Category Archives: The Torah

painting of Judah and Tamar

4 Horrifying Bible Stories They Probably Didn’t Teach You in Sunday School

Dear Josep,

My formal education took place exclusively in religious Jewish institutions–from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s “Tiny Tykes” program at age 3 to my brief stint in the theater program at Emunah College. So my earliest memories from school include snippets of activities related to Bible stories: making Noah’s ark out of a milk carton, or Jonah’s whale with movable jaws; watching my nursery teacher tell the story of Jacob and Laban using a felt board; and putting on a play in kindergarten with my best friend at the time, who played his namesake Abraham to my Sarah.

The thing is, the Torah is not a children’s book. As we circled back to these same stories years later in school or independently, we discovered that in between the classic, ostensibly innocent stories we enacted in kindergarten classes, there were some that were… not innocent at all.

Lot & His Daughters

Lot was Abraham’s cousin, and there are two stories we were taught about him as children. The first is the story of how and why Abraham and Lot parted ways–because Lot’s shepherds were letting their sheep graze from other people’s grass, which Abraham considered immoral. The second story is that of the destruction of Sodom, where Lot chose to live; Lot’s wife famously ignored the advice not to look back at the city being destroyed, and turned into a pillar of salt.

Up to here, everything sounds G-rated, right?

So. A couple details our preschool teachers kinda glossed over.

Genesis chapter 19. Two angels of God came to Lot disguised as humans to warn him about Sodom’s imminent destruction. Lot, who was trained by Abraham to be a gracious host, invited them in and insisted that they stay the night. After he took them in, all the people from the city of Sodom came to his door and demanded that he hand over his visitors. For what purpose? Well, this is Sodom, after all, right? To rape them, of course.

Now, Lot is supposed to be the righteous man in this scenario, right? So he comes out and says, “My brethren, please do not do evil…” So far so good… “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.”


LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. Lot nobly protects his guests–perfect strangers who he has never met before in his life–by handing over his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead?!?!

Because these two guests have “come under the shadow of his roof”, but the two young women who have lived under his roof for the duration of their lives–his own flesh and blood–handing them over to be raped is A-OK?!?!

Wait, wait, it gets worse!!!

Fortunately for the daughters, the crowd isn’t pleased with this offer and starts to threaten to rape Lot instead. The angels-disguised-as-people pull Lot into the house and shut the door, and the citizens of Sodom are struck with temporary blindness and are unable to continue their attack. The angels tell Lot that he needs to get the hell out of the city because God’s going to destroy it. So Lot gathers his things and his family and they leave. Yadda yadda yadda, don’t look back, pillar of salt, blah blah blah.

Fast forward to verse 30. Lot and his daughters are now camping out in a cave in the mountains. Now, the daughters are concerned. They had both been betrothed, but their fiancees had laughed off Lot’s warning and invitation to flee the city with him before the destruction, and had subsequently died in the whole fire and brimstone thing. It seems to me from the text (and I’m pretty sure the commentators extrapolate this) that the daughters believed they were the last three humans alive–that the whole world had been destroyed together with Sodom. They felt an obligation, therefore, to carry on the human race, and the only way they could do that was… not IVF, if you take my meaning.

Each daughter in turn got their father drunk, slept with him, and conceived a child. And that, dear children, is how the great nations of Moab and Ammon came to be.

Lot's Daughters painting by Marcantonia Franceschini
HOW CREEPY IS THIS PAINTING? (Franceschini Marcantonio, “Lot and His Daughters”, circa 1677)

Judah and Tamar

Oh, we hear plenty about Judah, don’t we? The fourth son of Jacob and Leah, who inherited the role of leadership after his three older brothers–Reuben, Simeon, and Levi–all failed in one way or another. Ancestor of the Davidic line, from whom the majority of Jews today are descended and whose name has become our name. The brave brother who offered to take Benjamin’s place in jail when Joseph planted the royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Yes indeed, a very noble character in the Bible.

Except for that one time…

Okay, actually, this story is an integral part of Judah’s rise to his role of leadership. Unlike in Islam, Judaism’s Biblical heroes and prophets are famously flawed; it is through their flaws, and their overcoming of their flaws and owning up to their mistakes, that they achieve greatness.

So. You know the story of Joseph and his brothers, I assume. Normally, when we tell this story, the narrative follows Joseph to Egypt, and we skip gracefully from chapter 37 to 39. But the Biblical narrative spends that one chapter in between focused on Judah in the land of Canaan. It tells us that he takes a wife, and she gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah finds a wife for him, by the name of Tamar. The Bible tells us that Er was “evil in the eyes of the Lord”–it doesn’t specify how–and that he died as a result of his sin.

Now, there is a Jewish law hearkening back to this period of the Bible that states that if a man dies while his wife is still childless and he has an unmarried younger brother, that brother must marry the widow “to carry on” the dead brother’s seed. I guess in the context of Biblical times this made sense, since the widow would need someone to provide for her, she may be considered “damaged goods”, etc. In order to get out of this obligation, the widow and brother need to perform an odd ritual called “chalitzah”, which involves the widow removing the brother’s shoes, spitting on the floor in front of him and berating him for not “building the house of his brother”. They need to perform this ritual before either of them can marry anyone else. (And yes, we still do this. People hardly hear about it because, thank God, in the modern world, it’s a relatively rare situation.)

So, according to this norm, Tamar was supposed to marry Onan. So she did, but Onan apparently didn’t like the idea that his children would be considered “his brother’s seed”, so he, uh, to quote the Bible: “wasted [his semen] on the ground” when he was with Tamar. God did not approve of this vindictive behavior and killed him too.

Now at this point, Judah was understandably a little spooked by Tamar’s record with his sons, and Shelah–his only remaining son–was still young. So Judah told Tamar to wait until Shelah was older before letting them marry. But a long time passed, Shelah came of age, and still Judah didn’t let them marry. His own wife died, and he went off somewhere to hang out with a friend, and Tamar–angry with Judah for not granting her her right to a husband–hatched a plan. She disguised herself and went over to the place where Judah was.

Judah didn’t recognize her, because her face was covered, and thought she was a prostitute, so he approached her and told her to prepare herself for him.  Tamar asked him what her compensation would be. He promised her a kid from his herd. (A baby goat, that is. Obviously, the entire problem here was that he hadn’t provided her with the means to have a human kid!) Not trusting his word for obvious reasons, she asked for deposit: his signet, his cloak, and his staff. He agreed to these conditions and slept with her. But later, when he tried to send the kid over and collect his stuff, she had mysteriously disappeared. (A.k.a., took off the veil and changed back into her widow’s garb.)

painting of Judah and Tamar
“Srsly Judah? How many years have I been living in your house and you still don’t recognize me?” (Ferdinand Bol, “Judah and Tamar”, 1653)

Three months later, people began to notice that Tamar was pregnant, and told Judah that she had been involved in prostitution. He ordered that she be burned to death. Tamar then announced that the man who had come to her was the one who had provided her with these three items: the signet, the cloak, and the staff. Judah recognized them as his, and declared that Tamar was more righteous than he was, and that he was the one who had sinned by not allowing her to marry Shelah. So she stayed in his household and gave birth to twin boys: Peretz and Zerah. Peretz was a direct ancestor of King David.

