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On thursday the 25th of april a decision was taken by the Jerusalem District Court on whether women will be allowed to or prohibited from praying at the Kotel (the Wailing Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem, wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, which traditionally has been considered man garb, and thus prohibited for women (though there definitely are a number of varying opinions on this issue).
The court decided that it indeed is allowed for women to pray wearing prayer shawls and Tefillin, and that the recent arrest of a group of women, from the organization “Women of the Wall,” was unjustified, the former since they do not go against the law on praying according to local customs, since that can be interpreted rather broad, and the latter since the women did not cause a public disturbance, which otherwise was the reason behind the arrest.
This ruling is the culmination on a number if incidents, leading to a conflict between the (ultra)-Orthodox establishment and the female activists, as well as to a greater discussion on women’s right to pray as they please at the Kotel, which should be seen both as part of the wider debate on the role of religion in Israel, as well as the debate between the Israeli Orthodox community and its role as authority on Jewish religion in Israel and the American (and in second instance global) non-Orthodox community. Both are discussions concerned with power and freedom of worship, and it is a blow to Orthodox monopoly on defining correct Jewish religious behavior in Israel, which most likely has been struck as a reaction, to what many would consider as being an arrogant Orthodox attitude towards those, who understand and practice Judaism differently than the general orthodox norm.
Also within the Orthodox world, compromising both the ultra-Orthodox, the National-Religious, and other Modern-Orthodox groups, have there been discussions on the subject, with the majority viewing the women as provocateurs, but also as the decision against allowing women to pray as they wish, combined with the behavior of an extremist ultra-Orthodox minority, as being inherently wrong.
This is most likely part of a trend of reacting against the ultra-Orthodox authority on religious matters in Israel, as well as a reaction against their attitude to those not being part of the ultra-Orthodox world, which was also seen during the last Israeli election. The question is how far the ultra-Orthodox leaders will take this conflict, before they accept that they have to either change their practice of governing the religious affairs, or changing their approach to those not being part of their world and world view. This depends both on how much or little support they will have internally from the general ultra-Orthodox Jew (who isn’t as isolated as he has been from the wider Israeli-Jewish community) as well as the degree of stubbornness found among the ultra-Orthodox leaders.
It has been some time – as usual – and I am as always terrible sorry for it.
The war is on break for now, people are back to normal, or at least as close you can come to normal here.
The studies are going on as usual as well, stressing me and leaving me with a lot of pressure, as well as a son soon to be born, BE”H. But I am grateful, very grateful.
I have been thinking about the comparative study, and how we teach about religions. One thing that has struck me is that we often teach about the religions for themselves, that is, instead of comparing some interrelated fields, we study them unrelated to each other. Take for example philosophy in religion (or religious philosophy). When we study Jewish philosophy, most often it is only rarely related to Islamic or Christian philosophy, but in order to get a good understanding of Jewish philosophy we need to relate it to other players in the field. Maimonides, for example, is influenced by a number of Islamic philosophers (as well as Greek), and has himself influenced both Christian and Muslim philosophers.
Another example is the role of central figures and how to understand them. Often we are told that Muhammad is to Islam what Moses is to Judaism, but is that really so? I have more and more thought about this issue, that we need to have the comparative element integrated into the general study and teaching of religions, in order both to understand the religions in and of themselves, as well as in their relation to other religions. I will try to give a small example on how this can be done in the following:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all three religions based on one or more central figures. In all of them one person stands out of centrality compared to other central figures. In Judaism Moses is of great central importance, in Christianity Jesus has the same centrality, and in Islam it is Muhammad. What is interesting in this respect, is not so much how these characters are viewed and understand in the other respective religions – though that certainly also is of importance – but how they are central in comparison of other central figures in the respective religions, as well as how they are understood in comparison to how the central characters are understood in the other religions.
Moses, for example, is far from the only central character in Judaism, we can easily mention both Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, David, and Salomon as examples on other very central characters. And that is just in the Bible itself, would we expand our focus to other Jewish materials, then we would find Hillel and Shamai, Yehudah haNasi, Maimonides, and so on. And furthermore, though I believe that Moses is the most central character in Judaism (except God Himself, of course), I am not sure of how strong his centrality is compared to the centrality of the other characters. For example, where Moses is very central and of crucial importance when it comes to the implementation of law in Judaism, he doesn’t hold the same level of importance when it comes to the establishment of Israel as a people. There Abraham might be of greater centrality. Or Moses compared to David in the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. And so on. Yet, I still believe that Moses overall is of greater central importance than other characters are.
We see the same with Christianity, where Jesus is far from the only central figure. Take characters like Paul, Peter, and John. Or the various church fathers. Or even Luther. In both these cases, though there would be no Judaism without Moses, and no Christianity without Jesus, their central importance is to some degree matched by other characters, though the two religions might have existed in some form or another without them.
