Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Why I Don't Believe in Judaism (part 1: A Personal Story)

When I was struggling with belief in Judaism towards the end of my college years, I sat down to write an essay which I titled, "Why I Believe in Judaism." As I wrote, I found I had more questions than when I started. I also realized that a lot of my answers for various questions didn't actually hold up to self-scrutiny. The arguments were weak. I erased and rewrote, erased and rewrote, asked Rabbis and friends for perspectives. I constantly watered down the conclusions so they could fit inside a rational world view. Until, at the end, I realized that I couldn't really justify my belief at all. Eventually I gave up writing the essay, it was never completed. Looking back, it was at this point in time that I had turned the corner from belief to disbelief. It would take me a bit longer to internalize this change, but if I had to point to a defining moment, this was it. Unfortunately, this essay has long been lost and no computer archaeology that I could do could resuscitate it.

In some ways this post and the two following it are the inevitable conclusion to that fatal attempt some fifteen years ago. Throughout this year I have laid out the arguments as to why rational inspection into the Jewish texts reveals that it was most likely written by human beings, and that the religion is man-made just like every other one. Next week I will talk specifically about why I came to the conclusion that the Torah is not divine. Following that, I will sum up with some conclusions about what I believe, and what would get me to change those beliefs. But this week, I'm going to take some time and indulge myself, by sharing how I got to where I am today. In the process, hopefully I'll explain why I tried to write that essay in my late teens/early twenties, and why I spent a year writing weekly "anti-dvar-Torahs" for this blog in my thirties.

If the human interest side doesn't interest you feel free to skip to next week (provided your reading this after it's been posted, if not then you'll need a very fast moving vehicle to skip ahead.) But let's follow the paths of a kofer to be.

Strong Conservative Upbringing

In a way, the title of this section is an oxymoron these days, but the environment was different in the 1980s. At that point in time, the Conservative Jewish movement in the US was strong, youth groups like USY were all over; conservative day camps were everywhere; conservative synagogues were common with large memberships. Modern Orthodoxy (MO) was not yet ascendent. Chabad had not yet taken over the university Hillel scene.

My family happily identified as conservative in those years before these labels had any meaning to me. We went to synagogue every week, albeit usually by car. We did not eat pork or shellfish and had separate dishes for meat and dairy, but we cooked those meals in the same oven, and would often go out to eat at restaurants with nothing resembling a hechsher. Most importantly, we were surrounded by many families who were just like us, sporting the same level of observance.

I had three older siblings, all of whom attended public school. However, I was different. For reasons mostly unrelated to religion, my parents enrolled me in a nearby Conservative day school. Yes, those existed back then, and maintained reasonably large class sizes. Although, I've never explicitly asked about it, I have a strong feeling that I attended this school partly on scholarship and partly funded by a wealthy relative.  Ironically, my three siblings would eventually happily become Modern Orthodox, while I -- well we'll get to that in a bit.

A Move to the Right

Starting around age ten, my family started moving to the right. The move was superficially prompted by a transition in our synagogue to begin having egalitarian services. In response, my parents and many of their friends, went to the only local alternative, a small Chabad with services in a run down VFW building.

Around the same time, I also switched schools. The conservative school I went to went under a change of administration and my parents weren't too fond of the new principal (possibly because they didn't want to pay my scholarship). I switched to a local Modern Orthodox school, this one run out of an old paint factory. This same school has since found itself with luxurious new digs, and considerably more expensive tuition as a result. But when I was there, the conditions were poor. Classrooms were small and poorly furnished. Walls were constantly falling apart. Ceilings leaked.

This wouldn't be the first time I was thrust into a new academic environment where I had to play catch-up. However, I have never known myself to shy away from any academic challenge and this one was no different. Besides, the Conservative school I attended allowed students to progress in Hebrew skills at their own level, and I was equally or further advanced than my new MO classmates in most religious subjects.

This is also around the time that I started engaging with my religion. Now that the shul was smaller it was also more intimate, stuff was more accessible. No longer were we confined to pews far away from an offset bimah. The front row of seats was right behind the chazzan. Also, participation was much more readily available even for children. For example, I could lead the Shabbat morning pesukai d'zimra even though I was not yet Bar-Mitzvahed, and we rarely had a minyan by that point anyway. However, the one part that truly fascinated me was the Torah reading.

I remember many weeks standing up with the gabbaim following along with the reading. I remember trying to match the lilting tones of the Rabbi to the trop markers. This was frustratingly hard until one of the gabbaim taught them to me and explained that the Rabbi often "guessed," so it wasn't really possible to correlate them anyway. As an aside, I'll note that I was able to do all of this, not only because the congregation size was tiny, but because I am male. Had I been female, I would have had far less access, relegated to the "boring" side of the mechitzah.

At home, our house became Orthodox as well. Our dishes were kashered (by blowtorch), and those that couldn't be kashered were discarded. Our oven was cleaned and made meat only, our dishwasher was replaced (and also made meat only). We no longer ate out at non-kosher restaurants, which really meant we almost never ate out since the closest kosher restaurants were at least 40 minutes away. We stopped driving to synagogue and stopped using electricity on Shabbat. 

As I noted before, at this point my siblings also moved to the right, somewhat independently since they were in college or beyond at this point. Both older brothers found themselves dating MO girlfriends who they would marry shortly after my Bar-Mitzvah. My sister, the youngest besides me, and in high school during this rightward move, was the last to accept MO strictures, but eventually she would also do so, starting her own MO family at around the same time I was shedding my religion.

The Ba'al Korei

My fascination with Torah reading only became stronger as my bar-mitzvah approached. About a year before the bar-mitzvah, a family friend sat down and taught me the trop for the Torah and the Haftorah, providing me with a cassette tape for it. I begun learning my bar-mitzvah parsha on my own.

Oddly enough, I didn't actually complete the bar-mitzvah parsha, and skipped a couple of aliyot. But since our shul was small, and participation was encouraged, I was excited to learn a short aliyah here and there each week. I kept at it and got better and better. When the second year came around, I learned a longer aliyah. And then multiple aliyot. By the time I was 17, I could polish off a parsha after dinner on Friday night. I learned the trop for Megillat Esther and read that. I learned the tune for the high holidays as well, and leined in the backup free service that our shul had grown large enough to offer. I read deeply about biblical grammar and prided myself at pronouncing the shva na's and shva nach's correctly. By the time I was 19, I could finish learning an entire parsha during the drawn out kabbalat shabbat services at university. By the time I was 21, I had all of the book of bereishit and the first two aliyot of the rest of the Torah memorized. Even today, despite being over a decade since I last leined, I still can finish most pesukim from memory.

Because my knowledge of the actual text of the Torah was so strong, I would often find a lot of things that seemed a little off. A word in one place where another felt more natural. A change of phrase, a minor contradiction. I would scour mikraot gedolot looking for explanations, usually coming up empty. I would ask my Rabbi who would listen, and say, "that's a good question, I'll see what I can find." He never found anything (probably because his mikraot gedolot was the same as mine.) Eventually, I stopped asking the Rabbi and started writing down these inconsistencies in a notebook, that is also unfortunately long lost. I do remember wondering about the obvious contradiction in Exod 6:3 during this time, which I would remember some 10 years later when I would learn that it was at the heart of much Academic theorizing.

While I was engaged in Torah reading during these years, the same could not be said for davening. I liked the Torah reading because it was different each week, and because there was a challenge to it. Davening was rote. It was boring. It was a routine to dispatch as quickly as possible. If I wanted to have kavannah, the only way I could do it would be to not say the sterile prayers, but substitute my own. I made it a habit of skipping mincha in high school, and sneaking in books to read during shacharit.

My high school years were also spent in the Modern Orthodox environment which I fairly seamlessly adapted into. Although, to be honest, I may have been the poorest person in the school. I was lucky enough to attend a school with a reasonably good secular education, although mainly due to the high quality of students. I was always attuned to math and science and this trend continued in high school.

While I pushed a little in high school against some of the more right wing expressions of Judaism that I encountered, I mostly adhered to the religion in both belief and practice. Even if I couldn't get behind davening specifically, I at least went through the motions, as if the recitation of the words would have some magical effect. And even though I might ask sharp questions here and there, at the end of the day I definitely believed in the religion and its tenets.

At the end of high school, I did not go to spend a year in Israel attending a Yeshivah, as some 75% of my class did. My parents gave me the details of my college fund, which was enough to survive on for four years at a local university with a significant tuition scholarship (or one year at an ivy league school). If I wanted to attend yeshivah it would be out of those funds. I decided against Israel. Instead I enrolled in the Cooper Union on track for a degree in Mechanical Engineering, a school where the automatic tuition scholarship meant that I could graduate without debt.

The Early College Years

These years were the most critical for my development and eventual abandonment of Judaism. And while the next two posts will explain why I left, this section will just give some of the surrounding details from a personal perspective.

I started out at university behaving as any other Modern Orthodox Jew would. I kept Shabbat and Kashrut strictly. I attended Shabbat services with the larger nearby NYU community, often leining on Saturday morning whenever no one else wanted to. I did not go to classes on the Jewish holidays, but was diligent about making up the work. Academically, I was a fairly serious student. I didn't party. I did my work on time. I tutored NYU friends on math and science subjects and offered to do recitations and homework sessions at Cooper Union. I always tried to take the most challenging courses, and eventually finished university with about a semester's worth of extra coursework. From my perspective, the courses were free, so I'd be a sucker not to take them. I wasn't a perfect student, but I was a good one.

