Bad Girls of the Bible and Beyond

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Anyone who really knows the Bible, probably knows that it is a book that is full of sexual themes—from one end of Tanakh to the other. Lot sleeps with his daughters; Reuben’s affair with his stepmother Bilhah, and the biblical version of Romeo and Juliet are evident in the Shechem and Dinah story. Rabbi Burt Visotzky candidly called the Bible “one ugly soap-opera” and while I do not agree with his sweeping characterization, I will admit that human sexuality plays a dramatic role in many of the biblical stories.  We certainly know about the exploits of Madame Potiphar and Joseph—a story that tantalized the imagination of many young teenage yeshiva students. Then there are the sexual exploits of King David, who like Bill Clinton, found it hard to resist the temptations of feminine beauty and strength. He never met a beautiful woman he didn’t desire or want. Rabbinic literature feasts upon stories involving Adam’s first wife, Lilith, a marriage that ended horribly, resulting in the world’s first divorce.

Temptation, seduction, and yielding to the flame of sexuality is basic to the biblical psyche.

You might be surprised to know that prostitutes in the Bible are actually sympathetic personalities; some of them have been known to be quiet brave and heroic at times. This revelation might come across as peculiar and strange to many people in the Jewish and Christian communities.

  1. TAMAR

In the Book of Genesis, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, who waited for her father-in-law to provide her with a brother to perform the levirate marriage. After losing two of his other sons, Judah felt reluctant to give Tamar his third son, Shelah. After Shelah grew older, it became clear to Tamar that she would have to take matters into her own hands, and she laid a trap for her single father-in-law Judah, one which he fell hook, line, and sinker. She dresses up as a prostitute and makes an offer that Judah could not refuse; for the price of a goat (goats are very popular in the Genesis stories), she would be his for the night. After consummating the deal, she mysteriously disappears. Soon she discovers she is pregnant, and so do the people of Judah’s family. Tamar anticipated her father-in-law’s moral duplicity, and she announces she has evidence that will completely exonerate her innocence. Confronted by the truth, Judah had no choice but to admit he was at fault.

Tamar emerged as the ancestress of the House of David.

  1. RAHAB

One of the most famous cases involved espionage. Two Israelite spies are looking to find out how to conquer the Canaanite people. A prostitute named Rahab, aids and abets both these strangers, whose mere presence set the local Canaanite peoples ill-at-ease. Although she risked her life saving them, it was not without strings attached—“red strings,” you might say. She exacts a promise that the invading Israelite armies will not harm her or her family in any manner. Although the people of Jericho would meet a violent death, her family would be spared.

Before the spies left, they instructed her to leave a red cord hanging down from the window through which they had escaped. The “dangling red cord” would be a visible cord for the Israelite soldiers to keep their distance.

According to the Talmud, Joshua married Rahab (BT Ta’anit 20a) thus becoming an ideal proselyte and was also considered one of the four most beautiful women (with Sarah, Abigail, and Esther) and one of the four most seductive (with Ruth, Jael, and Michal). In one of the more bizarre passages in the Talmud,

Rabbi Isaac said, “Whosoever repeats the name “Rahab, Rahab” experiences an orgasm.  Then  R. Nahman replied, “I have repeated it and was not in any way affected.” R. Isaac replied: I speak only of one who knew her intimately and recalls a woman in her likeness.” I suspect Sigmund Freud would have had a field day psychoanalyzing both of these rabbis.  Freud spent much of his career analyzing men who struggle with sexuality and often view women either as debased whores or as saintly individuals.

The famous Madonna-Whore archetype captures the contradictory waves of male uncertainty, who desires a woman who is as virtuous as a Madonna, but as sinful as a whore in the bedroom. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he distrust despises and devalues the latter group. The Talmudic rabbis like men in general probably felt uneasy about both these tensions, and therefore transformed sexually free women like Rehab, Tamar into virtuous women.

  1. Gomer

The third story involving prostitute involved a prophet and God. God tells the prophet Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife. The woman he marries is Gomer. There is scarcely a rabbinic commentary that accepts this reading at face value. Rashi, for example, sounds more like Maimonides and says that the story occurred only in a prophetic vision. The scandalous implications of a pious prophet marrying a “fallen” woman probably not only entertained the listeners and readers of this story, Gomer became a metaphor for the Jewish people—who went astray by worshiping other gods. Thus, idolatry and adultery—two similar sounding words, though different seemed to have a common thematic ethical message. Gomer became a symbol of penitence.

  1. Mary Magdalene

In Christian tradition, one of Jesus’ most favorite disciples was the mysterious Mary Magdalene, whom many scholars believe might have been the wife of Jesus. Curiously, three gospel narratives mention her as the only witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Four gospel narratives say she was present at Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Whether she or some other woman might have been a prostitute who might have had a similar first name remains unclear. But in the popular imagination—especially as fueled by the Jesus Christ Super Star production, many Christians like depicting Mary Magdalene has a fallen woman who repented.

As you can see, prostitutes have fared remarkably well in the biblical canon—both for Jews and for Jews.

Why am I mentioning all of this?

Partly because the archetypes of “Bad Girls” of the Bible are psychologically alive in modern society—especially in the way men perceive feminine sexuality.

