Thursday, October 20, 2005

Troubling Texts I: The Sexual Prohibitions

This year, I was asked to speak after mincha, the afternoon service, on Yom Kippur. Although it immeditately occurred to me that I should speak about the mincha Torah reading, with its discussion of sexual prohibitions in general and homosexuality in particular, I remained so ambivalent about the subject matter that until the very moment that I stood at the bima, I was seriously considering ad-libbing something about Jonah.

Even after receiving generally positive feedback, I wonder whether I did the right thing by raising such a controversial subject on Yom Kippur, rather than offering a few simple words on teshuva, or a pep-talk for the final service of the day. Maybe you should tell me. (Be honest, but please, no badmouthing.)

Here are a few excerpts:

There has been a great deal of emphasis lately, in the political arena as well as within the leadership of the Conservative movement, on the verse reading “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is abhorrence” (Lev. 18:22). But really, the entire framework of the Torah reading is problematic. Many of the regulations in it are based quite explicitly on the idea that women are the sexual property of men. We read, “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father” (Lev. 18:8); in other words, you, male reader, may not have sex with your father’s wife, whether she is your biological mother or not, because her nakedness, her sexuality, belongs to your father. Because most of the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are based on this principle, we don’t have any discussion of many of the more pressing issues in contemporary sexual ethics.. . . The premise of the text is that men can have multiple sexual partners and women can have one, and that sexual relations are problematic primarily when they involve a woman who belongs to another man.

The discussion of homosexuality in the Conservative movement has, to a large extent, I think, sidestepped some of the most fundamental questions that this chapter raises. To what extent is the Torah a product of its historical context, and to what extent is it timeless? Conservative leaders generally agree that Judaism allows human beings a good deal of interpretive license with the Torah, but there is much less agreement on the limits of that license, or on whether there even are limits. This is because there is no consensus on the even more fundamental question of the nature of the Torah’s authority. Is it the direct word of God revealed to human beings? Is it God’s word interpreted by human beings through the prism of their own experience? Or is it a noble, but ultimately flawed attempt by humans to figure out what God’s will might be? These are crude articulations of complex theological ideas, but I think that it’s important to articulate them even in this very crude form, to convey some sense of the range of positions held by people who consider themselves Conservative rabbis.

I also think that, however we approach these issues, egalitarian communities such as this one can’t in good conscience take the prohibition against sexual intercourse between men at face value. Both its context and its wording strongly suggest that the prohibition is fundamentally about maintaining the boundary between male and female, and that is a boundary that we routinely transgress in our religious practice. Whatever our perspectives on the fundamental theological issues I mentioned earlier, the fact that we’re here indicates that we all believe, on some level, that although the disparity between the status of male and female was quite conspicuous at earlier stages of the Jewish religion, it is ultimately unjust to perpetuate that disparity. . . .

I’m not going to make a halakhic argument. . . but I would like to discuss what I think is an interesting exegetical and philosophical approach to this prohibition.. . . This interpretation is advanced independently, in different ways, by the Reform feminist theologian, Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism and by the gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, in Wrestling With God and Men. Both authors see this law as fundamentally prohibiting men from turning other men into women. It is a reading that actually fits the wording and context of the verse very well, and it explains why the Bible doesn’t prohibit lesbian sex. In a society in which men have a higher status than women, sexual intercourse between men disrupts the social order in a way that sex between women doesn’t. It degrades one of the partners by turning him into a woman.. . . So there is a concern for justice here, a concern that men not “declass” or degrade one another, just as there is a concern fro justice behind the prohibition against sleeping with another man’s sexual property. It isn’t the inclusive justice that we would demand today, but it is a concern for justice nonetheless.

Adler and Greenberg both go a step further in their readings of this verse to suggest that we bring it up to speed with our contemporary sense of justice by employing a rabbinic exegetical principle called ribuy, or “expansion.” Rabbi Greenberg specifically focuses on the word 'et, which can function either as a direct object marker or as a preposition meaning “with.” For the ancient rabbis, 'et was code for a missing element. And from a contemporary perspective, it seems clear what missing element should be read into this verse: not only is one forbidden to degrade a man sexually, but one is also forbidden to degrade a woman sexually. It’s a clever reading; clearly on the original meaning of the verse, but not entirely out of keeping with it, either. In a way, it’s a natural extension. As Adler writes, “what makes the Torah sacred is not that it has one fixed eternal meaning, but that its meanings are inexhaustible" (p. 1256).

I went on a bit after that about the importance of sexual boundaries in the modern world and the relevance of the topic to Yom Kippur, but this post is long enough already, so I'll leave all that out. What I'm chiefly wondering is, did I take "questioning the fundamentals" too far, consdiering the context? Is this an appropriate approach to text and tradition for a traditional egalitarian community? Should I lay off this topic already?

