Jacob’s Complicated Love Life and its Halachic implications

Inevitably, the story about Jacob and his complicated love life raises a number of questions regarding the Jewish attitude concerning concubines and polygamy. Do Jews still practice polygamy? Outside Sephardic circles, polygamy has been banned for well over a thousand years, since the time Rabbanu Gershom outlawed it for Ashkenazic Jews.

Historically, there is no evidence of actual concubinage in the Talmud, nor is there any evidence of it in practice during the Middle Ages. In the responsa of Asher b. Jehiel (no. 32:1), there is a reference to a concubine, but it seems to be merely the case of a man cohabiting with a woman without going through a marriage ceremony with her, and not to a formal concubine. Modern readers would refer to such a woman as a “mistress.”

In general terms, the Talmud distinguishes between a concubine and a wife in the following way: Wives have ketubah (marriage contract) and kiddushin (formal marriage ceremony i.e., hupah) while concubines have neither. [1]

Ibn Daud adds in his notes to Maimonides, that any woman who does not dedicate herself to one man, is considered to be a harlot. [2]

However, Rashi takes issue with this definition. According to him, even a concubine must have kiddushin, but what she lacks is a ketubah (which delineates the financial responsibilities a husband has for his wife). In fact, Jewish law insists that even a married woman must have a ketubah, lest she be considered a concubine. Rashi’s opinion draws support from the Jerusalem Talmud (J. Ketubot 5:2, 29d). Most Halachic authorities generally rule in accordance with Maimonides and the Babylonian Talmud.

Opinions differ with respect whether a concubine is permitted or forbidden. Some scholars say that neither biblical or rabbinical law prohibits it. All that matters is that the concubine go to the mikvah ( a ritual pool of water) so that the man is not guilty of having sex with a menstruating woman (EH 26:1). The majority of medieval authorities conclude that concubinage is immoral. Radbaz, for an example, wrote back in the early 17th century, “Nowadays a woman is not sexually permitted to any man except through the formal marriage ceremony of kiddushin, Huppah,  sheva brachot (the seven marriage blessings) and ketubah.” (Resp, Vol, 4 #225)

Only one notable 17th century authority, Jacob Emden (responsum no. 15), expressed the opinion that it should be permitted. Emden’s citations of talmudic sources endorsing polygamy show that some of the most famous rabbis of the Talmud were footloose and fancy free when it came to the question of concubines. In all likelihood, Rabbi Emden probably would have felt quite comfortable living in the 60’s. Continue reading “Jacob’s Complicated Love Life and its Halachic implications”

What did Jacob see in his vision at Beth El?

What did Jacob actually see when he had his mystical vision? Was it a ladder? Or was it a ziggurat? It all depends on how one wishes to translate the noun סֻלָּם (sulam).

Classical translations think it is a heavenly ladder, but more modern translations prefer ziggurat. For example, the NJPS translation renders it “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground”[1] The ladder imagery may reflect a Babylonian and Egyptian influence. The word סֻלָּם (sulam = stairway) may be a cognate to the Akkadian simmiltu, which in Mesopotamian mythology provides the “long stairway to heaven” enabling travelers to pass from realm of existence to another.

This belief is similarly reflected in Babylonian architecture, as is witnessed in the ziggurats. Egyptian mythology also depicts the journey of the soul as ascending a sacred stairway, which  rejuvenated the soul into a higher form of life.[2]

As an archetypal symbol, the ladder or stairway in  Jacob’s dream served as the axis mundi — an ontological reality where the sacred and the profane  realms intersect. In mythical terms, the axis mundi was considered to be the highest point of the universe and perhaps identified with the center of the world and the place where creation first began. As the center and locus where the spiritual and cosmic regions of the universe converge, intersect and join with the physical realm of reality. The axis mundi marks the place where God’s Being and Presence is most fully manifest.

[1].In addition to the possibility that this story reflects a  Babylonian or Egyptian influence, some modern scholars find it difficult to imagine or conceive how angels can move two and fro along a ladder without it getting highly congested (perhaps these scholars think Jacob’s dream resembled a rush-hour New York traffic jam). However, it seems to me that such a literal approach fails to take into consideration the cryptic nature of dreams, which frequently contain paradoxical elements, e.g., an dream about elephant passing through the eye of a needle. As a dream, its surreal images must be understood parabolically or symbolically–but never literally!

[2].In the Coffin Texts T 76 the dead king, though repeatedly saying he is “in chaos, in the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom,” repeatedly asks for a ladder so that he can get up to the sky.

Why are so many Jews atheists and agnostics? (revised)

According to Rabbi Levi Brackman in a recent YNet article, attributes the root cause of overwhelming Jewish atheistic tendencies to a tragic ignorance of Judaism’s most profound teachings and ideas; most of these Jews, argues Brackman, have a juvenile understanding of monotheism–as taught in Judaism. In other words, “Its their stupidity, Stupid!”

