The Bonds of Compassion that Exists within Nature


Empathy is one of those fascinating qualities that human beings share with the animal world. What exactly is empathy? It’s the psychological capacity to relate to another person’s psychological frame of being. Empathy creates a psychological bridge between one sentient being and another. One of my early teachers taught me as a Kabbalistic insight that the Hebrew word regesh (“feeling”) is an anagram for gesher (“bridge”), for feelings are the bridge that connect one person to another.

Such qualities are not uniquely human. We share this quality with much of the animal world. A couple of weeks ago, a Connecticut photographer has captured a thrilling encounter between a baby baboon and a 350lb lioness in a game park in Botswana. According to the witnesses, the lioness killed a baboon’s mother. Suddenly, the infant baboon was looking into the eyes of a roaring predator.

Instead of gobbling the young baby baboon for a midday Happy-meal, it gently began to play with it; to stop its crying, the lioness began to nurse the small helpless creature. Such stories are far from being unique. In the annals of Roman legends, a she-wolf sucked the baby  twins Remus and Romulus, the founder of Rome.

Charles Darwin was one of the earliest observers of this shared type of social behavior:

  • Man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, emotions, intuitions and sensations – similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity…they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason, though in very different degrees.
  • Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” [1]

One animal behaviorist writes:

  • In a different environmental setting, at the town of Tezpur, India, a troop of about a hundred rhesus monkeys brought traffic to a halt after a baby monkey was hit by a car. The monkeys encircled the injured infant, whose hind legs were crushed and who lay in the road unable to move, and blocked all traffic. A government official reported that the monkeys were angry, and a local shopkeeper said: “It was very emotional … Some of them massaged its legs. Finally, they left the scene carrying the injured baby with them.” In another incident, baboons in Saudi Arabia waited for three days on the side of a road to take revenge on a driver who had killed a member of their troop. The baboons lay in waiting and ambushed the driver after one baboon screamed when the driver passed by them. The angry baboons threw stones at the car and broke its windshield. Captive Diana monkeys have been observed engaging.[2]

Vivisectionists invariably never give names to animals before conducting their experiments  upon them. Such behavior is routine as it is deliberate. By denying animals a name, in effect, they are also denying them an identity. Beyond that, they are also denying them any kind of moral standing as sentient creatures.

Empathy is only one of the remarkable characteristics we share with the animal world. The emotional lives of animals are complex. Stories such as the examples mentioned above are legion. Every pet owner can easily attest to this reality.

Shakespeare’s famous quote from Shylock in his famous play, The Merchant of Venice, might just as easily be applied to the animal world as well:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.[3]

Undoubtedly, we share more qualities with the animal world than many people are willing to acknowledge. The complex matrix of deep emotions that we see in many animals are evident in how they show glee and playfulness when playing, the feelings of grief, when bereaving, depression over the loss of a mate, child, or other friend.  Human beings can learn much from the “dumb” animals they claim to be “inferior.”” The Torah has numerous precepts governing our relationship with these magnificent creatures,[4] which rabbinical tradition elaborates upon.[5]

The Book of Proverbs probably says it best: Decent-minded people are good to their animals; the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them (Prov. 12:10).

And the rest is commentary  . . . .

[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 515.

[2] Marc Bekoff, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.103.

[3] The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68.

[4] Lev. 19:19; 22:24; Deut. 22:10,23:25/

[5] Maimonides, MT Sechirut, 13:3; Shulḥan ‘Arukh, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 338; Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Yoreh De’ah, 16).

Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige


Isn’t it amazing that Americans are living longer than ever before in recorded history  More than 87 million Americans will be over 65 by the year 2040, according to the National Institute of Aging.  Today, the over‑65 group accounts for about 30 million people; the elderly make up over 15% of the nation’s population.  Life expectancy and other demographic trends will have a profound impact on health‑care costs in the future.

About 200 years ago, the average life expectancy in America was 35 years.  A child born today can expect to live to be at least 75 years. In a short 200 years, the average life expectancy has more than doubled.  The National Institute on Aging projects that in 2040 the average life expectancy will be 86 years for men and 92 years for women.  About 66% of all the people who have lived beyond 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. Statisticians describe this phenomenon has as, “The senior explosion.” One wonders, what does Jewish tradition have to say about growing old?