It's amazing how one's life can be so strongly affected by the people around oneself, and college years are probably the time period where these interactions are strongest. I probably owe a lot of the outcome to my close friends in these years, in several different ways. For one thing, while it may have been possible to isolate myself inside the Jewish community at a school with a larger Jewish presence, the same could not be done at Cooper Union. The entire school numbered about 1000 students. The friends I made were of very varied backgrounds, economically, ethnically and religiously. In religious Jewish circles we are taught to implicitly distrust non-Jews, but many of these people are some of the kindest and most trustworthy people I have ever met.

However, there is one individual who I must speak more deeply about, because of the profound influence he had on my life. For the purposes of this narrative, we'll call him Joseph although that is not his real name. Joseph was the only other guy who wrote down "kosher" on his freshman dorm application. Joseph didn't actually keep kosher, but his father was an Orthodox Rabbi. Joseph was sort of an ex-Jew in hiding, a reverse Marrano, following the religion where necessary, to keep up the illusion. Although even this description is not quite accurate, as he once told me, he actually did believe in the religion, and assumed that one day he would follow it completely. Just not now.

Joseph was also gay, or bisexual. To this day I do not know his true sexuality, since he was not open about it during these years. However he sported a lot of the stereotypical gay mannerisms. In other words, if he was hiding in the closet, he was doing it while loudly singing "It's Raining Men." If he isn't gay, he sure was fooling everyone around him. As you can probably guess this caused significant friction between Joseph and his father. At one point, Joseph complained to me that his father had "replaced" him with one of his students around his age who presumably was more like the son his father wished he had.

In many ways, Joseph was the opposite of me. He went out partying regularly. He drank, and smoked pot. He had casual sex when possible. But he was a smart guy, and his academic achievements were solid. He started with me in engineering and then transferred into the art school, which is an extremely impressive feat. (The last time I talked to him, he was working on a PhD in History and the internet tells me that he's since done a post-doc at Harvard). Yet, he was also a remarkably good roommate. We wound up sharing a room for three and a half out of the four years of college, with the half year coming when Joseph went to study abroad for a semester.

In these years, we had many conversations about everything. The perspective offered was entirely different from anything I had encountered before. While I can't actually attribute any of the specific reasons I had for leaving Judaism to Joseph's influence, it's inarguable that he made a significant impact on me. I've since lost contact with Joseph, but perhaps one day I'll be able to reconnect.

The Collapse of Faith

It is really hard to pinpoint any particular point where I started transitioning away from Judaism. I always asked questions, often tough questions about Judaism. I was always taught that this was perfectly fine. The religion had little to hide. Questions were encouraged. However, I started discovering that there were questions that I could ask that would cause Rabbis to get frustrated if not outright angry at me. I started exploring these topics on my own, asking Rabbis when I felt I was at an impasse.

One of the first topics I looked at was regarding the treatment of women in Judaism. I had always been troubled at what looked like inherent sexism in the religion and wondered how Judaism looked like from the women's side. I asked a Orthodox feminist friend of mine to recommend some books for me on Jewish feminism. She recommended several books. Of them I remember Rachel Adler's "Engendering Judaism" and Judith Plaskow's "Standing Again at Sinai." I also remember reading something by Blu Greenberg, but I cannot remember what.

These books did not have an immediately profound effect on me. However, they certainly raised questions that I was unable to answer at the time. I had already suspected that Judaism had a problem with misogynistic tendencies, but I had assumed somewhat blithely that there were reasonable answers, or at least that when approaching it from a feminine point of view, these issues weren't as problematic as they seemed from my male outsider's view. These authors made it clear that Judaism still had big problems, and they were visible when approached not from either a feminine or masculine point of view, but from a human point of view.

I also asked questions regarding other major moral issues. One topic that I asked multitude of Rabbis for opinions on was regarding genocide and the treatment of non-Jewish nations. The Torah's commandments on the matter were problematic to me, and I always felt a little off when reading these verses to a congregation. Actually, it was more than a little off. When I read the exhortations of Moshe to kill all the irredeemably evil Canaanites, the image that came to my head was that of Hitler raving about the genetic pollution that is Jewry. When I asked Rabbis about the problem of genocide, the answers I got then were little different from the apologetic answers I still find today. I never was able to accept them and spent a long time searching for answers on my own. In addition, I also had difficulties accepting religious approaches on homosexuality and slavery.

Academically, I was mostly cruising along. However, somewhere in my Junior year, I realized that Mechanical Engineering wasn't really the most exciting track for me. The classes I loved the most were the purer math and physics classes. It was at this point that I began considering a path that would take me to graduate school in physics. The problem was that my small college did not offer a physics degree, nor a lot of the needed courses. This meant, that I had to do a lot of self-learning on top of the normal class workload. Throughout the last two years of college I self-taught myself advanced mechanics, advanced E&M, quantum, stat-mech and anything else I was missing so that I could take the Physics GRE (which I did terribly on). I certainly would have fared far better had I taken actual courses, but I didn't realistically have that option.

I found that my mind was somewhat naturally attuned to the scientific way of thinking. I greatly liked that science has no sacred cows, or rather, it delights in slaughtering them. If I didn't believe a specific scientific theory, I could rederive it myself, or examine the experimentation. Some things, granted, were and still are beyond my ability to test, but as I began to assemble the tools, there was a remarkable amount of stuff that I could verify for myself.

Another thing that greatly appealed to me in scientific work is that there was always a correct answer. It is possible that we can't yet measure the answer, or the answer is given probabilistically, but you can write it down and then check it with experimentation. Compared to something like literature (which I admit, I am also a huge fan of) there's no such thing as a "right" answer. Multiple, contradictory answers are permissible. Literature would be a hobby for me. Science was a way of approaching the world.

I mention this because scientific thinking also had a significant impact on my approach to Judaism. For example, when someone reads the account in Genesis about the creation of the world, and puts it into context of Jewish tradition, that person is bombarded by all sorts of different ideas about what those verses actually mean. One Rabbis says it means this, another says it means something else. Just like literary theory, there is no objective way to determine which allegorical explanation is correct, and which is incorrect. However, when you ask a scientist how the world was formed, they can give you several hypotheses along with the supporting evidences for them. You can objectively weigh one hypothesis against the other and determine which better fits the data. Eventually you can reach an answer that is objectively correct. So when you ask a scientist which came first, angiosperms or insects, the scientist will inform you that insects must come first because angiosperms are a later evolutionary adaptation that can only exist after pollinating species are present. The scientist can then provide fossil evidence to support this theory and you can clearly see that angiosperms first come around some 200-250 million years ago, which is long after the insects arrived on the scene. The scientist says that the Torah, which says that fruiting trees existed on the third day before insects on the fifth, is wrong. The end result is that when I wanted to learn information about the world, I didn't look at the Torah, I looked to science.

With these two big assaults on the religion, one from the moral ground and one from the scientific, I often wonder how I remained faithful to the religion for so long. If the Torah can't be trusted for either moral or factual purposes, what good is it? One reason I remained religious is that I needed to be sure; perhaps there was a better answer I hadn't come across yet. Another reason is that I put way too much stock into traditional apologetic answers like the modern Kuzari argument, and other apologetic explanations that give divine answers to the Torah. But were these explanations justified?

One area of inquiry that you might have noticed was missing was Academic biblical criticism, being that this was the major area of inquiry for this blog! This line of reasoning wasn't even on my radar. I had been taught in high school that there was some silly JEPD theory regarding the composition of the Torah, but that same theory says that Moby Dick was written by 10 authors (a preposterous claim, but I didn't look). I was told that academic criticism was the domain of anti-Semites with no knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, let alone the myriad of Jewish exegeses that clearly explain the various contradictions. I never followed this line of questioning during my college years. In fact it would be a long time before I went down this path.

This was when I started to write, "why I believed in Judaism." I wanted to explore these rational reasons for my belief. Poke them and prod them with my fledgling scientific instincts. The paper would grow in length, and then shrunk dramatically when I reread what I wrote and find the argumentation full of holes. I probably would have spent a lot of time talking to Joseph about these issues, but this was his semester abroad, so I was on my own. As I wrote, I became more troubled. I retracted into my own shell. I would not go to shul on Shabbat, instead I'd take the day and walk the length of Manhattan and back, lost in thought (for those NYC residents, I lived on E 12 st, and would walk to Riverside Park by Columbia University).

There was no sudden moment where I decided that I didn't believe in Judaism, although there was a sudden moment when I realized I didn't believe. This came towards the end of college. While I still held out hope that I would find answers to my questions, I was highly doubtful that any answers existed. I started planning my transition. In the fall, after my senior year, I would begin grad school in Applied Physics in Boston. I would also begin my life as a non-religious Jew.

A Physicist in Training

For the most part of my grad school career, Judaism played a very small role. I did try at first to attend more left wing religious events, in the reform or conservative sects, but it didn't feel right there. While it took a while to adapt to my life as a "normal person" who could do things with friends on Saturday, eat at restaurants, and attend classes on Rosh Hashannah, by my second year I was pretty much comfortable in my new "skin." Going to a new place surrounded by new people who didn't know my past helped a lot with smoothing this transition.

However, there is one anecdote about the early years at grad school worth mentioning. As any grad student will tell you, qualifying exams are one of the most stressful milestones. Our qualifying exams were no different, sporting a 50% pass rate. Add to this that I was coming in with far less classwork than any of my peers, essentially having been accepted on "promise" and strong letters of recommendation. I had a lot of work to catch up on. But just as with the transition many years ago from a conservative school to an MO school, I never really shied away from academic challenges, so I met this one head on too. When the qualifying exams starting looming over us, I met with two other grad students nightly to go over derivations, practice problems and review material.

One of these two friends was a practicing Mormon, and as might be expected topics of conversation sometimes drifted away from physics to other topics. I had zero experience with Mormonism, with only the very basic information about its beliefs. He was astounded that I had a sizable amount of the Torah committed to memory and could quote at it from will. And yet, I was not a believer. We talked a lot about religion, why he believed in it, and why I didn't.