Against this backdrop, when the country watched the Stormy Daniels interview on the Sixty Minutes program, the once well-known lady of porn probably made some Christian people think of other women like her from the Bible. Her alleged relationship with Candidate Donald Trump over ten years ago shows that our society’s fascination with prostitutes still remains a permanent part of the Americana political landscape.

We all know that Donald Trump is a challenged person in many ways, but what he did ten years ago really doesn’t concern me. I am only interested in how he is doing his job now as President. 

Time will tell whether Stormy’s allegations will have any meaningful impact on President Trump, but based on the sexual exploits of President Clinton and Kennedy, it is doubtful. Unfortunately, powerful men often succumb to desire.

Just ask King David.

The Talmud itself says, the greater a person, the greater their temptation for the forbidden is. This theme runs like a current of electricity in the pages of the Bible itself. Human behavior being what it does not change—unless one is willing to learn wisdom from temptation and desire.

The biblical stories teach us a valuable lesson, namely, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

You Shall not Covet: Is it Possible to Legislate a Feeling? Part 1.

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From Maimonides’ description, it is clear that the man who covets is someone who has an unhealthy soul and may not realize it. By being unconscious of this problem, his behavior embarks on a path of self-destruction and moral ruin. Based on this reading of Maimonides, it becomes clear the role of Nathan the Prophet played in confronting King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). From a purely Maimonidean perspective, Nathan acted as a physician of the soul for David by prescribing him a regimen for David’s complete moral and spiritual rehabilitation. It is always intriguing to see how Maimonides’ exposition of coveting compares with other famous Judaic thinkers of history. Some of these scholars also examined the psychological component in the negative imperative “You shall not covet.” Yet, it is strange Maimonides did not illustrate his point by mentioning this famous biblical story!

Abraham Ibn Ezra: Now I shall present a parable: Know that a peasant who is of sound mind, and who sees a princess who is beautiful, will not covet her in his heart, to lie with her, for he knows that it is impossible. Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible. Likewise, a person does not desire to lie with his mother, although she may be beautiful, for he has been accustomed since his youth to know that she is forbidden to him.

In the same way, an intelligent person must know that he will not find a beautiful woman or wealth because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if God allows it to him… and therefore an intelligent person does not desire it or covet it. When he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, then she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. Therefore, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”[1]

Philo of Alexandria: While Philo‘s explanation is similar to Maimonides, but he expands much further on the proscription’s psychological aspects:

This commandment aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this proscription. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[2]

The law here aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this restriction. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[3]



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.

Reflections on the Iranian Uprising in 2018: The Silence of Liberals and Feminists

 

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Most of us are aware that the Islamic leaders of Iran have blocked all forms of social media, yet images continue to flow across the Muslim Curtain of Iran. By far the boldest symbol of the people’s revolt are the images of Iranian women taking off their hijabs, staring silently and defiantly. These brave women risk getting tortured and beaten by Iran’s Phallicratic State—while Western feminism reveals the depth of their apathy and indifference to their sisters who are fighting for the same human rights they enjoy in the West.

Yet, the silence has been deafening.

Instead of promoting war against other nations, in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, the Iranian government must invest in its people. “Death to the Ayatollah! Death to Hezbollah—music to Israel’s ears.

The European Union has been dead silent; Canada has been silent. Most liberals in our county has been silent. Facebook and Twitter have no unfrozen the accounts shut down by the Mullahs. Their silence is complicity.

Most interestingly, the Obama cabinet—including Obama himself has been dead silent. Their silence reminds me of 2009, the time of the first Green Revolution that was spurred on because of obvious election fraud. I remember thinking that this development posed the first major international test for the newbie President elect. I wanted to see whether he was capable of rising to the defense of the oppressed marching in the streets of Tehran.

And the reaction was that of complete silence. Yes, we walked down that road before. A real statesman who believed in freedom and democracy would have done so much more—our ambassador to the U.N., said and did nothing. The rest of the world followed in goosestep. The Iranian Secret Police took lots of names, arrested, tortured, and murdered thousands of the dissidents, as President Obama attempted to rehabilitate Iran’s international image to the Western world.

On Jan. 16th, 1979, Jimmy Carter acted no differently, as he paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini to seize the reigns of power. One would be hard pressed to find another example of ineptitude of American foreign policy until the dynamic duo of Barak Obama and John Kerry in 2016. The Iranian mullahs made their intentions known, as our presidents—Democrat and Republican alike—adopted a supine position, or more precisely, the traditional Muslim position of submission.

The Italian journalist Oriana Falachi, in her autobiography met with the Ayatollah Khomeini, and she had her lovely nails polished in red just the other day as she prepared for the famous meeting. The aid to the Ayatollah warned her, if she did not remove the polish from her fingers, the Ayatollah would have her fingers chopped—yes, I said, “chopped” off for being so immodestly dressed. This was a dreadful experience she never forgot. Ayatollah Khomeini was known to have his thugs cut off women’s breasts in his country if they wore a low-cut blouse.