It seems to me that Muhammad enjoys a much greater centrality and importance when it comes to Islam. Though references are abundant to other characters in the Qur’ân, Muhammad is still the receiver of the Qur’ân, and in the early times he was the leading figure when spreading Islam, at least till his death. In this context we don’t see Moses or Jesus spreading their respective religions, which can be part of the reason that Muhammad is more central in Islam than the two in their respective religions. Of course there are other important characters, the four righteous caliphs, the founders of the legal schools, the philosophers, and so on, but put notice on how Muhammad is in focus, both when it comes to the role as the receiver of the Qur’ân as well as when it comes to the Hadith-literature. In comparison, the Mishnah is not ascribed to Moses, and the letters in the New Testament is not ascribed to Jesus. Where Moses mostly is of crucial central importance to the written Torah in Judaism, and Jesus plays somewhat the same role in Christianity, neither of them are ascribed to the “oral tradition” (the Mishnah/Tosefta in Judaism, and the letters in Christianity), while this is the case for Muhammad in Islam.
This is one aspect. Another aspect is how we view them, how we describe them. This can teach us a lot about how the followers of the respective religions understand their religion and their role as followers of the religion in question. I am not going to too much into how followers are relating to them, just use the most used examples.
Moses is – by Jews – described as “teacher”, Moshe Rabenu. This is very crucial for the Jewish conception. He teaches us and we learn from him. He has a role not unlike the rabbis, as the chief rabbi, and this – I believe – has left its mark on Jews, who generally have been very occupied by the focus on study.
Jesus, on the other hand, is described as savior. This is something we often see in how Christians describe themselves, as being saved.
Again we see Islam somewhat differ here. Muslims see themselves as submitted to God, not so much describing Muhammad as God’s submitter, but rather in describing themselves as such. Where Jews today are named after a tribe, Yehudah – earlier named as a people, Israel – Christians are named as followers of Jesus, the Christ, and Muslims are named after their relation to God, as people submitted to God. But Muslims are neither taking their name after a role perceived in relation to Muhammad, nor after a role described him. Nevertheless, in one incident we do see Muslim self-perceiving based on Muhammad, namely as the final group of believers. Muhammad is the final prophet, therefore those who are following him are the right group of believers. In Judaism as such Moses wasn’t the last prophet to come, and it wasn’t unperceivable that other religions would form, though they wouldn’t have importance for Israel as such, and in Christianity we also see the spokesman, the holy spirit, would come after Jesus.
All this more or less describes an idea I’m working on, which could be interesting to follow in the future. I don’t know if anything will come of this or what it will end with, but if any of you out there have any suggestions, then please share with me, I would be very interested in hearing about what you have on mind.
I also know that there are many conceptions and thoughts, which could have been explained better, for example when I talk about strength of centrality and the like, but again, this is mostly sharing thoughts.
Looking forward to hear from you.
All the best and Hanukkah Sameah!
Most of you probably already know, Israel and Hamas (and helpers) have again engaged in a round of escalated violence. Yet again the escalated attempts at killing each other of will begin, and yet again the discussions about who is to blame, with direct reporting from here and there, and experts sitting in the studio (who often aren’t experts) will tell us all how wrong the one side is, and how much the other side suffers.
I still remember January 2009 and its aftermath. Too many people were killed, and all over Europe there was an outcry for justice, which apparently for some involved the killing of all Jews. It will come again, in the same level, this time though – at least for the aware person – in the background of the killing of more than 30,000 civilians in Syria, without any greater demonstrations taking place.
Yet again we will here blame directed at the Palestinians or at Israel, attempting to portray either of them as terrorists and murderers. Yet again people will be blind to the faults of their own side, only seeing the faults of the other side. I’ve already witnessed it to great extant in less than 24 hours.
Last time I took active part in the discussions, this time I most likely won’t. People are dying on both sides, mostly innocent civilians, children. This morning three Israeli civilians died as well as the baby child of a Palestinian journalist. Being a soon-to-be-father I can imagine the pain, just the thought of seeing my own unborn son, has v’halilah, makes me cry. This won’t bring any good with it, just as last time we won’t see this lead to the end of fightings and the killing of people. On the contrary this will expose a lot of hypocrisies, particularly the double standards being exposed in way of criticism.
At work I have two colleagues being personally involved in this round of fightings. Well, all of us living here are, all of us have friends or family being within range of fire. But these two have close family in Gaza and Beer Sheva, the one being a Palestinian the other a Jew. When they meet today at work they can talk about the safety of their loved ones, or rather, the chances that they won’t see them again. Who is to blame? Forget about that, just let them be able to meet after this is over and be able to say, Alhamdulillah, my family is in good health.