These conversations were interesting to me in two ways. For the first reason, after I left religious life, I had never really discussed this topic with anyone, and certainly not with anyone who wasn't Jewish. Secondly, I got to look into the mind of someone who believed strongly in a religion which I had absolutely no personal investment in. When I asked a question about Mormonism and was met with a canned answer (at least canned to anyone familiar with Mormon apologetics) I was able to readily see all the problems with that approach. Furthermore, I could relate it to a similar apologetics answer from Judaism that I had been brought up with. When I offered him these Jewish apologetics, he would explain why the answers favoring Judaism were unconvincing to him. What I learned was that apologetics were merely a tool to assuage concerns of believers. If you don't believe, they are never convincing. I also learned that we are always capable of accepting specious arguments if they lead to conclusions which are pleasing to us. Even though scientific methodology is a tool designed specifically to root out and eliminate these confirmation biases, we can never remove them completely. Someone can be a top-notch scientist, with a critical eye towards their research, but can also believe all sorts of preposterous things when their religion, their family, their romantic partner, or even their preferred politician is the subject. The end result of these conversations, and the subsequent ruminations was that I transitioned from a non-religious Jew, to a fairly firm atheist.

Another bright side to leaving religion is it allowed me to have new experiences that would never be possible if I still kept Kashrut and Shabbat. I took a two week vacation to visit Japan and Korea, countries I never would probably never have stepped foot in if I was still religious. Once you start expanding your worldview, it's nearly impossible to shrink it back down to one where Judaism is central. When I was invested entirely in the Jewish community, when it was all I knew, it was fairly easy to view Judaism as all-encompassing. Now that I was on the outside looking in, it was clear to me how parochial it all really was. It is impossible to attach cosmic importance to Judaism when it is viewed in proper scale with the actual cosmos.

After this, any serious thoughts about Judaism fell to the wayside. Religion was only a part of my life inasmuch as it was something that the rest of my family and some of my childhood friends believed in. My disbelief caused tension with my parents and my siblings, but it was apparent to them that I was in a better place now than I was towards the end of college, both mentally and emotionally. This probably softened the blow.

Torah as an Atheist

I completed my doctoral work at the end of 2011 and began a post-doc in Wisconsin in the following year, where I am to this day (now as a research scientist). Near the beginning of my time in Wisconsin, I started reading through the Tanach on somewhat of a whim. I was a bit saddened that I was losing my Hebrew abilities, and wanted a way to practice. Plus I thought that it might be interesting to see how I related to these texts from a detached view. I skipped the Torah, since I already knew it well, and began with Nevi'im.

Very early I started noticing stuff, similar to the stuff I noticed in the Torah a long time ago and would pester my Rabbi about. Little inconsistencies here and there. For example, I remember reading about the duplicate accounts of David when he has a chance to murder Shaul and doesn't do it. I noticed that the accounts are repetitions of the same story, both including the obscure word for "flea" in them. I noticed that there were a bunch of times where Shaul is introduced to David, each time not recognizing him. Immediately I thought back to those things I was told back in high school about how ridiculous the ideas of multiple authors were, and I thought, "wow, maybe there's something to this after all."

I purchased Kugel's "How to Read the Bible" looking for an introduction to the topic. It is about 800 pages including footnotes. I read it in a week. From there my hunger was insatiable. I searched the library for all books I could find on biblical criticsm, and ancient near east history and culture. I read books supporting the Documentary Hypothesis, and I read critiques, evaluating the strengths of the argument on both sides. Knowing Hebrew as well as I did, it was often trivial to check a proponent's argument to see if they were blowing smoke (they sometimes were, not all arguments were equally strong). I read about archaeology, including detailed reports about dig excavations and Bayes reconstructions of probable date ranges for destruction layers. I watched every lecture in the UCSD Exodus conference. I spent about 2 years where my "for fun" reading consisted entirely of non-fiction regarding the Hebrew Bible, the history of Israel, and other details about Ancient near-east history.

And then I thought to myself, what would have happened had I know this stuff in high school? What would have happened if instead of begin given a one-off strawman version of academic criticism, I was given information regarding the tremendous problems with the historicity of the Tanach? Would I have been receptive? Back when I was struggling with these sorts of things, the internet was a different place. Google was just gaining traction. Wikipedia had just recently been launched and was slowly growing. A lot of the influential articles discussing issues with Judaism like Naftali Zeligman's "Letter to my Rabbi" had yet to be written. But now. All this stuff is available, although almost never as detailed as I would like. Furthermore, I had to ask whether these arguments in favor of Academic Criticism are actually strong, or were they just as weak as Jewish apologetics. Would they also fall apart under cursory inspection? Am I subject to confirmation biases regarding them just as I once was for the Modern Kuzari? For those reasons, I began this blog, and that brings us to today.

Next week we'll talk about why the Torah is not divine, and then we'll finish up with why I don't believe in Judaism and what it would take to convince me of it.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Polytheism to Henotheism to Monotheism

Parshat Ha'azinu

One of the most common theories in Academia regarding the formation of Judaism is that it began with a polytheistic religion, similar to the older Canaanite religions. Later, particularly in the Monarchic times the religion evolved into what is called Henotheism, or Monolatry. In this form of religion, other Gods are recognized, but worship should only be concentrated on a single individual. It is in this period that many of the texts that make up the Tanach were written. Finally, sometime in the Exilic or post-Exilic period the religion evolved into pure monotheism. At all times, authors and editors retrojected the current form of the religion back to pre-historic (i.e. pre-monarchic) times. They cast their view of religion as the true religion that Israelites or later Jews always worshipped.

The polytheistic and henotheistic roots of Judaism created an issue for some of the later compilers and editors of the texts. How to explain some polytheistic cultic behaviors that were still clearly visible? How to explain some polytheistic or henotheistic portions of the text? After examining some of the evidence for polytheistic worship, we'll look at several approaches that the biblical authors and editors used to solve this problem.

Evidence of Polytheism/Henotheism

There are a myriad number of places throughout the history from Shoftim (Judges) to Melachim (Kings) where worship of other gods is described explicitly in the Tanach. The entire narrative arc of Shoftim essentially looks like:
  1. Israelites worship another god.
  2. God gets angry and subjugates them.
  3. a Shofet (judge) redeems them.
  4. Go to one and repeat.
In Melachim, many kings, including Shlomo, are described as "doing evil," and the main form of evil was through worshipping other deities (1 Kings 11:7, 12:28, 14:23, 16:26, 16:32-33, 21:26 and many more).

In other places, the author of Kings ascribes powers to other deities. When the King of Moab sacrifices his child, it causes a change in the tide of battle (2 Kings 3:26-27)
26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not. 27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.
Even kings and other individuals that aren't described as being idolatrous obviously worship other deities. A good example of this is Shaul (Saul) and his son Yonatan (Jonathan) who name two of his children after Ba'al. These names are recorded in their likely original form in Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) 1 8:33-34. The author of Melachim noticing the problem with having theophoric names including ba'al changed the parts for Ba'al to boshet, or "embarrassment." We'll look at textual alterations more fully later.

Other stories, like that of Eliyahu (Elijah) and the showdown with the Ba'al worshippers on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:15-40) the correspondence between Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and the Egyptian Jews, and the golden calves at Dan and Beth-el show that worship of other deities and idols was commonplace in Israel.

Now let's look at some of the methods used to discredit these practices.

Idolatry is a Perversion

The first and most common technique is to claim that all those accounts above about worshipping other gods were perversions of the true Israelite religion.  Shlomo only built altars to Chemosh, Molech, Milcom and Ashteroth because his foreign wives seduced him. Similarly, the evil idolatrous practices of Ahav (Ahab) were pinned to his foreign wife Izevel (Jezebel). Throughout the reconstructed history, the authors attributed bad periods to periods of idolatrous worship and good periods to worship of one God. In the Torah, stints with idolatrous worship are swiftly recompensed with plagues and mass killings (Exod 32:28, Num 25:1-9). In Shoftim the periods of idolatry neatly align with periods of subjugation.

When the authors got close to the time they were writing, the match was a lot more tenuous, and they had to fudge it. The greatest fudge occurs with the events surrounding the downfall of the kingdom of Yehudah (Judah). Manashe the son of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) is attributed to having done all sorts of awful things (2 Kings 21:1-11), however he also ruled for fifty-five years of peace. Seemingly a direct refutation of the idea that worshipping idols leads to problems. When horrible things start happening in the time of Yoshiyahu (Josiah), a king that the Tanach says was the most fervent servant of God, the bad events are attributed not to the actions of Yoshiyahu but to his grandfather Manashe, despite not having ruled in over half a century. (2 Kings 23:26-30).

In this way the authors attempted to fashion a narrative in which Monotheism or Henotheism was the norm and idolatry the perversion. They attributed good periods to times of Monotheism, and bad periods to times of idolatry. However, it's clear from the text, that the actual history they are recording doesn't neatly align very well with this narrative.

Deity Merging

Anyone who reads the Tanach knows that God is referred to by different names. The most common are Elohim and Yahweh, but there are a few others scattered here and there. When archaeologists unearthed the ancient city of Ugarit they learned a lot about the Canaanite religion that preceded the Israelite one. They learned that El was not just the Ugaritic/Canaanite word for God, but it was the name of a God, the supreme creator deity and the head of the pantheon.

In this light the separate names for the deities become more understandable. Israelite religion merged the Canaanite deity El with their own local god Yahweh. It is not clear at all when this merge occurred, but it was in place by the time most of the Tanach was written (we'll see an early verse where it's not in place yet later).

This idea of merging other deities into one overarching deity is seen elsewhere at around the same time. In Persia, Ahura Mazda gained the attributed of the previous pantheon, and in Babylon we have texts were all the minor deities are considered as alternate names of the Babylonian deity Marduk.