It was only after this episode that Judah exhibited his leadership qualities and willingness to take responsibility and stand up for what’s right; that’s his character arc during the book of Genesis. And I think the connection this story has to the very existence King David is not at all coincidental. It was these same qualities that made David fit to rule (and as we’ve discussed, King David had similar faults and a similar willingness to reckon with his mistakes).

Still, between the double standards regarding sexual behavior in men and women and the ick factor of Judah’s daughter-in-law willingly sleeping with him, it’s a pretty disturbing story.

The Concubine in Giv’a

And now, class, please open your Bibles to Judges 19.

So a guy and his concubine are traveling and they stop in Giv’a–a city in Benjamin–for the night. The narrative emphasizes that they decided to stay there rather then in Jebus (which would later become Jerusalem), because they were concerned about how the non-Israelite Jebusites would treat them. But they were disappointed with the lack of hospitality; they waited a long time for someone to offer them a place to stay, until an old man invited them in.

painting of the concubine of Gibeah
A painting of this event by Jan Victors. I guess he didn’t want to paint subsequent events, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

As they ate their meal, the people of the town surrounded his house and demanded that he hand over the guest. For what purpose? Well this is Sodom, right…?

NO. IT’S NOT. It’s a city in BENJAMIN. WT* PEOPLE.

The host begged them not to rape his guest and instead offered them his virgin daughter (WHY IS THIS A THING?!?!?!) and the man’s concubine instead. They refused, but the man grabbed his concubine nonetheless and tossed her out there.

That ended just about as badly as you can imagine.

The man discovered her dead on the doorstep the next morning.

He took her body, cut it into 12 pieces, and sent a piece to each of the other tribes to shock them with the horrible violence that had taken place in this city. The other tribes were appropriately horrified and went to war with the tribe of Benjamin, swearing not to let their daughters marry into the tribe. The tribe of Benjamin was almost destroyed, and hence the whole story of the women in the white dresses etc. that I described in the post on Tu B’Av.

Yep. That’s one of the stories behind Tu B’Av, the Jewish “holiday of love”.


Amnon and Tamar

(Women named Tamar seem to have pretty bad luck in the Bible…)

So this story is connected to another scandalous bible story that is far more widely known: that of David and Bathsheba. Truth is, King David’s reign was wrought with scandal, which was part of his punishment for his sin in taking Bathsheba.

What happened was this: Amnon, one of David’s sons, had the hots for his half-sister Tamar and admitted this to his cousin Yonadav ben Shama. Yonadav said, “Ewww, Amnon, that’s sick, she’s your sister! Snap out of it and find some other pretty lady to lust after! You’re a goddamn prince!”

HAHAHA KIDDING. (I really wish I weren’t.)

No. What he really said was, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick, and when your father comes to see you, say to him: ‘Let my sister Tamar come now, and let her give me bread to eat, and prepare the food before my eyes, that I may see and eat from her hand.'”

So that’s what Amnon did. And as Tamar fed him, he grabbed her and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, and begged him not to, but he overpowered her and forced himself on her.

painting of Amnon attacking Tamar
KNEE TO THE HEAD, TAMAR! You’re set up for it perfectly!!! Too bad they didn’t have self-defense instructors back then. (Venetian School, c. 1600)

When he was finished, he felt suddenly repulsed by her and kicked her out. Tamar’s brother Absalom ended up killing Amnon in revenge. (…And then leading a rebellion against David which involved sleeping with a bunch of David’s concubines. BUT LET’S NOT GO THERE SHALL WE.)

Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself:

Why Would a Holy Book Such as the Bible Contain Such Awful Stories?

Great question.

So here’s the thing.

These stories are part of the story of our people, and the Bible does anything but hide our darkest and worst moments. On the contrary, I think it makes a point of focusing on them. Why? Because the Bible isn’t a history book; every word preserved in its pages is meant to teach us something. And as many wise people have said, mistakes are the best teachers.

I believe that there are many aspects of the Bible that are meant to make us squirm. It’s not supposed to be a feel-good bedtime story. It’s supposed to make us question who we are and what choices we are making, and ask ourselves: how could they have handled this better? (Like, I dunno, how about NOT offering your virgin daughters to a crowd of rabid rapists?! JUST A THOUGHT.) What might I do in a similar position? What are the darker and uglier aspects of human nature this story is asking me to face, and what is it telling me to do about them?

We can’t fight evil unless we are willing to stare it in the face, and the first place we need to look for it is in the mirror.

Um, and on that cheerful note, Feliç Any Nou! Here’s to a 2019 full of good news and happy occasions. And, uh, none of the kinds of things we’ve discussed in this post.

Much love,


A couple announcements for those of you not following my author blog: I was interviewed on Radio Sefarad’s English Corner podcast about LtJ and the Moving Stones project! You can listen to the interview here.

Also, you may recall that a new edition of LtJ was supposed to be coming out in January;
the re-release has been postponed. I made this decision with the staff of Kasva Press because we want to make sure the new edition is as good as it can be and that they’ll give it the full benefit of their added value as a publisher, and we’ll need more time for that. I’ll keep you posted!

illustration of Aaron offering incense and his sons bowing behind him

Grieving Through Action: A Lesson from Aaron the Priest

I mentioned in a previous post that I had an exchange with one of our readers that I’d wanted to post here. Keith is a reader from the UK who carefully reads the parsha (Torah portion) for each week, and occasionally writes to me to ask questions about issues that come up in the parsha or in general. I want to take this opportunity to remind other readers that you are also welcome to write to me with any questions or comments you may have about topics discussed on this blog or Judaism or Israel in general (and I won’t post about them here without your permission!). You can use the contact form on this blog, or email me at letterstojosep at Gmail. 🙂

This question was about a story in the book of Leviticus about the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God that he hadn’t commanded them, and received a very harsh punishment:

Each of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took his pan and put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and offered before the Lord foreign fire which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, when He said, “I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”‘ And Aaron was silent.

(Leviticus 10:1-3)

A very strange and upsetting episode to be sure, especially when we’re starting with the assumption that God is merciful and kind; why would he kill two priests just for being a little overenthusiastic with their offerings? But we won’t get into the explanations for their deaths here. Keith’s question was about the words, “and Aaron was silent”. We are taught that this means that Aaron didn’t protest or show any sign of mourning for his sons, and the Sages teach us that he was rewarded for his silence, ostensibly for accepting God’s judgment without protest. Keith asked for my thoughts on the matter:

Dear Daniella,

Shabbat Shalom….and I hope you all enjoyed Pesach.

I wonder if I may ask you about Shemini?

When I read it I was shocked by the deaths of Aaron’s sons, and also by his reaction. The command to not mourn seems cruel. I know there have been centuries of debate about why they were killed but I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are please?