Next in this series: A d'var torah on Qohelet.

61 comments:

Dovid said...

If I may, i don't think that's even appropriate for any context, let alone kol nidrei before neilah!

mmbbhk said...

I second the previous comment. As for the Adler/Greenberg argument, presumably they would claim that the next verse prohibits bestiality because it degrades animals by turning them into women. This approach is ridiculous.

It is interesting that the Torah describes as "toevah", "zimah", "tevel" etc. precisely those pairings in which neither party appears to be breaching a relationship with anybody else. The others don't warrant an explanation; it is obvious why they should be prohibited. But the "toevot" are there to reject the argument that so long as no one feels hurt or slighted by an action, there is no reason to forbid it. Some things are disgusting and wrong in an absolute sense -- in the Torah's language, they profane the holiness of the world and of the Jewish people. If such a notion offends our modern sensibilities, perhaps it is our sensibilities' problem.

As for making the laws in this section egalitarian, I think R' Gershom Meor haGola already did that a while back.

elf said...

If I may, i don't think that's even appropriate for any context, let alone kol nidrei before neilah!

I suppose that's to be expected.

As for the Adler/Greenberg argument, presumably they would claim that the next verse prohibits bestiality because it degrades animals by turning them into women.

Bestiality is different. The prohibition is applied equally to men and to women, ulike the prohibition of same-sex relations, which this chapter applies only to men. Also, Greenberg's midrash hinges on the word 'et, which appears in the homosexuality prohibition alone.

The problem with bestiality is that it crosses the animal/ human divide, just as sex between men causes a rupture in the male/ female divide. The former is generally upheld in Conservative egalitarian communities (although some Reconstructionists are apparently uncomfortable with it), while the latter is considered problematic.

It is interesting that the Torah describes as "toevah", "zimah", "tevel" etc. precisely those pairings in which neither party appears to be breaching a relationship with anybody else. The others don't warrant an explanation; it is obvious why they should be prohibited.

That's a very interesting observation. I used to take this language as an indication that these pairings are prohibited for visceral reasons (the author or Author thought they were "gross"), but I'd prefer to believe that there's more to it than that. I'll certainly think it over.

If such a notion offends our modern sensibilities, perhaps it is our sensibilities' problem.

This is the fundamental difference between your perspective and mine. This is not the place, however, for a thorough discussion of my reasons and their implications, so we'll have to leave this as a stalemate.

As for making the laws in this section egalitarian, I think R' Gershom Meor haGola already did that a while back.

Yes and no. He improved the situation for women, but as an Orthodox rabbi, he couldn't fundamentally undo the structure of the system. That's why there's still an agunah problem.

Erica said...

This is interesting to read. Thanks for posting it.

debka_notion said...

I'd say that if that's going to be the assigned reading for the day, then it's fair game for a d'var, and that yours fit quite well. It's good to keep people awake and focused, which by that time is sort of hard. And in any case, what better time than when you're starting afresh to question old assumptions?

Anonymous said...
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Rebecca said...

Elf, that sounds like a great d'var Torah for the YK mincha Torah reading. It engages very seriously with the text and at the same time suggests a contemporary reading that doesn't just reiterate the prohibitions contained in Leviticus.

Naomi Chana said...

Given that my congregation's custom appears to involve Completely Ignoring The Substance Of The Afternoon Torah Reading... I think such a d'var would be both appropriate and welcome. Much as I love Jonah, the world only needs so many Jonah sermons. And the places where I worship tend toward panel discussions of things like "How Much I Love Israel," which is nice but not so much spiritually stimulating. By YK afternoon, I want the spiritual equivalent of espresso (actually, I want the physical equivalent too, but...), and your d'var sounds as though it would do a great job of waking people up on several levels. It also manages not to descend into mealy platitudes -- I really appreciate a close look at the text itself.

Max M. Alist said...

Elf, your post reminds me of the saying, "An expert is someone who makes something simple into something complicated." The Torah says, "You [i.e. A MAN] shall not lie with A MAN." How much clearer could the Author (or author) have made His demands! If you believe G-d commanded those words, it doesn't matter whether you or I like it or agree with it, and it doesn't matter what His reasoning was--as if we knew His reasoning anyway.

If you don't believe G-d commanded those words, then go do whatever the heck you want! Why do you even care what some dude 3000 years has to say about whom you may or may not sleep with!

fleurdelis28 said...

The problem with bestiality is that it crosses the animal/ human divide, just as sex between men causes a rupture in the male/ female divide.

If bestiality crosses that animal/human divide, wouldn't the corresponding breach of the male/female divide be when a man sleeps with a woman?

That said, I suppose your reading would explain why daughter isn't on the list.

And I'm with debka_notion -- if we're gonna read it, we might as well discuss it.

fleurdelis28 said...

