Dvar Torah Va’eschanan: 1312 vs. 2012

According to my calculations, it’s been 3324 years or so since we received the Torah at Sinai, and well, it’s really no wonder that many people are about fed up with it.  I mean, is there anything else, at all, that anyone still maintains with as much an attempt at precision than the statutes of Judaism?  The Rigveda, a collection of Hindu hymns from the Indian subcontinent that predates the Five Books of Moses by a few hundred years still exists, but other than being used for as incantations and as divine praise, they hardly compete with the Torah when it comes to being a source for intricate worship.

I just graduated for the last time and am enjoying a little bit of a break before I begin working full-time, and so I went to the Passaic library to rent some movies.  I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close last night with my wife and I watched Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood today when she was at work because she doesn’t like watching any films with guns and she’s machmir on bows and arrows and swords just the same.  I much preferred the one from 1991 starring Kevin Costner because I’d already been watching for over 2 hours and was wondering how Russel Crowe was going to defeat the crafty King John with 6 minutes left, only to realize at the end that the film amounts to a prequel of sorts.

While watching the film, I paused to see when it was that Richard the Lionheart was King of England (1189-1199) and even taking the film critics’ concerns about the 7 year discrepancy of Richard’s war with France seriously, it made me wonder about the reality we experience when we try to take the Torah seriously in the year 2012.  I mean, even if we’d compare 2012 to the year 1312 on this side of Jesus, it’s not too difficult to see how many people can take issue with this ancient text called the bible that we take as the guide to life.

In this week’s parsha, Moses admonish the nation to keep his Torah before he dies and Joshua takes his place as leader:

And now Israel, listen to the statutes and the laws that I am teaching you to fulfill that God is giving you.  Do not add to these matters and do not subtract from them, in order to preserve the commandments of God — you shall preserve and fulfill them, for it will display your wisdom and your understanding before the nations who will hear all of these statutes and say, “It is only this wise and understanding nation that is a great nation,” for who is a great nation that has God close to it and who is a great nation that possesses such just laws as the Torah? (Deuteronomy 3:1-8, paraphrased)

There has been much debate over the centuries as to the nature of God’s law, first ascribed to Plato as the Euthyphro dilemma — did God choose good laws to put in his Torah, or do we define them as good based on the notion that God commanded them?  The Wikipedia article (linked in the previous sentence) is, I think, a wonderfully drafted outline of the various points and counterpoints of the entire issue and even quotes Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Kt as saying something that I don’t much agree with, unless I don’t understand it.  He writes the following:

In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist.  God command the good because it is good…God and humans are equally answerable to the claims of justice.  But the good is what God commands because God-the-lawgiver is also God-the-creator-and-redeemer.  Morality mirrors the deep structure of the universe that God made and called good.  Plato’s challenge arises because the Greek gods were not creators.  Matter was eternal.  The gods had no special authority except for the fact that they were held to be powerful.  Plato was therefore correct to challenge the powerful cults of his day by, in effect, drawing a principled distinction between might and right.  The gods may be strong, but that is no reason to invest them with moral authority.  For the Bible, however, God who teaches us how to act in the world is also the maker of the world in which we act.  This means that in monotheism, morality means going with, not against, the grain of the cosmos and history. (To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, p164, paraphrased)

From what I can tell, R’ Sacks has got to watch what he says for fear of alienating too many of his supporters and being called upon to resign and although I don’t think having taken a different position on this matter would have led to such a conclusion, I sense that he is making distinctions based on creases in the fabric of Jewish theology that don’t really exist.  If God created us, as R’ Sacks implies, with a sense of morality such that we appreciate that X is inherently wrong and Y is inherently right, then it is He who has defined what is wrong and what is right.  In this sense, R’ Sacks’ paragraph does not support his thesis, that there is no Euthyphro dilemma in Judaism, as he meant it to; he meant to say that there is no dilemma according to the teachings of Judaism because the religion maintains that the good exists outside of God and that He is merely commanding what is already good.  Rather, it seems to me to support the other side of the coin — that God has, before the outset of creation, determined what will be good (n.b. and therefore, that which He will later command) and set into motion this amorphous moral compass within the mind of collective humanity.  The problem with this is that the Torah is clearly written to correspond perfectly to those living in 1312 BCE and the amorphous moral compass within the mind of collective humanity changes while the Torah does not.

When does the age of majority begin?  Well, it depends.  It will depend on what year you’re asking about and it will depend on where in the world you’re talking about.  Are we drafted into the military at 18 but we can’t be trusted to drink responsibly until we’re 21?  Is it deemed statutory rape to engage in sexual intercourse with someone under the age of 16?  And when can a person vote?  Or smoke marijuana?  These are all great questions, and I certainly don’t have the answer to them.  Perhaps we can’t really answer these questions because we can’t even begin to generalize — so perhaps we just pick an arbitrary age that seems to fit and then we’ll change it up if things aren’t working out.