While El and Yahweh both became names for the Israelite god, the same can't be said for Ba'al who was entirely supplanted and discarded. The moment where Ba'al is supplanted is captured in the story of Eliyahu on the mountain. Ba'al was the storm God, and in this story Ba'al is shown as incompetent at bringing rain. The Israelite supreme deity though, is successful. The purpose of this story is that all the things you used to worship Ba'al for, you don't need to anymore, because it's really Yahweh/Elohim that does those things.

Another example of Ba'al attributes being handed over to God is in Psalm 29. This is a devotional psalm to God, but it is very curious. For one the language used very much sounds like a terrible storm, something that is right in the wheelhouse of Ba'al. The second clue is that the locations used in the psalm are Lebanon and Syria, two locations not in Israel, but in the far north, closer to where Ba'al worship was most common. These facts and other metrical inferences that I feel are less forceful has led F.M. Cross to suggest that Ba'al was the original deity who was the subject of this Psalm, and the Israelite author simply crossed off Ba'al and wrote in Yahweh.

Justifying Idolatrous Behavior

In the pre-Exilic period, the authors of the histories had some issues regarding popular cultic practices and locations that had long historic traditions associated with them. They couldn't easily destroy them, they needed to either credit or discredit them. For example, there may have been an oak tree in Shechem which had strong cultic associations with it. Possibly it had an altar located there. Instead of removing it, one of the biblical authors justified its existence by writing a story of how the Judean patriarch Avraham had a divine encounter there. The altar, they said (in two separate accounts), was built by him (Gen 12:6-7, 13:18). In fact, many of the patriarchal wanderings are written to explain how this or that cultic location has monotheistic roots stretching back into pre-history.

We've already seen how at least one biblical author justified the existence of the brass serpent, the nechushtan. They attributed its creation to Moshe and therefore justified the cultic worship of it, at least for a time.

I'll note that this kind of justification doesn't end with the biblical authors. It stretches all the way to Rabbinic times with the creation of the custom of Hannukah candles.

Textual Emendations

Finally, we get to the final trick that the biblical editors used to erase previous polytheistic tendencies, changing the text itself. We see in many cases later editors were loath to erase or change something, but were fine with adding things in. This explains how some of the dire stuff written about Manashe came to be written in the text, a later author added that in to explain the fall of Judea.

However, there are a few places where the polytheistic inferences were so dire, that the editors felt forced to change the text itself, like in removing ba'al from Shaul's descendents' names. This parsha gives us the best example of this kind of edit in the Torah.

Deut 32:8-9 reads in the current Masoretic text:
8 When the Most High 9Elyon) gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men (lit. sons of Adam), He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. 9 For the portion of the LORD (Yahweh) is His people, Jacob the lot of His inheritance.
and in Hebrew:
ח  בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם,  בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם;   יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים,  לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.ט  כִּי חֵלֶק יְהוָה, עַמּוֹ:   יַעֲקֹב, חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתוֹ. 
The bolded word, Israel is the questionable one. As written, this verse makes very little sense. God (here given with a very archaic name, Elyon) measures out the boundaries of nations, he sets borders with regard to the children of Israel. Why Israel? Israel didn't even exist at this time.

The Septuagint and most versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls have an alternate reading.  Let's look at the Septuagint:

8 When the Most High was apportioning nations, as he scattered Adam’s sons, he fixed boundaries of nations according to the number of divine sons. 9 And his people Iakob became the Lord’s portion,Israel a measured part of his inheritance.
The simple change from b'nei Yisrael (Sons of Israel) to presumably b'nei Elohim (Sons of the gods) makes much more sense. Here one head deity, Elyon is measuring out the land and he gives each of his "sons" a nation. This fits very well with the reality of the day where each nation had its own patron deity. Chemosh was the deity of the Moabites, Milcom the deity of the Ammonites, etc. The next verse nicely describes that Yahweh is the name for the deity of the Israelites. In this reading of the text, Yahweh is just one of multiple deities!

As we've seen before, biblical songs often represent one of the earliest strata of the text available to us, and this is no exception. It gives something of a creation myth and a foundation of Israel which is very different from the rest of the biblical narrative. It is one where Israel is just a nation subject to their own God who is just one amidst all the surrounding gods. Obviously this is hugely problematic to a monotheistic or even henotheistic worldview. But for whatever reason the biblical authors didn't feel like they could excise these verses or delete the song entirely. So they did the next thing, they changed one word to subvert the text's meaning. Now Israel plays the central role, and it is possible once again to equate Yahweh with Elyon, the God doing the apportioning.

On this last account, it reminds me of a story that John Lennon said about his song Imagine. In the song there is a lyric that goes:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Lennon said he was approached by the world church who wanted to use the song, because it was very popular, but had an issue with one of those lines. They offered the simple solution of changing it to "And one religion too." And you can see how this small change can erase the entire meaning of the song. Perhaps the biblical authors were in the same boat. The Ha'azinu song was well known and maybe popular among the populace. So, they needed to alter it, and they did it by changing just one word. Luckily, the older versions survive, otherwise we may never have known about the subterfuge.

Note on what Follows

With this post we've reached the end of (just a little over) a year of weekly Kefirah of the Week posts. I have three more posts coming up in the next three weeks that give a conclusion to the year long blog. One post talks about my personal story, how I transitioned from religious Jew to Kofer. The second examines a specific question that tilted the scales so to speak. The question is whether or not the Torah is divine, or divinely inspired. I'll detail how I came to the conclusion that there's no good reason to believe in divine inspiration of any of the Hebrew texts. In the third part I'll give a "what would it take?" It's always a good idea to figure out what pieces of evidence would change your mind, and I'll do that for a bunch of topics of relevance to Judaism.

After that it's unclear. I'm traveling (for work) for the first two weeks of October, so I'm unlikely to write down much. I have some ideas for short posts on topics relevant to Judaism as practiced today, which I'll probably jot down. But as far as detailed academic topics, while the well isn't quite dry, the worker is worn out from hauling up buckets. So there will be a break from that for sure.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Parshat Vayelech

Along with the previous discussions on misogyny, parts one and two, genocide and homosexuality, this week's topic finishes out four of the major moral areas in which I struggled mightily over when religious.  In fact, you might say that it was really my inability to rationalize how an omniscient and benevolent being could countenance such laws that led me to drop the religion (a process I will outline in two weeks time!). This week, we will look at slavery, starting with the Torah itself and moving towards how it was treated in Rabbinic times.

Before we start, I have a confession to make regarding this week's post. Originally, I planned to have a much broader and intensive treatment of this topic. However, I both ran out of time and energy, so the final result is considerably shorter and more superficial than I might have desired. Nevertheless, I think I have something substantial enough here, and can perhaps provide some new insights to the institution of slavery in Judaism.

Slavery in the Ancient World

Before we begin, it's probably best to define slavery.  I will use slavery as chattel slavery, the physical ownership of one human being by another. It is different from both indentured servitude and stuff like "wage slavery." While these practices are often bad, and often highly immoral, in my mind there is still a moral distinction between them and chattel slavery. It is no doubt that chattel slavery was a reality in the ancient world.  In fact, to the chagrin of many, including myself, it is still a reality today for far too many people.  In ancient times though, it was considered normal.  Laws of how to handle slaves were different from laws about handling free people.  This is true both in the Torah and other law codes like Hammurabi's. People who think the Torah should be treated as a document of its own era (as I tend to do) will find that the various laws are not abnormal for their time, although they have their own twist, which we'll see shortly.

The Torah - Slavery is not for Hebrews

It is very possible to see the Torah's treatment of slavery as a natural outgrowth of the Israelite origin myth, that the Israelites were once slaves (to Egypt) and were made free through divine intervention.  One of the more poignant recapitulations is made in the parsha two weeks ago (and where this was originally scheduled) albeit with a different background than slavery (Deut 26:6-9):
6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.
One of the central ideas of the Torah is that the Israelites are no longer slaves.  And as such, they should not enslave each other.  Therefore, the Torah specified time limits to slavery, reducing it to indentured servitude.  For example (Exod. 26:2-3)
2 If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. 3 If he come in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he be married, then his wife shall go out with him.
The use of Ivri (Hebrew) is interesting.  It is not a common word, but is commonly found in passages dealing with slavery.  I won't go into this more here, but I did discuss this along with the Apiru when discussing the Exodus.  The Torah doesn't extend this reduction of slavery to everyone.  The very next verse states (Exod. 26:4):
If his master give him a wife, and she bear him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
Later there's an even clearer description of this.  First with regard to Israelite slaves (Lev. 25:39-42)
39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen.
I'll note that "serve as a bondservant" in the Hebrew is Avodat Aved which probably should be translated (in context) as work of a slave. Translating Eved is tricky because the Hebrew word can both mean a slave, an employee, or anything in between. Context is key here, and the following verse, 26:40 help us understand that Aved in 26:39 probably means slave.  Also note that here the slaves only go free in the Yovel (Jubilee) years, which is every 50 years, not the every seven years that we saw in the previous passage in Shmot (Exodus). This is a contradiction that gave the Talmudic Rabbis issues as they tried to resolve who exactly goes free every 7 years, and who every 50. But it's not one we'll pick up in this post.

The verses following these draw the distinction between Israelite slaves (who are not really slaves) and non-Israelite slaves.  Let's see how that goes (Lev 25:44-46)
44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.
The Torah is explicit.  Non-Israelite slaves, people from outside, are to be your property, and may be so forever.

If the Torah represents an improvement in slavery laws, it is only an improvement for the Israelites.  In other words, slavery itself isn't bad or immoral according to the Torah, rather it's enslaving your kinsmen that is bad (and then only somewhat bad, you can still do it, just not forever).