Within hardly a wink of an eye, Khomeini moved swiftly to impose sharia. In March 1979, the new government issued a decree mandating that women must wear the hijab whenever they ventured outside, on pain of arrest. This was not without a harsh reaction. On March 8 that year, over 100,000 women, took to the streets of Iran to protest against this — to no avail, of course. The hijab became the most visible symbol of the totalitarian sharia backwater that the Islamic Republic of Iran became.

Yet, in our great country, the politicians and outside lobbyists did their best to make the hijab a thing of beauty. Now, in 2016, I am proud that my President and his cabinet are doing their best to cheer and support the Iranian women. Nikey Haley’s speech in the United Nations,

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley praised Iranian protesters Tuesday, adding that the US is seeking emergency meetings with the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding Iran.

·         “The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” Haley said. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

 ·         “This is the precise picture of a long oppressed people rising up against their dictators. The international community has a role to play on this. The freedoms that are enshrined in the United Nations charter are under attack in Iran,” she said. “If the Iranian dictatorships history is any guide, we can expect more outrageous abuses in the days to come. The UN must speak out.”

Haley continued: “We must not be silent. The people are crying out for freedom. All freedom loving people must stand with their cause. The international community made the mistake of failing to do that in 2009. We must not make that mistake again.”

I am so proud of how Israelis are offering their moral support on the Internet.

I suspect that Obama is afraid to speak out on behalf of the people, because he went out of his way to praise the current Iranian regime when he concluded his nuclear-arms agreement with Iran, as the Iranians mused how spineless the United States had become.

Whether you like Trump or not, history will remember him well for standing up to the rogue state and for its oppressed people.

Shaking the Foundations of Orthodoxy with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

My history with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin goes all the way back to 1977. He visited a Hillel Academy in Binghamton, New York, where I  taught Talmud many decades ago. At the time, I knew he was already a well-respected rabbi who had brought many Jews back to Judaism when he served as the founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Rabbi Riskin has often  taken considerable heat from the Orthodox establishment, which always criticizes the maverick Modern Orthodox rabbi’s controversial positions. Even as we speak, the Israeli Rabbinate is mulling over the question whether to expel Rabbi Riskin from the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate. Rabbi Riskin approves the ordination of women and allows them to participate in public prayer. He also advocates the use of prenuptial agreements and other halachic leniencies to deal with recalcitrant husbands. He has also gone on record supporting the legalization of civil marriage in Israel. He has a positive view of Jesus and even favors dialogue with Christian groups.

Sound like heresy to you? You betcha!

In a recent column, he is encouraging the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to welcome the Reform and Conservative movements of Israel in the spirit of goodwill and reconciliation.

Riskin argues that today’s Orthodoxy ought to respect the Reform and Conservative movement because they are trying their best to promote Judaism and Jewish practices, “They’re not tearing Jews away but bringing them closer… That may have been true at the beginning of the Reform Movement, but it’s very different now – they’re trying to bring Jews closer. Not to the wholeness, the fullness of Orthodox Judaism that I love and that I know, but nevertheless, they’re trying to bring Jews closer.”

I believe Riskin is correct. The warfare thesis that has characterized the Orthodox movement since the 19th century needs to end. As Riskin observed, “they are not our enemies, they’re our partners!” I believe Riskin is making a valuable point. More specifically, Riskin sees nothing wrong with Reform or Conservative Jews use the mikveh (a ritual pool) as a way of enhancing their observance of Jewish values in their lives.

Unfortunately, others see this matter differently.

R. Avraham Gordimer, who serves as the OU Rabbinic Coordinator/Dairy Specialist at the OU, Chairman of the OU Dairy Committee, wrote a stinging critique concerning Riskin’s inclusive view of welcoming non-Orthodox as our partners in faith. Gordimer is a well-known writer and exponent of Modern Orthodoxy who leans to the right of Riskin.

Gordimer thinks that Modern Orthodox Judaism is threatened by many of the innovations Riskin proposes to do—especially in the area of women rabbis, all of which, “flies in the face of normative Torah understanding.” Furthermore, Gordimer contends, “Theologically, the Reform and Conservative (as well as the Reconstructionist) movements reject the Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah and the other Cardinal Principles of Faith, and they have disavowed the binding nature of halakha.”

Orthodox rabbis like Gordimer love characterizing Jewish theology as though it were a monolithic structure—uniform, seamless, and without wrinkles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Many of the greatest medieval rabbis grappled whether God possessed a humanoid form (Moshe Taku) , or whether the Torah speaks in the language of metaphor (Philo, Maimonides, HaLevy). Some of the medieval scholars grappled whether we must believe in a physical resurrection or merely a spiritual resurrection where the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity, or is reincarnated into another human body—as the Kabbalists believed.

And yes, many of the Sages believed that Moses did not write the entire Torah—especially the last several verses that narrate his death (Menachot 30a). Do these discrepancies in Judaic belief make us “heretics” (“kofrim”)? Judaism has always stressed that our faith is predicated upon deeds rather than creeds. Christian theology, in contrast, considers itself a religion of creeds rather than deeds. Belief is essential for Christian salvation, as Pascal articulated in his famous wager.

Perhaps what is most disturbing here is the attitude that the “conservative” wing of Modern Orthodoxy is threatening to bifurcate its own ranks because of its zero-sum theology. The Talmud often said, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah follows the school of Hillel” (BT Eruvim 13b).