This week’s parsha deals with the subject of growing old. A wise man once said, “There are three ingredients to the good life and they are: learning, earning, and yearning.” Let us examine the Midrash’s exposition of Abraham and Sarah’s life, “She lived 100 years and twenty years and seven years –so were the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1).

Why did the sacred narrator use such an unusual configuration?

Rashi explains that the Midrash tells us that all the years of Sarah’s life were marked with the quality of goodness. When she was 100 years old, she still had the beauty of a 20 year old. When she was 20, she still had the child‑like innocence of a 7 year old.

Sarah  kept those qualities all her life, even into old age. Did Sarah hang out at the local salon to maintain her beauty? Did she have periodic face‑lifts? I doubt it. Sarah’s beauty emanated from within. Her life was truly remarkable when you consider it. Both Abraham and Sarah began their careers when most would have filed for Social Security.

In short, both Abraham and Sarah taught us that growing old does not mean we cannot achieve our dreams and aspirations.  Sarah’s personal narrative bears this truth out. For many years, she was childless. Sarah experienced many hard years of traveling in the desert. Sarah lived with famine; she endured the stigma of being a childless woman in a society that valued women solely in terms of their ability to bear offspring.  She was forcefully taken into the homes of Pharaoh and Abimelech. She had the thankless job of being a stepmother to a problem child. How did she do it?

Rabbi Zusa of Anapol explained that Sarah had an optimistic attitude about life.  For every uncomfortable situation, Sarah would always say, “This too is for the good.” Even in bad times, Sarah learned to view negative situations as opportunities for growth.

Unfortunately, many people forget that one’s life is not dependent on external circumstances. We may not always be able to control our circumstances, but we do have autonomy as to how we will react to the circumstances.

Sarah and Abraham teach us that we need to view life as something that is unconditionally meaningful. According to Erik Ericson, the primary problem facing us when we get old is simply this: Shall we face our twilight years with integrity, or shall we face it with despair?

Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, “I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” Her reply was unique and precious, “I hope you live long enough to make it.”

Since life is a gift, we must learn to treasure it at any age. Indeed, many great people of history have done exactly achieved great things in the last segment of their lives.  In the Bible we find that Abraham was 75 when he first went forth from his father’s home to start a new nation. He sires a child at 100, while Sarah becomes a mother at 90.

Moses was 80 when God called and, although he cited many excuses, he never mentioned his old age.   Socrates gave the world his wisest philosophy at 70; Socrates even managed  to learn how to play on musical instruments in the last years of his life.   Plato was only a student at 50. He did his best after reaching 60.   Michelangelo was still composing poetry and designing structures in his 89th year. He painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel on his back on a scaffold at near 90.

The story of Sarah teaches us that we need to see every epoch in a person’s life as an opportunity to grow . Sarah was that kind of person.

This week, the Cardinals are playing the Red Sox for the World Series Championship. There is a wonderful story in baseball history about growing old. One of baseball’s most remarkable pitchers was Satchel Paige who played for some of the most prestigious teams of the oldNegro League.

After Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in baseball in 1947, Satchel Paige became the oldest “rookie”  to ever debut in the major leagues, at the age of 42 years and two days. With the St. Louis Browns beating the Indians 4–1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Boudreau pulled his starting pitcher, Bob Lemon, and sent Paige in. Paige, not knowing the signs and not wanting to confuse his catcher, pitched cautiously. Chuck Stevens lined a ball left field for a single. Jerry Priddy bunted Stevens over to second. Up next was Whitey Platt, and Paige decided to take command—and took command he certainly did!

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, 59 at the time, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting Jim Gosger out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt.  Continue reading “Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige”

BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”

Rediscovering the Soul-Breath of the Sabbath

While it is true that many translations of the Bible such as the New Revised Version Standard (NRSV), the King James’ Version (KJV) and others render the verb וַיִּשְׁבֹּת (wayyišböt) as “rested,” a more accurate translation is “ceased,” i.e., “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because He ceased from all His work which God created to make” (Gen. 2:2). Ramban (12th century) interprets these words to mean “He ceased performing all His creative work.” Hence, for God, the Shabbat is really more a day of “ceasing,” rather than “resting,” as commonly believed.

