Maimonides’ famous Responsa on “Converting for the sake of marriage”

Maimonides once wrote in his Responsa about a certain Jewish man who was living with a non-Jewish maid-servant. The man was suspected of having a sexual liaison with this woman.  The Beit Din found out about this–what was the man to do? Remove the woman from his house?

In response to this question, the Rambam stated that technically according to the law, the woman should be forced out–period. After it learned of his wrongdoings, the beit din was required to exert all its power to have the Jewish master free her and then marry her. However, the Talmud tells us that if a Jewish man has an immoral affair with a gentile woman, he must free her and not marry her (Yevamot 24b).   Maimonides  arrives at a different conclusion from the Talmud and judged in such cases that the man should free her and marry the maid.

What is the reason given by Maimonides?

“Such a position,” maintained Maimonides, “is Halachicly warranted since it is necessary to make things easier for repentents  (Takanat HaShavim).” Maimonides then cites the verse: “It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken.” (Psa 119:126). In other words, there are times when it is necessary to relax the halacha for the greater good of the Jewish people. The Rambam concludes “May the Lord forgive us of our sins.”

The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges

As mentioned earlier the levirate marriage takes place between a widow who’s husband died childless and his brother (known as the levir); halitzah (“removal”) is a ceremony that releases the woman from the obligation of Levirate marriage, allowing her to marry someone else.

Although Levirate marriage itself no longer is practiced, traditional Jews still require halitzah, formally releasing the widow from the biblically required union with her brother-in-law. The widow appears before a tribunal of five people–three of whom happen to be rabbis. After some initial questioning as to what the widow and levir intend to do, the court gives instructions that each must carry out.

Each participant must pronounce in certain phrases in Hebrew; the woman also is instructed to fast until the ceremony. The next day, a special shoe is removed from the levir’s foot. The woman approaches him and proclaims in Hebrew, “My husband’s brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me,” to which he replies, “I do not want to take her.” The widow then removes the shoe from his foot, tosses it away, and spits on the floor in front of him, saying, “So shall it be done unto the man that does not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his shoe loosened.” All present respond three times in unison, “he that had his shoe loosened.” Concluding prayers are read by the judges, and often a certificate that the widow is free to remarry is drawn up.

Even as late as the medieval era, rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, ruled that nowadays, no woman would ever consent to marrying her brother-in-law, and the practice of halitzah was no longer necessary. However, in the State of Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (known as Haredim [= “Tremblers”], a.k.a.  “Jewish Quakers”) refuse scores of women from remarrying without undergoing the traditional biblical ceremony—despite the humiliation this causes both the woman and her family.

In Israel, a most perplexing problem occurred that revealed the awkwardness of the halitzah ceremony as a viable religious practice. An elderly lady—about 60—wanted to register her marriage with the rabbinate after being widowed for four years and divorced from her second marriage. A clerk in the office observed that she never obtained halitzah from the brother of her first husband. Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that she had to obtain permission from her former brother-in-law.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading “The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges”

Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism

One of the ancient institutions that have persisted since archaic times is the levirate marriage. Here is a brief synopsis of the institution and its underlying rational.

Life of a widow in the ancient world was precarious at best. Having no inheritance rights, she was easily exploited and was frequently reduced to abject poverty and/or prostitution. Many ancient civilizations from India, Africa, to the Ancient Near East utilized the levirate marriage (from the Latin  levir, a “brother-in-law”) as a means of protecting the brother’s wife from being exposed to poverty. Society expected the surviving brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) to marry the widow. It is interesting to note that according to the Kabbala (and Hindu folklore), the soul of the dead brother is re-incarnated in the body of child his wife is carrying.

The offspring from their marriage were considered children and heirs of the deceased. In a society that defined the importance of a woman in terms of her ability to bear and raise children, the levirate marriage enabled a woman to be fulfilled. This law served to guarantee the deceased brother’s wife a place in her husband’s family and protected her from exploitation.  This law was consistent with the biblical ethos calling upon the community of God ‘to remember and care for “the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 10:14-19; 24:17-22; 27:19). During the early period of Israelite history, this practice was not considered optional, but a duty to be faithfully carried out .

For the brother-in-law, the levirate marriage was not without its downside. By observing the law, he could actually damage his own estate, for it could be either diminished as a result of siring a son who would co-inherit with him. Likewise, it would be his to take responsibility for the widow as well as managing his dead brother’s land, not to mention, and be financially responsible for his sister-in-law as his wife. However, families took great pride in providing care for all of its members—the duty to take care of the widow was considered to be a morally important duty–not to be casually disregarded. Continue reading “Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism”

Better Dead than Alive? A Tale from the Haredi Zone

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel never cease to take the Jewish imagination to places   where no rabbi has ever gone before. A case in point: One Israeli Haredi rabbi, Dovid Kornreich, thinks that homosexuals are better off dead than alive. In one of his popular blogs (his blogspot is called “A Voice from the Wilderness”), the rabbi offers a third possibility for Orthodox Jews who are struggling with their homosexuality—how about trying suicide?

To make his idea more appealing, Kornreich says that such behavior would be permitted provided that person commits suicide “al kiddush HaShem” as a means of sanctifying God’s Holy Name

Sounds pretty weird, no?

Well, the 18th century American philosopher Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “Even the Devil can cite Scripture for his purposes …” Actually, the Devil can even cite Talmud, Maimonides, and Jewish law as well!

Rabbi Kornreich doesn’t seem to realize the every human life is precious and of inestimable value. God created every person to be a unique expression that serves to glorify His Presence in the world. In Judaism, our Sages teach us that the true sanctification of God’s Name does not come with death, but with life. Suicide—even for religious purposes—only applies when the person is confronted by a disease or circumstance that threatens to debilitate the human spirit through a life of intense suffering.

In the case of Samson’s suicide (Judges 16: 30), Samson preferred to destroy himself in order to sanctify his God before the pagan Philistines. Given the choices Samson had, he did not wish to be tortured any further by the enemies of his people.

Thus, when King Saul saw the Philistines approach him, he asked his armor-bearer to kill him, so that he would not be tortured by the enemy in their pagan shrines. However, his armor-bearer refused. In the end, the narrator relates: “So he took his sword and fell on it” (1 Sam. 31:4).

According to the Talmud, After the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Roman soldiers gathered four hundred youths  in Israel and sent to Rome on ships. The children realized  that they would become victims of immorality and abuse at the hands of their Roman captors. They decided it would be better to take their own lives than be  sexually degraded by their new masters.  And so it was, they jumped into the sea and died (T.B. Gittin 53b). Continue reading “Better Dead than Alive? A Tale from the Haredi Zone”