Today’s Orthodox movement has trouble even mentioning a famous early 20th century thinker like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, because he believed that the theory of evolution is compatible with Judaic thought. His name no longer appears on the OU website. Orthodoxy is becoming increasingly narrower in how it views the world. If Orthodoxy cannot find peace within its own ranks, it will never find peace outside its ranks. Progressive thinkers such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin are an anathema to men like R. Avraham Gordimer.

This morning on Facebook, I discussed this topic with a number of scholars. I reminded them what the Talmud teaches us in tractate Shabbat about a famous story regarding Hillel.

  • At another time,  it happened a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’

Similar stories occur with other potential proselytes—neither of whom would ever be accepted in today’s world of Orthodoxy. Yet, Hillel’s optimism triumphs, Sometime later, the three proselytes met in one place; said they, Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah.

The Talmud concludes elsewhere with another remarkable anecdote about why Jewish law follows Hillel and not Shammai:

  • R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years, the Academies of Hillel and Shammai engaged in debate over the Halacha [matters pertaining to Jewish Law]. Each academy claimed the law should be determined in accordance their school’s interpretation. Finally, a Heavenly Voice ruled, “Both views are the words of the living God, but the halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the Academy of Hillel.” Why were Hillel’s Academy more preferable over Shammai’s? Hillel’s Academy acted with kindness and compassion. They would first take into consideration Shammai’s halachic deliberations before arriving at their own conclusions . . . From this we may deduce the following lesson in ethics: He who humbles himself, the Holy Blessed One raises up the humbled. However, the one who seeks greatness will soon discover how elusive greatness is, for greatness flees from those who seek it . . . (BT Eruvin 13b)

As we approach the period of the Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the Temple, it behooves us to remember that it is not what we argue about that matters—it is how and why we argue that is of great importance. Orthodoxy needs to make peace first within itself, before it can make peace with the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is a hero and he deserves our respect for his moral courage.

When the Complexities of Life Converge with Jewish Tradition

 

 One of the best-known blessings Orthodox Jews recite every day is the blessing, “Thank you God for not making me a woman.”

The recent transformation on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 22-page cover story featuring Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, raises a number of fascinating questions pertaining to Halacha as well as Jewish ethics.

To begin with, persons wishing to undergo transsexual surgery are a minority—in fact one per million men and even less with regard to women. Historically, such surgery began in Europe in the 1930s and in the United States in the 1960s.

Historically, the subject of the saris (eunuch) is recorded about forty times in the Tanakh. Ancient societies often positioned the eunuch as court officials, military commanders, and other positions of high authority (Gen. 37:36; 2 Kgs. 9:32; 25:19; Esther 1:10). In the case of Potiphar, he was married—and his status as  a eunuch probably became the principle reason Madam Potiphar fooled around when he wasn’t looking (see Gen. 39ff.).

Traditional Judaic texts raise a number of issues involved:

  • The prohibition against castration pertains to human beings and animals (Lev. 22:24; cf. BT Shabbat 110b-111a)
  • The prohibition against wounding or crushing genitalia of any person wishing to enter the Jewish community (Deut. 23:2).
  • The prohibition against cross-dressing, which would some scholars argue includes acting like someone of the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5).

Superficially, castrating or neutering an animal is prohibited in the Torah—and this applies no less to human beings.[1] The fundamental proof text derives from the Scriptural text, “He did not create it as a chaos, but to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). However, we should note that many people—including homosexuals and transgendered people can raise children to fulfill the precept of procreation, much like a heterosexual couple can if one is medically unable to sire or bear children.

According to the 13th century anonymous author of the famous Sefer HaChinuch:

  • The Creator blessed all living beings, to be fruitful and multiply, and even commanded the male of the species of the human on this, that it might endure. Without this imperative, a species would eventually die, as would all of its kind. Therefore, if anyone who destroys the procreative organs of generation, demonstrates that this person cannot tolerate the work of the Creator and desires the destruction of God’s good world.”[2]

If a man underwent such a surgery, would he have to grant his wife a religious divorce?

This question applies no less to performing the levirate marriage, which is now effectively been made null and void.

Traditionalist also wonder “Is intimacy with a transsexual permitted or not?’

In the case of a woman who undergoes the procedure, is she obliged to observe ritual circumcision?

Already, in Israel a practical question arose: A transsexual Jew was prohibited from praying with men in the men’s section, as well as in the women’s section! If Caitlyn were visiting Israel, which section would she attend services at the Western Wall?

In short, some Halachic scholars think that appearance is the driving issue here; ergo, if a man undergoes this procedure, then he is now exempt from performing all the precepts that are traditionally incumbent upon men.  One notable Orthodox scholar who makes this point was Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who served as a judge in the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. [3]

Of course other scholars differ and think that the transsexual surgery does not impact the halacha in any meaningful way.—Caitlyn  is still considered “Bruce” in terms of fulfilling his manly obligations. According to this perspective, human sexuality is something that is fixed and rigid.[4]  Most notably, Rabbi David Bleich’s views offers a sober exposition of the more conservative Halacha perspective:

  • The commandment, “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5)  is not limited to the wearing of apparel associated with the opposite sex but encompasses any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, proscribing, for example, shaving of armpits or dyeing of hair by a male.” In this vein, “a procedure designed to transform sexual characteristics violates the very essence of this prohibition.”[5]

One must always keep in mind that among many Orthodox scholars the maintenance of the patriarchal order is one of the most important principles that define masculine power in the Orthodox Jewish community. When a person willfully undergoes such a procedure, the act is often perceived as a serious threat to masculine power. In the Muslim community, this same attitude exists as well.