But why does God need to abstain from producing new creative work? Obviously it is not because of tiredness! As theologian John Shea notes, a story about God is really a model for how we are to conduct our lives. God’s “ceasing” from Creation thus provides us with a template for emulating God’s behavior. As human beings created in the image of God, we too need to make time for rest and purposely abstain from interfering with Creation one day of the week. The passion to create can sometimes be dangerous—especially in a highly technological society that prides itself on its ability to create, manipulate and control the world around it. In our modern world, we often tend to think of ourselves as being completely self-sufficient.

There’s a great story I would like to share with you from Mrs. Lettie Cowman’s wonderful book, “Springs in the Valley.” In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

Then Mrs. Cowman concludes with this penetrating exhortation: “This whirling rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor jungle tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”

It is incredible to realize that Lettie Cowman wrote these words eighty-five years ago.

Later in the Book of Exodus we read: בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested” (Exod. 31:17).

Consider the following: The Hebrew verb וַיִּנָּפַשׁ (wayyinnäpaš)  in Exodus 31:17  can sometimes mean “rest,” “ensouled,” “breath,” and  “to catch one’s breath.”  It often points to the inner being of a person. Hence, a nefesh can also mean a living being. In the context of Shabbat, God ensouled this day when He rested with a dimension of His Presence, which the Kabbalists interestingly enough identified as feminine! The Sabbath reveals the reality of the Divine Feminine better known as the “Shekhinah.”

Why did God need to rest on the Shabbat day? Was He tired from creating the world? Hardly. Maybe it’s because the Sages wished to teach us that work is not an end in and of itself. To be healthy, to be free from the problems of earning a livelihood, we must have Shabbat as a day to renew our strength and spirits. Like the natives of Mrs. Cowman’s stories, we must have time to renew our spirits, to catch our breath and to become a living being once more. On Shabbat, God created the possibility of renewal, which, in turn, is one of the fundamental teachings of our faith.

The concept of the Shabbat is radical in many respects. For hundreds of years Jews, the ancient Greeks and Romans ridiculed the Jews for being lazy for resting on the Shabbat day. Yet, paradoxically, the Sabbath is perhaps one of ancient Israel’s greatest gifts to human history. While the Babylonians produced the ziggurats, and the Egyptians built the pyramids (No, the Israelites did not build the pyramids!), the Israelites introduced the concept of “holiness of time.”

The concept of rest is not just to members of the human family, the Ten Commandments insists that even animals rest on the Sabbath—how much more so should every person, whether Jew or Gentile! [1] In biblical psychology, even the earth itself possesses  a sentience just like human beings (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22; 25:2). In short, contrary to the view espoused by the behaviorists and the philosophers of positivism, man is infinitely more than a complex biological machine. According to Pharaoh, the Israelites were nothing more than animated tools, not much different from the bricks his slaves gathered. For Pharaoh, human beings live to produce–and nothing more. Continue reading “Rediscovering the Soul-Breath of the Sabbath”

Prof. Warren Zev Harvey endorses the new Genesis commentary

“A fascinating, learned, and wide-ranging commentary that creatively blends the  insights of ancients, medievals, moderns, and post-moderns.”
Prof. Warren Zev Harvey, [Chair, Department of Jewish Thought], The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Newest Endorsement of the “Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis” commentary

Hello everyone!

Professor Allan C. Emery is a Harvard graduate (Class of 1999), as well as the Senior Editor of Hendrickson Publishers.  Allan was gracious enough to write an endorsement for my new commentary on Genesis, which will be available to purchase by the end of February of 2010. The book will be about 530 pages. Due to the time constraints of Hendrickson Publishers, the proposed book could not be published within the next 2-3 years, so I decided to go with Llumina Press instead as my publisher.