The Torah says, "You [i.e. A MAN] shall not lie with A MAN." How much clearer could the Author (or author) have made His demands!

But it doesn't say that. It says "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman". If it's that straightforward and obvious, why would you need the qualification? "You shall not lie with a man" would certainly seem to be clearer and less open to discussion. (I got into a debate once with an evangelical Christian who literally could not fathom how I construed the text as referring to an act and not to a state of mind, and I was similarly baffled at her perspective. Obvious readings are relative, even in the most seemingly indisputable of circumstances.)

debka_notion said...

The Torah says, "You [i.e. A MAN] shall not lie with A MAN." How much clearer could the Author (or author) have made His demands!
Err- By your reasoning, we ought to be going around knocking out teeth and eyes and the like as reciprocal punishments too... (And eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...) And we certainly don't do that. We're not Karaites. If you're going to hold by the oral law, then interpretation is part of the game, and (if you want to take certain positions about it) also from G-d.

Rachel said...

Elf, I wish I could have heard your whole d'var; I've really enjoyed reading this excerpt. I think this is eminently appropriate material for the holiday in question (hey, it's the Torah portion du jour; somebody obviously thought sexual ethics were important enough to study on YK afternoon) and, like Naomi Chana, I really appreciate the extent to which you based your exploration in the text itself. This kind of detailed and engaged wrestle is one of the finest ways that we, as Jews, can show our respect to Torah and its multiplicity of meanings.

I also happen to agree with the conclusions you draw (and I'm tickled that you chose to cite theologians both Reform and Orthodox to bolster your point). But that aside, regardless of how happy your line of argument makes me, I think the fact that you faced these problematic texts head-on is laudable. Three cheers!

Joe Muka said...
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Alex said...

Elf, it sounds like it was a very interesting and thought-provoking dvar.

For what its worth, I put in a couple of little suggestions as to some possible interpretations for it. They can be found here.

As to the appropriateness of the topic for the time, I'm with Naomi Chana on this one. Jonah makes a nice repentance and reward-for-effort story which ties in well enough with Yom Kippur, but the particular portion has been chosen for a reason and is probably worth discussing (ignoring my personal "everything is worth discussing" philosophy).

If you don't believe G-d commanded those words, then go do whatever the heck you want! Why do you even care what some dude 3000 years has to say about whom you may or may not sleep with!

Tradition? These texts are a major part of our cultural background? The texts generally form an inspired piece of thought with messages which are still relevant today, even if some of the parts do require cultural context to make sense, and hence are less relevant today? Maybe an answer along the lines of "the texts (particularly their differences from other thoughts of the time) have shaped some of the best parts of our society and our world as it is today" would suit you better? Why should 3000 years or 3 years make any difference?

Max M. Alist said...

fleurdelis28,
If you're going to hold by the oral law, then interpretation is part of the game
Actually, the opposite is true: if you hold by the Oral Law, interpretation is not part of the game. The Oral Law was given to Moses and handed down in each generation. Examples of oral law include blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana, fasting on Yom Kippur, and cutting off the foreskin from an 8-day old boy's male organ (as opposed to another part of the body). In fact, the whole Torah--save for the Ten Commandments--was oral until Moses wrote down the Written Law on his last day. No interpretation here. Now if you can find me somewhere in the Oral Law where it tells you to read the verse "You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman" in a counterintuitive manner, I'd like to hear about it. Otherwise, your (extremely inventive) way of reading carries no weight with people free of any far-left agenda.

Rebecca said...

Hmm, max m. alist, have you studied any Talmud? Any Midrash? Take a look at them - they are extended arguments about interpretation - of the written Torah, of other oral Torah.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is oral law? Take a look at Lev. 16 - it says to "afflict your souls" and it's not a far leap to see that as fasting! As for circumcision - take a look at Gen. 17 - how is it possible to view this as anything other than circumcision? And where do you get the idea that everything was oral law until Moses wrote it down on the last day before his death? Take a look at Ex. 21-24 - there are several mentions of Moses writing down the commandments in a book of some kind.

Max M. Alist said...

Rebecca (I love when a woman tries to teach me about learning Talmud.)

Yes, I have studied Talmud and Midrash. It really would take too long for me to try to explain to you the logic and approach of the Talmud, but if you're interested in the subject, I would suggest you start with Maimonides' preface to the Mishnah, Kuzari Sheini by R' Dovid Nato, & Maoz Hadas by R' Yehoshua Heller. For now, I'll just tell you that the vast majority of those "extended arguments" to which you refer are not about interpretation at all but about finding sources or hints for already accepted laws. When you do find actual interpretation, those indeed are merely interpretations and are not part of the Oral Law given to Moses. However, an objective student will realize that Rabbinic interpretation found in the Midrash has a lot more scholarship behind it than the interpretations of yours or mine.