Whenever the topic of slavery comes up with someone who wants to defend the Torah (whether Jewish or Christian) they will always say that the Torah's version of slavery is more like indentured servitude, and they will point to the progressive passages concerning freeing the slaves after 7 or 50 years.  All you have to do is read a little further in these sections, and you'll find that they're misrepresenting the Torah which clearly allows for the eternal chattel slavery of non-Israelites. Later we'll see that traditional Jewish interpretation in the Talmud agrees with the allowing of chattel slavery. But, before that, if you want a lighthearted break, this parody cartoon is a humorous look at the whitewashing tendencies of religious supporters.

The Practice of Slavery as Recorded 

Several places in the Tanach there are descriptions of slavery (of other individuals by Jews). For example, in the Torah we have the following account (Num 31 - 32-47, selected verses)
32 Now the prey, over and above the booty which the men of war took, was [no. of sheep, cows,  and donkeys]... 35 and thirty and two thousand persons in all, of the women that had not known man by lying with him.  41 And Moses gave the tribute, which was set apart for the LORD, unto Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses. 42 And of the children of Israel's half, which Moses divided off from the men that warred-- 43 now the congregation's half was [no. of sheep, cows, and donkeys] 46 and sixteen thousand persons-- 47 even of the children of Israel's half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, that kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses. 
It should be noted that these slaves were all virgin women, so it's probably guessable what their duties entailed. Later there are accounts in Yehoshua (Joshua). In a story that clearly serves both etiological and propaganda purposes, the Hivites hearing that the Israelites are on a mission to commit genocide on them, pretend to be foreigners and make a peace treaty (Josh 9:6,15)
6 And they [the Hivites] went to Joshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel: 'We are come from a far country; now therefore make ye a covenant with us.' 15 And Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them, to let them live; and the princes of the congregation swore unto them.
After Yehoshua finds out that they are Canaanites he get angry because he now can't slaughter them en masse. As punishment for not wanting to die, he enslaves them all (Josh. 9:22-23,27)
22 And Joshua called for them, and he spoke unto them, saying: 'Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying: We are very far from you, when ye dwell among us? 23 Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.27 And Joshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the LORD, unto this day, in the place which He should choose. 
The use of "unto this day" is interesting, because it implies that there were Hivite slaves serving in the Temple at the time this story was penned. The story is giving an etiological explanation as to why there are Hivites serve in the Temple!

The conscription of slaves is also described later in the reign of Shlomo, where it says (1 Kings 9:20-21)
20 All the people that were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the children of Israel; 21 even their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel were not able utterly to destroy, of them did Solomon raise a levy of bondservants, unto this day.
Again, this is a description of chattel slavery and serves both etiological and propaganda purposes. It is explaining why there are foreign slaves serving in the temple. Perhaps the same slaves Yehezkel (Ezekiel) complains about in 44:7
 7 in that ye have brought in aliens, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary, to profane it, 
This is about all I will say on this topic, for more you can see this blog post, which describes in a bit more detail what is going on.

Slavery According to the Rabbis

In the times of the Talmud, slavery was considered a normal fact of life. About the era directly preceding the codification of the Mishnah, Urbach writes:
A crucial change occurred with the Maccabaean wars and the conquests of the early Hasmonaean kings. Prisoners of war, and the population of pagan cities which had either been forced into flight or forcibly ejected when their homes were captured by John Hyrcanus or Alexander Jannaeus, constituted a source of suppy for the slave market [sourced from Josephus War 1,4,3].  These foreigners were dubbed "Canaanite" slaves... We have no exact information concerning numbers of slaves; but the warning note struck by Hillel, "whosoever multiplies maidservants multiplies promiscuity, whosoever multiplies male slaves multiplies misappropriation of property," shoes that a multiplicity of slaves was not an unknown phenomenon still in his own day [1].
References to slaves abound throughout the text of the Talmud. The vast majority of them worry about the halakhic standing of slaves, what commandments they are subject to, and what they are not [2]. Also of interest is that slaves are required to undergo a ritual immersion in a mikvah and be circumcised [3] although the latter was relaxed in later years. However one Talmudic section, deserves special attention. The section begins at the end of Gittin 38a with a story and continues on to the next page. Here's my translation:
There was a female slave in Pumbedita that people were using for immoral purposes. Abaye said, "If only R' Shmuel didn't say that whoever sets a slave free transgresses a positive mitzvah (commandment) we'd compel her master to write her a deed of emancipation...R' Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel, "Anyone that sets his [non-Israelite] slave free transgresses a positive mitzvah, since it says (Lev 25:46) 'They shall serve you forever'...Our Rabbis taught, "they should be your bondsmen for ever" R' Yishmael says this is optional, R' Akiva says this is mandatory... Rabbah said for these three things people lose suffer financial loss, for setting free their [non-Jewish] slaves, for taking inventory of their property on Shabbat, and for making their Shabbat meal coincide with the time they should be at synagogue (lit. Beit Midrash.)
While it wasn't a universal opinion, we see in this section a clear indication that at least some Rabbis, including the venerated Rabbi Akiva, thought that one should never set their non-Jewish slaves free, and if they did, they were violating the divine law that non-Jewish individuals should serve Jews. It's this gemara that Ovadiah Yosef channeled when he said that non-Jews only exist to serve Jews.

Before we move on, it is important to give credit where credit is due. While the possession of slaves by the great Jewish Rabbis of yore is deplorable by today's standards, in many cases the treatment of slaves was better than what could be expected in Greek or Roman cities. As Urbach writes:
The absolute equality of slave and free man in all matters regarding the judicial safeguarding of their lives has no parallel in either Greek or Roman Law [4]
Implications for the Morality of Judaism

It is nearly universally agreed today, at least in the west, that owning another human being is immoral. Certainly, the Torah laws regarding perpetual slavery of non-Israelites reminds us of the chattel slavery engaged in by the nations of the Western Hemisphere with it's disastrous consequences. In fact, in medieval periods when chattel slavery of conquered nations were common, and in the 17th and 18th centuries when the mass enslavement of the African population occurred, Jews participated in slave trading just as everyone else. Judaism

It is very hard, given the clear presence of chattel slavery in the Torah, the Nevi'im and in early Rabbinic practice for Judaism to claim any moral high ground in this area. They are indeed lockstep with the rest of the surrounding nations. This of course is problematic for modern moralists. Let's see how Rabbi Jonathan Sacks confronts this checkered history of Judaism and attempts to answer the question "Why did God not say: There shall be no more slavery?":
There is little doubt that in terms of the Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity. ... So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord...[God] wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.
In this little piece of apologetics, Sacks indicates that he possesses a far better insight into the divine law than any of the Rabbis of the Talmud, since absolutely none of them ever made a statement like "God wanted slavery to be abolished." Instead they used the Torah verses to justify horrendous practices and even prevent people from freeing slaves! And finally, it is only through western ideals and enlightenment that we've reached the idea of full emancipation of all people. So, what use is the Torah in this matter?

Of course the final question to ask is whether there's any truth to Rabbi Sack's account. Did the laws in Mishpatim regarding freeing Jewish slaves after a period of time have any influence on the drafting of such modern laws like the Thirteenth Amendment. The answer, of course, is no. There's no discernable influence there. In fact the Torah itself was just as often used to justify horrendous practices as it was to eliminate them. It's at best neutral on the topic, and at worst a representation of backwards morality.

1. Urbach, "The Laws Regarding Slavery,  Arno Press 1979, p.31 ^

2. In case you are wondering, slaves are pretty much equal to women in this regard. ^

3. Urbach p. 42 ^

4. Urbach p. 39-40 ^

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Lo Bashamayim Hi

Parshat Nitzavim

This week we will look at a sequence of verses in the Torah that conflict significantly with the way that Judaism is practiced today. After that, we will look at the specific difference, as exemplified by the Oral Law and the development of Halacha, and how that came to be.

Lo Bashamayim Hi

The verse in question includes the words, lo bashamayim hi, it's not in heaven. It's one of the more stark declarations of the Torah about how it expects people to read its words. The following verses appear as a standalone section, set off on either side by section breaks, the Torah's equivalent to paragraph markers. Let's see what it says (Deut 30:11-14)
11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
The 16th century Rabbi, Sforno gives a succinct explanation of these verses which, in my opinion hits at the basic meaning.  He says (my translation):
It is not in heaven: You will not need to go to a prophet in order to figure out what to do. It is not beyond the sea: You will not need the wise men of the generation, who are far away from you, to explain it to you.
We do not Poskin from the Torah
The verses and the explanation by Sforno are ironic because that opinion is flatly contradicted by how Orthodox Judaism is practiced today. You might think that if you had a halachic question, you could just crack open a Torah and find the relevant verse and decide on a ruling. Now granted, everything isn't in the Torah, but plenty of laws are. Like, what should you do if someone blinds someone else or if you suspect your wife of cheating.

If you ask any Orthodox Jew why the practice of Jewish religion seems to be different than what it says in the Torah, they may reply with the title of this section, "we do not poskin (make halachic rulings) from the Torah." Rather, to properly understand the Torah, you need to see how its interpreted in the Mishnah and Gemara, a much larger set of legal laws written in a purposefully obtuse manner.

But wait, that's not good enough either. Truthfully, Judaism doesn't poskin from the Gemara either, rather the laws from today are based in the Gemara (which itself is creatively based in the Torah), but the actual interpretation is that from various later authors, the most prominent in Ashkenazi practice being the 14th century Shulchan Aruch. Of course for many questions that's not good enough either and you need to know how it was interpreted throughout the years, keeping track of the various halachic rulings until the present day.