So who is to blame? Let’s just have a couple of words or three about that. And who will benefit from this? The Israeli right wing and the extremist religious fanatics among the Palestinians, they will benefit from this. Some people have expressed thoughts on how curious it is, that this always happens before Israeli elections. I don’t know about “always”, but it does happens, and yes, it is curious. These people present it as a plan from the Israeli right wing, a scheme in order to make them seem strong and protective in the eyes of the Israeli public. Is this true? Yes and no. The Israeli right wing cannot just start a war, just because they want to. It is true that Likud and other right wing parties are gaining much more from this, politically, than the left wing, and that this certainly is a good time (if any) for the escalation of violence. But what these critical people fail to acknowledge (of some reason or another) is that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Israel doesn’t just begin to bomb, just to do it. These people are totally ignoring the rockets being shot into Israel for a longer period or trying to excuse it. I’m sorry to say, I don’t accept any excuses for the conscious and deliberate targeting of civilians, no matter what. These critics – who blame Israel for breaking the ceasefire – also ignore the four rockets fired into Israel earlier yesterday before Israel targeted Ahmad Ja’abari, one of the top leaders in Hamas. This is ignoring facts, in order to make your understanding of what is going on fit into your bigger picture of things. And it is dishonest.
But here’s the deal. Even if Israel – per se – is only defending herself after the recent attacks on her civilians – and yes, I do believe that Israel has an obligation to do that, as any government in the world has, rather than killing them – the Israeli government, or Israel at large, does hold responsibility itself. Not necessarily for this particular escalation of violence, but for the overall situation we’re having. For making a mockery of the Palestinian side, though the Palestinian leaders also do that well. For not really wanting to give the Palestinian leadership something to bring their people, some acknowledgement of sort. Mahmoud Abbas lately stated in an interview, that he refused to hold the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel as a holy principle, acknowledging that it wouldn’t happen and Palestinians shouldn’t expect it to happen. For that he received a great deal of criticism among his own, while some Israeli politicians and opinion makers ridiculed him, refusing to take him serious. The same, of sorts, happened to Salem Fayyed when he tried to be productive, both among his own, but also among Israeli leaders. Fayyed is one person among the Palestinian leaders, which Israel really could trust, who was struggling (and still is) for honest and open relations, as well as attempting to fight corruption. He is today a shadow of what he was, after attempts to crush him both from Israelis and Palestinian leaders.
But also ordinary people are to blame. When we relate to each other as pure trash or bugs, then no wonder there is hatred and will for war, rather than attempts to create a future coexistence of some sort. Already now I have read statements like “make Gaza into a parking lot”, “bomb the fucking Arabs”, “a good Arab is a dead Arab”, “I won’t cry a single tear for any dead Palestinian, civilian or terrorist, since they all are terrorists”, as well as “Hitler lived for a purpose”, “I long to crush the Jew under my foot”, “a good Jew is a dead Jew”, and so on.
As related to earlier, also the one sided, black and white criticism is a cause for this. Just as critics of Israel is ignoring the faults of Hamas and other extremist groups, so do critics of the Palestinians ignore the faults of Israel, as already mention, but particularly the needs and suffering of the other side. Just as it should be acknowledged that Israeli children have to be near shelters at all times, also in schools, and that they didn’t choose this for themselves, neither did their parents, so it should be acknowledged that the Palestinians in Gaza didn’t accept this existence for themselves. Forget the “they voted for Hamas”. That is just ignorant. They didn’t vote for Hamas, they voted against Fatah and the corruption, and they really didn’t have an alternative.
There is a lot to be said, and many things probably will be said. The world will go crazy and fight about who is the sinner here, but the truth is that most of us are, and that the world are only helping to keep this conflict going with the ideologist or material interest there might be here, while refusing to relate pragmatically to what is going on.
In the meantime innocent will suffer and be killed, on both sides. Israelis and Palestinians are not two sides fighting each other, we are one side suffering from the same source. And we will continue to suffer until we realize this and relate to our situation pragmatically.
Happy New Year to all my Muslim brothers. I hope this latest escalation may be the last, inshallah, and that this new year will be a more peaceful one for all the children in ash-Sham, as well as in the rest of the world, inshallah.
I am presently working on an interesting article by Qadi Iyyad Zahalka on the question and status of Shari’a Courts in Israel, which I look forward to sharing with you, but first I really need to answer a comment by Herdian, to an older post by me.
“Maybe this is a semantic problem. Perhaps you meant that Jews are forbidden to study other religious texts in the same way that they study the Torah i.e. by pondering it, taking it into heart, and applying it to one’s own life. But scholarly studies of them are fine to certain extents.”
The question relate to the post, where I speculate on the claim that I, as a religious Jew, am not allowed to study the texts of other religions, based on the reading of Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, where I related to a number of Talmudic verses in order to nuance the verse and claim in question.
What Herdian states in his question actually is how I understand the reading of the Talmudic verses, that those pre-Mishnah texts, which are very similar to the Holy Jewish Scripture, are not allowed to be read/studied, while other texts after the time of the Mishnah (and the canonization of the TaNaCh) are okay to read, since they would be read as “one reads a letter”, that is, one would know that they are not part of the Holy Texts, and therefor one would’t subscribe them the same value or learn from them in the sense of “holy learning”. That is, studying them is not part of a spiritual process, but rather being a secular affair.