Kind regards


This was my answer:

Hi Keith,

I, too, have always been puzzled by this episode. In general, Jewish tradition condones expressions of grief regardless of the cause of death, even setting up a specific structure for mourners to work through their grief. So why was Aaron rewarded for his silence?

Your question made me revisit some of the sources and I found two interesting ideas.

First of all, why does Rashi [one of the most famous Torah commentators] say that Aaron was rewarded for his silence? The “reward” was that Aaron received directions from God through direct prophecy, and our tradition teaches us that one cannot receive prophecy in sadness. Prophecy is only received when the prophet experiences joy. That means that Aaron couldn’t have been feeling sad at the time, because he received a direct prophecy. So it wasn’t so much a “reward” as a consequence of Aaron’s state of mind.

Another idea I found that I really liked had to do with something the Sages teach us about mourners. There is an idea that someone who is experiencing a major event in his life that would cause him to be too distracted/troubled to focus on performing mitzvot [commandments], is released from his obligation to perform mitzvot–such as a bridegroom on his wedding night. An “onen”, a person whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried, is also considered to be distracted, but he is still obligated to keep all the mitzvot except tefillin, because, the Sages say, his distraction is “optional”. Rashi explains that the “optional” aspect of his distraction is that although he is obligated to keep the outward traditions of mourning, he doesn’t have to feel sadness. The article I was reading went on to explain that in many cases, obviously, losing someone close to you will make you sad; however, some people choose to express their grief not by turning inward and sinking into grief, but by taking action to allow the person who has died to live through us–either through taking over or continuing that person’s work in this world, or through learning from their lives and trying to absorb and apply the positive lessons we can learn from that person to our own lives. This is why the mourner’s prayer is the KaddishMay His great name be magnified and sanctified… every human being is an expression of the Divine presence, and when they die, they leave an absence. We “survive” that person and honor their lives by filling in that absence as best we can with the glory of God, working harder to “magnify” His presence.

So bringing this back to Aaron, this is exactly what Moses said to him: This is what the Lord spoke: I will be sanctified through those near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. Aaron and his sons chose to express their loss by taking action–continuing with the work of the Tabernacle as God had commanded them, to continue the work of Nadav and Avihu, and help fill the space they left behind with love of God manifested in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

I think this teaches us not that we shouldn’t give space to our sadness and grief when we lose someone–but that we should also use our grief to motivate us to proactively “magnify and sanctify” God’s name in honor of that person’s memory. Action is a common Jewish response to grief. Many people set up charities or host Torah classes to honor the memories of their loved ones. Jewish hospitals and synagogues are full of memorial plaques from people who donated money or items to the institution in memory of someone. Founding new Jewish settlements has been a classic response to Arab terror since before the State of Israel was established. I think these things are an expression of the lesson we learn from Aaron.

I hope that helps!

Shavua tov and chodesh tov,


Rabbi Sacks on Friendship and Faith

Dear Josep,

Just a quick note because I came across something that made me think of you and this blog. It’s today’s installment in a series called Covenant & Conversation: Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha [Weekly Torah Portion] with Rabbi Sacks (author of Not in God’s Name, which I reviewed in depth here). You can read the full article, Faith and Friendship (Beha’alotcha 5778), here; but here is the relevant excerpt:

It is part of the intellectual history of the West and the fact that from quite early on, Christianity became more Hellenistic than Hebraic, that people came to think that the main purpose of religion is to convey information (about the origin of the universe, miracles, life after death, and so on). Hence the conflict between religion and science, revelation and reason, faith and demonstration. These are false dichotomies.

Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and God, us and our family, us and our neighbours, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.

This idea pinpoints something I wasn’t quite able to articulate in a discussion I had recently with one of our readers about the differences between traditional Orthodox Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Samaritanism. He’s been writing to me for a while asking questions about Judaism and the Torah, and trying to figure out where he fits into all this. (Which reminds me, there was one exchange of ours I thought of posting here, and never did! Hopefully soon!) “In the end though,” he asked, “does all this Karaites v Orthodox v Reform v Masorti v Samaritans v Reconstructionist stuff matter ? I know I need to be a better human being. Does it matter which form of Judaism I choose or Righteous Gentilism?”

This question gave me pause. Sometimes we can get so lost in the details and little quabbles about who is right and what information is correct. How much does all that really matter?

Rabbi Sacks reminds us: the main purpose of Judaism is not to convey information, but to build and nurture our relationships–with ourselves, with our fellow humans, and with God. The Talmud tells us a story about a non-Jew who challenged Hillel the Elder to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” He said “go and learn” because the commentary is important, the details do matter–but they are not the heart of the Torah. Our relationships are.

Shabbat shalom, my friend!

Much love,


Cover image of "Not in God's Name"

Not in God’s Name: Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Violence

Dear Josep,


Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)

I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. 😛 And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.

But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!

Now, back to Not in God’s Name.

The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”

Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.

Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t real Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.

Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.

It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)

But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?

Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism

The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.

Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.

The second key phrase is pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.

Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.

This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.

Sibling Rivalry

“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher René Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.

All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.

But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?

What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?

He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?

Does God Play Favorites?

I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.

The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.

What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing. The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.

Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.

Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially give back what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.

Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with responsibility.

In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.

Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.

What Then Must We Do?

“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.

“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”

Stay safe, brother.

With love,


Friendship in Judaism (In Tribute to a Decade of a Strange and Wonderful Friendship)

Dear Josep,

Mo’adim l’simcha! (Roughly, happy holidays. Just smile and nod.)

Aside from being the second day of Succot, it has come to my attention that today is also the tenth anniversary of the day we met.

…No. I do not expect you to have noticed this. 😉 No matter what Facebook may claim, “friendversaries” are not really a thing. Usually we have no way to know the exact date of the beginning of a friendship. But ours began in a very specific context, and I happen to have concrete evidence of that event: the newspapers we wrote during the conference. They are dated the 19th, 20th, and 21st of October, 2006, which means we met on the 18th.

You see, just for kicks, I dug up the PDFs of those newspapers from the depths of my Gmail history… and I noticed something amusing. The first issue was compiled during the months leading up to the conference–as in, before you and I had met. The editor assigned me some short articles on various topics, and asked me to write a longer feature article on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write, of course, about Spain’s Jewish past and crypto-Judaism in modern times. (What else?!)

So, if you open the paper to page 3, you find the first section of that article, alongside a column by a certain Josep… about religious life in Barcelona.

This is the very first instance either of our names appear in the byline.

True story.

excerpt from newspaper

And here we are, ten years later, still discussing religion, with me still taking up the vast majority of the space on the page. 😛

I wanted to mark this occasion, as is my wont, with a discussion of the concept of friendship in Judaism!

Well, the first thing, the most famous thing, is the line that is usually translated thus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the word in Hebrew often translated as “neighbor” is actually ַרֵע, which translates far more accurately as “friend.”

