Rabbi Isaac Sassoon to appear at JCC book launch
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Rabbi Isaac Sassoon to appear at JCC book launch

Author will compare scriptural, talmudic positions on the status of Jewish women

While the Torah’s position on women is by no means clear-cut, the notion of patriarchal condescension did not really take hold until years later, says Rabbi Dr. Isaac S. D. Sassoon, noted scholar and author of “The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition” (Cambridge University Press, January 2011).

Sassoon – who will tackle the subject at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on May 5 – told The Jewish Standard in a telephone interview that the role of women changed significantly after the Jews were exiled and the idea of ritual purity took center stage.

Before that time, “it was there, but it was never dominant,” he said of the idea that women were associated with impurity. But by the time of the Talmud, it “loomed large.”

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Rabbi Isaac Sassoon will speak about his new book at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

He pointed to a talmudic story exploring what would happen if thieves entered a house. The concern of the rabbis was that it might have caused ritual impurity, and they go on to discuss what has been rendered “unclean” by the presence of the thieves. The rabbis hold that if the thief is accompanied by a gentile or a woman, “everything is defiled. Here we see the condescension,” said Sassoon. “The presence of the woman is in itself problematic.”

The author referred also to the humiliating treatment accorded a sotah (woman suspected of adultery) in the Temple, after she had completed her purifying ritual. He decried the “yelling and screaming” of onlookers, which, he said, “doesn’t get oxygen from scripture but rather contravenes” the teaching that all clean persons may enter the sanctuary. He connects the “near paranoia” about a woman’s presence to “an excessive anxiety about defilement.”

“It hasn’t gone away completely,” he said, citing the example of two-tiered synagogues using the upper floor for women. “History is replete with examples of religious practices that on closer scrutiny turnout to be neither scriptural nor talmudic but by dint of long usage became part of the status quo.”

In the case of the women’s gallery, Sassoon wondered how apologists could defend a practice that would allow a young man to watch his elderly mother struggle up a long staircase.

“In the past, apologists pretended this was halachically mandated,” he said. “But today even the strictest concede that the physical partition halacha demands be only of the prescribed height.”

Sassoon spoke favorably of the theory put forth by philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt that “societies are based on what is most expedient and what works for most members of society.” But once there is a “tipping point, once something is no longer useful, then people become disgruntled and start asking questions. But as long as it works for everyone, more or less,” a societal system persists.

So too with the status of women.

“In the old days, women were preoccupied with the primary duty of giving birth and rearing children,” said Sassoon. “They understood that for survival to take place, they needed the protection of men, since there were so many risks involved. [The system] suited them. They wouldn’t have wanted it different.”

Still, he added, Jewish society was “not anti-women qua women.” He pointed out that the Bible speaks of widows as having important positions, and the queen mother in Israel had “an enormously important role.”

Sassoon’s book – which sets out the position of the Bible, the Talmud, and related literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the issue of patriarchal condescension – “may transform the way that women are viewed in the Torah … [revealing] credible support for monogamy in ancient Israel and a belief that the biblical commandments applied to men and women alike,” according to a statement from program organizers.

“I had to be very careful to deal only with scholarship and text and show that we have both kinds” of opinions in our tradition, “some anti-women and some, on the contrary, almost egalitarian,” said the author.

In Deuteronomy, for example, “it says to gather men, women, and children to come and listen and keep all the commandments. It’s an egalitarian text,” he said. If this has been overlooked, it is “because the Talmud explained that away.

“The time came when society needed to change,” he said, citing Arendt’s theory. There was a need to give “a certain prestige to men, who were afraid of losing their last bastion” of power a generation after surrendering their military prowess. “They were fighters in ancient days,” he said. “Now the rabbis and the Romans didn’t allow the Jews to arm.”

In today’s world, some men may still feel threatened, he said. While women continue to have babies and rear children, thanks to modern medicine women can afford to engage in other societal pursuits as well without detriment to their offspring.

Sassoon said it was important to realize “how variegated the tradition is. We still ask the wrong questions. We ask, ‘What does Judaism have to say about a, b, or c,’ but on most things there’s a great variety and different voices. That is the central point.

“God gave revelations as they were needed by different generations,” he said. “Each revelation is unique and special and addressed to the needs of that period and society. It’s unassailable, there for anyone to see. God didn’t speak once and say, ‘Goodbye, I’m retiring.'” Today, he said, we have to “rethink carefully, in a serious way, and decide which [revelation] applies to our world.”

The author is a founding faculty member of the Institute of Traditional Judaism and received his doctorate from the University of Lisbon.

The May 5 program, co-sponsored by JCC’s Jewish Women’s Connection in collaboration with Cambridge University Press, will be chaired by Rabbi Ruth Gais and include remarks by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Rabbanith Esther Hidary, Chaplain Leslie Kirzner, Prof. Herman Prins Salomon, and Rabbi Chaim Solomon.

For additional information, call (201) 408 -1426.

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