Herdian’s following comment is interesting:
“The age of Enlightenment is an interesting phenomenon. All religions in general will never be the same after passing through that age. It is a change of attitude towards life, which in some ways are in conflict with religious outlooks. And the battle still continues to this day. Religious people sholdn’t ignore what the Enlightenment has to say about religion, although they don’t agree with it. Rather, they should study it seriously, scholarly, intensively, and critically if they want to maintain their (intellectual) integrity.”
Herdian, I agree with you, at least in the general.
I’m not sure that the Enlightenment is of bigger importance than other historical schisms, for example the coming of Christianity and Islam, which – I believe – played a huge role for Judaism, just as the destruction of the two Temples did, as well as Holocaust and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. At least these events are deciding for Judaism and the Jewish people, both in self-awareness and development.
That I relate to a number of great events, and not the Enlightenment alone, probably also is the reason that I don’t see Herdian’s criteria (studying their religion seriously, scholarly, intensively, and critically) in order to maintain integrity. Basically, when I view some Jewish groups and movements who have taken upon themselves to study their religion according to these criteria, I am not so sure about their integrity, but that is just my personal opinion.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with Herdian, indeed, the critical and scholarly study of Judaism, among learned Jews, has been an important element. I just need to mention people like Yehudah HaNasi, Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides, Ibn ‘Ezra, and in more recent times, R. Soloveitchik and R. Yosef Qappah, to point to the important element of scholarly and critical study in Judaism.
More important, I believe, we should be aware that Religion, as other in other cases, is a product of the reality it exists in. Progress and developments in religions are reactions to what happens around them, and these reactions are left as historical imprints, being viewed and understood as something close to a revelation for the followers afterwards. Let me take one example to illustrate.
In Halachah it is not allowed for Jews to eat the food of non-Jews, since they might intermingle too much and marry their children to the children of the non-Jews. This prohibition is Talmudic, and there are discussions on whether one may eat food cooked by non-Jews, as long as the fire is lit by a Jew. For a more extensive discussion on this, see the following three discussions:
From the reasoning in these three discussions, we see the argument being that “[t]here are two reasons for the why our Sages decreed that a Jew may not eat food cooked by a non-Jew: The first is since a Jew may not marry a non-Jew, if Jews are accustomed to eating with non-Jews and mingling with them, this may cause intermarriage between them […] The second reason is because our Sages were concerned that the non-Jew may place non-kosher ingredients in the food and feed it to the Jew.”
See also Talmud Bavli Yevamoth 46a and Avodah Zarah 59a.
The prohibition is clearly based on a reaction to assimilation in Babylon. Based on the fear that the Jews would intermingle and become to friendly with the non-Jews, and from that marry their children with each other, the Talmudic Sages, z”l, saw to it to create boundaries which would make this intermingling difficult.
This is a decision taken, in order to protect the Jewish minority against the non-Jewish majority, and I wonder – had this been in the opposite case – whether they would have made the same decision, if they didn’t see the Jews marrying non-Jews.
Today in Israel – as is witnessed by the three discussions linked to – we are experiencing the aftermath of these rulings, but this time in the opposite situation, now in a state, where the Jews are the majority, and the non-Jews are the minority, as well as the consequences of this change. We see for example, in the discussion on legumes cooked by non-Jews, that there is leniency on canned legumes, since the danger that Jews intermingle with non-Jews does not exist in this case, and therefore there isn’t a problem in eating canned legumes, even when they are cooked by non-Jews, though other authorities do differ on this, relating instead to the chance that there might be non-kosher elements in the food.
And relating to the discussion on restaurants employing non-Jews, we see that as long as the fire is started by a Jew – in case of Ashkenazim – then the food is accepted, even if a non-Jew places the food (making the rationale be that the one starting the fire is the one cooking the food), whereas other – Sfardic – authorities rule that as long as the Jew does not place the food, then it is not kosher (relating the question of who cooks the food to who places the food, rather than who turns on the fire), though having R. Ovadyah Yosef, shelita, establishing the leniency that as long as the restaurant is owned by a Jew, and hence being under halachic authority and having to follow kashrut, then it is enough that a Jew lights the fire.
What this means in practice is, that the decision of R. Ovadyah Yosef, shelita, makes it possible for Jewish restaurant owners to survive in Israel, something which would be harder, had he not adopted this leniency, which again shows development being a reaction to developments in the society the religion exists in. Had we been in a society where the vast majority had been Jews, and only very few workers in a restaurant would have been non-Jews, making it a fact that there always would have been Jews in the restaurant, then I doubt that we would have seen this decision.
This leads us back to Herdian’s criteria. I don’t believe that his criteria alone is enough for integrity. Rather, the religious scholar need also understand the demands of the followers, the situation the religion exists in, as well as relating all his decisions to traditional rulings, as well as relating to Herdian’s criteria. But this has been the historical reality for those Jewish leaders, who managed to gather the Jews and strengthening the acceptance of the Jewish Rabbinical tradition, relating to the incidents and reality of their time, also before the Enlightenment.