Well, after reading Brackman’s article on why so many Jews happen to be atheistic or agnostic with respect to matters pertaining to religion, I found myself partially agreeing with some of the points he raises, which I think are significant. For me this was a surprise since I almost never agree with this Haredi-lite writer.

Over a decade ago, I wrote in my book, “The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God,” that many Jewish intellectuals have seldom grappled with the issue of God—at least within the matrix of Jewish theology and tradition.

Over the years, I have noticed that a fairly large percentage of Jewish adults never advanced beyond their prepubescent ideas of God that they had when they were in grammar school. Even less are familiar with the various books of the Bible, especially Job, which deals with the hard questions of how we can reconcile the belief in a good God with the immense suffering that exists in the world. A knowledge of Jewish texts may only serve to enhance our appreciation of the questions that our Sages grappled with and may perhaps offer some guidance to a generation grappling for answers . . .

Arguably, one of the 20th century’s greatest and most original Jewish mystics, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, explains the problem that we are facing today with great acuity, “The greatest impediment to the human spirit, upon reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, which goes back to childish habit and imagination. This is an aspect of making a ‘graven image’ or a “likeness of God,’ against which we must always beware, particularly in an epoch of greater intellectual enlightenment.[1]

However, I must take issue with the substance of  Brackman’s views, namely,  that the rise of atheism among Jews is due to the Jewish “ignorance,” of its greatest metaphysical and theological classics. Such an approach is tragically myopic, not to mention insulting and condescending.  There are other equally–if not more–compelling explanations to consider.

It seems to me that real issue is that religious power has become so abusive and autocratic in its ex cathedra proclamations concerning faith, which can plainly be seen in terms how  the Haredi world exploits its dissenters and critics. People are understandably disillusioned with the anti-rational tendencies that are routinely promoted in the black-hat and hassidic rabbinical schools today.  Frankly speaking, I am amazed there aren’t more Jewish atheists and agnostics than there currently are!

One immediate example that comes to mind is how the Haredi community banned the writings of Rabbi Nate Slifkin, who argues that the evolution is not incompatible with Jewish tradition.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schnersohn,  believed that the sun rotates around the earth, and the list of intellectual foibles keep on coming! When rabbis are so wrong about science and happen to be critical of contrarian views, why should we, as the public, take anything they have to say seriously?

Obviously, the behavior of Haredi Jews destroying public property in Jerusalem, not to mention their savage attack on the Intel synagogue, surely does not inspire respect for a belief in God. Haredi Judaism seems dedicated to bringing out the worst atavistic and retrograde impulses from its mindless followers. Unfortunately, the Israeli politicians continue to indulge these social misfits, as their power base continues to grow because of the large families the Haredi traditionally have.

If the Haredim really wish to re-create the ghetto, perhaps they should consider moving back to Poland or Russia and Hungry. However, one must whether these countries would want to welcome the Haredim and Hasidim back to their former European homes. These suggestions are not meant to be spiteful, but are really constructively intended. In Europe, their Haredi and Hassidic children would never have to deal with Zionism again.

One suspects that once religious leaders eventually start teaching their students how to show a reverence toward life, many people considering themselves “agnostic,” or “atheistic,” might start reconsidering their original positions. Maimonides himself says that God is Mystery, while Abraham Joshua Heschel adds that God is the Source of wonder and radical amazement.

One suspects that Jewish atheists like Christopher Hitchens and others are merely continuing a long tradition of questioning the canons of faith and tradition, much like Spinoza himself did back in the 17th century.

I feel reasonably  confident that such questioning will ultimately lead to a life and discovery of real faith once we learn to live our faith properly and welcome the skeptics of our people back to the dinner table and listen to their soulful-searching questions in the spirit of love and tolerance. Even if we fail to win over the hearts and minds of our dissenters, at least our own faith will grow as a result of an honest exchange of ideas.

[1] Ben Zion Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook, (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 262-263.

A Thanksgiving Meditation

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t it wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.  Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.” Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain. According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […]  Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”  Politicians, especially, love to create class-warfare between the haves and the have-nots, as if creaturely comforts would ever dictate our inner and spiritual state of mind.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset; it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks, for whatever the reason may be, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative.  In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness. Continue reading “A Thanksgiving Meditation”

Teaching our children to become “Serious Jews.”

Children never cease to amaze me …This past Sunday, Prof. James Cohen invited me to speak to his Sunday school class to examine whether having a religious  identity is more important than having a Jewish ethnic identity. Personally, I believe that being a healthy Jew involves a mixture of both the religious and the cultural. Of course such discussions often lead to broader issues pertaining to the age-old question: What does it mean to be a Jew today?