A few reflections on Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Genesis 1–3)

It is a brave soul who will devote the time, study, and effort to devote a full-length book to exploring just three chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. As senior editor at a publishing house devoted to the subject of Biblical Studies, I am fully aware of this reality. But Rabbi Samuel has done just that and in doing so has brought forth a marvelous theological reflection on the opening chapters of Genesis. The first portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of the foundations of how best to understand and benefit from the study of Genesis 1–3 using imagination, the understandings of past theologians and philosophers, all the while taking advantage of the benefits of a postmodern approach to this ancient text. The second portion of the book is given to a phrase-by-phrase translation of the Hebrew and discussions as to various appropriate interpretations of these Hebrew texts. The third section, almost half of the entire book, provides thirty fascinating theological reflections on the contribution of these three chapters to matters of modern interpretive interest. These include such diverse issues as “The Nature of Biblical Interpretation,” “Romantic Theology: Creation Flows from Love,” “Time, Creation, and Theology,” “A Theological View of Evolution,” “Examining the Biblical Concept of ‘Dominion’,” “The Meaning of Clinging,” “The Serpent as a Psychological Metaphor,” and “Why Did God Create Evil? A Parable of the Zohar,” to name fewer than a quarter of them.

All this said, there is little question that both in Jewish and Christian theological circles, the opening conversation of the Scriptures and of the Pentateuch itself is understood by many scholars to be pivotal to theological reflection on the whole of revelation. Issues related to the place of humanity within the cosmos with its ecological implications, issues dealing with the present state of humankind with respect to various moral issues related to how we deal with one another, and serious thought about the proper way to approach all theological reflection, spring from these seminal chapters. The importance of these opening chapters of the Pentateuch has been understood by both Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Scriptures for most of two millennia. And Rabbi Samuels draws from the rich resources of their thinking throughout his own work with a genuine appreciation for what each tradition has brought to the fore.

While this is a book written by a rabbi well-versed in the rabbinic tradition, one cannot read more than a few pages to discover that his research, his interests, and his appreciation of critical thought span the centuries of both Jewish thought and Christian, while encompassing the best of the non-faith-bound philosophers of these same millennia. Buber, Kohen, Kung, Derrida, and many, many others all have something to contribute to the discussion of these three brief chapters and Rabbi Samuel is fearless in drawing on their works and their thinking in order to provoke his reader to leap beyond the well-worn paths of the past.

I am aware that this book is but an opening salvo of a larger work encompassing the whole of the Pentateuch. We look forward to hearing more from Rabbi Samuels in the years ahead.

Allan C. Emery III, PhD

December 10, 2009

Baseball and Bereshit: God Is A Baseball Fan!


Isn’t amazing that first parsha of the Torah, Berashit, always occurs during the baseball playoffs? Many years ago, when I was a young rabbinical student, I noticed this strange temporal anomaly that led me to the inevitable conclusion  that God is indeed, a baseball fan. Where do we derive this from the parsha? It states: “In the BIG INNING, God created the heavens and the earth,” A “Shabbat Berashit”—“A Shabbat of new beginnings.” After all the excitement of the High Holidays, comes the Shabbat once more

One of the famous questions asked in the Talmud is why did the Torah begin with the second letter of the Aleph Beth– the letter Beth? Why not begin the Torah with the letter Aleph instead?

The Talmudists answered, that the letter Aleph stands for arrur–a curse, whereas the letter Beth stands for bracha– a word signifying blessing. Surely it is better to begin the Torah with a bracha than a curse!

I have often found myself wondering, what kind of question is the Talmud asking in the first place. One could always ask why the Torah did not begin with one letter or another? Continue reading “Baseball and Bereshit: God Is A Baseball Fan!”

Marvin Wilson’s Foreword to the Birth and Rebirth through Genesis: The Timeless Theological Conversation

It is a personal delight to write this Foreword to Birth and Rebirth through Genesis. I have had the pleasure of knowing Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel for more than a decade. During this time we have spent dozens of hours discussing Torah together. In particular, I have greatly enjoyed my many conversations with Rabbi Samuel over his manuscript as he was finalizing his commentary and completing his edits. These interactions were always respectful as each would listen to the point being raised by the other. For me, a Christian professor of Hebrew Bible for more than four decades, each discussion with Rabbi Samuel proved stimulating, enlightening and very enriching. Personally, I became invigorated through these discussions as we would exchange exegetical comments, examine parallel passages, and compare and contrast classic and contemporary perspectives on the Torah.