Briefly to deal with your difficulties: I'm sure if you thought about it for a few more seconds you'd realize that "afflict your souls" could mean other things besides fasting. If you would tell someone new to Judaism that come Yom Kippur he has to afflict his soul, I doubt he would understand you to mean fasting. Circumcision probably was a bad example, because the reader probably would assume correctly to what body part it refers, even though it is not stated anywhere explicitly. As for the writing down of the law, the Torah was not written until Deuteronomy 31:9. I see nothing in Ex. Chs. 21-23 about Moses writing down anything. In Ch. 24 it mentions what he had written down of the commandments given up to that point. I guess that's what you were reaching for? Regardless, you see that the commandments were given orally and then written down as sort of "lecture notes," as R' S.R. Hirsch puts it.

fleurdelis28 said...

fleurdelis28,
If you're going to hold by the oral law, then interpretation is part of the game


I wasn't the one who said that. If you're going to start arguing that the Oral Law was transmitted seamlessly from Sinai across millennia, it might be a good idea to avoid transmission errors in a written discussion over a couple of days. :)

Joe Muka said...
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Max M. Alist said...

fleurdelis28,
Ahh, what can I say; it's hard to tell all you heretics apart! Jusssst playin'. :) Sorry, I'll double check the name next time.

Alex said...

(I love when a woman tries to teach me about learning Talmud.)

And yet you are responding to a post where? Have a quick squizz through the various comments you are responding to. Full of Rebeccas and Rachels and Naomis etc. One would easily make the assumption that either you do value and respect the opinions of said women, or you are trolling and just trying to start a fight. Whatever, I'll bite. Having read a few of the blogs by the commenters, I can say without hesitation that there at least 3 (and quite possibly more) women who know a good deal more Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Jewish History, miscellaneous pieces of Judaica and a few other things than I do. I don't think sex has a lot to do with it.

You may well know more than me, too, but given that you have posted without reference to who you actually are (either real or virtual identity) it makes it a little difficult to take gibes on women's inferiority to you particularly seriously.

Otherwise, your (extremely inventive) way of reading carries no weight with people free of any far-left agenda.

One of two things:
1) Yes it does, it is an interesting and thoughtful way of reading into a complex and troublesome line, and any thinking person should appreciate it and use it to spark their own thoughts

or

2) Cool - that just about completes the spectrum of political ideologies I have been ascribed!

Mar Gavriel said...

See my post on theology. The Torah is God's word as filtered through the lens (אספקלריא) of the נאמנים. It makes no difference to me whether you want to call these נאמנים "Môshe" and "Yehôshua`" or "J" and "E".

Yalta resources said...
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Yalta said...

Someone turned my alter-ego into spam! Ack!

(Yet another sharp intellectual contribution by the Yaltanator.)

elf said...

Sorry about the lengthy absence, and the spam. I've turned on word verification, which should take care of the latter.

max m. alist wrote:

Elf, your post reminds me of the saying, "An expert is someone who makes something simple into something complicated."

You often refer to my supposed "scholarship" or "expertese" before criticising my posts. I am a lowly graduate student, and this blog is generally not about what little scholarship I've produced. It's a collection of random thoughts on Judaism, the Bible, and food, as advertised.

The Torah says, "You [i.e. A MAN] shall not lie with A MAN." How much clearer could the Author (or author) have made His demands!

See fleurdelis28's comment (also Greenberg's reasoning).

If you believe G-d commanded those words, it doesn't matter whether you or I like it or agree with it, and it doesn't matter what His reasoning was--as if we knew His reasoning anyway.

If you don't believe G-d commanded those words, then go do whatever the heck you want! Why do you even care what some dude 3000 years has to say about whom you may or may not sleep with!


One of the ideas that I was trying to convey in my d'var torah is that there are many theological gradations between "God commanded these words, and they have a fixed eternal meaning," and "Some random dude said this 3000 years ago and it has nothing to do with me." Greenberg's approach, which has some precedent in rabbinic judaism, seems to be that the Torah is encoded with layers upon layers of meaning, which continually reveal themselves to new generations in ways appropriate for their particular circumstances. There are other approaches as well, including those suggested by Alex, which are a bit closer to the way I think of things.

if you hold by the Oral Law, interpretation is not part of the game. The Oral Law was given to Moses and handed down in each generation.

The idea that the Oral Law was trasmitted, unhindered, from Moses through the rabbinic period, with no interpretation entering the discussion, is an extremely conservative position that is not universally maintained even among Orthodox authorities. I won't try to disabuse you of it, if you consider it integral to your faith, but you should realize that there are other perspectives out there.

I love when a woman tries to teach me about learning Talmud

I'm never sure whether to even acknowledge this sort of comment. You probably realize how offensive you're being, so I guess I'll leave it alone.

For now, I'll just tell you that the vast majority of those "extended arguments" to which you refer are not about interpretation at all but about finding sources or hints for already accepted laws.