Is this possible for every individual? No, it is obviously not. What needs to be done? The answer given in any Orthodox circle would be to "ask your local Orthodox Rabbi" because only someone with specific theological training is capable of tracing an opinion back through two millennia of Jewish laws to make a ruling on halachic matters (and of course, they must also be male). So, in actuality, God's commandments happen to be very far from most of us, and we're required to completely trust the "wise men of the generation" rather than the Torah to make decisions on what God actually desires.

Now, I'd like to understand how this all came about. How the Judaism that is practice today bears little resemblance to the law of the Torah. To do this, we'll need to recap a bit of history. Afterwards, we'll talk about the big conceit of Rabbinic Judaism.

Sadducees and Pharisees; Karaites and Rabbinic Judaism

Anyone looking at Judaism today will see many distinct groups some close together some far apart. Most of the right-wing sects of Judaism (from Modern Orthodox to Haredim) often describe themselves as representing the true Judaism, the religion that stretched all the way back to Moshe (Moses) at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai). While it's true that the religion is old, it is not actually that old. In fact, at the time that the definitive texts of Rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah and the Gemara were being written, the Rabbis responsible for them were one of several sects. We've talked a bit on some of these different sects when we discussed Matrilineal Descent, so we don't need to rehash old ground. However, it's important to mention these specific sects, the Sadducees, the Pharisees.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees were often rivals during the second temple period. Of the main theological disputes between the Sadducees and the Pharisees were that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, no divine rewards or punishments, no angels or demons, and no resurrection of the dead.

After the second temple period the Pharisees and Sadducees died out, but they each had heirs, if not direct, at least in the allegorical sense. The Pharisees gave birth to the Rabbinic Judaism that we know today, while the Sadducees yielded to the Karaites. If anything the divide deepened here. The Karaites saw the Rabbis adding new things to Judaism and changing the religion in ways that they were not comfortable with. They saw the Rabbis corrupting Judaism with outside influences, not only the eschatological stuff that they imported from Zoroastrianism, but also by inventing new holidays like Hannukah which appeared to include Roman pagan influences, or implementing a Seder on Passover with practices that seem Greek in origin. When an Orthodox Jew today criticizes a Reform Jew for including something like a "Hannukah Bush" into their holiday celebration, one can very easily envision the same type of criticism appearing 1800 years ago, except now it is the Rabbis that are incorporating the non-Jewish elements, the Hannukah candles, into their practice.

The Judaism described by the Rabbis was very different than the Judaism practiced in the Second temple period (forget about the earlier forms in the Torah!). Gone were sacrifices, deemed impossible without a clear divinely sanctioned temple requiring the arrival of a Messiah. Replacing it were community prayers, with their new lists of ordinances. The laws of Kashrut gained the defining features of prohibiting milk and meat together along with specific slaughtering requirements,  innovations that the Karaites saw as unfounded. New holidays appeared, Hannukah and Purim, as well as public fast days like Tisha B'av and the four minor fasts (edit: as pointed out in the comments, Tisha B'av is mentioned in Zechariah 8:19. Tzom Esther and Tzom Gedaliah, however, have no biblical commandment).

The list of differences is very large but we should get to the root of it. The big question is, "How did the Rabbis claim the authority to institute these changes?" Let's look at that.

The Oral Torah

The source of Rabbinical claimed authority was the Torah She'baal Peh, the "Oral Torah." According to the Rabbis, the Torah wasn't the only thing told by God to Moshe on Har Sinai. In addition, God gave a whole litany of extra commandments along with an injunction to not write these commandments down but to transmit them orally (see BT Temura 14b). These commandments were passed down all the way until the Rabbis of the Mishnah, who then fearing that the chain would be broken, began to codify them. Thus, the "innovations" they were implementing, such as not eating milk and meat together, were really there all along. Or so they claimed. Let's see how the Rabbis staked their claim (Avot 1:1, my translation):
Moshe got the Torah from Sinai and taught it to Yehoshua (Joshua). Yehoshua taught it to the elders, the elders to the prophets. The prophets taught it to the men of the great assembly.
The Rambam summarizes the theory of the Oral Torah in the introduction to the Mishnah Torah. He says (my translation):
All the commandments that were given to Moshe at Sinai were given with their explanations, as it says (Exod 24:12) "I will give you the two tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandments (mitzvah)." Torah is the written Torah, and "commandments" are the explanations. He commanded us to do the Torah in light of the mitzvah. And this mitzvah is the Oral Torah.
Later the Rambam gives details about how it was passed down including some humorous descriptions. Let's read some more:
Even though it was not written, Moshe taught it to his entire court and the seventy elders, and to Elazar, Pinchas and Yehoshua...And many elders learned from Yehoshua, and Eli learned from the elders and from Pinchas (making Pinchas some 300 years old), and Shmuel (Samuel) learned from Eli and his court, and David learned from Shmuel and his court. Ahiyah from Shiloh was from the people who left Egypt, he heard from Moshe and learned from David and his court (making Ahiyah some 600 years old).
Needless to say, the Karaites weren't buying this explanation. To them it looked like a power grab and a way to justify the practices of the Pharisees. Let's turn now to whether this idea of the Oral Torah is plausible and what the Tanach has to say about it.

Plausibility of the Oral Torah

The first question against the Oral Torah comes from anyone that has ever played the game of telephone. We know that things get garbled in translation. Parts may be forgotten, or misremembered. Indeed, the Rabbis at the time of the Mishnah started writing things down because they were afraid of things being forgotten. In the 1500 years before this (according to the biblical chronology) through all the periods when the Israelites were subjugated, exiled, worshiping Ba'al, etc, isn't it likely that they also went through forgetful periods? So in order for the idea of an Oral Torah to be plausible from a rational perspective, one requires some divine miracles to endow the people who are transmitting it with super-human memories. Memories which he suddenly decided to remove at the time of the Mishnaic Rabbis.

But before we even get there that let's look at what the Tanach has to say. The Torah very clearly describes Moshe setting up courts of law in the desert. Holding aside any speculation that these texts were actually written at a later date, and making the fairly radical assumption that this isn't just a description of a bog-standard judicial dispute arbitration, let's assume that this represents the beginning of the Oral Torah transition. What happens next? Well, in Yehoshua, we also see him commanding the elders and the judges (for example, Josh. 24). So far so good. Then what?


There is no indication that any of these courts existed during the time of the Judges, and the first two monarchies. Eli does not have a court, and neither does Shmuel. The closest we get is when we reach Shlomo (Solomon) where there is an indication that courts existed, but these courts were standard judicial courts. Whenever someone needs to know some detail or fact, like what sacrifice to offer to appease God, they don't go to a transmitter of the Oral Torah, they go directly to a prophet who asks God directly for an answer. Why even would you need an Oral Court transmission if you had a direct line to God?

There is no discussion of anything resembling an oral court throughout all the histories in Shoftim (Judges), Shmuel and Melachim (Kings). Neither is there anything in the description of Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles). Even worse, some of the specific individuals named by the Rambam, Amos, Hoshea, Yishayahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Ezra make no mention of it. The Rambam has one prophet specifically learning from another, but none of them ever even talk about interacting with each other!

When we get to the Exile and the Second Temple Period, we still don't see any indication of it. There is no description of it in any of the apocryphal writings like Jubilees or Enoch. The first time we hear about this Oral Torah idea is exactly when the Talmudic Rabbis use it to justify their practices! Any perusal through Tanach contradicts the Rambam's speculation for transmission and makes his chain perfectly laughable. No wonder the Karaites didn't accept the explanation.


Not only is the Rabbinic description of the Oral Torah implausible. It also blatantly contradicts the idea behind lo bashamayim hi. The true understanding of the Torah is no longer visible for anyone to read in an actual document for the first 1500 years of Jewish history, rather the true explanation is restricted to a few prominent individuals who were carrying the direct line. Or so claims Rabbinic Judaism.

Perhaps you might think that the authors of the Talmud were hewing closer to the concept of lo bashamayim hi, and you can make that argument for the Mishnah perhaps, but you certainly cannot for the Gemara, which is written in an obscure style and completely haphazardly arranged so that it is impossible to find a specific ruling without reading the whole thing. And today, if you have a particularly vexing halachic question, you may very well need to travel "across the sea" to get an answer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Misogyny (part 2)

Parshat Ki Tavo

Last week we saw various passages that give a viewpoint of how the Torah views women.  We stuck mainly to the Torah, since in traditional Judaism it represents the most direct manifestation of divine will.  However, Rabbinic Judaism practiced today by various sects of Orthodoxy is not really based on the Torah, it is more firmly rooted in the Talmud and the Jewish law, halacha, that has been developed throughout the ages.  The Talmud represents the first written account of Jewish law and all subsequent rulings are required to adhere to it. We will begin our exploration of how Judaism treats women with the Talmud.  A bit later we will look briefly at how some of the views on women from the biggest Rabbis in the medieval period (the Rishonim).  Finally, we will see how women are treated in some of the more right-wing sects of Judaism today. We entirely skip the development of the halacha between the Talmud and modern day because that would change this post into a book.