In short, it is intriguing to note that in Jewish tradition, answers come and go, but a good question is an eternal constant. Some of the questions we discussed here in this brief article may be a good case in point. In any event, personal choices like this question are ultimately a matter of personal conscience–and each person must be true to him or herself. In any event, Jewish ethics demands that we never embarrass or shame any human being–which applies no less to transgendered  men and women.

As society continues to change, it is this writer’s view that Halachic responses will continue to evolve with time.

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Notes:

[1] See BT Sanhedrin 56b.

[2] Sefer HaHinnukh, No. 291.

[3] Tzitz Eliezer 2:78.

[4] R. Moshe Steinberg, Assia Vol. 1., p. 144; Nishmat Avraham Even HaEzer 44:3.

[5] David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (  New York: KTAV & Yeshiva University Press) Vol. 1 – Page 100

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Brandeis University’s Moral Cowardice (revised)

 

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One of the most important feminists fighting for women’s rights in the Islamic world is a woman named Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This remarkable woman was born in Somalia where she was raised as a Muslim. She spent her youth and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, her life took a radically new direction. She escaped from a forced marriage to a distant cousin and traveled to the Netherlands.

While she was there, she learned Dutch and worked as an interpreter in the abortion clinics and shelters for battered women. She went on to earn a college degree in political science.  The September 11 terrorist attacks convinced her she could no longer identify as a Muslim. Now she fights for Muslim women everywhere; she has been an ardent critic of Islamic extremism.

This past week, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to confer an honorary doctorate degree because of her strident views of Islam as a religion. Ironically, as one think-tank named Fear Inc., observes, “One of Al Qaeda’s greatest recruitment and propaganda tools is the assertion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims — an argument that is strengthened every day by those who suggest all Muslims are terrorists and all those practicing Islam are jeopardizing U.S. security.”

In one interview with she told Reason Magazine,  “There is no moderate Islam. … There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”

The Brandeis University leadership criticized her for not differentiating between Radical Islam and Moderate Islam. Given her experiences in the Muslim world, which forcibly removed her clitoris when she was a child, it is not hard to see why she feels the way she does.

The decision to withdraw the honorary degree completely surprised her. She wrote:

•        ” Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

•         “When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So, I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

•        ”What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.[1]

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While I can understand Brandeis University’s withdrawal of the honor, it seems to me that it was still wrong to do so for many reasons. For one thing, the time to do the research on her background was before Brandeis offered it to her in the first place. For a stellar educational institution like Brandeis University, the time for doing due diligence is before it decided to honor her—not after. Since this was not properly done, the ethical thing is to confer the honor and learn from this “mistake” for the future.

Secondly, this woman is a heroine despite her atheistic attitudes about religion. Her community work has brought to light some very ghastly problems that we in the West must confront the Muslim community with so that they will issue fatwas and take a stronger moral stand against these hideous practices. Shaming her before the entire world was cruel as it was unnecessary.

Secular Muslims, or, people who have renounced Islam as a religion, have every right to express an opinion that runs contrary to the guardians of CAIR. In the intellectual history of the West, we have seen many great figures of history, e.g., Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud criticize religion for its many moral failures. If these men were alive today, would Brandeis University refuse to listen to their criticism of Islam (or any faith for that matter)? Who can forget Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses; his brilliant literary work earned him a death fatwa from Muslim fanatics.

If I were Rushdie, I sure would like to know: “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

If I were a Muslim woman being stoned to death in Iran after being raped, I would sure want to know, “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

Is Hirsi Ali correct about Moderate Islam being non-existent?  I, for one, hope she is wrong. I have known a number of outstanding moderate Muslim leaders with whom I have done many interfaith programs with over the years. Unfortunately, they have only a marginal presence in the news. This is not necessarily their fault; the media in our country prefers to portray the extremists more than the moderates.

The international Muslim community can only benefit from the critics who will not accept the blatant sexism that is harming women in their society. If women’s liberation is good for the West and its religions, it is especially important for the Muslim countries where women are terrorized on a daily basis.

Rushdie and other outspoken secular Arabs or former Muslims have every right to speak their truth. The leadership at Brandeis refuses to treat atheistic thinkers with a modicum of respect. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ibn Warraq are among a few of the luminaries who mince no words about what is wrong with religion—especially as it pertains to today’s decadent form of Radical Islam.  While I do not agree with the atheistic belief system, I do believe atheists today offer a wonderful critique of what is wrong with organized religion today.

Is Hirsi Ali an extremist? Hardly, this woman has received international awards from numerous liberal and conservative organizations. Here is a partial list, as compiled from Wikipedia:

•         •         Denmark: awarded the Freedom Prize of Denmark’s Liberal Party (20 November 2004), “for her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women.”