There are a few questions one might ask about this verse. Firstly, how can God command you to “love” someone? Isn’t “love” a feeling? You can’t command someone to be happy or sad or angry, can you?

So… no, actually. Love isn’t just a feeling. It was Mr. Rogers (who was a Presbyterian minister in addition to child psychologist and TV personality) who said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

…There you have it. When the Torah commands us to love our friend or to love God, it doesn’t mean we should feel love, it means we must practice love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler argues that the root of love is giving: that we create love by giving to another. We give to our fellow man in many ways, many of which are listed explicitly in the Torah; and we give to God by following His commandments and giving to His other creations.

So why does the Bible say, “as thyself”? Obviously, the plain meaning is that you should care for your friend as much as you care for yourself. But there is another idea there: you have to love and accept yourself before you can truly love and accept someone else.

Let’s take a look at stories of friendship in the Bible. The most famous and obvious example is the “bromance” between David and Jonathan.

A little context: before King David came to power, King Saul ruled the Kingdom of Israel. Jonathan was his eldest son, the crown prince. But while King Saul hated David and tried to kill him, knowing he was destined to supersede him, Jonathan and David became soulmates. The Bible puts it in the strongest and most poetic of terms: “Jonathan’s soul was entwined with David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” The only other time this kind of language–the “intertwining of souls”–is used in the Bible, is when Judah tells Joseph about the love their father has for Benjamin: “And his [Jacob’s] soul is entwined with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

Usually when the term “soulmates” is used people interpret that romantically. I used to think of it that way, too. But I don’t anymore. I believe that people have more than one “soulmate”–people with whom you develop a deep and inexplicably powerful bond, that can defy space, time, and circumstances. The friendship between David and Jonathan was such a bond. Jonathan was the heir to the throne; it would have made perfect sense for him to join his father in ridding themselves of “the competition.” But instead, he risked his very life to save David’s. There’s an incredibly powerful moment in Samuel I chapter 20, after Jonathan had worked out a way to find out, once and for all, his father’s intentions with David, and after he delivered the message that David must flee:

And David arose from the south; and he fell upon his face to the ground three times, and prostrated himself three times. And they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David wept greatly. And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace! For we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.””  (Samuel I 20:41-42)

Tragically, this was very likely the last time David and Jonathan ever spoke. David spent the next few years on the run, and Jonathan died on the battlefield with Saul.

So we see in this story that Jonathan practiced love for his friend by giving to him–everything from his right to the throne to his own life.

The Talmud also has a great deal to say about friendships. In Ethics of the Fathers, one rabbi recommends “a good friend” as the key to living an honest and good life. There are many stories about friendships in there, too. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gebirol, a famous Sephardic poet, said: “If you ask about a person, ask who his friends are. For every person does what his friends do.” (I wonder if this is the source for the common saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”)

There seems to be common agreement among the Sages that friendships with good people can make us better people.

Well, I can definitely confirm that our friendship has made me a better person in a variety of ways.

So… happy friendversary, Josep. 😉 It’s a pleasure and a privilege to know you. As you wrote in your dedication on my copy of the book: “I hope to be arguing with you for many decades to come!” 😛



Diversity of Language: A Biblical Punishment?

Dear Josep,

Praise the Lord. September 1st is upon us.

This summer has been ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I can’t even. I just. Ugh. And All the Crappy/Annoying Things are not over yet. But at least the kids are back in school now. Thank. God.

Soooo. Obviously I’ve had a lot on my plate and very limited time to be engaging in my beloved pastime of rambling at you about Judaism. I’ve been scribbling down half-baked ideas, but having had a few minutes to myself this morning, I finally managed to work one into a coherent post, and here it is.

The other day, my Parisian friend Aviv asked me if he could ask a question about the Torah. I said, “Sure!” and he wrote the following very interesting thought:

In Sefer Beresheet [the Book of Genesis], it’s told that when the humans wanted to create the Tower of Babel, Hashem punished them by making 70 languages (that made the thousands of languages of today), and so the humans could not make the tower because they couldn’t understand each other. It’s also said that in the Messianic Days, the world will have only one language.

But I wonder if having several languages is not also a blessing of God. Because it has a role in the culture of each people in the world, it creates jobs, like translation, and there are people like me and you and a lot of others who love to learn languages. So I wonder if this punishment for diversity is not at the same time a blessing, or a good thing for humanity.

I responded,

That story is a very strange story in many ways. Why would God get angry about people building a tower and ‘trying to fight him’? It’s just so ridiculous, it’s like if I were to punish my kids for telling me they were planning to run away and find new parents. So what was the real sin here, and how was the punishment a fitting consequence for the sin? Just a few of the other questions one asks looking at the story.

…Oh wait, you were looking for an answer, not more questions? Hahaha… welcome to Judaism. 😛

I told him I’d like to think about it some more, and that maybe I’d write a blog post on it. So, here it is!

First off, let’s read the Biblical text describing the story of the Tower of Babel.

All the earth had but one language and the same words. As they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and fire them.’ And they had bricks as stone, and asphalt served them as mortar. They said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.’ God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of Adam had built. God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, and as of now, nothing is preventing them from doing that which they propose. Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ And God scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth, and from there, God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are many commentaries and Rabbinic legends that embellish this story. Someone who attended a Jewish day school like I did may be surprised to see how short this passage is and how many details we were taught about this story are not actually in the text of the Bible. What we are taught as children is that the building of the tower of Babel was a sin, and the creation of different languages, a punishment for the sin. But simply looking over the text, that is not the obvious meaning, or to use the Hebrew term, the “p’shat.” Here’s what I see as the simple and most obvious meaning of the passage.

To me, it seems to be describing a stage in human development. People are learning to make and use bricks and mortar to build things instead of just stone. And they are starting to build cities. They propose building one big city for all of them, and a great tower that reaches to the top of the sky.

A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III
A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III

God sees what they are doing, and for reasons not entirely clear from the passage, sees a need to stop this process. His solution is to “confound the speech” of the people so they would stop understanding each other. As a result, they stopped building the city and scattered over the face of the earth.

It is not entirely obvious from the passage what “confounding their speech” means. We have come to understand it as meaning that multiple languages were created. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 10th century Provence) is the go-to commentator for p’shat interpretation, and he describes it this way: “This one asks for a brick, and that one brings him mortar, and the former attacks him and injures his brain.” I have a distinct memory of my second-grade teacher teaching us that very colorfully. It’s a cute origin story, for sure, but… what are we meant to learn from it?

And is it true, as Aviv asked, that God “punished” them with diversity? Hasn’t Judaism always celebrated diversity? Even when we started out as a nation we were divided into twelve distinct tribes!

When I have questions like these, I open my trusty Chumash Mikra’ot Gedolot, which includes all the major commentaries (called perushim in Hebrew) alongside the Biblical text.

Mikraot gedolot

I found the commentaries of Or HaHayim (Rabbi Haim ben Attar of 17th century Morocco) and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz of 17th century Prague) particularly relevant.