Talmudic Explanations of Misogynistic Torah Passages

In Talmudic times, already some of the biblical laws regarding women were seen as barbaric and old-fashioned.  As such, the Rabbis recast some of them to be less obviously misogynistic.  However, their view of women is still different from our own, and is nowhere near gender equality.  In some cases the view on the Mishnah/Talmud is even more misogynistic than in the Torah.  For example, with regard to the Sotah (suspected adulteress) mentioned above, the Mishnah states that if a husband warns his wife (in front of witnesses) not to meet with another man and she meets with him then the husband can bring her out to the priest for a trial.  During the trial (Mishnah Sotah 1:5, translation from Sefaria):
And a priest grasps her garment--if it tears, it tears; if it unravels, it unravels--till he has bared her bosom, and he loosens her hair. Rabbi Yehudah says: if her bosom is beautiful, he does not bare it; if her hair is beautiful, he does not loosen it.
In addition to baring her head, they also strip her top off.  But not if she's "beautiful" which you can imagine is even more insulting towards women who are not considered "beautiful."  Nevertheless, even so, the practice was abolished in Mishnaic times as Sotah 9:9 records (translation again from Sefaria)
When adulterers multiplied, the ceremony of the bitter waters ceased and it was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who discontinued it.
There are more overt misogynistic statements in the Talmud. Still in Mishnah Sotah we see (3.4, translation from Sefaria)
From here Ben Azai says: A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, for if she drinks [the magic Sotah potion], she will know that the merit suspends it for her. Rabbi Eli'ezer says: Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he taught her foolishness [lit. lewdness]. 
Of course we know now that one of the surest ways to keep women as a secondary class is to withhold education from them.  We'll see this topic come up a bit later when we get to the Rishonim (Medieval era rabbis)

Overt misogyny is found in other places as well. For example, Pirkei Avot is a section of the Talmud with only Mishnah.  It includes general all purpose advice.  Pirkei Avot 1:5 has some advice which gives one Rabbi's views on dealing with women (my translation)
Yosi ben Yohanan, from Jerusalem said: ... Do not speak with women more than necessary.  They said, he's talking about his wife.  How much moreso the wife of his friend.  From here the "wise men" said, all the time that a person speaks with a woman, he causes evil to himself, and is neglecting learning Torah, and in the end will deserve to be in Hell (lit. Gehinnom, not quite equivalent to Christian Hell).
Talmudic Apologetics

The Talmud also included some apologetics which attempt to keep women satisfied with their second-class citizen role. One of the more troubling prayers for this topic is the morning prayer that thanks God for, "not making me a woman."  The female version, highlights this negative aspect to femininity in that is doesn't thank God for not making one a man, rather it thanks God for "making me according to his will."

This prayer is old.  We don't know how old, but it was already established when the Talmud discusses it.  The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) asks whether there actually is something negative about being a woman in Berachot 63b and comes up with one of the most common apologetic answers that is the go-to answer for religious Jews today who are somewhat bothered by this prayer.  It says (my translation):
Blessed for not making me a woman: Because women are not obligated in commandments.
Of course women are obligated in some commandments, so other sections of the Talmud qualify this as being the specific set of commandments that women are not obligated in.  Of course the reasoning falls flat if only one wonders why the blessing didn't say, "for obligating me in commandments" instead of the roundabout "for not making me a woman."

I will note that in other places the Talmud doesn't use this apologetic answer.  For example, in a brief aside in Megillah 23a the Talmud says (my translation):
The wise men said, "a woman should not read from the Torah because of the "honor of the community."
This idea that a woman reading from the Torah somehow reduces the honor of the community (Hebrew kavod hatzibur) has caused significant problems and has required significant maneuvering by later apologists to explain how it's really a dishonor because women aren't obligated in time bound commandments.


A discussion of the role of women in the Talmud would not be complete without mentioning Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir and someone who was considered on the same intellectual level as the male Rabbis, yet still, she was locked out of making Halachic rulings because of her gender.  I would like to bring up one passage that to me looks like someone mocking the senseless rules regarding treating women as if they were some sort of dangerous substance that you shouldn't talk to too much.  The story goes like this (Eruvin 53b, my translation)
Rabbi Yossi, the Galilee was walking and met Beruriah, he asked her, "On which path would you walk to Lod [using 4 Hebrew words]" She told him, "Stupid Galilean! Didn't the wise men say not to speak with women more than necessary?  You should have just said 'which to Lod?'"
Part of me wonders if the sarcasm flew over the Rabbis heads as they were writing it.

Of course later Rabbis took it upon themselves to discredit Bruriah.  In Avodah Zarah 18b, the Talmud mentions that Rabbi Meir fled to Bavel (Babylon) after Ma'aseh deBruriah or something that happened with Bruriah.  Rashi provides an explanation (my translation).
One day [Rabbi Meir] was taunting here that the "wise men" said women have weak minds. He told her that one day she will admit that they are right.  In order to do this, he commanded one of his students to test her by tempting her to sin [presumably to sleep with him, smart guy this Meir].  Eventually after a lot of trying he succeeded.  When the matter became known, she hung herself, and Rabbi Meir left [to Babylon] because he was embarrassed.   
Anyone can probably figure out where Rashi got this story from.  Some person was probably ashamed that the Talmud had such glowing words to say about a woman, and took it upon himself to reduce her to a "weak minded" individual who couldn't control her sexual desires. We'll get to the Rishonim in a bit, but first we need to look at one more topic.

Rewriting the Biblical Women - "Modesty"

The ideal woman of the Talmud is one who in many ways differs from the women in the biblical stories.  Specifically, the talmudic ideal woman engages in a form of "modesty" (Hebrew Tzniut) that involved essentially removing herself from the public sphere.  As such, the Talmud engages in rewriting some of the biblical women to enforce this trait upon them, often in ridiculous ways.  For example, regarding Sarah, the Talmud says (Bava Metziah 87a, my translation)
They [the angels] asked him, where is Sarah your wife.  He [Abraham] answered them, she's in the tent.  This is to let us know that Sarah is modest (tznuah
The humorous part of this exegesis is that the Talmud skips over the parts were Sarah wasn't modest enough to keep herself from enticing two kings who after seeing her wanted to take her for themselves.  Sarah isn't the biggest revision here.  There's two more that are far more silly.  The first is Tamar.  The Biblical story in Genesis 38 goes that Tamar was married to Yehudah's (Judah) son, who was killed by God.  By the law of levirate marriage (yibum) she married Yehudah's second son, but he was also killed by God.  Yehudah didn't want her to kill his third son, so he sent her off.  She got angry at being forgotten and dressed up as a prostitute to seduce Yehudah one day, and then finagled his staff and seal as a manner of collateral payment. When she got pregnant, and Yehudah tried to kill her for prostitution, she outs Yehudah as the father making him look like a hypocrite. The Gemara manages to spin this story so that Tamar is a super modest individual.  Let's see how. Megillah 10b says (my translation)
Rabbi son of Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, any bride who is modest (tznuah) in the house of her father in law merits to have descendants who are kings and prophets.  From where [do we learn this]?  Because it is written [about Tamar] that [Judah] thought she was a prostitute because she covered her face (Gen 38).  Not because she covered her face [at this point in time] and that's why Judah thought she was a prostitute, but rather, because she covered her face all the time in Judah's house [so presumably he didn't know what she looked like.]
Tamar is actively going out and seducing her father in law and the Talmud manages to rewrite the story so that she is so modest that she never let him see her face. The Talmud's interpretation of the story is ridiculous, but the actual biblical story is that of an active woman who uses sexuality to get what is rightfully hers, and that's anathema to the Talmudic generation.  Women shouldn't do that.  One more revision story ahead, that of Ruth.  The Talmud says in an aside about collecting crops that Boaz was attracted to Ruth because (Shabbat 113b, my translation)
He saw something modest (tzniut) in her.  She would stand to pick the standing crop, and sit to pick the fallen crop [so as not to bend over].
According to the Talmud, Boaz was attracted to Ruth because of excessive modesty in gathering crops. However, Boaz wasn't turned off when Ruth stalked out his sleeping location and came into his bed uninvited one night and lay down with him (Ruth 3:1-9), which is hard to really spin as modest behavior.  About the prophetess Devorah the Talmud is remarkably silent, only mentioning her with regards to prophecy a few times, and never once talking about her role as a public leader and judge.  The Talmud also describes some highly reactionary opinions regarding women's dress and behavior that serve the purpose of removing them from the public.  Berachot 24a says (my translation):
Rabbi Yitzchak says, a handbreadth (tephach) of exposed skin [on a woman] is lewdness [Hebrew ervah, literally means nakedness, but in a sexual context].  How so?  If you are looking at it.   Didn't Rav Sheshet say, why is it written in the Torah about inner garments and outer garments?  To teach you that anyone who looks at the little finger of a woman is as if he looked at her vagina.  No [the talmud actually rejects this reasoning] this is only talking about someone's wife and while he's reciting the Shema.  Rav Hisda says, the thigh of a woman is nakedness, because it says (Is 47.2) "reveal a thigh to cross a river" and then later "reveal your nakedness [ervah] and show your embarrassment."  Shmuel says, the voice of a woman is lewdness because it says (Song of songs 2:14) "your voice is sweet and your appearance is pretty."  Rav Sheshet says, the hair of a woman is lewdness because it says (Song of songs 4:1) your hair is like a flock of goats [sexy, sexy goats].  
Note that a woman's hair is considered lewd, but when it comes to men's hair which was discussed right before this passage, the Talmud says:
Rav Meri said to Rav Papa, A hair that escapes from a man's clothes, can you read [the shema] with it [in sight]?  [Yes of course, because] A hair is just a hair.
Men's hair is ok, but women's hair is lewd.  Covering the hair and the restrictions on hearing women's voices comes up a lot in modern practice as we'll get to a bit later.  The idea that you can't even listen to a woman because somehow her voice is lewd is repeated in one other place in the Talmud, along with other ridiculous sexualization of women Kiddushin 70a-b (my translation):
He (the speakers here are anonymous people I think) said to him, "Let [my daughter] Donag come serve drinks." He replied, "Shmuel said, do not make use of a woman [because she'll be sexual objectified presumably.]  He replied, "but she's a little girl!" He answered, "Shmuel said it doesn't matter if she's little or big." He said, "Can you send a message to [a woman, presumably his wife] in Yalta?  He replied, "Shmuel said, the voice of a woman is lewdness." He replied, "then use a messenger" He answered, "One must not ask about the welfare of a woman."  He said, "what about a husband?" He answered, "It doesn't matter, no one should ever ask about the welfare of a woman."
To conclude in a section of advice by Rabbi Hisda, the Talmud mentions some advice he gave to his daughters. I'll quote from Shabbat 140b (my translation):
Rav Hisda told his daughters.  Be modest (tznuah) before your husbands.  Do not eat bread in front of your husbands [presumably because you might stuff yourself and that's not womanlike], don't eat vegetables at night [you might get bad breath and be unappealing for sex], do not eat dates and drink beer at night [a laxative and a diuretic respectively] do not poop where your husbands poop [regardless of whether he's anywhere nearby], when a person comes to the door say "who is she" instead of "who is he."
This section wasn't going to be so long but it turns out that there were just so many objectionable things in the Talmud on this matter, it was hard to stop.  But I will stop now.  Let's move on.