One of the strengths of this commentary is the way it handles difficult and theologically diffuse passages. On most controversial passages, Rabbi Samuel presents alternative ways of understanding the text, thus allowing the reader to evaluate options and choose. In our personal discussions over the manuscript, our mutual respect for each other as well as our joint high regard for the text of Scripture always made these discussions very worthwhile and enjoyable learning experiences to me, as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

I believe that all who carefully read this book are in for a deeply rewarding experience. A study of the text and commentary of Birth and Rebirth through Genesis will contribute greatly to an understanding of the rich and diverse fabric of biblical narrative and provide an appreciation for its creative application to the problems of the modern world. In making the above observation, however, I am reminded there is yet a deeper point to be made, one powerfully illustrated by the following Hasidic story. Once, a relatively young talmid (disciple), with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, came up to his Rebbe. The disciple excitingly exclaimed, “Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that I have gone through the Talmud three times!” Sitting back and stroking his white beard, the Rebbe replied, “My son, the question is not how many times you have gone through the Talmud, but how many times the Talmud has gone through you.” Continue reading “Marvin Wilson’s Foreword to the Birth and Rebirth through Genesis: The Timeless Theological Conversation”

Etiologies in Genesis 1-3

Q. What is an etiology? What is its role in biblical literature? 

A. An etiology concerns itself with the study of causes and origins. As a philosophical investigation, the philosopher tries to understand the nature of existence and how it came to be. In Genesis for example, etiologies serve to explain the origin of a custom, an event, a name, a geographical formation, an object, a shrine, and so on. The first Jewish thinker to arrive at this was the 15th century Jewish thinker, R. Joseph Albo, who noted that the stories of the Edenic garden are meant to account for the difficulties of life that human beings experience.[1]

More often than not, etiologies[2] in the Tanakh correspond to a negative evaluation and many people throughout the ages have read the story of Genesis 3 as a justification for  why women must be subordinated to men. This is precisely the point of encounter where a modern reader must insist that while etiologies provide explanations for the causes and origins of a social attitude, they should not be read as prescriptions for how the world ought to be. To go one step further, many of these prescriptions characterize a world as it ought NOT to be.

Etiological explanations have their limitations, especially when ethical issues are involved; they should never prevent a person or a community from critically reexamining the basis of the etiological explanation’s internal logos. The failure to do so can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences. One example that comes to mind is the use of anesthetics in childbirth. In 1847, Church leaders quoted God’s curse to Eve: “in pain shall you bring forth children.” How could she fulfill the biblical punishment of bearing children in pain while being under the influence of chloroform? One wise doctor countered that scripturally, there was no harm in giving anesthetics to men, because God Himself put Adam into a deep sleep when He extracted his rib. However, the ecclesiastical bodies remained unconvinced when it came to the suffering of women who were in childbirth.[3]

Former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Immanuel Jakobovits writes in his Jewish Medical Ethics that as late as 1853, even before the discovery of anesthesia, there was an incident in France where two women—one pregnant and one who aided her with some artificial means to ease the pain of her delivery—were both burnt to death for attempting to circumvent Eve’s curse. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, chloroform was banned by the Catholic Church. The ban remained in effect until 1949, when painless births were permitted.[4] A society’s etiological explanations when left unanalyzed, can become a source for social dysfunction. There are broad implications that go beyond just the Edenic story, and a contemporary believer ought to take etiological explanations of any practice and hold them up to ethical scrutiny.

Lastly, in the Pseudepigraphal Book of Adam and Eve, the ancients propose a surprisingly sensitive reading of the text that demonstrates a willingness to deconstruct the text in a manner that is respectful toward women in general, and Eve in particular: “And he went and found her in great distress. And Eve said: ‘From the moment I saw thee, my lord, my grief-laden soul was refreshed. And now entreat the Lord God on my behalf to hearken unto thee and look upon me and free me from my awful pains.’ And Adam entreated the Lord for Eve.”[5]

[1] Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:11.