Both explain that the people were trying to stay together. “One language and of the same words.” There was uniformity here. The purpose of the tall tower, Or HaHayim explains, was so that the people would stay within sight of the tower, and always be able to find their way back to the city. But God had commanded Adam to “go forth and multiply and fill the land.” He didn’t want them to stay together in one place. He wanted them to spread over the face of the earth.

Kli Yakar says that their objective in building the city and the tower was to keep the peace. “If we all stay the same, we will have no reason to fight with one another.” It kind of reminds me of the idea of communism, or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No countries, no different cultures, nothing to divide us, and that way we will all be able to sit together and sing kumbaya around the campfire!

Now, Kli Yakar emphasizes, it’s not that God didn’t want there to be peace and harmony among the humans. But, he says, he saw that this way of maintaining peace and harmony was going to backfire in a major way, and he brings a passage from the story to show this: “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.” Kli Yakar explains that though they seemed uniform in their apparently noble goal of maintaining peace, each of them actually had his own interests at heart: this one wanted wealth and honor, this one wanted lots of food, this one wanted lots of sex, etc., “and through this comes discord, both because they do not have one [common] goal… and because each of them has a desire to ascend above his fellow… because of this, separation of these groups is better than their gathering, as it is said (Psalms 92:10) ‘All those who act in iniquity shall be separated’… but the righteous—their gathering is good, for their purpose unites them, because they have only one goal, and they become as one by His hand, as it is said (Psalms 119:165) ‘Great peace for the lovers of your Torah.’ But not for those for whom the external goal is the primary one.”

So, the creation of the different languages and scattering the peoples throughout the world wasn’t so much a punishment, as a way to prevent humanity from reaching the same point it had before the flood: violence and discord.

And the Kli Yakar seems to be saying that in principle, unity is a good thing, but only when the people are truly united with a common, unselfish goal. When people join together with others in the hopes of achieving only their own interests, it will end badly.

In other words: There are no shortcuts to peace.

Peace cannot be imposed on people who care only about themselves and their own interests.

The prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are rich with imagery of people–not just Jews, but everyone–gathering together to serve God. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have universally accepted beliefs of specific details, and I’ve never heard the concept that we will go back to speaking one language. But I think the idea is that when the Messiah comes, we will finally be ready for the true unity we lacked when the Tower of Babel was built.



Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. 🙂

But I want to start by telling you about an extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger is a Lubavitcher Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about buying you a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. 😉 )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the Tree of Life, a symbol for the Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.” We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”


…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word shevet implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word mish’enet comes from the root ש.ע.נ, as in להישען, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.” You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”? What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature. But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.ש.נ can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days” is a direct translation of לאורך ימים (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.” Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above, yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture my own suggestion: maybe שבתי is from the root ש.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here is a quote from Psalm 27 for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell… One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?



Impostor Syndrome and the Burning Bush

Dear Josep,

Well… as you know, the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, and I’m having what researcher and author Brené Brown calls a major “vulnerability hangover.”

It’s what happens when you do something really brave, something that involves exposing yourself to vulnerability and taking a risk, and then afterwards when you step down, you look at yourself and go, “WHAT did I just DO?” and all you want to do is crawl under your bed and not come out for a good few weeks.

Yesterday my father-in-law arrived with a little stock of the books, and I got to hold one for the first time. It was sooo bizarre. Was it like that for you too?! Like, there’s a book in my hands. It’s a book, and I wrote it. What.

My dear husband found me standing there in a daze staring at the pile of books, and took this picture…

After the kids went to bed I sat down with one of the copies and wrote you a dedication. But not before Googling “how to autograph a book.” (Yes. I literally Googled it. Don’t laugh, I got some good tips! 😛 ) I’ll have to apologize for the mess of scribbles all over your title page… I was emotional and my hand was shaking. I’d been dreaming of that very moment for a long time.

Today I started trying to work on building my author website (well, author/translator/premarital counselor/whatever-the-heck-I-am-these-days website). And I found myself at such a loss. I mean… I’m a content writer, you’d think I should be able to write content for my own website! But I also suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome.

Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome? Caltech Counseling Center defines it as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

I have a beautiful example. You don’t know this, but LtJ was actually not the only book that came out this month with my name in the byline. A poem of mine was published in an anthology called Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. During the process of preparing it for print, the editors sent us the biographies we had originally submitted to make sure they were still up to date. Mine started off with “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem. That I wrote. That was going to be published. In a book.

How ridiculous am I?!

Thankfully, I am not alone in my ridiculousness. Studies show that about 70% of the population suffers from some degree of Impostor Syndrome. In fact, arguably the most important figure in the Jewish faith suffered from it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Moses.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the scene whether Moses encounters the burning bush and first hears God speak to him.

This is how it goes down: Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, right? And he comes across a really strange sight–a bush that is in flames, but is not being consumed by the fire. So he stops to check it out, and God calls to him and tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He then explains to Moses who He is and tells him that He wants Moses to go to Pharoah and tell him to let the Israelites go.

So, let’s just imagine for a second this happened to you. God Himself appears to you in a burning bush and tells you to go to the Prime Minister of Spain and tell him to let Catalonia secede from Spain. 😛 What do you do? Do you start asking questions? Do you tell God He must have made a mistake?! No! You say “Yes sir!” and get moving! (Make a note of this! 😛 )

But that’s not what Moses did: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 4:11)  God tells him not to worry, that He will be with him. But Moses is not convinced, and argues that the Israelites won’t listen to him and won’t believe him. So God reassures him further and gives him the turn-the-staff-into-a-snake trick to help prove that Moses was really speaking on His behalf.

But then Moses keeps arguing! He’s not a man of words, he’s got a speech impediment, couldn’t God just send somebody else? And God’s like, “Dude, I KNOW. I’M GOD. I gave you that speech impediment, remember?! Have your brother talk for you if you have to, but GO!”

Seriously. God Himself appears to Moses in a spectacular feat of pyrotechnics and what does Moses do? He argues. He protests five times in that one encounter.

“Seriously, Moses. You’re pushing it.”

He truly did not believe he was worthy of the task–even in the face of “information that the opposite was true.” Like, for instance, GOD HIMSELF telling him he was worthy.

Boy, he had it bad…

And maybe it was precisely this that led God to select him for this task. As I’ve mentioned before, the unique thing about Judaism as a religion is that it does not attribute its revelation to a single person, but rather to a whole nation. A week and a half from now, when we read the Haggadah and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are not going to mention Moses’s name even once. The Sages left his name out of the Haggadah on purpose: because the miracles of the Exodus should be attributed to God alone. If Moses had been a little more vain, he might have taken advantage of his position of power to create a cult of personality around himself.

Actually, right after the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to destroy the Israelites and make Moses and his descendants into a nation instead! And what did Moses say?

“Please! This people has committed a grave sin… please forgive them. But if not, erase me now from the book You have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

God grumbled back “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!” (Exodus 32:33), but I’d like to think that God was secretly smiling to Himself… in a metaphorical sense, of course. This is exactly why He had chosen Moses.

