Saturday, October 26, 2013


No, I don't mean necrophilia (well, maybe just a little, metaphorically). Nor do I mean necromancy, although we'll get to that. Necrolatry, you see, is the worship of the dead. It's something we don't think about much in modern Western society, except for one day a year. Well, a week. OK, a month. Fine, starting with Labor Day!
That, of course, is when the stores in the US, Canada and the UK start hauling out the merchandise for Halloween, All Hallows' Eve. If it has a witch, skeleton or ghost on it, it goes on the shelves. Of course, as so much of the stress has now moved to adult party attire (females, you can choose anything from sexy abacus to sexy zucchini!) and refreshments (what color vomit would look best on you?), Halloween has lost some of its spookiness. Still, there's no question that this is a holiday with some seriously macabre origins.
Just take a gander towards the equator. In Mexico (and increasingly throughout Latin America), it's the next day (or two) which are Día de Muertos. South of the border, they are not shy about their sexy skeletons.
I don't know, catrinas, those necklines are a little low-cut...
What's remarkable is that although both holidays have pagan origins (and were later Christianized), those origins are not the same, unless there was some land-bridge connecting the Celts to the Aztecs. The desire to have contact with the dead, especially one's own relatives, is apparently universal.
That, presumably, is why the Torah feels the need to express such antipathy towards these practices. The Torah forbids and condemns acting as a "necromancer (ov) or spiritist (yidoni)" or consulting such mediums. The elimination of such practices establishes the bona fides of the first and last independent kings of the Jewish state (Saul and Josiah), while embracing them is the final line of the indictment against its wickedest monarch, Manasseh. More than a dozen times, Scripture criticizes these acts. As Isaiah states (8:19):
When someone tells you to consult necromancers and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
According to Deut. 18, being "an inquirer of necromancers and spiritists or a seeker of the dead" is antithetical to the command "Be perfect with Lord your God," the first command given to Abraham and Sarah: "Walk before me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1).
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
This is a particularly relevant as we prepare to read Ḥayei Sara, which literally means "the life of Sarah." Twice in the introductory verse (Gen. 23:1), the Torah speaks of Sarah's life, even though the portion that follows deals with the aftermath of her death. Thus, even though it is about to speak of the demise of the first matriarch, the Torah opens by referring to her life.
The same is true of the final portion of Genesis, Vayḥi, which is about Jacob's parting from his sons. Still, the introductory verse (47:28) states: "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life..." In fact, the verse describing Jacob's expiration does not even use the standard phrase "and he died," leading to Rabbi Yoḥanan's famous statement, "Our patriarch Jacob did not die... just as his progeny lives, he lives" (Talmud, Taanit 5a).
Nor is this limited to our forebears in Genesis. Elsewhere (Berakhot 18a), R. Ḥiyya expounds: "'For the living know that they shall die' (Eccl. 9:5) -- these are the righteous, who in their death are called living." The Talmud seems to differ from the Bard's view: the good that men do lives after them and is not interred with their bones.
Judaism is not, and never should be, a death cult, seeking the approbation or advice of those who have passed on. This is the hallmark of a dying or dead faith. Torah, the tree of life (Prov. 3:18), is for the living. Halloween is no Jewish holiday for good reason.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sarah and the First Get

Was our founding matriarch the world's first divorce attorney? Maybe not, but the biblical record is intriguing.

The Talmud (Megilla 14a) identifies Sarah as the first of seven biblical prophetesses, proving this from a verse in this week's Torah portion: "She perceived with the Holy Spirit, as it says (Gen. 21:12), 'In all that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.'" But what command of Sarah is it that receives this divine imprimatur?
Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid, along with her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (v. 10)
So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave to Hagar, putting on her shoulder; and along with the boy, he sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. (v. 14)
No word on the cat.
The two terms used here are, respectively, garash (drive out) and shalach (send away). Though the subject of this passage is supposedly Hagar's son (probably Ishmael, though he is not named; Midrashic sources deduce his age to be 17 or 27), these verbs refer directly to her, while the boy is thrown in with the preposition et. In biblical Hebrew, garash and shalach are the terms used for divorce (cf. Lev. 21:7, Deut. 24:1), and this is exactly what seems to be happening between Abraham and Hagar--at Sarah's behest!

But don't take my wordiness for it. In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: "Sarah said to Abraham, 'Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid." In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), "He sent her away" is rendered "He dismissed her with a bill (gitta)."
This changes the tenor of the line, Sarah's final words and last appearance (alive) in Scripture. What could have been vindictive and vicious is instead virtuous: Sarah, a woman who has been abducted twice by foreign rulers and hid her marriage for years to safeguard her family, wants Hagar to be free and clear. This fits in with the Midrashic view of Sarah (Gen. Rabba 39:14, 84:4) as a "maker of souls" who ministers to the women drawn in by Abraham's preaching. She must have heard some pretty horrific stories over the years, and it makes sense that she did not want to make a sad situation worse.
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
As God confirms, it is time for Ishmael to leave his father's house, and his mother needs to go with him (as we see a few verses later, when she finds him a wife from her homeland, Egypt). But Sarah orders Abraham to do it with a get, unambiguously. Hagar will not be an aguna, a woman chained to a man who refuses to release her from the bonds of marriage.