It's true that the gemara largely occupies itself with finding evidence for accepted laws (although "the vast majority" is an exaggeration), but there are many disputes about the halakha itself within the mishna. One approach to this datum is to say that God commanded all the divergent halakhic positions, but the more obvious approach is to say that there was a good deal of unclarity about the specifics of halakha by the tannaitic period. The rabbis were doing the best they could. Many Jews view the process in which they engaged as a form of divine revelation.

Alex: The interpretations on your site are cute. A little silly, but they do help make a point about biblical literalism.

Fleurdelis28 wrote:

If bestiality crosses that animal/human divide, wouldn't the corresponding breach of the male/female divide be when a man sleeps with a woman?

Formally, yes. But halakha emerges from the world of human experience. In our world, the most "normal" or commonplace sex takes place between a human male and a human female, or between a male and female of another species. Thus, a human who has sex with an animal is behaving like an animal, and a man who has sex with another man is behaving like a woman.

Mar Gavriel: I haven't read your whole post (although I plan to; it looks very interesting). For now, I would say that, while your comment does help demonstrate that there are a range of opinions on the authorship of the Torah even within the Orthodox world, it isn't entirely relevant to the matter at hand. To be more precise, the idea that the Torah was "filtered through the lens" of human beings may be relevant, inasmuch as it may suggest that the entire, unblemished, crystal-clear truth may not be embedded in the words of the Torah as they stand. On the other hand, if one considers the Torah to be the perfect word of God unaffected by the individuals through whom it was transmitted, then it really doesn't matter whether the scribe(s) is/ are Moses or J, E, P, and D.

Lawrence said...

The idea that the Oral Law was trasmitted, unhindered, from Moses through the rabbinic period, with no interpretation entering the discussion, is an extremely conservative position that is not universally maintained even among Orthodox authorities. I won't try to disabuse you of it, if you consider it integral to your faith, but you should realize that there are other perspectives out there.

Last year I came across an Amoraitic midrash saying quite explicitly that G-d gave us the vague, written Torah with the expectation that we would dutifully extrapolate by logical means a clarifying oral law. I'll go check the citation.

elf said...

Thanks, Lawrence.

Mar Gavriel: Now that I have read your post, I agree that the comment is relevant.

Anonymous said...

There's a detailed opinion of a Conservative Jewish rabbi on this topic at:

http://www.netivotshalom.org/drashot/rkelman/diversity.htm

The most intereting point, which I haven't read many other places, is that the phrase "do not lie with a man as one lies with a women" is redundent (i.e. "a man should not lie with a man" is enough). One interpretation is that this means if someone is exclusively homosexual, then they are only lying with men (with no comparison to women) and not breaking this rule.

Lawrence said...

(I love when a woman tries to teach me about learning Talmud.)

Max: I'm curious as to the reasoning behind this statement, which I take to be sarcastic. Is it your belief that (1) opportunities to become more learned than you simply do not exist for women, or (2) that women are incapable of compherending Talmudic reasoning? I can think of no other bases for your sentiment, though if the answer is a third, unvoiced reason then I'd be curious to hear it.

elf said...

Anonymous: Thanks for providing the URL. I've seen this teshuvah before, but didn't read it thoroughly until now. It's a thoughtful piece of work, but it still seems to me that Rabbi Kelmen hasn't done a wonderful job of explaining the reasons for his position, or the theoretical framework underlying them.

I find the specific argument that you mention problematic for two reasons. First, as a literal reading of the text, it is weak. The phrase mishkevey ishah, "the lyings of a woman," does not specify the subject of the act, and therefore would seem to refer generally to the manner in which sexual acts with women are performed, not to their performance by the particular individual to whom the prohibition applies. Second, the practical consequences of this reading are troubling. Our modern day conception of love and marriage tends to assume that romantic partners are not interchangeable. The Conservative movement has overturned the prohibition against marriages between kohanim and divorcees on the premise two people who have fallen in love and wish to spend their lives together cannot simply walk away from the relationship and find more halakhically suitable partners. It seems equally problematic to demand that a man who has fallen in love with another man abandon the relationship because he is occasionally attracted to women.

fleurdelis28 said...

The Conservative movement has overturned the prohibition against marriages between kohanim and divorcees on the premise two people who have fallen in love and wish to spend their lives together cannot simply walk away from the relationship and find more halakhically suitable partners. It seems equally problematic to demand that a man who has fallen in love with another man abandon the relationship because he is occasionally attracted to women.

What about people who've fallen in love with someone who isn't Jewish?

fleurdelis28 said...

And I want to hear your d'var on Kohelet!

Max M. Alist said...

Lawrence and Elf,

Your journalistic skills really are apparent; you took my response out of its context. Rebecca said, "Hmm, max m. alist, have you studied any Talmud? Any Midrash? Take a look at them." I think I responded in kind.