 Misogyny in the Rishonim

Turning to the Rishonim, I will limit myself to two thoughts.  The first is from Rashi, which I've chosen not because it contains overt misogyny, but rather because it is prototypical for discussing the completely masculine dominated viewpoint of biblical exegesis.  It is in regard to the captive wife in last week's parsha. The section involves a man who goes to war and after dutifully slaying the enemy males, sees a desirable woman, and takes her home as a wife.  The Torah specifies some strange requirements for what the man needs to do to his captive (Deut. 21:12-13)
12 then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare (lit. do) her nails; 13 and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
Rashi comments on these verses quoting mainly from Sifrei (my translation).
Do her nails: let them grow so she'll be repulsive (and the guy won't want to marry her).  Put the raiment of her captivity from off her: Because it's pretty.  Women would make themselves nice at war to seduce enemy men to have sex with them. and shall remain in thy house: In the house that you use, so that you will stumble on her when you go in and out, and see her crying, and she'll be ugly so you'll begin to despise her.
The thing that I notice immediately in this passage is that not a care is given to the thoughts or desires of the captive woman.  Not only has her family and perhaps previous husband just been killed and she has been carted off to a foreign land, but she's forced to undergo, at least according to Rashi, additional humiliations. And these humiliations are for the sole purpose of inducing a desired behavior in the husband, so that he doesn't marry her.

Turning to the second opinion, we look to the Rambam, and see more overt misogyny. We revisit the commandment on whether or not to teach a woman Torah.  The Rambam says (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13, my translation)
Our sages commanded that one should not teach his daughter Torah.  Because most women do not have enough intelligence to learn, and they will make words of Torah into nonsense, because of the poorness of their intelligence.  Our sages taught, whoever teaches the daughter Torah it's as if he taught lewdness.  What are they talking about? Oral Torah.  But with written Torah, ideally you should not teach it to her, but if you do, it's not lewdness.
Here we see the Rambam holding to an unfortunate stereotype that's been with us until today.  The stereotype that women's minds are somehow inferior to male minds.  One can't really blame Rambam for holding a false opinion.  However, one can blame the myriad people since then that have used this passage and its source in the Talmud to withhold knowledge from women. I'm old enough that I can still remember a time when teaching Talmud to women was controversial. It still is forbidden in many Hasidic sects.

Treatment of Women in Judaism Today

Now we'll turn our attention to some glaring issues that appear in religious settings today. These stem directly from the checkered history of Jewish law as it relates to women.  Specifically I'm approaching this from Orthodoxy, and even more specifically Modern Orthodoxy which is what I grew up with.  We'll look at four issues in particular, many of them were discussed earlier with regard to the Talmud.  We will discuss, the asymmetry regarding divorce law, the ramifications of "the voice of a woman is nakedness" leading to the modern practice of kol isha.  We'll talk about the treatment of non-Orthodox women who take it upon themselves to do traditionally male practices like reading from the Torah.  Finally we'll close out with the dire treatment of women in some of the more right wing Hasidic communities.

Each of these topics could have a full post dedicated to it with a large amount of halachic sources throughout the ages.  I do not have the time to engage in this, so instead I will just provide a summary.

Divorce Law

In Jewish law (last week's parsha) we learn about how Jewish divorce proceedings go.  Very briefly, we have (Deut 24:1):
When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it cometh to pass, if she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he writeth her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house
From here we get the halachic ruling that it is a man that has the sole capability of divorcing his wife. There is no similar option for a woman, she has no right of divorcement.  However, this leads to the situation where a man and a woman separate but the man doesn't initiate divorce proceedings.  What happens then? According to halacha, the man is allowed to marry again (since men can have multiple wives) but the woman is unable to (since women cannot have multiple husbands). This leads to a situation for the woman called agunah which literally means "chained."

The Talmud talks about the agunah in the context of a woman who's husband is lost at sea without witnesses.  Since there's no proof that the husband is dead, she cannot remarry.  She's "chained" to her dead husband.  However the same situation occurs for women in religious communities where the husband withholds the religious divorce papers.  She is forbidden from remarrying.  It is telling that after 2000 years of Jewish halacha this issue has not been resolved. Had women been equal partners in the fashioning of Halacha, the inequitable treatment would not have survived this long.

Kol Isha and Tzniut

Modern communities (at least in Modern Orthodoxy) don't follow the insane Talmudic guidelines of never speaking to a woman at all.  However, they do use the argument that a woman's voice is lewd to prohibit certain behavior among women. Specifically, singing in mixed company is forbidden (some permit it if there are enough male voices around that you can't distinguish the female ones). This includes religious singing, like during prayers. Of course there's no problem with men singing, that's perfectly fine. But women cannot sing, except for audiences consisting solely of other women.

Clothing is also heavily prescribed. Oddly, in this case the Hassidic communities appear to be somewhat more gender egalitarian than the Modern Orthodox in that both genders have very specific clothing that they are required to wear.  In Modern Orthodoxy though, the restrictions for women are considerably more onerous than those on men.  Women are restricted to wearing skirts to at least below the knees, married women must cover all their hair (leading to the purchase of fancy wigs, because fake hair is ok), and shirtsleeves must be of considerable length (usually elbow length).  For men, the restrictions are much less problematic, and Modern Orthodox men are often seen in shorts and t-shirts.

Women and Religious Participation

Stemming from the Talmudic discussion of Kavod HaTzibur, the honor of the community, women were forbidden from reading publicly from the Torah.  This continues in Jewish communities today from the right wing of Conservative Judaism through all branches of Orthodoxy. Women are forbidden from reading from the Torah or from leading services. In the more right wings of Orthodoxy, women are forbidden from public speaking at all, although thankfully this is not followed in Modern Orthodoxy.

The question then arises about what happens when women who are not Orthodox take it upon themselves to participate in religious behavior, such as reading from the Torah. This is actually a flash point in Jewish religion today, as a non-Orthodox religious group, called the "Women of the Wall" has taken it upon themselves to publicly read from the Torah at the western wall once a month. Their brazen disregard of millennia old societal norms has prompted the Hasidic groups to protest them en-masse often leading to disgusting scenes.

Of course there's the additional problem noted above that women have throughout the ages been shut out entirely from Halachic decision making.  It's unsurprising that misogynystic laws abound when women have no say in those laws.  In fact, for most of Jewish history women were forbidden from even gaining that knowledge, since teaching women Halacha was forbidden!

I will note that in some Modern Orthodox communities, there does finally appear to be some progress on these fronts. Some communities have "partnership" services which are women-led (but not mixed-gender). Also, the idea that women should not learn halacha has fallen by the wayside in Modern Orthodoxy. Still women are locked out of the traditional leadership roles (Rabbis) which are exclusively male only.

Misogyny in Hasidic Communities

Finally we turn to Hasidic communities. From this point I'm speaking as an outsider, yet I feel required to point out some of the more disgusting practices. This will essentially be a run-down of misogynistic practices that appear in the most right wing Jewish communities. I will make no effort to identify practices with specific sects, so a given behavior might be specific to only one small community. So keep that in mind as you read.
  • In some communities, women are completely erased from public life, to the point that women politicians are edited out of newspapers since it is immodest to show the image of a woman.
  • In some communities, the practice of married women covering their hair is not extreme enough and they require women to completely shave their heads upon marriage.  They even have modesty police that come and ensure that your hair is shaved off under your wig.
  • Birth control is forbidden in Hasidic communities (and indeed in many non-Hasidic Orthodox communities).  In addition regular sex is required by halacha. The net result is that Hasidic women get pregnant a lot, whether they want to or not.
  • Hasidic communities have commandeered bus lines and enforced gender separated seating (women in the back of course).
  • Similarly, Hasidic communities have attempted to put up street signs asking non-Hasidic women to only walk on one side of the street so that the men won't have to come near them.
There are probably more instances of this, feel free to point them out in the comments.

Yeridat HaDorot

Yeridat HaDorot, literally the descent of generations, is a topic in Judaism that I have not discussed much. We will look at it a bit next week when we talk more specifically about the role of the Oral Torah. But for now a basic description will suffice. The principle states that each generation is further removed from a divine experience (namely Sinai) so that it has less capability to decide what is religiously appropriate. Therefore, it is impossible to overrule a previous generations' ruling, and furthermore, the earliest generations of Rabbis are idolized as super-intelligent individuals.

This type of principle is very good at keeping a stable and conservative religion, but it makes it impossible to overcome clear problems introduced by previous generations. The agunah problem mentioned earlier is one of these issues that are impossible to resolve Halachically because Orthodox Rabbis today can't abrogate rulings from earlier generations.

Because the Talmudic generations are treated as some sort of quasi-divinely inspired arbitrators, their rulings on women are handled with a lot more weight than they have any right to be. For a modern reader it is jarring to see some of these clearly misogynistic statements held today as representing an enlightened generation. They clearly belong in the first millennium CE where they were formulated.