Judaism 101: Sexism and Violence in the Torah

In bringing together the various responses from my Judaism 101 panel into the Creation Stories post, I edited out a few of the responses, because they went off on some tangents and the post was long enough as it was. But I did find one of these tangents really interesting—a discussion of grappling with sexism and violence in the Torah and other holy sources—so I’ve pulled it together here to give it its own post. So here you go. (For an intro to this series and a bio of each panelist, see this post.)

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Hilary

I get so angry when I hear about fundamentalist Christians doing terrible things and using their interpretations of the Old Testament as an excuse.  I want to yell at them “That’s MY bible, NOT yours, go find some other excuse to be such a fucking asshole!”  When it’s other Jews using the Torah to justify violence and sexism I’m more like “C’mon, guys, really, you should know better then that.  What you’re doing is wrong and you’re making us look bad.”

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Ki Sarita

But the Torah is full of sexism and violence, which is why I rejected it, but I certainly can’t say that they’re interpreting it wrong.

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Rachel

Eh, I think there’s a huge difference between “there’s lots of violence and sexism in the Torah,” and “let’s glorify violence and sexism in our times now.” Besides, if you’re going to  be really super-traditional, the Torah was given in 2448, and it’s 5773 now, and the laws governing tziniut have become far more restrictive in the last few centuries—the laws of tzniut are the newly restrictive customs that are going against 3,000 years of closer-to-parity.

(Yes, yes, our current generations are so much further from Hashem in these decadent Western days, we need the extra laws, etc. It seems like the rabbis are so much more concerned with sex than they used to be…)

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Anat

Rachel—You sound very much like my mother. I have no idea what she actually believes about God, but about Judaism she believes it used to be a voice for progress, before the rabbis in (relatively) recent generations went and ruined it. But really, the Talmud is sexist and ethnocentric as anything. Even Pirkei Avot has to come with trigger warnings for blatant sexism.

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Rachel

Anat—Heh! I’m not denying that our holy books aren’t sexist and ethnocentric: what I’m saying is, those are the wrong standards by which to judge them. We must keep in mind that the Torah was given to us in a specific time and place, and is to be judged against that time and place.

I found a quote from Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, which sums up the non-fundamentalist Orthodox mindset (and applies to our original topic!):

“Because six days did God make Heaven and earth…” The days referred to here relate to the period before the completion of creation, when the concept of time was different from that which applies now. But the Torah was given to us in accordance with our own concepts: “Moshe came and brought it down to earth.” This is the meaning of the dictum, “The Torah speaks as if in human language”; it speaks to us in accordance with our own perceptions of matter and our own concepts of space and time…

We see from this that in the simple meaning of the text — that which is conveyed to us in accordance with our own conceptual capacity — we are to understand actual days made up of hours and minutes. But in its real essence, that is to say, in its inner meaning, the text has quite a different connotation. It refers to six sefiros, which are modes of revelation of the divine conduct of the world.

So from this I derive, if the Torah speaks as if in a human language, then it also speaks in the cultural concepts and doxa, assumed truths, of the time period. When the Torah was given, whether it was from Mt. Sinai in the Jewish year 2448, 1272 BCE, or whether it was redacted together from multiple older sources in 500 BCE and finalized by 200 CE—during this time, the perspectives Judaism had on women and on other ethnic groups and on slavery and everything else was among the most advanced in the world! No other group that the ancient Israelites ran into had these kinds of ideas—female prophets and female leaders that didn’t inherit their position from their husbands and the right of women to have a divorce request granted and defend themselves from charged of adultery. Given that time period, holding every other culture and everything else constant, the Torah is positively enlightened.

Now we, in our times, go look at the Torah and say, “oh, no, how dare they treat women like that!” But in that same voice, we should also go, “oh, no, how dare they have laws about treating slaves fairly—how dare they have slaves at all!” If the Torah were given  today, it would speak in the human language we have today: it wouldn’t mention slavery, it would mention DNA. And it would be—holding other cultures constant—that same ratio of progressive than it was back then when it was given.