In the interest of brevity, like many other ethnic groups, being Jewish certainly has a rich ethnic dimension that can be seen in terms of its food, art, theater, humor,  music–in short all the things that define a Jewish culture. But is Jewish culture enough to preserve Jewish identity?

The answer is, “No, it is not.” Without Jewish values, even the cultural aspects of Jewish life  will eventually cease and disappear. On the other hand, culture, when combined with Jewish ethical and spiritual values forms a winning formula for Jewish survival.

In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter which kind of Jewish denominational group a Jew religiously identifies with–from the Orthodox to the Humanistic. What really matters is how a Jew seriously takes his or her religion. It is far more important to take our Judaism seriously than anything else. I asked the youngsters, “Tell me, in what way do you take your Judaism seriously?” Several said, “I go to Hebrew School every week,” while others said, “I go to synagogue every Shabbat . . .”  “Well,” I said, “studying is really important as are synagogue attendance and holiday observances. However, there is yet another way taking our Judaism seriously, can you think of a different way we can take our faith seriously?” Continue reading “Teaching our children to become “Serious Jews.””

Who did Jacob wrestle with?

Jacob didn’t know who ambushed him. He assumed it was a man; from Jacob’s view, his assailant could have been anyone —even Esau himself! As the wrestling match continued throughout the night, Jacob finally realized that he was fighting with an angel!

The Midrash identifies the mysterious assailant as the guardian spirit of Esau. The battle between Jacob and the angel represents the archetypal struggle between good and evil.  Some Hellenistic Judaic thinkers suggest this entire episode reflected an inner struggle within Jacob’s own soul, and may have even occurred in a dream.

This view was later championed by Maimonides and Gersonides. Both thinkers view Jacob’s struggle with the angel as an example of a visionary experience.  God wanted Jacob to know that Esau was not his real enemy, rather, Jacob’s real enemy was himself. The angelic being Jacob wrestled with was really a symbolization of himself. Once he learned to resolve his inner conflict, dealing with Esau would prove quite easy.

There is an art to fighting the inner enemy. The Chinese philosopher  Sun Tzu (6th–5th century B.C.E.) and general expressed this idea well, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”[1]

[1] The Art of War, (ch. 3, Axiom: 4).

Woman Arrested at the Wall for Wearing a Tallit?!

Byline: Friday, 2:00 PM

This past week, the Israeli police arrested a woman who was praying at the Western Wall, while wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). This was the first time a woman was arrested for wearing a tallit and reading from the Torah.

The Haredi Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch argues that the “Women of the Wall” group is creating strife and friction that defiles the sacredness of the Wall “The group has a place to touch the Kotel, the High Court of Justice gave it all it needs,” he said, referring to a ruling allocating an area adjacent to the Kotel, yet away from the public eye, where woman may don talitot.

The origin of this dispute centers on whether a tallit is considered to be an exclusively male garment or not; one  ancient Targum asserts that a tallit and phylacteries are a “men’s garment,” which is off-limits to women (Deut 22:5).[1] However, the Talmud itself merely says that a woman is exempt from wearing a tallit or phylacteries because these are time-bound precepts that must be observed within a specific time of the day. Commentaries point out that while a woman is “exempt” from observing these precepts, she certainly is not excluded from observing these precepts—should she choose to do so. Continue reading “Woman Arrested at the Wall for Wearing a Tallit?!”

What is the meaning of the names “Esau” and “Jacob”?

The story about Esau and Jacob may be found in the book of Genesis 25-27. Here is a brief passage we shall examine:

24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.d Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them (NRSV).

d That is He takes by the heel or He supplants


25:24 וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו  — so they named him Esau. — The etymology of the name עֵשָׂו (asev = Esau) is unclear. Some scholars think that it is related to the Arabic athaya to be covered with hair;  athai, ‘hairy’  Based on this conjecture, Esau may mean “the hairy one” The Hebrew wording suggests that he was completely developed, made, formed, or perfected; or perfect, robust.

Esau’s hairy skin also becomes an important detail in the story of Jacob stealing his father’s blessing (Gen. 27:11-23). In addition, it hints at Esau’s wild and unrefined nature which is in some ways, and is reminiscent to the Babylonian hero Enkidu (whose hairy body is similar to Esau), who also  lived  among the animals in the forest.

25:26 וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב — so he was named Jacob — The name “Jacob” means  “one who grabs the heel,” or “one who trips up,”  or “one who supplants.”  Jacob’s name comes from  the root  עָקַב (eqab) “to take by the heel,” or “supplant.” Hence, the name “Jacob” ought to be rendered as “Supplanter,” or, “Deceiver.” Further scriptural evidence supports this hypothesis.  The verb עָקַב   is often used for those who ambush an unsuspecting party (this was actually Gad’s method of warfare alluded to in Gen. 49:19),  and implies cunning and deceit (e.g. Psa. 41:10;49:5; et al.).