[2] Other etiologies include: the first act of Creation, the first day, the first week, the first Sabbath, the origins of marriage, menstruation, pregnancy, family dysfunction, the first dietary law, the first farmer and shepherd, the first conflict between the shepherd and a famer, the origin of sibling rivalry; the first fratricide, the first fugitive, the first city, the first ship-builder, the first natural catastrophe, and so on.

3] See Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, originally published by Appleton in 1896, reprinted in 1993 as part of the Great Minds Series by Prometheus Books, Vol. II, p. 60.

[4] Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1959), p. 104.

[5] Book of Adam and Eve 20.1.

Banning Women from Funerals?

Q. I read recently in the Jerusalem Post about a funeral that took place in the Yavneh cemetery, where the women were prohibited from walking near the graves, and one of the reasons given was because it “damages their wombs.” Another Orthodox woman said, “Due to the high rate of deaths of young people in Yavneh, the community undertook a vow not to approach the grave during a burial – and that would be the tikkun (healing) of Yavneh.”

A woman defending the custom, explained:

We implored the woman from the cemetery. We argued with her and amongst ourselves. In the meantime, some men were already returning from the burial. As they passed near us, they said we could approach the grave now since the burial had been completed. Yet the cemetery woman still refused and said, “It is not good for the departed. Don’t you understand? You are sinning against the dead. You are harming his soul” and with that she silenced us. She overwhelmed us. The father of my departed cousin is religious and some of the women said he might want us to obey these shocking orders. We did not want to endanger him or his son in any way in the world to come. So we stopped trying …) [Jerusalem Post, March 12, 2009]

What is the reason for this antiquated custom? Why is there an association between a woman’s menstruation and death? Can a woman serve as a pallbearer?

A. Great questions!

The Talmud in BT Sanhedrin 20a discusses funeral etiquette:

“Our Rabbis taught: Wherever it is customary for women to follow the bier, they may do so; to precede it, they may do so likewise. R. Judah said: Women must always precede the bier, for we find that David followed the coffin of Abner, as it is written, “And King David followed the bier” (2 Sam. 3:31). They the Rabbis said to him: ‘That was only to appease the people, and they were indeed appeased, for David went to and fro, from the men to the women and back from the women to the men, as it is written, So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it was not of the king to slay Abner’ ( 2 Sam. 3:37).

Ba’ale Tosfot cites two views from the Jerusalem Talmud regarding this Talmudic passage: one approach suggests the reason why women should not lead a funeral procession, because it was Eve, who introduced death to the world.[1] However, others contend that because of modesty, it became customary for men to lead the procession (which is contrary to the view expressed by R. Judah cited above).

There is a big difference whether the custom of women following the bier is because of modesty or whether it is attributed to Eve’s sin.

Now, the Zohar (ca. 12th century) complicates the discussion and adds an entirely new wrinkle to the above Talmudic discussion.

R. Simeon further said: ‘I swear to you that the majority of people do not die before their time, but only those who know not how to take heed to themselves. For at the time when a dead body is taken from the house to the place of burial the Angel of Death haunts the abodes of the women. Why of the women? Because that has been his habit since the time that he seduced Eve, through whom he brought death upon the world. Hence, when he takes a man’s life, and the males are accompanying the dead body, he mingles himself on the way among the women, and he has then the power to take the life of the sons of men. He looks on the way at the faces of those who come within his sight, from the time they carry the dead body out from his house to the place of burial until they return to their homes. It is on their account that he brings about the untimely death of many people. Regarding this it is written: “But there is that is swept away without justice” (Prov. 13:23). For he, the Angel of Death, ascends and brings accusations and recounts man’s sins before the Holy One, blessed be He, so that the man is brought to judgment for those sins, and is removed from the world before his time.