Anyway, to answer Lawrence's question: Men are commanded to learn Torah, while women are not. In fact, the Mishnah in Sotah (3:4) states, "Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it's as if he taught her obscenity." So although women are allowed to learn whatever they want, it's not their job. For me, it's my job. Say if you were a doctor, and you spent years in medical school and have been practicing for years. It's your job to know about medicine. Someone who isn't a doctor might also learn a lot about medicine, but it's not his job. So if someone who's not a doctor would lecture you about something having to do with medicine, you'd probably either laugh or be insulted. I know I would. Similarly, I'm sure there are women who know parts of Talmud or Midrash that I don't, but since it's my job to know this stuff and not theirs, it's insulting for a woman to be lecturing me about it, especially in a condescending way. Get it?

debka_notion said...

Max. M. Alist- On the other hand, to continue your metaphor, if a specialist in acupuncture was discussing a medical topic with you, and you're a doctor, they might still have just as much knowledge and be equally competent in medicine- just in a different sort of medicine. Not everyone holds that teaching women Torah is problematic- there's a whole chain of Beis Ya'akov schools that clearly seems to believe that this is not problematic, in fact, and I would certainly not question their Orthodoxy. So perhaps there is another legitimate position available, with those who are equally experts in it (although I certainly do not make such a claim for myself).

Yalta said...

When is post #2.

max m. alist said...

Oh, debka_notion, I'm glad you're here! I responded to your earlier post where you said, "If you're going to hold by the oral law, then interpretation is part of the game," but I mistakenly addressed my comments to fleurdelis.

As for your most recent post, you're right; Bais Yaakov teaches some Torah to girls. Women need to learn how to perform the commandments given to them and also how to behave properly. They realized that not every girl's parents and husband would be able to teach her all she needs to know, so they decided to teach them this stuff in school. The administrators of Bais Yaakov don't disagree with the Talmud's view that women are not supposed to be taught Torah. Otherwise they would teach them Mishnah and Talmud, too.

Lawrence said...

Max: Your doctor analogy is ineffective.

It is clearly your understanding that women should not be taught Torah lishmah, only the Torah that they need on a day to day basis. Your error is in your assumption that every potential teacher of Torah believes this.

A more appropriate analogy:

You're a doctor, and believe that medicine is a man's job, not a woman's. You've even attended a medical school that shares your ideology, and so only teaches men.

Now, along comes a woman who claims to be a medical doctor, trained at a top medical school, and she contradicts your assessment of a patient's condition. You may feel that her training process constituted obscenity, and you may believe that her teachers were misguided for having taught her. It doesn't change the fact that she received the training, and is qualified to provide medical care.

Lawrence said...

A followup for Max:

The passage in Sotah that you cite is the second half of a dispute between Ben Azai and Rabbi Eliezer: Ben Azai states that a man should teach his daughter Torah, and Eliezer contradicts him, calling it tiflut.

From context we learn the nature of Eliezer's prohibition: He is concerned that if a woman learns Torah and gains zechut thereby, she will believe herself to be protected from the effects of mei hamarim, and therefore feel free to sleep around with whomever she pleases.

This doesn't strike me as a terribly convincing argument for withholding Torah education from women, particularly in light of the fact that the concern is centered around a mitzvah that cannot currently be performed. (It also says some interesting things about Rabbi Eliezer's [and even moreso Yehoshua's] views on women's thought processes.)

And of course, it's worth noting that we don't pasken directly from the Mishnah.

max m. alist said...

Lawrence,

I guess I should respond to your comments. I'm afraid someone reading your comments with a limited background might get the wrong idea and find your thoughts to be informative.

Max: Your doctor analogy is ineffective. When you make such a declaration, I would suggest explaining why its ineffective. The analogy actually is quite appropriate: according to the Jewish belief (the one that's existed for 3300+ years) it's my obligation and job to know Mishnah and Talmud and not a woman's. You're welcome to start another religion in which women are commanded to study Torah, but in Judaism, they're not.

This doesn't strike me as a terribly convincing argument for withholding Torah education from women. Getting back to the doctor analogy which you love: if a first-year medical student (i.e. Lawrence) tells me he doesn't find the arguments of a Nobel Prize-winning doctor (i.e. Rabbi Eliezer) convincing.... You get the idea, hopefully.

And of course, it's worth noting that we don't pasken directly from the Mishnah. You make me smile.:) That's right, we don't. But we do "pasken" from the Talmud. Since the Talmud cites that Mishnah and does not tell us to follow any contradictory Mishnayos or Braisos, we do indeed "pasken" according to that Mishnah.