Only a punster could appreciate the beauty of the biblical text here. Puns embedded in this name might suggest an interesting translation seldom seen in English translations. Jacob might just as easily mean “trickster”  and lends itself to an unusual but common English pun–we could say that Jacob behaves like a real “heel”!

The narrative’s irony is remarkable–note how the “quiet homebody” Jacob hunts and ambushes his brother–Esau–“the hunter”!

A “Jewish” Pogrom at Intel

The recent Haredi attack on the Intel plant in Jerusalem was far more serious than what the media originally reported. Aside from the rocks and obscenities hurled at those people who were standing near the building, the Haredim broke into a special synagogue and destroyed prayer-books and used the “shtenders” (miniature podiums) as a battering ram to break through the doors.

The rioters’ disregard for the sanctity of a synagogue is a grim reminder of what can happen when the local authorities fail to protect the civil liberties of its people. Haredism continues to be a divisive and malignant force in Israeli society. Jewish tradition demands that we act in the ways of pleasantness and peace.

This is not the first time Jews have turned against fellow Jews. The events unfolding today bear an uncanny resemblance to the internecine battles that led to the destruction of Judea almost 2000 years ago. Due to the militant hysteria of the Zealots, an extremely volatile group of Jewish fundamentalists who opposed to making peace with the Romans, this group attempted to break Rome’s grip on Judea—regardless of the price. While the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, they felt no need to attack; Jews inside the city walls were divided into three groups; each faction killed each other with zeal, and requiring little help from the Roman soldiers, who probably watched the spectacle with amusement.

After the Romans cleaned up shop, Jewish thinkers had to come to terms with why this terrible loss occurred in the first place. Our ancestor’s love of factionalism destroyed the country decades before the Romans did. The end result was a 2000 year exile of suffering and persecution. All this because a few stubborn Zealots remained determined to maintain their honor rather than let the Romans hang their flag over Jerusalem.

Have we learned anything from history? Philosopher George Santayana said it best, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.”

One last thought:  A Shabbat in Jerusalem and its holy atmosphere deserves to be preserved, e.g.,  families walking down the streets is a beautiful thing to see and experience. There is nothing wrong with the Haredi and their supporters going to the city council and insist that certain areas of Jerusalem be zoned to minimize incoming traffic or business. In our country, many states used to enact blue laws in order to restrict certain kinds of businesses from operating on Sunday. I would strongly recommend that the Haredi community take a softer approach and attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people without having to resort to violence.

Young people will express violence unless the parents, rabbis, and leaders instruct them differently. Destroying property on the Sabbath is a violation of the Sabbath laws; we have every right to expect that the Haredim will respect the rule of law that governs the Jewish State they live in.

Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?

Maimonides’ position on the soul is very complex and this subject remains of the more controversial topics of Jewish intellectual history. Certainly in his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides includes the belief in bodily resurrection among the basic tenants of faith listed in his famous Thirteen Articles of Belief.

However, in Maimonides’ most mature work, the philosophical tract known as “The Guide to the Perplexed,” the great philosopher stresses the belief in the soul’s immortality and says nothing about physical resurrection.

One might wonder: How consistent is Maimonides? Actually, one could answer that it all depends upon the specific target audience he was trying to educate. For traditionalists, Maimonides endorses the standard orthodox beliefs that everyone knew. This point is visibly clear in his famous essay on Resurrection where he defends himself against the accusation he “denied the existence of physical resurrection.”

Many scholars doubt whether Maimonides was really being truthful when he composed his letter; others think the text may have been a forgery. On the other hand, Maimonides sometimes expresses sentiments that he would never publicly endorse;  the belief in resurrection could be one such example.

Maimonides reveals his most personal theological views regarding resurrection in his Guide to the Perplexed–not so much by what he says, but by what he does not say! If I understand Maimonides correctly, I think he never really denies resurrection; rather, he gives it a new understanding. Resurrection simply means that the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity after the body perishes in this world.

Maimonides’ sophisticated grasp of anthropomorphism and his rejection of scriptural literalism strongly indicates that the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval era also viewed resurrection as a metaphorical truth. One must remember that Maimonides was the first Jewish thinkers to engage in a process of de-mythologizing Scriptures, which often speaks in mytho-poetic language that can best be understood as metaphor.

If this conjecture is correct, Maimonides’ view certainly fits a more modern way of viewing faith;  briefly stated, resurrection does not suspend the laws of nature, rather, it refers to a metaphysical  journey where the soul returns to its original state of being. Physical death does not have the final word on the soul’s existence.  By the same token, Maimonides (and especially Gersonides after him) generally interprets supernatural miracles of the Bible in naturalistic terms. Natural law within the universe remains inviolate. Continue reading “Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?”