Surprisingly, Impostor Syndrome can actually be a predictor of high achievement. It’s the people who don’t suffer from it–people who think they know exactly what they’re doing–who are more likely to be frauds.

Maybe God should have mentioned this to Moses from the bush. 😉

Anyway–I’m looking forward to getting that copy to you!

Much love,


How to Deal with Offensive Rabbinic Texts–and Not Be a Jerk About It

Dear Josep,

The other day my friend Yehoshua sent me a question that he thought might be a good discussion for the blog. He says [my explanations in brackets]:

“A friend of mine shared a video of some women mocking a charedi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi who was giving a daf yomi shiur [Talmud class]. The sugya [topic of discussion] was in Ketubot 75a, and was discussing physical deformities, which if not disclosed prior to marriage would be grounds for divorce without a ketuba [meaning the husband wouldn’t need to hold to the marriage contract and pay the wife the money he committed to paying her in the event of divorce]. At some point, the Gemara starts discussing women’s breasts: how much of a gap between them would be considered a physical deformity, and then continues to discuss if a woman’s breasts are significantly different in size from other women’s. In this video photos of naked women with clearly Photoshopped breasts were displayed next to the rabbi’s head while he was discussing the passage. I found this to be extremely offensive, while at the same time I understood why whoever created the video was offended by the rabbi and chazal [the Sages]. How do you explain the Gemara to a non-believer who encounters these types of passages? How do you respond when someone creates an offensive video that mocks a passage in your holy texts, which on the surface is actually offensive? I’d appreciate your input on this.”

So there are two issues here, and I will address them separately.

#1: How to Criticize Someone’s Religion Without Being a Jerk

The first issue is that someone made this video with the sole purpose of offending and shaming, and not with the purpose of starting a conversation.

Look, whoever made this video: I understand that you found this class ridiculous and offensive. But mocking and offending people who think differently from you is not a mature or productive way of critiquing their ideas. Only cowards use shaming and ridicule to prove a point. All you are doing is making yourself look like a jerk.

If you want anyone to actually take you seriously and respect you and your opinions, you’re going to have to be willing to engage in a respectful conversation. That means:

  1. Not automatically assuming that you are superior to the person you are criticizing. Because you aren’t. And even if you were, being condescending only reflects badly on you and makes everyone less likely to respect you.
  2. Being genuinely open to hearing the other side. Start from the assumption that they have something valuable to say. Be curious. You might learn something.
  3. Criticizing the idea, not the person or people who stand behind it.
  4. Not discounting the value of an entire religion, religious text, or system of ideas because of one aspect of it you don’t like. It’s called, “not seeing the world in black and white,” also known as “thinking like a mature adult.”
  5. Not using wording or imagery that is offensive to the person with whom you are engaging. The message that conveys is that it’s not okay for their religious texts to offend you, but it’s okay for you to offend them. I believe we call that, “being a hypocrite.”

Now. Let’s pretend what happened here was that someone wrote my friend Yehoshua an e-mail that read:

Dear Yehoshua,

I came across a video of a rabbi teaching a class about a passage in the Talmud that discusses women’s bodies in a way I found very offensive. It disturbs me very much to think that the religion you practice is based on texts that discuss women’s bodies this way. Assuming, based on what I know of you, that you are a person who respects women, I wonder how you can reconcile your respect for women with the ideas discussed in this text.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Skeptical Secular Person

#2: Dealing with Offensive Passages in Rabbinic Texts

I discussed my thoughts on Torah passages that I find hard to swallow in my post, “Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can.” The thing is, there I was discussing texts that we believe come straight from God. When we’re talking about rabbinic teachings, the belief that “God knew what He was doing, even if I don’t understand, and maybe part of the purpose was to make me question and struggle with this” doesn’t apply that well. One can argue that God gave the authority to the Sages to make rulings (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and therefore whatever they say is basically the same as what He said, but the distinction between Torah law (d’orayta in Aramaic) and rabbinic law (d’rabbanan) is one that is recognized in halakha. While we do see following mitzvot d’rabbanan in general as being a mitzvah d’orayta, there is more wiggle room within their application. One of the important principles of halakha is “safek d’orayta l’ḥumra, safek d’rabbanan l’kula“–when there is a question or uncertainty in halakha, if the matter concerns a Torah law, the tendency is to take the more stringent view, whereas our tendency in the case of a rabbinic law is to be more lenient.

Anyway. There are a few things I think it’s important to take into account when approaching problematic passages like the one mentioned in the video.

1) Historical Context

These passages were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Respect for women was not at its pinnacle in that day. You have to understand that up until extremely recently, marriage was primarily a financial transaction. The Jewish institution of marriage was progressive for its time in that it acknowledged women as being more than just property, granting them certain rights. But it wasn’t what we think of as the ideal, egalitarian marriages today. In most cases, the bride and groom were not friends or acquaintances before they were betrothed. In many cases they only saw each other briefly before the wedding. For their purposes, this passage in the Talmud discusses a financial transaction under false pretenses. Being physically healthy/not deformed was important information in that context, and hiding a deformity was considered dishonest conduct. The discussion here is to draw the perimeters around what qualifies as a deformity so that a man wouldn’t just randomly decide that he doesn’t like how his wife looks and claim that she is deformed so he could divorce her without giving her compensation.

This doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t mean the passage isn’t sexist and objectifying. It is. It just means that you can start from the assumption that they were doing the best they could with what they had at the time. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is rife with antisemitic tropes. Shakespeare had most likely never met a Jew in his life; he was reflecting an idea within his society of what Jews were. He even made the character of Shylock somewhat complex with his “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t make the play less antisemitic. But it makes me more understanding and forgiving of Shakespeare for doing the best he could with what he had.

2) The Nature of Talmudic Discourse

Remember how I mentioned that the word “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary–one being “of or relating to the Talmud” and the other being “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting”?

Not to mention, "prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men." Detail from a painting by Austrian painter Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}
Not to mention, “prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men.”
Detail from “A Controversy Whatsoever in the Talmud” by Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}

If the Sages are arguing over exactly how many degrees  below the horizon (and from which vantage point, and from what elevation!) the sun must be to count as “sunset” … why shouldn’t they be arguing over what might be considered a deformity at the same level of detail? No topic is off-limits for discussion in halakha. The major issue we have with this passage is that it’s an intimate discussion of a woman’s body in a way that is objectifying. But the Talmud is full of dispassionate discussions of various parts and functions of human anatomy and physiology–male and female–because halakha permeates absolutely every aspect of life and every detail is important.

Moreover, sometimes the Talmud brings ridiculous and extreme examples that no one in their right minds would actually believe could happen. Sometimes this is a rhetorical device by which the Sages sort of “frame the perimeters” of a halakha. Sometimes it’s there to make a different point altogether, or address another kind of situation in a roundabout way. I highly doubt that anyone ever in the history of Judaism walked up to a rabbinic judge and held a ruler up to his wife’s chest to get out of paying her for a divorce, and I doubt that the rabbis who sat around debating this actually thought they’d ever see such a thing happen.

