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Classical Jewish tradition

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Question: Publication date: 19-03-2008
Title:   Classical Jewish tradition
Content:   Hi.

Only recently did I become aware of your site.
I havenít yet had a chance to delve deeply into it, but it seems like you've really invested a lot into it (and it's articulate -- something that's very important to me).
Congratulations!
With your permission, I have a short question.
In the section "About Us" you write:
DE has reached the conclusion that the amazingly rich classical Jewish legacy, which makes up the main body of Jewish culture, has been deliberately misinterpreted for a long period of time.

A biting remark, indeed.
The little I have had the time to read (and I could certainly be wrong) shows me that your site deals with the negative side of Judaism, the "deliberate misinterpretation for a long period of time," as you say.
On the other hand, I have not seen much treatment of the positive side of "the amazingly rich classical" Judaism.
Could you please enlighten me about what you mean when you write about "classical" Judaism?

Thank you,

Edna

Answer: Publication date: 22-03-2008
Title:   Classical Jewish tradition
Content:   Dear Edna,

Thank you for your support, particularly in a time when reason and lofty values are trampled at every turn.
As to your question: Daat Emet deals with the text which is relevant to the majority of the contemporary Jewish community -- the Mishnah and the Gemara -- the texts which set the rituals, symbols, and character of most Jews. Even personal law in Israel is based on Halacha as brought down in the Talmud.
We deal with the present more than with the past, and that is why we deal with Halacha, the Talmud, and Jewish literature from the destruction of the Second Temple to the modern day and less with classical Judaism. This Jewish literature basically pushed aside classical Judaism, particularly the prophetical writings. The gap between the literature of the prophets and the Talmud is obvious, both in literary merit and in aspiration to lofty ideals. While the prophets viewed the treatment of widow and orphan as the highest value, Chazal turned things on their head and made obedience to the rabbis the main point. It's not that the Scriptures have no messages which contradict universal and humanistic morality like "You shall have no other gods before Me" (contradiction the principle of freedom of religion and conscience). But one can find uplifting laws and commands; Chazal then came along and trampled them underfoot.
For example, we find in the Torah the command to observe the Sabbath: " Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed" (Exodus 23:12). We can say that the rest from fieldwork on the Sabbath, from plowing, sowing, and threshing is to give rest to the animals who plowed for six days and to allow rest to the servants and the local residents, as though they were the important ones and their master subordinate. Why did Chazal and the rabbis after them turn keeping the Sabbath into a conglomeration of details -- is one permitted to place a decorative ribbon on an animal on the Sabbath, one should not take a hair out of a bowl of soup, one should not take an analgesic, one should be careful not to cut vegetables too finely, one should not wash, one should not open an umbrella on a rainy day, what stone may be used to wipe one's anus, what the rule is for an egg laid on a holiday, etc. to the point where the rest became trouble and bother. The Torah also warns "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain" (Deuteronomy 25:4). What did Chazal do with this Torah law? They began to debate what the law is if the ox has a thorn in its mouth, or a gentile's ox, as we explain in our answer to Revolution in the religious denomination [in Hebrew].
The prophet Isaiah criticized Israelite society, which had become meticulous in the details of rituals but abandoned their essence. "'To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?' says the Lord. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams'Ö Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me,
I am weary of bearing themÖ Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:11-17). Concern for the welfare of the oppressed, the needy, and the weak is the main issue and not sacrifices or observance of the ceremonial rituals of the holidays. Yet what happens today? The Charedi and religious communities worry only about the trifling details of hand washing, the rule for a woman who sees a drop of blood in her underwear, a gentile woman whom one may not help give birth on the Sabbath, whether one should help gentile widows and orphans de jure or only to keep the peace, the rule for a woman who sees blood after sexual relations, a woman whose breasts are too far from each other and so is divorced without rights, and other details of deliberations which turn the heart hard against tolerance and empathy for the stranger and the different.

Another example: The prophet expresses his hope for a cosmopolitan vision of unity, weak with strong, minority and majority. "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat" (Isaiah 11:6). Today all the Charedi and religious look for is G-d's retribution against the gentiles, so during the Passover seder the religious joyfully sing "Pour out Your wrath against the gentiles" instead of singing "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). I searched for reference to this quote in the pages of the Talmud and found only Halachic references dealing with the pettiest details; this shows how far Chazal were from the ideas of the prophets. What did Chazal learn from this lofty verse? That a man is forbidden to go out, on the Sabbath, in the public domain while wearing a sheathed sword, for it is not considered an ornament, and in the future it will not be used anymore (Sabbath 63a). It is clear that the emphasis and attention paid to the message of the verse is what sets the mental tone of the reader.
A final example emphasizes to what moral level the Jewish community has sunk. Rabbi Akiva said that the commandment "Love your fellow as yourself" was an essential rule of the Torah. How did Chazal interpret this rule? "Your fellow in Torah and commandments"!! They took gentiles and the secular out of the equation.
If we wished to summarize the gap between the heights of the Scriptures and the depths of the Talmud we could say that the Scriptures dealt with Israelite nationalism relevant for its times, with a yearning for universalism and charity, righteousness, and justice for all on earth. Chazal dealt with practical details, over and over until they became loathsome; which stones may be used to wipe one's rectum and how to avoid sex. Chazal, with their concerns, can be seen as people who have undergone a trauma -- after the Bar Kokba revolt the survivors in Israel were almost totally wiped out by the Romans -- and their concerns and studies were a part of the obsessive compulsive disorder.

Sincerely,

Daat Emet


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