra and Vohu Manah to accomplish this great work [8].
The later texts give a systematic account of the final struggle between the good and the evil powers, and relate in detail how every one of the heavenly beings will smite his own particular opponent evil spirit...The Gathas speak of the victory of Asha, or Righteousness, and the defeat of Druj, Wickedness [9].
The great world drama will then be over, the final curtain will fall on the tragic element in creation; the ultimate triumph of good over evil will be secured, the divine Kingdom of Righteousness will be established...Man will then enter into the everlasting joy of Ahura Mazda [10].
If this sounds like a "Messianic Era" well, it's not surprising.  Before we go on, I want to quote Zaehner's conclusions on whether Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism and Christianity in these matters:
Zoroaster's doctrine of rewards and punishments, of an eternity of bliss and an eternity of woe allotted to good and evil men in another life beyond the grave is so strikingly similar to Christian teaching that we cannot fail to ask whether here at least there is not a direct influence at work.  The answer is surely 'Yes,' for the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying scepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion...[T]he theory of a direct Zoroastrian influence on post-exilic Judaism does explain the sudden abandonment on the part of the Jews of the old idea of Sheol, a shadowy and depersonalized existence which is the lot of all men irrespective of what they had done on earth, and the sudden adoption, at precisely the time when the exiled Jews made contact with the Medes and Persians, of the Iranian Prophet's teaching concerning the afterlife...Thus from the moment the Jews first made contact with the Iranians they took over the typical Zoroastrian doctrine of an individual afterlife in which rewards are to be enjoyed and punishments endured [11].
Messiah in Judaism

The idea of a savior deity in Judaism is ingrained in the earliest strata.  However, this kind of deity always saved the Israelites in real tangible ways.  The most obvious mention is with regard to redeeming the Israelites from their period of slavery in Egypt.  Whether the actual exodus from Egypt occurred in some significant way, or even if it was just a myth grafted on to the Israelites gaining independence from Egyptian hegemony after the Bronze Age Collapse is irrelevant for this. Either way, God is credited for delivering the Israelites from larger powers than they.

It is no surprise that the same type of redemption language is found with regard to the second sojourn in a foreign land, the Babylonian exile.  When the Israelites were allowed to return after the Persians conquered Babylon, the Persians were seen as divine instruments of redemption.  It is no surprise that after the second temple period ended with destruction, the same type of redemption language appeared. The idea that God would redeem the Israelites a third time is found all throughout the post-second temple period.

However, the third redemption, as described in the Tanach was fundamentally different than the first two.  It would have a global character to it.  The third redemption would be heralded by a Messiah, who would bring a global kingdom of God.  The same kind of ideas that we saw in Zoroastrianism eschatology are found in Judaism as well.

In reality, these fragments were found in the Exilic and post-Exilic sections of Tanach.  For example, Deutero-Isaiah has a description of the global messianic development (Is. 40:3)

3 Hark! one calleth: 'Clear ye in the wilderness the way of the LORD, make plain in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain; 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
Yehezkel also describes a pitched battle.  In reality all of chapter 38 is worth reading, but here's a small excerpt (Ezek. 38:3-4, 16)
3 and say: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; 4 and I will turn thee about, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed most gorgeously, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them handling swords: 16 and thou shalt come up against My people Israel, as a cloud to cover the land; it shall be in the end of days, and I will bring thee against My land, that the nations may know Me, when I shall be sanctified through thee, O Gog, before their eyes. 
Other ideas don't really seem to appear until later.  An example of this is the resurrection of the dead. Even though it doesn't appear in Tanach, it becomes an explicit part of Judaism.  A famous Mishnah in Sanhedrin 90a states (my translation)
And these do not have a portion in the world to come, a person who says that the resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, Torah did not come from God, and an Apikoros (heretic, e.g. me).
In case you're curious where the Talmudic Rabbis derive the resurrection of the dead, the Gemara a bit later on 90b offers two possibilities (my translation)
Where do we see resurrection of the dead in the Torah?  From Num 28:28, and you should give the terumah offering to Aharon, the priest.  But Aaron died before they even entered Israel! We learn from here that Aharon will be resurrected so we can give him the offering. [R. Ishmael disagrees and thinks that Aharon here means someone like him, i.e. a Cohen. This is a more reasonable conclusion in my opinion]...Where do we see resurrection of the dead in the Torah? From Exod. 6:4 where it says, I will also establish my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan.  It says to them and not to you, [So we see that they must be resurrected so that they can be given the land. Clearly this is the only reasonable interpretation.]
If these Talmudic explanations seem like post-hoc justifications, then that's because they clearly are. The truth is that the idea of resurrection of the dead doesn't appear until much later than the Torah, and these verses are trying to find a justification for the practice, something that is the bread and butter of the Talmud.  Furthermore, it's also clear from this Mishnah that there is tension between the Rabbinic supporters and their precursors, the Pharisees, and those who disagreed with them on these doctrines, namely the Karaites and their precursors, the Sadducees.  The Sadducees rejected this resurrection of the dead. They felt it was a clear manifestation of foreign influence [12]. It's obvious that such a schism could not be allowed, so the Rabbis cast the Sadducees out of the divine Messianic age and essentially dared people to side with them at the cost of losing the possibility of everlasting life as well.  Half a millennium or so after the Talmud, the Rambam (Maimonides) would include belief in resurrection as one of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism, where it remains to this day.