That way we see that Ezra, a”s, related to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem, Yehudah HaNasi, z”l, relating to the need of conserving the Oral Tradition, Sa’adya Gaon’s understanding of a number of factors, Maimonides need to help the unlearned Jews having an easier time finding rabbinical rulings (as well as the general need of being an attentive and empathetic leader), and so on.
I hope that gave a more full picture of my thoughts on the issue.
In an article, “The Israeli Millet System: Examining Legal Pluralism through Lenses of Nation-Building and Human Rights”, Yüksel Sezgin puts a critical focus on the Israeli legal system, arguing for the problematic nature of legal pluralism in the state, and the consequences of it.
Besides the proposal of a conscious Israeli choice of the Ottoman Millet system, used in order to create a unified and single Jewish identity, and being able to make a clear differing between this Jewish identity and Israeli non-Jewish identities, Sezgin points out why legal pluralism can be a problem, at least in the case of Israel.
As mentioned in earlier posts, in Israel authority on matters of family and personal law has been granted religious courts, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze. This means that each religious group is only able to be married according to its religious laws, which again means that only those recognized as acceptable can be married. This differs from religion to religion, such as in case of Jews/Judaism is it only possible for Jews to marry Jews, while in case of Muslims/Islam is it possible for Muslim men to marry Jewish or Christian women, but not for Muslim women to marry Jewish or Christian men, and this is considered law of the state. In case of divorce this is also done according to the respective religion and its laws, which means that Jewish and Muslim women basically are placed in a worse situation than ditto men.
Should a Jewish man and Muslim woman fall in love and choose to marry, this is only possible outside Israel, but once married they would have to be divorced according to the laws of Israel, even if divorced outside Israel this divorce not necessarily being accepted by Israeli (religious) authorities.
The problematic nature of this is obvious, particularly considering that freedom of religion is secured in Israeli law, which might mean that one can choose any religion he/she wishes for, at least in theory (in practice it might be harder, depending on religion converting away from and which converting to). Basically what is meant, seen from practice, is that one has freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion. If you want to get married, it can only be through a religious court and according to your respective religion, rendering the choice of “no religion” void.
We are left with two problems already, when it comes to the nature of “freedom of religion”, since we see from the already mentioned that religion is not something you can choose to or from, it is forced on you, you can only choose which religion. And your choice of love is not free from you either, leaving anyone not accepted by your religion in the category of “no-go”.
This is a clear clash of Israeli family law and international human rights, but it doesn’t stop there. In case of divorce do we see the clash between the thought of equality, something Israel is claiming, and religious laws. In Judaism a man can give a declaration of divorce, with or without the acknowledgement of the woman, while the same is not the case does the woman want a divorce. There has been implemented ways of forcing the man to give the divorce, should he object, such as daily bills, loosing of drivers license and work license, and even imprisonment, but it is rarely enforced, since many rabbinical judges sees this as going contrary to Halachah, and such do not use this enforcement.
In case of Muslims a woman is ensured payment for a certain time, but it has been shown that Muslim women receive less than divorced Jewish and Christian women, which is another example of inequality.
This is of course problematic in a state, which calls itself Democratic, at least if we understand the “Democratic” as in securing equality and keeping human rights, rather just than “one man, one vote”.
As I pointed out in my last post, there are difference between the Jewish and the Muslim case, having examples overlapping between the two cases. For example does the Muslim man have more choices of spouse than the Jewish ditto.
Sezgin criticizes Israel’s embracing the Ottoman Millet system, both in terms of nation building, that is, as a tool used in order to create distinct groups, making it easier to control them, as well as in terms of human rights, criticizing the enforced religious rule on family and personal matters.
I see the problematic nature, at least in the latter case (I am not so sure we should be cynical about the choice of the Millet system, considering the challenging situation Israel found herself in at the establishment of the state, though Sezgin does refuse this excuse), but as shown from Hofri’s article in my last post, the religious are getting ground in Israel, and the consequence of the growing secularization of the Israeli legal system – which Sezgin doesn’t seem to acknowledge – does create the need, for the religious, for alternatives, which could end creating a split with the state, and the question is whether the state wants or can handle that challenge. And this is not only in case of Jews, but also the Muslims, where we see an Islamic Movement challenging the Shari’a Courts, something which most likely only will be strengthened, the more secular the state attempts to make law in Israel. We will later see that the Shari’a courts are attempting to remove any secular Israeli influence, in order to answer the challenge from the Islamic Movement, but should we get a pure secular family law in Israel, who will then take the religious marriages, and by that controlling part of the religious rituals?
I hope to be able to give some thoughts on the clash between human rights and religious courts later on, when I get more material covered. For now it will mostly be speculation and guesses, but again, I’m only sharing thoughts.
Take care out there.
No, not the political Israeli party, but rather the Talmud. Sha”S is an abbreviation of the Hebrew “shisha sedarim,” six orders, which relates to the six orders of the Talmud, namely Zera’im (on agriculture), Mo’ed (the festivals and holy times), Nashim (on women), Neziqin (damages, typical criminal law), Qodashim (the Holies), and Tehorot (purities).