Who in the world would think that the age of majority, though, is 13?  At the age of 13 you’re still picking your nose and licking your finger and not realizing that people are watching you.  I mean, at the age of 13 you can’t make heads or tails of most anything in regards to life, love or loyalty, yet Judaism sees the 13 year old male as a responsible party.  Sure, the oral law makes an attempt to amend this a bit by making some mystical claims to the age of 20, but the fact is that 13-year-olds were probably ripe for adulthood way back in 1312 BCE.  It’s like Jerry Seinfeld says: “the life expectancy now is like 72, but it’s amazing to think that just a few thousand years ago, it was like 30, which in our terms would mean that you get your driver’s license around 5, you marry at 9 and get divorced at 15, in your late teens you move down to Florida, I guess that’s how spring break got started, I don’t know, and eventually people are saying things like, ‘It’s amazing, because that guy is like 28 but he’s still alert!  His mind is so sharp, you’d think you’re talking to a 2-year-old!”  But we’re stuck, for better or worse, with the Judaism of 1312 BCE, and honestly, it’s usually worse, but we deal with it if we’re interested in observing the Torah.

Heshy had a post in late June in which he featured a photograph of Tefillin Barbie, which he got, either directly or indirectly, from the Hasoferet website of Jen Taylor Friedman, a self-proclaimed “post-denominational halakhically-observant egalitarian Jewish ritual scribe and scholar.”  Her website features what initially appears to be a very well outlined review of the laws relating to women and being a scribe, but she abruptly concludes with no transition to “[h]ow we continue from there depends on whether we take a fully gender-egalitarian approach to Judaism, or a non-fully-gender-egalitarian approach.”  What her argument amounts to is “the halacha says X, Y, Z but I’m not a fan of Z so I’ll just drop that.”  I wondered about this, so I emailed her to ask about it:

Ms. Friedman,

In reading your explanation of whether females can serve as ritual scribes in Judaism, it seems that your outline leaves you in the same place where you began — that the Talmud in Gittin prohibits women from fulfilling this role.  You then seem to jump without support to saying, “[h]ow we continue from there depends on whether we take a fully-gender-egalitarian approach to Judaism, or a non-fully-gender-egalitarian approach.”

I was wondering what support you have for just deciding to take either gender-egalitarian approach other than shifts in societal norms?  It seems to me that just “taking” what amounts to a new approach (rather than following a precedented approach) should just as easily lead one to be able to decide to take a “substrate-egaliarian approach” in which one would be able to say that, Talmudic times, of course all writing was with ink on parchment because that’s nearly all they had.  But now we’ve moved on and we have paper, and I think we should treat all writing substrates equally.

My point is that, at first blush, it certainly does seem as though you’re just picking and choosing which precedents you will follow and which you will not, maintaining those rules that appear to substantiate your objectives as ones based on the traditions of thousands of years (such as using the inks, parchments and so forth that men use, and quoting the Talmud on your website) yet simply dispensing with other rules of precedent, equally as binding in their potential to invalidate a Torah scroll, because you’d like to “take a fully-gender-egalitarian approach.”

Thank you in advance for your consideration.


And this was the response I received:

Essentially because substrate egalitarianism is not a fundamental matter of human dignity embraced by major streams of Judaism, and gender egalitarianism is. This is a debate I was interested in five years ago, and it’s not a debate I’m interested in having now. Your stream of Judaism is welcome to say that men and women are different vis-a-vis their societal and religious standing; equally, mine says that men and women are deserving of the same level of respect and participation, and I’m past the stage of caring to justify that to those who disagree.

It’s not that I was toying with her, but I thought she’d have something to say.  I didn’t mean to force her into admitting that she has nothing to stand on other than her feelings, but it seems that that was her only option, really.  And furthermore, I’ll agree that substrate egalitarianism is not a fundamental matter of human dignity, but it’s most certainly a fundamental matter of separating us from those who lived in medieval times and before.  No one except Harry Potter is still writing on parchment, yet we must do so.  Think of how much less expensive and more efficient it would be to photocopy mezuzahs and lain from an iPad, but alas, we may not.  And I suspect that the reason why the likes of Jen Taylor Friedman refuse to promote substrate egalitarianism is because she wants to be taken seriously — if she’s propose we do away with quills and ink bottles, she’d have much less credibility than she has even now, which is not that much as it is.

Watching Robin Hood, I thought of Marion of Loxley’s plight as a widow, how she’d lose her estate to the crown when news of her husband’s death would arrive.  Why can’t women own land?  Why can’t they be scribes?  Why can’t they give testimony?  Why are they always included with slaves, imbeciles, children and the like?  I’d say it’s because the times allowed them to be maintained at a level at which they were denied education such that they truly were unfit for these callings — not inherently, but so nonetheless.  And just like slavery and murder/pillage as a means of national vengeance was acceptable in society at the time and so condoned or directed by the Torah, so too were women disenfranchised.  Now, times are different, but the Torah is not, and so we live in 2012 but must act on many fronts like we still live in 1312 BCE.  If that doesn’t interest you, one can usually find the door easily enough, but if one does find Judaism suitable, cherry-picking is not really an option.