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. ;)

———

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.

———

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.

  • Christine

    Just a question to be able to put things in my own frame of reference (since the trope of “this is nothing like how people read the Bible” has come up, and I’m not understanding where a real difference is, so I think I need more info). When people are talking about not just being able to interpret away the bad parts: I assume that “that’s what was normal back then” or “people put their own spin on divine commands” aren’t in the range of what you would consider appropriate readings?

    • kisarita

      Actually putting things in their correct historical/ cultural moral context is a legitimate interpretation to me (if it’s based on actual research and not just a knee jerk reaction) as long as it’s not held up as a role model for what we should do TODAY. I love doing that actually. (Although on a theological level I still don’t accept it for myself, because I would expect a bit more from the Divine than simply going along with the flow of what everyone was doing at the time.)
      I am not sure what you mean by putting ones own spin on divine commands. Does that mean interpreting them in a farfetched manner so that they don’t really mean what they say they mean? I do not like that at all. It seems dishonest to me. However, in this I am opposite a very common technique of the Talmudic Rabbis. Now they were certainly not feminists but occasionally a particular passage would be too unjust for them, and they would spin a somewhat twisted interpretation.
      EXAMPLE: Deuteronomy 25-11: If men fight and one’s wife comes to save her husband from the one hitting him, by grabbing his private parts (literally: embarrassment parts) you shall cut off her hand and show no pity.
      The Talmud de-gendered this entire verse and declared that the private parts are but an example of any attack that causes the victim shame, male or female, and concluded that one is liable for damages for shame.
      (Elsewhere, in the discussion of “an eye for an eye” they lay out that all damages may be paid out in money, instead of a tit for tat bodily injury).
      I suppose I consider this a dishonest reading, but on the other hand, I’m glad that the plain, straightforward meaning, didn’t make it into mainstream Jewish consciousness.
      So I suppose, if people are unwilling to challenge the divinity of the text, than nearly-deliberate misinterpretation is the next best thing, but as I said, it’s not for me as it doesn’t seem intellectually honest.

      • Christine

        Maybe I found the uniquely Christian way of looking at the text! By people putting their own spin on Divine commands I was talking about a case of the Divine saying one thing and the person who listened hearing something different. e.g. the Christian understanding of God is generally challenged by any advocacy of any sort of direct violence (obviously by advocacy of violence of any kind, but tellingly enough direct violence shows up the most often). So the question is often raised “Did God say to kill those people, or did God say to go into their land, and that was assumed to mean that the people should be killed?” (I’m not used to hearing a “well clearly it was just the spin of the author”, it’s generally phrased as a question.

      • Rachel

        Generally speaking, when people put their own spin on the direct word of Hashem, bad things tend to happen. (Off the top of my head: Adam put his own spin on the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, Moses hit the rock, and Saul didn’t kill all the people and sacrifice all the animals that he was supposed to.) All of these things happened in disaster. So, while there are some commentaries pointing out “this person didn’t follow the literal commandment that Hashem said,” it’s always shown to be a bad thing, and not something applicable to the modern day.

      • Anat

        Hmm, bad things happen when people put their own spin on God’s commands because God is the one enforcing them (when he feels like it). This says nothing for the morality of following said commandments, only to God’s power to be a dictator.

        In a narrative where God interacts directly with humans, gives them direct orders to be followed in the here and now with punishments for not following one gets a very limited and immature morality of following orders to avoid punishment. It was in the days of the second temple and after, with the decline of prophecy and eventually the silencing of the Divine Voice (bat-kol) that Jews were free to develop laws based on the intrinsic moral sense of individuals, though they still had to fit them with the word of the law as they had it already.

      • Rachel

        That’s not it at all. It also says that people aren’t necessarily able to see the consequences of their own actions, and therefore should make an effort not to attribute their own wishes about how the world should be to Hashem in order to invest their own beliefs with divine power. Generally the interpretation is that these things were done with an evil intent as well: Adam didn’t trust Eve with being able to obey the law, Moses was angry and hit the rock, Saul was bribed. This is a reason for distinguishing the law from minhag, custom, although a lot of people don’t — which leads into an Eve-in-the-Garden-with-the-Serpent situation all over again.

      • Anat

        And I disagree the interpretation is reasonable. If we take the garden of Eden – if God really did not want the people to eat the fruit the tree shouldn’t have been in the garden in the first place, The people were mentally toddlers. The way to deal with toddlers is to not create unnecessary temptations. But given that God in the story placed 2 special trees in the garden, and when the fruit of one was eaten the people were prevented from access to the other one, and given that we know how toddlers behave – the setup looks as though God was offering in a very round-about way, a choice between 2 options. Sooner or later the people would choose one of the trees (we aren’t told how long they lived in the garden, BTW), and then they would lose access to the other. (If they had chosen the tree of life there would have been no need for reproduction for humans and we wouldn’t be here discussing the story.) And the first thing they tell parents about offering choices to kids is never offer a choice you won’t be OK with if your child chooses it. If this isn’t what God wanted to do, then whatever he was doing, he was doing it wrong.