A new initiative to strengthen the study of the Talmud, has been created by Sammy Sacks, Elon Weintraub, Brian Wartell,Atara Chouake, and Shmueli Englard, with the help of Scott Silver and Binyomin Burke, six American college students dedicated to the study of the Talmud.
Basically what they want to do, is to promote the study of the Talmud on their campus, but since they have gone internet it is possible for the rest of the world to follow their progress, and even participate in it. And I think we should, at least as much as we are able to.
From what I can see so far, what they are offering is both a systematic study, giving the students some order in what is being studied, explanations on what is being studied, as well as how to study the material at hand, material they also provide on their website and Youtube channel.
Personally I always appreciate new and serious initiatives in studies of Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud, and I would encourage the rest of you out there on participating in their efforts.
To add to that I would like to give some thoughts on why one should study Talmud. First off, to get rid of some of the misconceptions there exist about the Talmud, both as text and as of message. One of the major misconceptions I know of, is that the Talmud is a book of law. It is true that there is a great deal of law found in it, but not only law, and also true that the Talmud forms the basis – together, or based upon, the Torah – but not only so. Rather, as Elon also points out in one of their videos, Talmud is rather a book of Jewish thought. Jacob Neusner, one of the biggest scholars on Talmudic studies (in the academic world), describes it as a “fundamentally and deeply religious literature,” something he is right in. My own perception of the Talmud is that – though only formed and authored by a small number of Jews, compared to the overall number of Jews found through history – it is the piece of Jewish literature, forming and defining what it means to be “Jew” and what “Judaism” is. Of course, there has been differing understandings of what Judaism is, for example the Karaite Judaism, and it is not without a reason that scholars are talking about Rabbinites and Rabbinite Judaism, when they write on Jewish history – or rather on the history of Judaism. But still, if we are relating to Jewry of today, then the Talmud – together with the Bible, and none of them alone on their own – is the defining piece of literature, even when it comes to the Karaites and other Jewish groups/sects, which are more defining themselves in reaction to the Rabbinic teachings, as they are mainly defined by the Talmud, rather than on their own.
But yet the Talmud is a very mystical piece of literature for most. Many are talking about it, but not many know it. It is used against Jews, by antisemites promoting lies and distortions based on either faulty believes of the Talmud or fabricated claims of what it states. It is also being promoted as evidence of the genius of the Jews, as if it is some kind of superior writing, which can only be written by people of a certain intellectual level (which I tend to agree with, but not that this should something particularly Jewish).
The Talmud encourages thought, discussion, debate, curiosity, want for knowledge. It is never satisfied, until each and every stone has been turned, and nothing can be said for or against, besides what already has been said. And often it doesn’t even decide on a case, even then, at least not clearly. This in itself makes the Talmud curious, what is it that it wants to tell us? But also that it covers a span on 600 years of Jewish intellectual reactions to the changes of a rather turbulent world full of contrasts, relating to the meetings with various cultures and religions, and how the Jewish sages saw themselves, as well as the Jewish people as a whole, in contrast to these cultures and religions. It is a book by humans, on humans, in relation to humans, but all the time in connection to the Divine, and never does it back away from a difficult question.
So, go for it, at least allow yourself to be introduced to the world of Talmud, and give yourself the chance to understand the core of Jewish thought.
Being a religious Jew and an academic student of religions, can sometimes present you for some interesting reactions, especially when you live in a society like the Israeli, where the idea of various religious groups living together is okay, but studying each other religious texts are less normal (it does happen though).
One reaction I’ve gotten a couple of times is based on a mishnah in the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, which states that:
“… these do not have a portion in the world-to-come: One who says, ”Resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah,” and ”the Torah is not from Heaven,” and an heretic apikoros. Rabbi Akiva says, Even one who reads external books…” (Sanhedrin 10:1 – Kehati translation)
The problem being R. Akiva’s statement. According to the people reacting to when I tell what I study, what I study is contrary to what is allowed from the Mishnah (and the Mishnah is considered holy, also by me). The Hebrew is “af haqore bisfarim haḥitzonim” (אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים), the “ḥitzonim” meaning something external, that is, outside the accepted tradition, which would include any religious (or non-religious) book you can imagine, which is not either part of the Canon or Rabbinical of nature. Or does it mean this?
Let us take one Jewish commentary, before we delve into some of the interesting aspects of Talmuds and manuscripts, that of R. Yitzḥaq Alfasi, who states that these books are books of heretics who interpreted the Biblical texts according to their own opinions, rather than to follow those of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. From this we can learn that external texts are not so much connected to non-Jewish religious texts, as they are connected to Jewish religious heretical texts. This will also be clear from the following discussion.
First I want to relate to the Babylonian Gemarrah on the Mishnah, which is found in Sanhedrin 100b. Here we can read (differences of wordings is caused by the use of a difference translation, the Hebrew is the same):
“R. Akiva said: Also he who reads uncanonical books, etc.” A Tanna taught: This means the books of the Sadducees. R. Joseph said: It is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira.”