3) The Talmud Is Not the Final Word

Jewish law did not start with the Talmud, and it doesn’t end with the Talmud either. In fact, the compilation of the Talmud itself was a capitulation. There was originally a prohibition to write down the Oral Torah, precisely because the Oral Law was supposed to be a continuous discussion between teacher and student–not doctrine set in stone. (If you have no idea what I mean by Oral Torah, click here.) The way the modern application of halakha works is that it filters down from the Torah, through the Talmud, then through the rabbinical authorities of each age, right down to the rabbis making halakhic decisions right this very second. The final word in halakha ideally belongs to a living person.

Inevitably, there were ideas that came up in the past 2,000 years that didn’t pass the test of time, but are still preserved in our ancient writings. The Talmud also says that a women burning her husband’s food can be grounds for divorce. Obviously, that is not applied today. It is only one of many ideas in the Talmud that are not applicable in modern halakha (according to mainstream Orthodox Judaism).

One might ask what value there is in preserving these problematic passages, and why we don’t discard them. Or even if we don’t discard them–why are we still discussing and teaching them, if they are rejected by most halakhic authorities today? It’s a good question, and I think the answer is that we don’t like to get rid of things. 😛 Especially not rabbinic writings, because we see them as having inherent value, even if we find elements of them problematic or offensive today. This passage in general is a discussion about a financial transaction under false pretenses, and there is a lot of important information and ideas in it even if some of them make our stomachs turn. As to whether we should be teaching them, that’s a judgement call on the part of the particular school or teacher.

The bottom line is, these kinds of passages make most modern Orthodox Jews uncomfortable too. Some respond to them with apologetics; some just ignore them; and some, like myself, face them, struggle with them, and ultimately accept them as part of an imperfect system that we believe is the best we’ve got. Some, unfortunately, use them as a basis for their own backwards, sexist, racist etc. worldviews. Like anything, it depends a lot more on the person reading than on the text itself.

Yeah, I know that makes this issue about as clear as mud. Welcome to Judaism. 😛



Do you have any questions or thoughts you’d like me to address in a letter to Josep? Feel free to ask in the comments, use the contact form, or just shoot me an e-mail at letterstojosep[at]gmail[dot]com.

Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can

Dear Josep,

I was asked recently whether I had written anything for the blog on the status of women in Judaism. I gave an ironic smile and said, “Oh, heck, no. I’ve been avoiding that can of worms.”


I brought my can opener.
I brought my can opener.

I’ve been avoiding it because… well, volumes have been written on the topic of women and gender in Judaism from every possible viewpoint and perspective, and I don’t feel I have anything groundbreaking to contribute to the conversation. Furthermore, my views on the topic are somewhat conflicting and in flux–sometimes I feel one way strongly, and sometimes another, and sometimes neither.

But you are not part of any of that discourse, so I might as well just give it to you straight, and then discuss my thoughts on it afterwards.

The Torah asserts a fairly non-politically-correct, but in my opinion, actually-correct idea: that men and women are built differently. Now before everybody jumps on me, that isn’t to say that one gender is better than the other, or that some men aren’t built more similarly to women, and some women, more similarly to men. It means that in general, the biological difference reflects a mental and spiritual difference, too. And the differences in the requirements of halakha in regards to men and women, are meant to reflect those differences.

However, as we all know, society has been abusing those differences since the dawn of humanity, and some of the differences between men’s and women’s roles in society are the result of misogyny and abuse of power. Sadly, there are some aspects of Jewish law that probably reflect that as well.

Practically speaking, the difference is this: women have fewer halakhic requirements, and therefore halakhic privileges, than men. We are exempt from commandments that are anchored to a certain time of day, and a few others. They include many of the external and public ritual observances, such as prayer, putting on tefillin, studying Torah, and the like. While that means we have less halakhic “responsibility,” it also means that we can’t be as involved in those rituals as men are. For example, because we are not required to study Torah, and therefore hearing the Torah reading is optional for us, we can’t read the Torah for a man to fill his obligation, because he needs to hear it from someone who has the same level of obligation as him. When it comes to the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim, on the other hand,  women and men are equally obligated, and therefore a woman could theoretically read it for a man and fill his obligation. But because of issues of modesty, it is very rare for a woman to read megilla for men (even though it is permissible). In communities that have megilla readings by women, they are usually for women only.

So, historically, the combination of lesser obligation and modesty issues led to women being marginalized in the synagogue, and left out of the houses of learning altogether, until quite recently. Women were generally your typical homemakers and child-bearers, and female leaders were very rare. But they did exist! Miriam, Moses’s sister, had a prominent role among the Israelites. Deborah the Prophetess (Judges 4-5) led a war against a Canaanite general.

Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.
Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.

Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion in Hebrew) was a Hasmonean queen who brought relative peace to Judea under her rule. A woman called Bruriah is quoted as a sage in the Talmud, and was respected for her vast knowledge. And today, there are quite a number of rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who are regarded as great spiritual leaders.

Still, as a general rule, women have a more traditional role in Jewish society, and the laws of modesty tend to focus more on women’s requirements than men’s. There is no denying that sometimes that can be stifling, if not discriminatory.

However. There are a few howevers:

Unlike most other religions, the heart of Judaism is not actually the external rituals observed in the synagogue, but the laws observed in the home, namely kashrut, Shabbat, and family purity. The observance of these laws has always fallen mostly in the domain of women. Moreover, having children and raising them as dedicated Jews has a lot of importance to us. Therefore, women have actually had a very central role in Judaism. That’s one of the reasons Judaism is passed down through the mother, not the father or a combination of both.

Which brings me to the next “however”: there are aspects of Jewish law that actually favor women over men. Such as what I just mentioned. Another example: the Jewish marriage contract is slanted sharply in favor of the woman. The Torah (Exodus 22:10) specifically requires a husband to provide for his wife, and it specifies: food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. (!) While the husband does expect certain “rights” from his wife, these have much less weight than those three Torah obligations. The entire contract was built to protect women, and though it is far from perfect, it was way ahead of its time.

Also… things are changing, even in the most insular of Jewish communities. It was always accepted for women to have female spiritual leaders, but now that has become a lot more widespread, and there is even a daring movement in the Orthodox world to ordain female rabbis. Whereas many synagogues used to designate one little room in the back with a little window as the “women’s section,” these days it is much more common to have a barrier down the middle of the room, so the women can be close to the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, and follow the prayers more easily. In the communities I have belonged to, women also give talks on Torah topics during the services (where only men used to do that), and generally participate more fully in the ritual aspect of Jewish life. I read from my weekly Torah portion at my bat mitzvah party (instead of at synagogue), and a number of my peers held women’s prayer services for their bat mitzvahs so they could read from the Torah during the service. And I’ve been reading from the Scroll of Esther on Purim during women’s readings since I was in tenth grade.