The belief in a Messiah that would usher in a divine age has led to many different schisms in the history as many people claimed to be the Messiah, or at least people who had followers who made that claim.  The most famous of these, and the first to really hit it big was Jesus.  Around that time also was Bar Kochba, hailed as the Messiah by the preeminent Rabbinic sage, Rabbi Akiva.  About 1500 years later, another movement gathered around a would be Messiah named Shabtai Tzvi; a movement which fizzled out after he was forced to convert to Islam.  In modern times, a sizable movement claims that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah, and is somehow still alive, even though most Jews are sure he's very much dead.  It's not clear how long this movement will last.


The fact that the ideas behind a divine ressurrection and personal reward and punishment are central to Judaism today indicates the the religion evolved in significant ways from what was practiced by the first temple era Israelites. When Jews today consider themselves practicing a 3500 year old religion, the claim is fairly laughable. While Rabbinic Judaism is old, it is only about 2000 years old. In other words it's only slightly older than Christianity, and far younger than Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

Furthermore, the fact that the ideas clearly look like they were adapted from Zoroastrianism indicates that the early Jews were certainly willing to adapt other religious practices into their own. It makes it a bit humorous when right wing Jews rebel against modern culture and values and criticize Christian influence. Of course, they will never admit that ideas regarding eschatology were derived from Zoroastrianism, but that's ok. The evidence is plain for everyone else to see.

1. M.N. Dhalla History of Zoroastrianism, Oxford Univ Press, 1938, p. 31, 70.^

2. Ibid p 39.^

3. Ibid p. 101.^

4. Ibid p. 100.^

5. R. C Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism" G.P. Putnam & Sons 1961, p. 56.^

6. Ibid p. 36.^

7. Ibid p. 89.^

8. Dhalla p. 108.^

9. Ibid p. 109.^

10. Ibid p. 112.^

11. Zaehner p. 57-58.^

12. Just because I can, I'm going to use Mark 12:18 as the source here. You can find the same sort of stuff in Josephus though.^

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Har Grizim and Har Eval

Parshat Re'eh

After some long posts, this one will be a little shorter.  However, we'll look at one of the possible late emendations in the Torah that was likely made for political reasons.

A Blessing and a Curse

Near the beginning of this week's parsha, Moshe (Moses) gives the instruction to provide a blessing and a curse on two nearby mountains in Canaan (Deut 11:29-30)
29 And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, behind the way of the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites that dwell in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the terebinths of Moreh?
Later in Yehushua, this event is carried out (Josh 8:33-34).
33 And all Israel, and their elders and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger as the home-born; half of them in front of mount Gerizim and half of them in front of mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law.
Both sections are very clear, the blessing is on Har Gerizim and the curse is on Har Eval.

An Altar on Eval

Later in Devarim (Deuteronomy) there is a commandment to build an altar on one of these mountains.  You might suppose that they chose the mountain of blessing, Har Gerizim, but you'd be wrong (Deut 27:4).
And it shall be when ye are passed over the Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and thou shalt plaster them with plaster.
Why did they choose the mountain of "cursing" instead of the mountain of "blessing" for the alter?  There are traditional answers to this, but perhaps there is a non-traditional answer as well?


The Samaritan version of the Torah is mostly similar to the Masoretic version used by all denominations of Rabbinic Judaism, however there are a few key differences.  The main content difference is that the Samaritan Torah specifically calls out Har Gerizim as God's chosen place of worship.  It is included in their "10 commandments" and indeed they worship on that mountain still today.  As you might have guessed, the Samaritan version of Deut 27:4 doesn't say to build the altar on Har Eval but rather on Har Gerizim.