The Zohar now offers its own view of proper funeral etiquette:

What is the remedy against this? When the dead body is carried to the place of burial, a man should turn his face in another direction, and leave the women behind him. Should the latter pass in front he should turn round so as not to face them. Similarly, when they return from the place of burial he should not return by the way where the women are standing, and he should not look at them at all, but should turn a different way. It is because the sons of men do not know of this, and do not observe this, that the majority of people are brought up for judgment and are taken away before their time..[2]

The Zohar’s position ought to be fairly clear: all women must atone for Eve’s sin. The connection between menstruation and death has long been a part of Western religion, for among the punishments Eve receives in Genesis 3, according to rabbinic folklore, was the beginning of her menstrual cycle—all this is subsumed under the penalty “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” (Gen. 3:16) as noted by Seforno and Malbim in their biblical commentaries.  Women are thus viewed in early rabbinic tradition as being responsible for the presence of death in the world, and the menstrual cycle is a collective punishment all women must bear for a substantial part of their lives.

Kabbalists sometimes cite another verse in Scriptures that associates women with death, “Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave” (Proverbs 5:11)–as an allusion to Eve! For this reason, women are forbidden to serve as pallbearers among the Orthodox. Non-Orthodox brands of Judaism allow women to serve in this capacity.

R. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch rules that women should not participate in the procession to the grave, lest they bring harm to the world.[3] Rabbinical scholars like  the Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria[4], as well as the Vilna Gaon, urge women not to even enter a cemetery until they have gone to the mikveh (a ritual bath for purification).[5] According to Luria, the law applies no less to men who had sexual relations or a seminal emission as well, for they too, must immerse themselves in the mikveh since the demonic forces of evil are believed to cling to an individual who has not immersed.

The Kabbalah influences the Jewish legal system known as “Halachah” more than most people realize. Halachic authorities are divided whether this applies when the woman is counting her “seven clean days” after her menstrual bleeding has ceased. As a side note, some rabbis believe that a woman should not go to a synagogue while she is bleeding, but most authorities think it is permitted during her seven clean days.

As mentioned above, nowhere in the Talmud is there any mention at all of this custom. Jewish mysticism modifies the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and redirects the blame–to the women [men have been blaming women for the ills of the world since ancient times], who are believed to represent the incarnation of Eve. These mystics influenced the tradition, and that would explain why the incident in Yavneh created a ruckus.  Of course, this law, like many others, is rooted in classical misogyny. To our regret, sexism retains an honored place in the Zohar and for those who admire the study of the Kabbalah, it is imperative we realize that its authors had feet of clay, and were indeed men of their age. The Zohar is far from being an inerrant work of religious literature.

In the spirit of speculation, I would add that customs, such as this one, may have a basis in something tragic that occurred in a Jewish community long ago. Perhaps a pregnant woman attended a funeral one day, and she miscarried while she was standing in front of a grave. The horror of such an awful experience might have left the community in a state of trauma, and as Kabbalists and rabbis tried to find a connection between the events (the funeral and the miscarriage).[6]

Lastly, the term “kever” (that typically means “grave”), but may also signify uterus and womb.[7] This could partially explain basis for the Zohar and subsequent Lurianic custom about women not entering a cemetery in a funeral procession.

[1] Tosfot, s.v. Nashim – Sanhedrin 20a.

[2] II Zohar 196a-b.

[3] YD 359:1-2.

[4] Cited in the Magane Avraham O.H. 559, s.k. 19.

[5] Cited in the Pitechei Teshuvah Y.D. 119 , s.k. 119.

[6] Of course the idea that women are responsible for the evil and death of the world derives from texts that are even more ancient than the Talmud or Midrash, e.g., Sirach 15:24,25:24; Life of Adam and Eve 44:2; Apocalypse of Moses 14;2. Long before the Zohar or Kabbalah was a twinkle in some rabbi’s eye, generations of people attributed the evils and problems of the world to women; subsequent rabbinical tradition only confirmed a belief that amounts to an early Judaic version of Original Sin that eventually influenced Christianity.

[7] For an illustration of this concept, the Talmud in tractate Nidah 21a raises the question whether it is possible for the uterus to open without bleeding, see also Even Shoshan Hebrew Dictionary s.v. “kever.”