As Ludwig van Beethoven. What?
As Ludwig van Beethoven. What? 😛1

Personally? I very rarely felt excluded and marginalized as an observant Jewish woman. I grew up in communities where women were respected and valued. But I recognize that I may not be representative of the majority. I mean… I grew up with a mom who is a karate instructor and later became a prominent activist for women’s empowerment and all kinds of other cool things; she is one of the founders of El Halev (the Association for Women in the Martial Arts in Israel). And I followed in her footsteps as a self-defense instructor.2

Basically, I was raised in a household where there was no concept that I was any “less” because I was a woman. My mother always took a very active role in her public practice of Judaism. I went to a high school for religious girls, and they never gave me a sense that I had any less responsibility or a less important place in society than men. For the most part, I am relieved to have a “lesser” obligation towards certain mitzvot, because it gives me more leeway, and freedom to connect to God in a way that suits me. And I connect to the more “feminine” aspects of Judaism and the commandments that have traditionally been embraced as being “women’s” commandments–lighting Shabbat candles, “taking challah” (separating a piece of dough and burning it in memory of a donation to the priests that would have been made in the time of the Temple), and immersing in the mikveh. In general, I grew up with the sense that women are to be respected and revered for our power to bring life into the world; that femininity is a force that is different, but no less powerful, than masculinity, and both are required to bring balance to the world.

I know, though, that there are many who have experienced being a Jewish woman differently.

I have written before that there are things about the Torah that I struggle to reconcile with my own sense of morality. In some senses, we believe that the wisdom of the Torah is Divine and therefore eternal and relevant at every moment in time. In other senses, however, we recognize that some parts of it may have been meant as a compromise with human nature, taking into account the context of the time. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:1-14, the Torah describes a situation of war, in which a beautiful woman is taken hostage by an Israelite soldier.  The Torah permits the Israelite to sleep with her, but only after he fills the following conditions:

  1. He must admit her into his household.
  2. Her head must be shaved and her nails cut.
  3. She must be permitted to wear regular (non-slave) clothing.
  4. She must be given a full month to mourn the loss of her parents.

After all these things, if he still wishes to sleep with her, he may marry her, and do so. If not, he must set her free, and he is not allowed to sell her, because, the Torah says, “he has tormented her.”

…Why would the Torah allow a Jew to “torment” a woman this way?

The Sages teach that during the time of the Bible, and even today (see: ISIS), raping and pillaging as part of war was a matter of course. The Torah accepts that this is the reality, the Sages say, and that this is part of human nature during wartime; however, it seeks to channel this urge more positively. Meaning, it gives the man an outlet for his urge, but only under certain circumstances which place some distance between him and his urge, reducing the harm to the woman somewhat, and discouraging him from doing this in the first place.

But why, one would ask, would the Torah do this? If the Torah recognizes wartime rape as immoral, why not simply forbid it? The Sages would respond that the Torah has to take human nature into account, because if it ordered us to do things that were simply impossible, we would end up rejecting the whole thing.

Okay, well, I recognize the wisdom in taking human nature into account. But why is wartime rape “channeled,” while, say, homosexual relations are completely forbidden? And I think the answer is that the Torah was speaking to the context of its time–when homosexuality was less about love and more about idol worship, and women were still viewed as lesser members of society, if not property.

The fact is that the Torah was daringly progressive for its time in terms of its treatment of women. As far as I know, it was the first religion to grant women any rights at all. (See above about Jewish marriage.) Many of the laws, such as requiring a man to marry a woman if he rapes her, seem cruel and primitive in the context of our time, but actually made more sense in the context of the Biblical period; a woman who was raped was seen as damaged goods and would probably never find a husband to provide for her–pretty much a death sentence for a woman of that period. Requiring the rapist to marry her meant that she would be provided for. “Well, then,” I say, “why not punish rape more severely, and require the community to support a woman who was raped, or offer an incentive to a man who marries a victim of rape?” I have lots of advice for God, you see. 😛

I am not the only person, however, to think that the restrictions in the Torah are sometimes not enough, and that the rules should be adapted to raise the moral standard. The most famous example of this is the ban of Rabbenu Gershom, prohibiting Jews from marrying more than one wife. While polygamy was not prohibited by the Torah, monogamy was generally the norm in Jewish society, and Rabbenu Gershom, seeing how much harm polygamy could cause, made it officially prohibited in the 11th century.

The problem is that this only goes in one direction. We can add restrictions, but we can’t lift them. So if monogamy makes sense, we can definitely forbid men to marry more than one wife. And if slavery is awful, we can toss the laws protecting the rights of slaves and ban slavery altogether. But if, say, it also makes total sense for women to serve as rabbinical judges, we can’t cancel the strong precedent in Jewish law that asserts that rabbinical judges must be male (based on the conjugation of the Biblical passage). It is those types of restrictions or limits that are the source of the most friction in this constant conflict within the heart of the modern observant Jew. Jewish law does change and shift over time and there is importance to the reality on the ground, but there is a strong anchor in ancient texts that may be less relevant to our time… and that’s built in to the system.

So I think that the Torah was meant as a starting point; a blueprint on which the Oral Tradition and the living sea of Jewish law was meant to be built upon. And I think that there are parts of it that are meant to be taken at face value–such as, “Thou shalt not murder”–and others that we are meant to struggle with over time. So maybe God actually likes my “advice,” and gives me–and all people in general–the responsibility to figure these things out, working from the framework laid out by the Torah. And maybe the things we find difficult, we are supposed to find difficult. I don’t know why. But I have faith that God knew what He was doing.

Our anchor in ancient texts and precedents, which in some ways may hold us back, also prevents us from being swept away in the swiftly-changing currents of human ideas. This may be counter-intuitive to the modern thinker, but there is great wisdom in it, because the human sense of morality has shifted drastically over time–usually in a direction of greater morality, but not always. Western concepts of equality and human rights, for example, are wonderful and progressive ideas that are definitely supported by the Torah. Western concepts of sexual freedom, however, can be highly destructive when they get out of bounds–objectifying women, creating an environment where young men feel they have to make “sexual conquests” to be “real men,” etc. When you have a system like ours, trends and ideas are sifted through many filters, considered extremely carefully, before we adopt them as part of our society. So, being slow to change has its advantages, too.

And now that I’ve probably offended or disappointed everyone along the entire religious and political spectrum, I’m just gonna post another photo of 16-year-old me in my Beethoven costume.

You're welcome.
You’re welcome.



1. Dressing up in costumes is a unique tradition of Purim, which I explained in a post about Purim that I had to remove for technical reasons (and will post again next Purim). And I always embraced this tradition with such gusto and creativity, that the photographic evidence of my wackiness is basically the only thing Josep remembered about Judaism from all the e-mails I sent him that year. 😛

2. Yes, I am a self-defense instructor for IMPACT Personal Safety here in Israel. Click here for more information on IMPACT … and here to see a video of me demonstrating a knee strike on a padded male instructor! 😀 (Don’t worry, he’s well protected!)