•         •         From the European Union: Voted European of the Year for 2006 by the European editors of Reader’s Digest magazine. At a ceremony in The Hague on 23 January, Hirsi Ali accepted this award from EU Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes.[118]

•         •          Belgium: awarded the Prize of Liberty by Nova Civitas, a classical liberal think tank in the Low Countries (January 2004).

•         •          Germany: She received the civilian prize Glas der Vernunft Kassel, Germany. The organization rewarded her with this prize for her courage in criticizing Islam (1 October 2006).

•         •          Netherlands: given the Harriet Freezerring Emancipation Prize by Cisca Dresselhuys, editor of the feminist magazine Opzij (25 February 2005).

•         •          Norway: awarded the annual European Bellwether Prize by the Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service. According to HRS, Hirsi Ali is “beyond a doubt, the leading European politician in the field of integration. (She is) a master at the art of mediating the most difficult issues with insurmountable courage, wisdom, reflectiveness, and clarity” (June 2005).

•         •         Sweden: awarded the annual Democracy Prize of the Swedish Liberal People’s Party “for her courageous work for democracy, human rights and women’s rights.” She received the prize at a ceremony at the Swedish Riksdag from the party leader Lars Leijonborg (29 August 2005)

•         •         United States: listed by Time Magazine amongst the 100 Most Influential Persons of the World. She was put in the category “Leaders & Revolutionaries” (18 April 2005).

•         •         United States: accepted the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee (4 May 2006).

•         United States: given the Goldwater Award for 2007 from the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, at a dinner attended by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Rep. John Shadegg (R-Arizona), and Steve Forbes (7 December 2007).

•         United States: Won the Richard Dawkins Prize (2008), by the Atheist Alliance International.

Contrary to what CAIR would like you to believe, Hirsi Ali is a champion respected by much of the Western world. Her goal of “defeating Islam” refers to those fanatics who have harmed and threatened innocent lives. She envisions a peaceful Islam but demands a full-scale reformation of the religion. Hirsi Ali has never advocated genocide or violence against Muslims. Her words pertain to the extremists and their enablers, such as CAIR, an organization that has long supported Hamas. Like many of today’s “New Atheists,” she believes religion is part of the problem and we need to break people of its spell. That means, among other things, getting people away from the literal words in the Koran.

Brandeis University owes this great woman an apology.

Creating an Inner Space for God to Dwell

 

 As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed.

The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.

In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.

Visual Aids for Hassidim in Prayer

 Hasidim praying opposite Victoria's Secret 112-2013

 

Hassidic literature teaches that one of the reasons given for Hassidim swaying in prayer is based upon the analogy of the movement that occurs in the act of love making. Prayer is like  “making love to the Shekhinah.” The Baal Shem Tov  is purported to have taught:

  • Prayer is zivug (coupling) with the Shechinah.’ Just as there is motion at the beginning of coupling, so, too, one must move (sway) at the beginning of prayer. Thereafter one can stand still, without motion, attached to the Shechinah with great deveikut (“cleaving to God As a result of your swaying, you can attain great bestirment. For you think to yourself: “Why do I move myself? Presumably it is because the Shechinah surely stands before me.” This will effect in you a state of great hitlahavut (enthusiasm; rapture). [1]

This morning I saw a picture of three  Hassidic Jews praying in front of a Victoria Secret Lingerie store [2] that made me think about this teaching. Yes, these men certainly seemed devout and seriously engaged in prayer. I would imagine that these Hasidim probably felt they needed some visual aid to have this type of experience and close encounter as described by the Baal Shem Tov. [Incidentally, this type of erotic/mystical teaching has very strong Sabbatean  quality. The false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1672) was famous for his free love and ritual fornication, incestuous sexual relations and ritual orgies that he and his followers had during the Purim holidays.]

Any normal person watching this spectacle might wonder: Are these Hassidim so lost in prayer that they are totally oblivious to their environment?

The answer is simple: They are much more consciously aware of where they are praying. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, such behavior represents the shadow archetype.

As defined by Jung, the archetype of the “shadow” represents the hidden or unconscious aspects of oneself—both good and bad—which the ego either represses or never recognizes, as he notes, “The shadow is the thing a person has no wish to be.”[3] The more unaware we are about this darker and amoral side, the less likely we will mindfully confront and change our inner nature. To become self-aware, it is imperative that each of us find a way to integrate our “shadow” nature. This spiritual and psychological task is not without its challenges and difficulties, as Jung explains further:

 

  • The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the darker aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the real existential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[4]

 

An extreme example of shadow archetype can be seen in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this classic narrative, Dr. Jekyll, considers himself to be a kind, loving, and accepting doctor; yet he remains dishonest in facing himself as he really is. Little does he realize that there are two men who inhabit the same body and personality. At first, he changes in order to indulge in all the forbidden pleasures that were off-limits to Dr. Jekyll, but as his evil side progressively grows stronger, it is Hyde who dominates, until he is totally transformed into the Hyde persona. Had Jekyll been aware of the contradictions in his inner self, he might have been more capable of domesticating his inner savage. Continue reading “Visual Aids for Hassidim in Prayer”

Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and the American Collective Unconscious

After some reluctance, I decided it was important for me to weigh in on the Duck Dynasty controversy involving Phil Robertson and his off-the-cuff remarks regarding gays and African Americans. Robertson’s equation of homosexuality to bestiality is incorrect. The biblical passages dealing with homosexuality pertain to (1) homosexual rape, or (2) the sexual exploitation of male minors. The Bible has nothing to say about loving homosexual couples whatsoever. Such a social reality did not exist by the time the Bible was written.