Again, I think there's really one underlying point you all need to understand: Judaism is an established religion. Even the Rabbinic institutions which are not 3300 years old have been firmly established as part of the Jewish religion for at least a couple thousand years in almost all cases. So if you want a religion where homosexuality is permitted, where women are obligated to study Torah, or where any of your other personal preferences are satisfied, you're welcome to start one--it's a free country! But please don't insult religious Jews by calling your new religion "Judaism."

fleurdelis28 said...

Max: Your doctor analogy is ineffective. When you make such a declaration, I would suggest explaining why its ineffective. The analogy actually is quite appropriate: according to the Jewish belief (the one that's existed for 3300+ years) it's my obligation and job to know Mishnah and Talmud and not a woman's. You're welcome to start another religion in which women are commanded to study Torah, but in Judaism, they're not.

But he did explain why he felt your analogy was ineffective. You may not be convinced by his explanation, but he gave it -- that's the rest of the content of the post whose opening line your quote.

For your part, I don't see where you've addressed the point that someone may have a good deal of knowledge, even expert knowledge, on a subject that is not their job -- particulary if there are other people out there who do believe they should know it, and are providing them with a first-class education. Next year I will have graduated law school and (hopefully) be qualified to practice law. I have a certain amount of knowledge and training, moreso than the average person, but there are people out there who have never been to law school, and will never go, who know more about law than I do. Some of them know more about law than I probably ever will, not because I am lacking in drive or intellect but because they possess so much of it themselves. It is not their job to learn or practice law, and in fact it would be illegal for them to practice law without the authorization of the ABA. However, when they speak I would listen very carefully, because their legal standing does nothing to diminish their expertise. Different groups of people may have different roles (whether by birth or by choice, depending on one's perspective), but no one has a monopoly on knowledge or insight. God, for whatever reasons of His own, has not chosen to shape our world that way.

Mar Gavriel said...

Since the Talmud cites that Mishnah and does not tell us to follow any contradictory Mishnayos or Braisos...

Wait a minute. You're making the sughyo sound much less qompliqated than it actually is. In the very same sughyo in Massekhes Sôto (I don't remember the partiqular daf), the Bavli attributes the--

Oh, forget it. I thought we were talking about the question of whether women are permitted to study Torah. Now, I see that we are talking about the issue of whether women are obligated to study Torah.

OK, scratch everything I have written here.

fleurdelis28 said...

"qompliqated"? That's awesome.

lawrence said...

Max: As for the effectiveness of your analogy, see fleudelis28's comment. Ignoring my argument will not make it go away.

The matter of where we derive halakhah is more complicated than you'd like it to seem. I didn't really want to get into this, because I think it will result in a lot of needless heretic-pointing, but here goes: We don't pasken directly from the Gemara, either.

Halakhah is, and has been for a long time, an evolving system. If you don't believe me, compare laws of avelut in the Talmud (Mo`ed Katan perek 3 is your major source) with what we practice today. There are differences, some of them startling.

Rabbinic halakhah evolves when rabbis — not individuals, but the decisors of a generation — cause it to do so. Rav Soloveichik wasn't a heretic when he taught women's Talmud shiurim, he was simply practicing within the evolved framework.

Mar Gavriel: I do intend to continue arguing the point of whether women are allowed to study Torah. (The obligation matter interests me, but isn't the subject at hand.) The thing I really want to tell you is that I love the accurate softening of gimmel as ghimmel. I'd use the more historically accurate orthography as it is, but I cause enough confusion with the backward apostrophe as `ayin. :)

max m. alist said...

Fleurdelis28,

I totally agree with everything you wrote. I'm pretty sure I mentioned so in my original post--that I'm sure there are women out there who know more Talmud than I do.

Good luck in your studies! We need more good, honest lawyers in the world.

Oh, and Lawrence, I didn't ignore your argument; it just failed to provide any support for your calling my analogy "ineffective."

lawrence said...

Max: The entire body of the comment was support for the ineffectiveness of your argument. Others see this; for some reason you can't.

Mar Gavriel said...

Fleurdelis--

If you like my spelling of "qompliqated", check out my blog, which is full of such awesome spellings!

fleurdelis28 said...

Mar Gavriel -- I do read your blog. Didn't I comment on your Law French post?

Mar Gavriel said...

Oh, that's right! I'm glad you like it. (Qeep up the qomments!)

Mar Gavriel said...

Is this it? Your blog is over?

Anonymous said...

Several comments:
1. Exploring this troublesome topic is laudable. However, anyone claiming objectivity on so loaded an issue can't be entirely honest.
2.Homosexuality may be socially corrosive in ways that go well beyond the mere reduction of a male to inferior female status. Rightly or wrongly, homosexuality is associated with cruelty and the historical evidence of this association abounds.
3. The text is rarely more plain and emphatic than in this instance and thus resistant to exegesis and liberal interpertation.
But, hey, keep searching.
--Dad

fleurdelis28 said...