The shameful thing is when we see the Torah as a fixed document, something old and dry and dead. It’s not, it’s alive, and it applies to us in these times as well as then—but it says something new to us now, in these times. Sometimes we’ve got to look past the literal meaning, because the literal meaning is not the only applicable meaning. And when we only see the Torah in comparison to itself, and the people who we are now—that’s not the best prism to look at it through. Look at the Torah in the times it was written in, and then carry through the analogy to today—just like the analogy section on the SATs. ;)

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Alexis

In Hebrew, the Torah is often referred to as ‘Torat Chayim’, or the ‘Living Torah’. One of the major differences between Judaism and other faiths is that not only is it allowed to question the Torah, the Rabbis, and even to question Hashem, it’s encouraged as a way of deepening your faith. I mean, the word Yisra-el (which is spelled in English as Israel) means ‘To struggle with God’. Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, argued over and over with God (especially about the destruction of Sodom and G’morrah). Moses argued with God. The father of the Twelve Tribes, Joseph, literally wrestled God all night long and nearly won. We honor him for that.

This is one reason I had such a difficult time understanding that some religions prohibit questioning of their holy texts and their deitys. To me, faith isn’t a blind trust that everything is as you’ve always been told it is. It’s a choice to believe that “all power can’t be seen” (thank you Josh Groban). It’s a battle within yourself to determine what is true and what is false. And how much you’re going to let that guide your life.

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Petticoat Philosopher

To me, the Torah is an important cultural document, and the value of studying it—which I do affirm—is in developing a deeper understanding of the complicated ways in which it has informed that culture for thousands of years and continues to do so.

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Hilary

Seconded!  I think freeing the Torah from innerrancy, literalism or fundamentalism makes it so much more interesting.  Since I approach it fully knowing that I’m free to reject any application of violence or sexism, it’s easier to appreciate what’s good in it.  Same goes for the Talmud and Pirke Avot, which I’ve been studying on my own and I really like it.  I’ve been trying to see how much of the Pirke I can match up with the Beatitudes and sermon on the mount from the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s fascinating what overlaps and what doesn’t.  I’ll take the Pirke over the beatitudes and sermon in a heartbeat.

Etz chaim hi—it (Torah) is a tree of life—we’re supposed to be able to live by this. If we interpret and apply it in such a way that it becomes unlivable, then we’re doing it wrong! And by livable I mean livable here, now, in this world, in our real lives, for women, children, and men and livable in ways that we can tangeably measure it’s benefits in this world, not the world to come.

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Ki Sarita

I disagree with certain streams of thought within Judaism that we can interpret away anything we don’t like in the Torah. It becomes meaningless then, but a vehicle to say whatever I want anyway—might as well abandon the ploy! I prefer to analyze at the text straightforwardly for what it actually says, pick out the good and discard the bad.

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Hilary

Fair enough—I’ll slow down and try and think more about what I say and how I actually feel or believe.  I guess what I meant was, I don’t have to accept either all of the Torah at it’s literal face value, or none of it at all.  Where exactly I strike the balance is something I’m still learning and probably will continue to be still learning all my life in some ways.  Yes I agree that there are some limits to how far interpretation can go and still be valid. The more I can study it with both the whole range of Jewish midrash and interpretation and what we’ve learned from history, archaeology, and other cultures, the more interesting it is.

I will stand by what I said regarding living by our choices.  For any religion, philosophy, ethical system, whatever, if we cannot live by our choices we need to rethink what we’re doing.  And by live I mean truly thrive, not just survive, and that applies to all the people in the system not just one sex or another, or the elites.  I know it’s easier said then done, and there are times when simply survival is hard enough, but still.

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Petticoat Philosopher

Ki sarita, I actually agree—that’s kind of what I was trying to say. I also get a little frustrated when people try to squint at every little thing in the Torah (or any holy text–liberal Christians certainly do this too) to try to make it say something that jibes with modern, post-enlightenment liberal values. That’s just not something we can expect of anything written so long ago. This has actually been my biggest frustration with organized Reform Torah study groups I have tried out—an unwillingness on the part of many, including the rabbi, to sometimes just say “You know what? This is f-ed up.” And I believe there is value in doing that too—we are engaging with our tradition, we are looking it in the face, we are acknowledging that dark elements of it exist, as they do in all cultures and histories. We should not be afraid to do this. I was raised to believe that questioning was part of being Jewish and so I believe in asking even–maybe especially–the questions that may sometimes take us to uncomfortable places. This is how we continue to grow and evolve as a culture and a people, instead of becoming stagnant and static.

So I would say that “straight-forwardly analyzing the text, picking out the good and discarding the bad” is a pretty accurate reflection of my approach. And I think both picking out the good and discarding the bad are processes that require a lot of thought and are important to keeping Judaism vital.

Judaism 101: Sin and Forgiveness
Judaism 101: Thoughts on Passover
Judaism 101: Gehenna (Hell)
Judaism 101: Humans' Nature and Sin
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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