So here we see that the books thought about, as understood by a Tannaic rabbi, as well as the later Amorai, R. Joseph, are Jewish books. They don’t relate to, e.g., Greek or Persian religious writings, only Jewish – in their eyes – heretical writings.
In the Yerushalmi we can read the following on the same mishnah (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 28a):
“R. Akiva adds: one who reads the outside books such as the books of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La’aga. But he who reads the books of Homer and all other books that were written from then on, is considered like one who is reading a secular document… (here is a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12)… Hence, casual reading is permissible but intensive studying is forbidden.”
Also here we see that it is related to other Jewish writings (Ben Sira and Ben La’aga both being Jews) as being problematic, as far as they are considered heretic, while Greek texts, and texts written after that particular time are not.
The question is why this is the case? What is so bad about the Jewish heretical writings, which is not found in the non-Jewish religious texts? The answer is found in the discussion following R. Joseph’s statement in the Talmud Bavli. Basically – to sum up – the problem lies in the fact that the Jewish heretical writings are too similar to the canonical Jewish writings, that is, the Canon of the Bible and the sayings of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. One – particularly an unlearned – can easily confuse the two (as an example try to read the writings of Ben Sira and compare them with, e.g., Ecclesiastes), while this is not the case with non-Jewish religious writings (compare, e.g., the Torah and the Quran). Also, since they at this time, of the Mishnah, did have a canon, when it came to the Biblical writings, then it would not be a problem with later texts, since we would know that they are written too late to be part of the Biblical canon.
According to the Sages, z”l, what we are dealing with is a question of accepted texts being part of the canon, and therefore holy, or heretical texts proposing themselves as being holy texts, part of the canon.
There is also the question of which words were used about the texts in questions. We find differences depending on which manuscripts we are reading. As we saw, the Tanna taught that what was meant was “books of the Sadducees,” but some manuscripts have “minim” (מינים) instead of “Sadducees.” This word is used about heretic Jews, particular Christian Jews – which most likely also is why “Sadducees” have been inserted in some manuscripts, since Christians in the Medieval times didn’t take so lightly on what could be considered an affront to Christian dogmas and teachings.
But all in all we get a picture of a statement, which most likely was primarily concerned with the confrontation between canonical Holy Texts, and heretic writings, which might have been confused with Holy Scripture, rather than a statement against the study (even more the modern academic study) of non-Jewish religious texts, which – as we saw – were considered on level with secular writings, and as such would not be object for the same intensive study, as would be the case with Jewish Holy texts.
What can we learn from this, besides the already explained? Well, that when we are dealing with religious texts, particularly when they are found within a religious tradition (and most religious texts are, not surprisingly), then we need to get into the details and expand the reading if we want to really understand their meaning. Just reading one text artificially, and then believe that we get the full picture from that, is simply misleading. Unfortunately many religious people today seem to read their own religious texts that way, something which damage and bring their religion down on a level, rendering it without meaning or purpose. Religions, whether it be Judaism or other religions, are not afraid of the critical study of their texts, on the contrary, they demand it. They want the believer to understand what the religion is about, not just based on a shallow reading of one or two text, for then to believe that the answer and solution is found, based on that inadequate reading.
First off I want to relate you to an amazing and informative post by Jessica on askanislamicist, where she writes about Schacht and Hallaq, two Islamicists, who are important to know and understand in order to get the discussion at hand, and in the academic study of Islamic law in general. So please take a little time reading her post before reading the following.
Did you read it? Good, let’s get to it.
As you without a doubt read in my two last posts, I am telling a little about my assignments, having the last post being about my assignment on the Quranic view on Biblical texts. In this post I will deal with my seminar paper on the comparative study of stoning in Judaism and Islam. But first, why stoning? What is it that makes a sane guy (as far as I am sane, I’m doubting that sometimes, and I know my wife wasn’t too sure after having witnessed me going in depth with the issue) focus on stoning, maybe one of the most cruel capital punishments the human mind can think of? Well, let me tell you this; as part of this study I also read about other capital punishments, and there are methods of killing out there WAY worse than stoning. As a matter of fact, if I should choose between all the methods of being killed (and no, please don’t take this as an encouragement, I do like to live), stoning definitely comes on my top5 list. Just think about the Chinese way of cutting of pieces of the body, flesh first, then limbs, until you die. Or the Persian method of – well- feeding you with milk and honey until you – as a consequence – have certain natural urges, but then trap you in a hollow tree or two boats put together, place you in the desert, and let bugs be your only company, until you die from one of several causes. Detailed enough I think, and I do apologize. But this study was a lot about details, and how they did not fit together.