Rightly or wrongly, homosexuality is associated with cruelty and the historical evidence of this association abounds.

So's heterosexuality, though. And the family.

elf's DH said...

The text is rarely more plain and emphatic than in this instance and thus resistant to exegesis and liberal interpertation.

The same may be said of some Rabbinic interpretations of Torah. Do you leave your place on the Sabbath day (Ex. 16:29)? Do you wear a blue fringe on your tzizit (Granted, some people do, but a common custom is that the blue only comes from the dye of a specific mollusc that is never mentioned Biblically)? etc...

Rabbinic Jews are not Biblical fundamentalists.

Mar Gavriel said...

Hey,

It turns out that there's a new site that has ALMOST the indentical URL to this one: epikorsus.blogspot.com.

elf said...

What about people who've fallen in love with someone who isn't Jewish?

Excellent question. Personally, I think that the Conservative movement (and possibly modern Orthodoxy) should find ways to encourage endogamy without actively discouraging exogamy. Individuals who have already decided to intermarry should certainly not be condemned. Rabbis should recognize that love is not necessarily reversible, and that those who intermarry can still retain a degree of commitment to Jewish life. Conservative rabbis should be allowed to attend weddings between Jews and non-Jews, and they should make it clear that intermarried couples are welcome in the synagogue.

Whether Conservative (and perhaps modern Orthodox) rabbis should officiate at such marriages is a more difficult question. R. Steven Greenberg has suggested that special ceremonies should be developed for such situations. Although I would not necessarily object to such a development, I am not convinced that it is necessary. Unlike homosexuals and bisexuals, who may be strongly committed to traditional halakhah in most areas of life, Jews who fall in love with non-Jews are likely to have a lukewarm commitment to traditional observance at most. Therefore, it may not be inappropriate to refer such couples to rabbis affiliated with the Reform or Reconstructionist movements.

Is this it? Your blog is over?

No. I apologize to those who keep asking for post #2. Cutting and pasting a d'var torah and adding a few comments is really not such a big deal, but I've been suffering from unusually frequent bouts of depression lately, and that tends to make simple tasks seem rather difficult. I will try to post next time I'm back on my own computer. Meanwhile, read DH's post on the Conservative "driving teshuvah" (shameless plug).

Rightly or wrongly, homosexuality is associated with cruelty and the historical evidence of this association abounds.

We've discussed this over the phone, so I know that you're aware of some of the counter-arguments. You are, of course, quite correct in stating that objectivity on this matter is nearly impossible. I would argue that this inevitable lack of objectivity is a good reason to be skeptical of the "historical evidence" that you mention. I would also argue that homosexuality leads to social corrosion only when homosexual relationships are marginalized, and that it is sexuality, particularly male sexuality, rather than male homosexuality, that tends to become mixed up with cruelty and violence. But you've heard all this already.

It turns out that there's a new site that has ALMOST the indentical URL to this one

And it's by another doctoral student. Funny.

Max M. Alist said...

Elf,

I'm really sorry to hear about your recent bouts of depression. On behalf of all your virtual friends, you should have a r'fuah sh'laima b'karov.

elf said...

Thanks, Max.

Yalta said...

I made drunk cake without you.

:: hugs ::

Anonymous said...

Very sorry to hear; refuah sh'leima and take good care.

Daniel

fleurdelis28 said...

It does sound like the appropriate mood for writing about Kohelet, though.

Gatos Hombre said...

Hey, Max M. Alist, I suggest that u re-read some of those books that u listed about the mesorah, especially the Rambam's Intro. to the mishna. In his conception of the mesorah and derivation of halacha interpretation was definitely played a large part in Chazal's interpretation of halacha. See for example where he speaks about the concept of "halacha le'moshe misinai". He defines these as laws that are a result of a "tradition" which are just "leaned" (asmachta) on a verse as a reminder for the particular halcha. "Halacha lemoshe misinai" is described in contrast to most other halachot which are derived from the 13 midot and "remez" in the torah. This is active interpretation and not just a product of mesorah (also u must consider that there are different mesorahs as to the number and substance of the midot 7, 48[i think it's 48?] of Hillel etc.).

Also, how do u understnad the classic arguments between rabbi Yishmael and R'Akiva? They differ b/c of their different methodologies in deriving halacha and interpreting pesukim---R'Akiva darshen's the "et" and R'Yshmael does not.

Also, I would like to say yasher koach to the author of this blog. I think that what Conservative movement needs is Conservative leaders like yourself who bring up the hard and controversial issues so that the movement can better define itself and say what it really stands for. By asking good questions and through struggle one grows.

Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what Conservative Judaism has done for the last 60 or so years. Conservative rabbis and leaders until recently have treated as taboo discussion of the "hot" topics and the things which the movement is struggling with like Shabbat observance, tahorat hamishpacha, and homosexuality etc.