        As for Saul and the Amalekites, Saul wasn’t wrong for not killing enough Amalekites. He was wrong to engage in total war (beyond the demands of defense) with them. That God, via Samuel, commanded him to kill them all does not make genocide acceptable.

      • Rachel

        Anat – What you’re essentially saying is, the situations that are laid out by God are wrong, and also, God commands people to do the wrong thing. This is a totally valid perspective that I can get behind! But it’s not a reading that could be done in pretty much any previous time period, with the knowledge that people had at those times, which is what the original question is referring to.

      • Anat

        I’m not sure why this reading was not possible before Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). The Torah has Abraham criticizing God in the context of god’s planned genocide of Sodom. Why couldn’t anyone have offered at least that level of objection to a command to commit genocide? Instead traditional commentaries look for ways to justify it and dismiss possible objections: yes, they were all evil, or at least spiritually dangerous – as if they could know.

      • Rachel

        But if you’re saying that the Torah was stitched together over time, with people adding their own spins on things, why don’t you resolve this by saying Abraham interceding for the people of Sodom also a later interjection, incorporated after people saw issues with Saul being punished for sparing the king? How is Hashem supposed to be predicting 21st century parenting advice if He’s not omniscient or omnipotent?

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      There’s also a Jewish strain of thought that Hashem isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes and learns from them. Noah’s flood was a mistake- after the flood was over, Hashem was so horrified by the damage it caused that He promised never to do it again. When His people argued with Him, sometimes He backed down. So while Hashem was full of jealousy, anger, and genocide ~4,000 years ago, He can learn better. Humans can hold Him to a higher standard, and sometimes He even measures up :P

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

    It was precisely the “Terror texts” of the Torah and early prophets that, by a circuitous route, led me to abandon (most) Jewish practice. I joined a progressive minyan where we discussed the Torah and Haftorah portions each week, which brought me face to face with, frankly, genocide (said to be) command by G-d. Then I spent a number of years studying Bible in a text-critical setting (with a little Talmud on the side), figuring that I’d prove that the bad parts of the Torah were borrowed and the good parts were original. (Uh… not true. Sadly.) So then the whole house of cards fell apart, starting with the reliability of the Bible, progressing through atheism and eventually destroying my practice as well. I found I didn’t miss theism, but I missed the Torah study and I longed at the deepest level for a practice. I eventually found practice and text-study in Buddhism, but without the problematic moral issues.

    (That said, I’m about to go wash all my Passover dishes and roast some eggs for the dozen relatives who are showing up here Monday night for First Seder. Chag sameach lekulam!)

    • kisarita

      cool. have a great holiday. stay tuned for the upcoming thread on Passover, and on its religious as well as non religious signficance to folks….

      • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

        Passover is one of the holidays I still love. (I suppose sukkot could be fun as well… but we haven’t celebrated it in 30 years, at least.) I inherited the Seder from my mother-in-law, who passed some years ago. She had taken to making seder in a restaurant, but the restaurant passed away not long after she did. (Strangely enough, it was converted into a synagogue, lol.) I had moved into a house with a great kitchen and large dining room, so I took it over, and two aunts who are now too frail to make their own seders have started coming to ours. They graciously overlook our nonkosher — though carefully sourced and lovingly cooked — meats, and my daughter and her vegan girlfriend graciously accept the presence of those same meats, and we all get a chance to catch up over four glasses of wine and xeroxed haggadot. So much fun!

  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    Ki Sarita, your comments about how interpreting the Torah to fit one’s personal agenda or opinion reflects the problem I have with liberal Christians. While evangelicals are often guilty of doing the same, too often Liberal Christians are more candid about texts they “don’t like,” and ignore them, so they rarely have a coherent theology. But I have two questions regarding women and the Torah:

    1) For Orthodox Jews, how much of the Law do they currently observe? In other words, in addition to dietary laws, do they also observe laws related to menstruation and childbirth?

    2) One of the puzzles to me regarding modern Judaism is that in general (and I am speaking of broad generalities), modern Judaism tends to hold more progressive views regarding women’s’ rights than Christians do, yet when one looks at their holy text, Christians have quotes from Jesus that affirm feminist thinking, while the Torah doesn’t have any feminist text to fall back on to affirm feminist thinking (that I know of). So why do you think historically Jews have taken to feminism more readily than Christians?

    (Again, I know that I’m speaking of extremely broad generalities, and I know there’s a lot of variation on both sides.)

    • Rachel

      1) All of it that can be observed without a Temple — and that which can be observed outside of the state of Israel. They may follow different interpretations, or the school of one rabbi over another, or attach to it some customs that aren’t strictly law, but they follow the entire law.