“If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13). Note that the text does not say “if a male lies with a man …” I believe this is one of the first statements in the Torah against pedophilia.

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion. ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you” (Leviticus 18:22-24.) This passage is reminiscent of what the Sodomites attempted to do to Lot’s angelic guests when he practiced hospitality. Such sexually exploitative behavior is indeed an “abomination.”

Phil Robertson is not a Bible scholar; he interprets the Bible literally like millions of Christians do. It is this writer’s opinion that people are entitled to believe what they wish when it comes to the  Bible. We do not have to agree or accept their interpretations.

Personally, I do not care for the Religious Right and their Christian agenda for America—especially whenever it involves the likes of Sarah Palin and her ilk. In my opinion, people like her give a bad name to conservatives and independents. The political left is actually making Robertson into a folk-hero. I think the religious right ought to think twice about making Robertson into one of their patron saints.

Secondly, I have never watched Duck Dynasty, nor do I have any plans for watching the redneck program in the future. Reality shows like Duck Dynasty and Jerry Springer have no appeal for me whatsoever.

What concerns me is the matter of free speech in our culture. The ACLU blog says it really best:

  • The First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes. You don’t need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated. You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive — because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress, and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that.[1]

Curiously, the ACLU has declined to weigh in on this topic, and frankly, that is surprising.

Some advocates of the A&E station claim that Robertson may have materially harmed the station with his comments from the Bible condemning homosexuality or his nostalgic memories for the Jim Crow era. I think the producers of the station should have apologized and announce that Robertson’s view about gays and blacks does not reflect the view of the station. Instead, they censored him—but they are having a holiday marathon of the Duck Dynasty program. It seems to me that they are attempting to profit from the publicity and that is immoral.

A&E’s behavior is more ethically problematic and cynical.

Most of us (I hope) strongly dislike Phil Robertson’s comments. However, when we consider his personal narrative, what else would we expect  from an American redneck? Clearly Robertson is not Yale or Harvard material.

Noam Chomsky once said, “The freedom of speech is worthless without the freedom of offensive speech. Goebbels and Himmler were for freedom of speech that was inoffensive to the state.”

Fortunately, the State is not involved in this controversy, but it seems to me that Robertson has every right to sound like a moron if he so chooses. We also have the choice not to watch his program either. As a member of the ACLU, I am reasonably certain that the ACLU would agree with my position.

One gay writer offered the following defense of Robertson:

  • Phil Robertson is the modern day Archie Bunker. He should make us uncomfortable. We should be disturbed by the show’s narrow gender views, flagrant gun worship and open hatred of anything refined and cultured. This doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining or relevant. It’s funny precisely because it challenges some of our sacred beliefs and relevant because it confronts our opposing ideals of masculinity.[2] Continue reading “Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and the American Collective Unconscious”

Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life

(Picture: Madam Turnus Rufus probably looked something like Hedy Lamaar!)

One of the most illustrious sages of the Talmudic era is Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (ca.40-ca.137 CE). His life-story has inspired many legends and in many ways Rabbi Akiva’s approach to the interpreting the biblical text has become the foundation for many of the mystical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. For R. Akiba, the Torah is a love letter from God; every scintilla of the biblical text contains esoteric meanings.

According to legend, Akiba began as a humble and ignorant shepherd. When he was 40 years old, his life took an unexpected turn. According to one ancient tradition, Rabbi Akiba observed how water-droplets had formed a hole through a stone. He mused, ‘If water could leave an imprint on a stone, then surely the words of Torah can penetrate my heart as well.”

A Love Story for the Ages: Rachel and Akiba

However, a different legend purports that the young shepherd had fallen in love with Rachel, ‘the daughter of Kalba Savua’one of the wealthiest Jews of his time during the final days of the Second Temple. ‘Akiba had worked for Kalba as a shepherd and that is how he met Rachel. Despite Akiva’s unfamiliarity with the Torah, there was something remarkable about him; she agreed to marry Akiva on one condition: He had to study Torah for a period of ‘twelve years. ‘Together, they had a quiet clandestine wedding.

As it might have been expected, Kalba did not approve of his daughter marrying such an ignorant man, and he swore that he would not offer any financial support; the young couple were reduced to poverty. She sent Akiba to study for twelve years ‘under the tutelage of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. When R. Akiba ventured home, he now as a distinguished scholar who had a following of 12,000 students, Akiba overhears a conversation between Rachel and her friends. They said to her, ‘Rachel, how much longer will you live the life of a widow, knowing that your husband is alive but absent’’ She replied, ‘‘If he would listen to me, he would go back [to his place of sacred studies] for another 12 years.’