It's obvious why the non-Samaritan denominations of Judaism might object to having God commanding the building of an altar on Har Gerizim.  If the Torah said that God did indeed as for an alter on Har Gerizim, then it provides justification for the Samaritans' practices.  On the contrary, changing the commandment from Har Gerizim to Har Eval leaves the Samaritans in the wrong. There's no commandment to worship on that mountain anymore.

To the Dead Sea Scrolls

These kinds of arguments are the biblical equivalent to "he said - she said."  There's no way to tell which is the original, unless, perhaps, you can find an early version of the text that has the mountain in Deut. 27:4 as Har Gerizim.  It turns out that we have found such a version.

You can see the fragment from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls here, where we are lucky to have enough legible text to clearly identify that this scroll had Har Gerizim in Deut. 27:4.  Could it have been that the Samaritan version is the "original" one here and the Masoretic one is the one that changed the text.

These kinds of political changes make a lot of sense in the second temple period.  The Torah was becoming the key document to describe the Jewish outlook at this time, and there were several rival factions that were trying to claim the supremacy of their specifically cultic outlook.  The disagreements between the Samaritans and the other factions are well known here.  It seems obvious that the Jewish sects that centralized worship at the temple of Jerusalem would object strongly to those who centralized worship on Har Gerizim, and thus would do everything they could to eliminate any divine command to build a place of worship there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Parshat Eikev

This week we'll look at one of the moral issues that was one of the most troublesome when I was religious.  It was an issue I never was able to square with my own sense of morality.  To this day I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of why such commandments were ever in the Torah.  Let's jump right in.

Commandments in the Torah

In this week's parsha we read about one of the commandments of genocide.  We read (Deut 12:16)
And thou shalt consume all the peoples that the LORD thy God shall deliver unto thee; thine eye shall not pity them; neither shalt thou serve their gods; for that will be a snare unto thee.
The word "consume" is literally eat.  It's an odd word for the context.  Later verses explain a bit clearer what exactly you should do to these nations.  For example (Deut 12:23-25)
23 But the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and shall discomfit them with a great discomfiture, until they be destroyed. 24 And He shall deliver their kings into thy hand, and thou shalt make their name to perish from under heaven; there shall no man be able to stand against thee, until thou have destroyed them. 25 The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire; thou shalt not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God. 
In last week's parsha we read (Deut 12: 1-2.5)
1 When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them... 5 But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.
Later we'll read about the laws of conquering a city outside of Canaan.  We see (Deut 20:10-14):

10 When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary unto thee, and shall serve thee. 12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it. 13 And when the LORD thy God delivereth it into thy hand, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword; 14 but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take for a prey unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.
We see that if you want to conquer another nation just go to war with it.  If it capitulates, fantastic, you now have enslaved the entire populace.  If it doesn't, you kill every male, and keep the women as property.  We'll get to slavery and misogyny later, but we're on genocide this week.  The thing is, if you thought this was cruel, you need to read further (Deut 20:15-18).

15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. 16 Howbeit of the cities of these peoples, that the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, 17 but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; 18 that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the LORD your God. 
The Torah commands nothing less than complete annihilation of the entire populace of the Canaanite nations.  In fact, according to the author in Kings, it was specifically because they failed in this matter that they were ensnared by idolatry and God eventually caused the destruction of their lands.  Of course, this is revisionist history, as we've seen (and will discuss a bit in the rest of the post).  The point for this week is that God is commanding the Israelites to commit genocide.