      The laws of niddah, sexual purity, are generally closely followed by the Orthodox: one couple I knew would not have any physical contact from the time that her period started until she had immersed in a mikvah a week after it ended, and they would sleep in twin beds that they pushed apart while she was menstruating and pulled back together when she had come back from the mikvah. (They claimed it worked wonders for their sex life, and they used no birth control and had four kids in six years, so…) Women don’t offer sacrifices after their children are born, but my parents went through the ritual of pidyon ha-ben for my older brother, their firstborn son.

      2) I can’t say for certain, but I wager that the difference between Jews and Christians viz-a-vis feminism lie in the combination of a few different areas: with very few exceptions, Jews encourage their daughters to be educated; Jews have multiple strong female role models in the Tanakh whereas there are only three or four named women in the NT, most of them named Mary; Jews tend to be oriented toward social justice causes, feminism being one among many; finally, it’s selection bias, as Jewish women who are not feminists wouldn’t be commenting on blog posts talking about how awesome feminism is. Trust me, I know a lot of female Jewish non-feminists. Many of them end up raising families much like Libby Anne’s.

    • Alexis

      One thing to keep in mind is that for its time, the Judaism described in the Torah is actually rather progressive. Daughters were allowed to inherit property in the absence of sons, women had a way (however offbeat) to refute charges of adultery, and children were expected to honor their mother and father equally. And some of the most influential figures in Biblical Jewish history were women: Miriam, Moses’ sister, who watched him in the river, made sure his mother was called by Pharoh’s daughter to be wet-nurse, amd thus ensured he grew up with a Hebrew (rather than purely Egyptian) identity; Deborah the judge, who devised the strategy for the captain of the Israelite army to defeat the Assyrian invaders and helped that captain (co-incidentally named Barak) to lead the central charge; Jael, who after the Assyrian general Sisera sought refuge in her tent, took a hammer and drove a tent peg through his head to kill him and complete the victory; Esther, who risked her life by approaching her husband (the Persian King Ahasuerus) uninvited to inform him that one of his advisors sought in secret to kill all the Jews in Persia and demand he put a stop to it.

      • Anat

        In order to support the claim that Judaism was progressive for its time one needs to know what time we are talking about. There is ample evidence that the Torah was not written in the claimed times of Moses. It needs to be compared to legal systems of Babylon, Persia and Egypt no earlier than the 7th century BCE. And also be aware of cherry picking. For any comparison of two randomly chosen societies, one will be more progressive in some aspects, the other in others.

        For example, Rachel brought up the treatment of slaves. On the one hand the Shabbat laws require slaves to be included among those who rest on the Shabbat. On the other, if one beats one’s slave within an inch of death and the slave survives a day or two (but may die of injuries after that) one is not punished. So how progressively does Torah treat slaves (given a social backdrop of a world in which the institution of slavery exists and is an integral part of the economy)?

      • Rachel

        Anat – Well, there you have an a priori assumption that keeping slaves alive was widely recognized to be intrinsically good, both for the slave and for the master. Up until 1865 CE in the U.S., there was no punishment for killing your slave at all. Given that slavery was the pillar of the American South’s economy, and there was no punishment for killing slaves, this does not seem like an assumption that’s supported by historical evidence.

        You can weigh that law (which is commonly interpreted, IIRC, to mean that the slavemaster did not intend to beat the slave to death) against the laws forbidding sexual contact with female slaves, and limiting the ability of a father to sell his daughters into slavery (including sexual slavery), and weigh that against the surrounding world. We needn’t go into Biblical times to see how much better Jewish slaves were treated than contemporary societies: we can go to Greece, we can go to Rome, we can go to the antebellum South (which used the Bible to justify slavery, but missed that part about not sleeping with your female slaves).

      • Alexis

        Anat, you have a good point. I’ll clarify mine by saying:

        “One thing to keep in mind is that for [the time it describes], the Judaism described in the Torah is actually rather progressive.”

    • kisarita

      The menstrual laws are called Niddah. My parents practiced them and most of the people I grew up with. It’s a separation between the couple, with no public ramifications.
      As for your second question about why Jews are more likely to be feminist, I’m guessing if that’s true, it’s that Jews are less likely to be fundamentalist. I’m also not sure if it’s correct.
      Although I have to say, as ultraOrthodox as I grew up, Libby Anne’s family seems far more extreme. We didn’t have any child abuse manuals circulating around. I suppose we would be parallel to the regular ole evangelicals that Libby Anne says her parents used to be.

  • Rachel

    Ki Sarita – Yeah, I’ll qualify that: there have been enough substantiated reports of abuse in Jewish homes and institutions that I don’t think there’s something intrinsic about Judaism that keeps it free from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse (as I used to think, as I was taught it was a corruption of the outside world). At the same time, I don’t think that the abuse is something intrinsic to Judaism, but rather to power structures where people have a vested interest in making sure scandals don’t come out and believing that figures in authority are of a higher standard than regular folk, especially children and women. I would also hope that Michael and Debi Pearl would be immediately recognized as the frauds pushing shallow interpretations that they are.

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