Twelve years later, R. Akiba has now 24,000 students who escort their teacher. When the townspeople hear about his imminent arrival, they all come out to greet him—including  Rachel! But poor Rachel looked poor and impoverished, dressed in rags. When she approached her husband, the students try to prevent her from speaking with their teacher. R. Akiba instructs his students to stop and says “What ‘is mine and what is yours—all belongs to her!”

All of the townspeople come out to greet him. So does his wife, who appears in ragged clothes and who refuses to heed the advice of her neighbors who suggest that she borrow suitable attire. When his students catch sight of her, they try to prevent her from approaching Rabbi Akiva. However, he immediately calls a stop to their efforts (using one of the shortest and most beautiful statements to describe their mutual relationship): “What is mine and what is yours – belongs to her!”[1]

The narrative implies that they lived happily ever after as a couple in what appears to be a storybook-like ending crafted in Hollywood.’ Maybe they did live happily ever after.

Deconstructing Rabbi Akiba’s Love Life

Using a hermeneutic of suspicion that is so typical of postmodern approaches to literature in general, and to the Bible in particular, we might ask the unthinkable question that no yeshiva student would dare ask his Talmud teacher: What if Akiba and Rachel did not get along after his return home? What if they had grown apart all these years and now they had become two different people?

Obviously, this approach might sound something like you might read in the ancient Judean equivalent of the National Inquiry. However, the lives of famous people often end differently from what people might expect. [2] A third tradition about Rabbi Akiba indicates that he took yet another wife.

Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly Akiba took a second wife. Conceivably, his beloved Rachel may have predeceased her husband. That is a possibility no reader of Akiba’s biography can deny. Perhaps they might have grown apart.

Enter Madam Turnus Rufus

In the third legend, we discover an altogether different story about R. Akiba’s love life, one that certainly raises questions. The Roman general of Judea in R. Akiba’s time was a man named Turnus Rufus. Despite the Roman disdain for Jews in general, it appears that Turnus Rufus and R. Akiba frequently had theological and philosophical discussions together. They jostle together on topics pertaining to circumcision,[3] the Sabbath[4], and the Jewish concept of ‘idolaters,’[5] as well as to the importance of giving charity to the poor.[6] In the midrashic narratives, R. Akiba always emerges as the victor (How could it be otherwise’)

For whatever the reason might have been, R. Akiba serendipitously meets Turnus Rufus’s wife. Medieval rabbinical exegetes suggest that Madam Rufus heard her husband complain about losing one debate after another to R. Akiba. ‘She says to him:

  • She said to him: “The God of those people hates licentiousness. Just give me your permission and I will trip him up and cause him to sin.” He gave his permission. She put on her makeup and, wearing most attractive attire, she went to see R. Akiba’[7]

To make a long story short, Madam Rufus dumps her hubby and converts to Judaism and marries Rabbi Akiba! Would today’s Haredi rabbis would have approved of such circumstances’ I doubt it. If such behavior occurred today between Israel’s leading  Haredi rabbi and a Gentile woman, the news-story would create shockwaves across Israeli society. In the end, Turnus Rufus oversees the torturing of Rabbi Akiba. For Turnus Rufus, this matter was personal.

Did R. Akiba have an affair’ Did he seduce her’ Yes, inquiring minds want to know.’ Strangely, Rachel is not mentioned ever again. As for Madam Rufus/ Akiba, one wonders whether her husband had her killed as well. We can only speculate.

Mishnaic Evidence’

In the Mishnah we find an unusual discussion:

  • The Academy of Shammai said:’A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything’(Deut. 24:1).’And the Academy of Hillel said: Even if she spoiled his dish, since it is said, because he has found in her indecency—in anything.’R. Akiba says: Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes’(Deut. 24:1).[8]

Hillel’s perspective is problematical; just because a wife may not measure up to the ideal model of Martha Stewart or Donna Reed, doesn’t mean that she ought to be so easily disposed. Perhaps all she needs is a cleaning person or a cook to assist her or tutor in the ‘skill of homemaking. At least Shammai’s perspective is certainly consistent with the simple meaning of the text.

However, Rabbi Akiba’s attitude if taken literally without the Talmud’s spin on his opinion may have been predicated on more than just a scriptural verse that he cited. Is it possible that R. Akiba may have preferred Madam Rufus precisely because she was prettier and sexier than poor Rachel’ If the scandalous interpretation of this Mishnah is true, it may explain why R. Akiba met such a dreadful death where his skin was flayed off his body. The flaying of Akiba’s skin may be an allusion to the verse, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24). Since Akiba destroyed his marriage by marrying another man’s wife, his flesh is literally torn apart–and could be viewed as tallionic justice (measure for measure).

One is reminded of the scriptural verse from the Prophet Malachi, which may well apply to Rabbi Akiba:

  • And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not’’ Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire’ Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless (Malachi 2:13-16).

This exposition of Rabbi Akiba’s life will obviously strike a raw nerve in the minds of many of my blog’s readers–especially students of the Talmud. ‘But given the complexity of human relationships, Rabbi Akiba was still a man of flesh and flood endowed with the same passions that have caused considerable havoc in the lives of men since time immemorial. Continue reading “Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life”