The sad fact is that in the Ancient Near East, there were many options for men who wanted to dispose of inconvenient wives. In Esther 2:14, we see that Ahasuerus maintains a harem for his "used" girls, should he ever want to invite them back. That's quite a few centuries after Abraham, but his own brother had both a wife and a concubine, as we see in the next chapter of Genesis. Concubines, of course, could be taken and dismissed practically at will, without documents of marriage or divorce. A darker possibility would be to sell Hagar back into slavery, an option so real that the Torah expressly forbids doing so with a Hebrew handmaiden (Ex. 21:8) or a war bride (Deut. 21:14). So, while divorcing Hagar may seem cruel, it does appear to be the least bad option.

One cannot help but think of this in light of the recent case of get extortion in New York. I have no sympathy for a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get; it is spousal abuse, plain and simple. However, that does not justify kidnapping, racketeering and torture. The idea that a good aim and rabbinical approval somehow justifies outrageous felonies makes me wonder: what does this mean for all those good men embezzling funds for their yeshivot? Are they too entitled to hazard pay, in the tens of thousands, for their aggressively illegal "righteousness"?

However, I understand the psychological need to justify the criminality: it keeps one's mind off the real plight of agunot, which is not only a social problem, but a theological one. If our Torah truly cares for the oppressed, how can it be rendered powerless in the face of this exquisite cruelty?

Are there halakhic solutions out there? I believe that there are, but more importantly, I believe that there must be. Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber outlines many of them in his excellent piece, "No Agunah Left Behind." We can quibble over which halakhic mechanisms to employ, but not the pressing need for action--not violence, not crime, but true advocacy, initiative and bravery.

Finally, let us consider this. According to the Midrash (Tanhuma, Hayei Sara 4), the final verses of Proverbs are Abraham's eulogy of Sarah. In that context, we find (31:26), "She has opened her mouth in wisdom and the law of compassion (torat hesed) is upon her tongue." Torat hesed--what a revolutionary concept!

Isn't it time we started listening to Mother Sarah's voice?

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Most Sabbath mornings, my choice of synagogue does not make much of a difference. Sure, there are minor differences in the liturgy, but aren't we all reading from the same Torah? Ashkenazim may wrap it in embroidered velvet and Sephardim may encase it in a hard shell, but it's still the same ink, parchment, sinew and wood, right?
The one on the right is showing a bit too much leg. I'd avoid certain neighborhoods.
51 out of 52 weeks, you'd be right in that assumption--but not for this weekend's portion, Parashat Noach. Genesis 9 concludes:
So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.
That, at least, is the (an) English translation, but what is the original Hebrew text? In Yemenite scrolls, it's ויהיו; in others, it's ויהי. The former is plural, while the latter is singular; either one seems grammatically correct, based on the phrasing in Gen. 5. It's a minor difference, surely (one of twenty-one distinctive features of the Yemenite Torah), but still more than enough to invalidate a Torah scroll.
However, if one wrote the short form of a word that should be spelled using a long form, or the long form of one that should be spelled using a short form, it is invalid... It does not have the holiness of a Torah scroll and, instead, is considered as one of the bibles from which children are taught.
That's what Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11), and the text he endorses is the Yemenite one (ibid. 8:4). Still, the ramifications would seem to be even greater in his Eight Principle of Faith:
I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah in our hands currently is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace upon him.
You may recognize this principle from the campaign to delegitimize the critical analysis of Torah text. But considering that this would indicate that any variation from "the entire Torah in our hands currently" is not only fallacious but heretical, does Maimonides consider anyone not using a Yemenite Torah scroll to be an infidel?

Of course, it's not only a matter of divergent Jewish communities of the past millennium. In the 3rd century, R. Joseph b. Hiya noted that his generation did not have the expertise in the spelling of the text to be able to count the letters (Kiddushin 30a), while Mar Zutra maintained (Sanhedrin 21b):
Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Sacred Tongue; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Assyrian script and the Aramaic language. They selected for Israel the Assyrian script and the Sacred Tongue, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the commoners.
Are these Talmudic authorities also denying the authenticity of the Torah according to Maimonides? The problem is that the Thirteen Principles of Faith, starring in your local prayer-book, were actually written not by Maimonides, but by Maaminides.

Who's Maaminides? That's an excellent question, one we don't have the answer to. All we know is that he (she?) wrote the "Ani Maamin" prayer which I quoted earlier, but It first surfaced in the very late 16th century, close to 400 years after Maimonides' death, in European liturgy. The actual thirteen principles are much longer, found in Maimonides' Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1), and written in 12th-century Judeo-Arabic. Translations vary, partly because this was Maimonides' first composition, and he continued to revise it throughout his lifetime. But how does he define al-qaeda al-thamina?
The eighth foundation is that "the Torah is from the heaven," namely that we believe that the whole Torah now in our possession, which is the Torah given by Moses, comes in its entirety from the mouth of the Almighty.
This is only the beginning of Maimonides' explanation, but he does eventually get around to defining heresy, which he finds so important that he codifies it (in Hebrew) in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:8), a slight paraphrase of Sanhedrin 99a:
One who says the Torah, even one verse or one word, is not from God, if he says: "Moses made these statements independently," he is denying the Torah.
In other words, Maimonides' goal here is not to ensure that Moses does not receive too little credit, but that he does not receive too much; he does not speak of "the whole Torah now in our possession" because, while he does believe that he has the proper text, he does not view the others as heretical. Maaminides, on the other hand, eliminates God from this principle and puts the stress on "the entire Torah in our hands currently," equating it to that which Moses received on Sinai, brooking no dissent.
This is worth keeping in mind as people continue to invoke the Eighth Principle in order to stifle discussions of the text of the Torah. Considering how few of those who do so have good Yemenite names like Qafih and Tawil, they might be wary that their Maaminidean incarnation of Maimonides would rank them as heretics as well!