How to battle myth-interpretations

How to battle myth-interpretations


Every year around this time, someone somewhere publicly warns against attending services in non-Orthodox synagogues. Few take such admonitions seriously.

A great many non-Orthodox Jews, however, and even some Modern Orthodox ones do take seriously the idea that the more rigorous sects within Orthodoxy represent “true” Judaism and the rest of us – the Modern Orthodox included – are just liberalizing wannabes.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Part of the reason for this is ignorance; so few people today know anything about Jewish history, much less about the development of Judaism’s various streams, and perhaps even fewer know anything about Jewish law.

For example, everyone knows that Orthodox Judaism was the only Jewish stream until the other ones came along, but that is the extent of what they know.

And what they know is wrong.

In the beginning, meaning when the sages of blessed memory re-formed biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism, there was just Judaism (or “traditional” Judaism). With the Enlightenment came Reform Judaism, followed in short order by movements adhering more closely to tradition. These were all put under the rubric “Orthodox.” Next came the so-called Positive-Historical School in Europe, which eventually made its way to this side of the ocean and influenced the birth of Conservative Judaism. In the late 19th century, as well, there was “neo-Orthodoxy,” which was the forerunner of today’s Modern Orthodoxy. (All of this is oversimplified history.)

Each movement has its ideology (or ideologies) and no stream, regardless of what it is called, adheres to Torah law, as such. Rather, we all adhere to the opinions of scholars who sought to put Torah law into practical terms, based on their own understanding and at times their own biases.

Among other things, these scholars who defined Judaism for us sought to “protect” Torah law from violation by building a series of “fences” around it. After two millennia of such fence-building, we are as far removed from Torah law as can be, and even from the Rabbinic Judaism of its founding sages.

Take, for example, the Torah’s prohibition against eating chicken Parmagiana.

Actually, the Torah (narrowly defined) never said anything of the sort and Torah (broadly defined to include rabbinic texts, starting with the Mishnah) knew nothing about it until a few hundred years ago. In three places – Exodus 23:19; Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21 – the Torah states, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” States the Talmud in the Babylonian Tractate Shabbat 130a, “fowl is excluded [from this proscription], because it has no mother’s milk.”

Over time, this changed, although the how and why must wait for another day.

Generally speaking, our dairy/meat laws are a series of fences built around other fences that already had extended the biblical proscription to include any kind of mixing of meat and milk. When we observe these proscriptions (which we should, by the way; nothing in this column is intended to provide an excuse for violating them), we are honoring the Torah’s original proscription, but we are doing so from a far distance. In essence, we are observing how scholars and sages interpreted the laws of the Torah, not the words of the Torah.

Fences aside, too often, people tend to confuse “real” Judaism with the sectarian variety because they cannot separate the Torah from its interpreters, and this skews their view of Judaism and its beliefs. This is certainly the case regarding the popular notion, especially among non-Orthodox scholars, that the Torah is somehow anti-woman. It is not, but trying to make this case today is almost a lost cause.

A perfect example is the issue of whether women can study Torah, however one chooses to define the word. According to Deuteronomy 31:11-12, there is an explicit commandment to teach all Israelites the law, not just the men. “[Y]ou shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing…, men and women…, that they may hear, and that they may learn….”

What seems like a perfectly clear statement is nothing of the kind by the time the Talmud gets to it. Thus, in BT Sotah 20a, we are told: “Ben Azzai [says], ‘a man is under the obligation to teach his daughter Torah…,’ [but] Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity.'”

How could Rabbi Eliezer or anyone prohibit teaching women Torah if the Torah itself commands doing so?

It depends on how one interprets Deuteronomy 31:12. The verse includes the words “that they may hear and that they may learn.” According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (BT Chagigah 3a), there can be only one reason why the Torah would use both “learn” and “hear” when just one of those words was sufficient to make the point: “The men came to learn, the women came to hear.”

Of course, one does not need to go to such extreme mental acrobatics to reach the same conclusion. Denial is also a good way out. Thus, the Babylonian sage Rabina said in BT Sotah 21a, “women are not so commanded” to study Torah. (Ironically, he said this as part of a compliment of sorts to women.)

This is what I mean about separating the Torah from its interpreters. From then until now, rabbis have been debating whether women are allowed to study Torah. In my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations, the answer was overwhelmingly no. At best, women could study the biblical text, but not in the original Hebrew (which they most probably could not understand in any case). Instead, they studied from a Yiddish “rewrite” known as Tsena U’rena (it literally means “go out and see”).

Just as overwhelmingly, in recent decades the answer has been yes (resulting in everything from a “unisex” day-school curriculum to the blossoming of institutes devoted to advanced continuing education for women. But there are still communities in which the answer remains no.

Which side of this debate represents “true” Judaism?

We are quick to slap on labels and buy into myths. Maybe one “new year’s resolution” for 5770 is to bring that to an end by taking some adult Jewish education courses. Synagogues are preparing their offerings for the year. There is time, as well, to sign up for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey-run Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program (of which I am an instructor, in the interest of full disclosure).

People from every stream can benefit from it.