Carrying out the Divine Will

The destruction of the Canaanite nations is described in the book of Yehoshua (Joshua)  For example (Josh 11:10-12)
10 And Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and smote the king thereof with the sword: for Hazor beforetime was the head of all those kingdoms. 11 And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed; and he burnt Hazor with fire. 12 And all the cities of those kings, and all the kings of them, did Joshua take, and he smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed them; as Moses the servant of the LORD commanded. 
Note that Yehoshua only destroyed those nations because God told him to.  Later with regard to Ai (Josh 8:26-28):
26 For Joshua drew not back his hand, wherewith he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which He commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burnt Ai, and made it a heap for ever, even a desolation, unto this day.
Later we what happens when you transgress the commandments and have pity on a nation you are supposed to annihilate.  Let's look at why Shaul (Saul) was stripped of his kingship.  First Shmuel (Samuel) commands Shaul to kill the Amalekites. (1 Sam 15:2-3)
2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.' 
Shaul dutifully carries out the commandment of killing the people, but doesn't quite kill everything (1 Sam. 15:7-9)
7 And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as thou goest to Shur, that is in front of Egypt. 8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. 9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, even the young of the second birth, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; but every thing that was of no account and feeble, that they destroyed utterly. 
Shmuel questions Shaul why he didn't kill everything.  Shaul answers (1 Sam. 15:15)
And Saul said: 'They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.' 
Shmuel is pissed (1 Sam. 15:18-19,23)
18 and the LORD sent thee on a journey, and said: Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed. 19 Wherefore then didst thou not hearken to the voice of the LORD, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst that which was evil in the sight of the LORD?' 23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, He hath also rejected thee from being king.'
And he personally disembowels Agag. (1 Sam 15:33)
33 And Samuel said: As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
When God says kill everything, you damn better well kill everything.  And for the modern commentaries who like to reinterpet the commandment to kill Amalek as some sort of allegorical commandment to destroy whatever philosophy Amalek is supposed to stand for, be aware that there is no such allegorical explanation available in this story.

Moral Relativism

A common thing you'll hear as one attempt to defend the indefensible is these kind of genocidal situations were standard for the time.  In this, I completely agree.  The Torah's commandments to commit genocide are exactly what you might expect to see in any of the cultures of the time period.  In fact, the very first extra-biblical appearance of Israel, on the Merneptah Stele, describes the Egyptians committing genocide on the Israelites
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
It's not clear what "his seed is not" is supposed to mean, but we could probably assume it means that the Egyptians thought the Israelites were utterly destroyed.

However, this kind of moral relativism should provide no solace to those who would uphold the Torah as a divinely gifted document.  If it is no different than all the documents of the surrounding nations on key issues, then what extra appeal does it possess?  Keep this in mind as we look at some of the moral issues of future weeks.

Also of little solace is the fact that these conquests didn't actually happen.  Although, I should point out that Hazor, mentioned above, is one of the cities that do actually show a destruction layer during this time period.  The Tanach itself admits that the genocide failed (Judges 3:1,5-6)
1 Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan;  5 And the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites; 6 and they took their daughters to be their wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. 
However, in this the Torah is describing the ideal, not what happened.  In the Torah's ideal world, the Israelites would succeed in not only committing mass genocide on the inhabitants of Canaan, but completely cleansing the land of their culture.

My Own Difficulties

Learning about Jewish history is learning about nation after nation that wanted to kill us or get rid of us somehow.  We were cultural and genetic pollutants.  Evil at its essence.  The language used by each generation of Anti-Semites to describe how bad the Jews mimics all-too-closely the language that the Torah uses to describe the Canaanite nations.  The desired result is similar.

So, how am I to feel, as a Ba'al Korei reading these commandments to genocide?  I distinctly remember one year, feeling no different from any demagogue riling up a population to commit atrocities on its neighbors.  So, like any good religious Jew, I searched for ways that scholars and exegetes before me rationalized the moral problem here.  I had little success.

Sometimes, people said that the nations were free to convert to Judaism.  This is despite the Torah giving no such indication that it was an option.  Yet, how is this any better than something like the Spanish Inquisition, a dark period in Jewish history?  Some commentators said that the nations could flee the land, but how is this any different from the myriad Jewish expulsions such as from Britain and Spain, or more recently from various Arab countries.  How is this option any better?  Is it truly possible that we, a people often on the short end of the stick when it comes to ethnic atrocities can't recognize when we ourselves are the perpetrators of those same atrocities?  We should be disowning these verses; scrubbing these commandments from our books.  We should recognize that these commandments are the result of heinous propaganda, and no divine being would ever encourage such actions.

Shouldn't God have Foreseen?

Again, Judaism supposes an omniscient God, one who sees the future.  Couldn't that God have foreseen how throughout history nations would commit vile deeds against others?  Even if the nations of Canaan were somehow superbly evil and the world would be far worse if they were allowed to worship their asherot, wouldn't God know that other nations would use the divine sanction of genocide to justify carrying it out against peoples that were not superbly evil, you know, like the Jews?  Apparently not.

The end result is that the biblical morality is far different from my own.  In the biblical world, genocide is ok.  In my world it is not.  For this reason, and a few others we will see in later weeks, I have rejected the Torah as a good source for morality.