When one says “stoning,” many might think of “Muslim barbarians” stoning innocent women in Africa or wherever you find these kinds of guys. Well, breaking illusions, as it is portrayed these cases of stoning is actually going against Islamic law, and is more telling about people basing their judgment on lack of knowledge, than actually relating to Islamic law. Of course, the women being stoned (because it is interestingly enough mostly women, though Islam also prescribes stoning for men) probably don’t care much, but when we relate to Islam and the matter of stoning, this is of extreme importance. The equitant being that some Americans groups killed people randomly with gas, and then establish that this was telling of the States in general, since gassing is one of the ways of killing criminals convicted to death (and any innocent who ends up there, based on a error of judgment).
That aside, Islam is not the only religion having stoning as a death sentence, as well as stoning is not the only way of killing. There is also crucifixion and beheading, depending on what the crime is. Stoning in Islam is given for adultery, but not all people committing adultery are judged to stoning. One has to be “muhsan,” that is, married, free, Muslim, adult, and of sane mind. A slave, for example, cannot be judged to stoning, but “only” lashes, and only half of what the free non-muhsan Muslim would receive. So the punishment is to a lesser degree dependent on what is done, as to who has done it, except in case of sodomy, which also leads to stoning, no matter the status of the person doing the crime.
In Judaism it is a little different. Here it is not so much the status of the person who did the crime that matters, as the crime being done. For example, if you have sex with a married woman you would receive a different punishment than if you had sex with a betrothed woman, who was a virgin, or if you had sex with your daughter in law or your father’s wife. Also, in Judaism stoning is not only related to adultery, but also to certain rebellious attitudes, for example he who curses his parents, as well as idolatry.
Another difference, which I put particular interest in, is the concept of stoning, that is, how it is done. In the Bible, the Torah, we find stoning mentioned with two terms, s’qilah (סקילה), and regimah (רגימה). It is not clear what the difference between the two is, when reading the Torah itself, but relating to various dictionaries, such as Gesenius’, we can learn that the term s’qilah is related to something heavy, probably being related to the Arab word shaql (شقل), while the term regimah is related to the sense of something being thrown as a missile, piling up. This is interesting, since the Arabic word for stoning is rajm (), which is basically the Arab form of the Hebrew regimah, consisting of the same root (resh/ra, gimel/gjim, mem/mim), and they both carry the same basic meaning.
What is even more interesting is that when we read the Mishnah on stoning, in Seder Neziqin, Massechet Sanhedrin, we see that stoning is described in relation to s’qilah, namely via a heavy stone thrown on the sentenced in order to crush him (after having been pushed down from a height of two men – maybe an influence from Roman law, though not of interest here). If he does not die from this, a second heavy stone is thrown at him by the witnesses, and then – if he should survive that as well, he is to be pelted by “Israel,” that is, the people witnessing the stoning. The word used in order of the heavy stones is s’qilah, while the term used for the people pelting him is regimah. Here we clearly see the difference between the two terms, the one relating to crushing with a heavy stone, where as the other is relating to stones thrown/pelted at somebody. For the Hebrew speakers it might be interesting to read the verses in the Torah with that knowledge in mind, and see what meaning the verses give you now – and please write in a comment what you got out of it, could be interesting to hear.
Stoning in Islam is solely described with the term rajm, that is, the Arabic version of regimah. The understanding is the same, pointing at a shared Semitic origin. Also, if we read ancient Semitic laws, such as Hammurabi and the Eshnunna, we will see that the term regimah/rajm is also used, so there is a pre-Judaic/Islamic origin of the regimah/rajm.
Considering these details, and many more which I also describe, it is hard to reach the conclusion that the stoning of Islam is influenced or even borrowed from the Jewish ditto. Rather it seems like they share a common origin, but Judaism developed the concept of stoning, maybe influenced by some non-Semitic sources. It seems more that the Islamic concept of stoning is of a pre-Islamic Arabic and maybe even Semitic origin, going back to early Aramaic-Arabic relations, long before Islam.
This was the first part I dealt with in the paper. The second part is relating to the Schacht-Hallaq impasse (!!), and their claims. Schacht believes that stoning is a later Islamic concept, most likely borrowed from Judaism, and from Iraqi-Jewish sources (such as the Talmud and the early Geonim). Schacht sees the Iraqi Muslim scholars and jurist as the definers of Islamic law, particularly Shafi’î, who is considered one of the greatest and earliest Islamic legal minds, and the founding father of the four roots of Usul al-Fiqh (Quran, Sunnah, Ijma, and Qiyas). Hallaq on the other hand sees the Hijaz as the legal forming center, and refuses Schacht’s critical attitude to the hadiths. Hallaq sees a lot of pre-Islamic Arabic legal practice as the base for later Islamic law, or at least sees Islamic law as being founded in a shared Semitic origin, rather as mere borrowing from Jewish or Roman law (the latter is something Schacht believes strongly being the source of much of Islamic law).
But relating this to stoning. Since Schacht believes that stoning only entered Islamic law some centuries after Muhammad’s death, and that it is based on Jewish traditions, while Hallaq sees the opposite, what can my study say about this? I think it’s obvious. The Islamic concept of stoning does not seem to be much influenced by the Jewish concept. If indeed Islam “borrowed” the Jewish stoning as a punishment, and this is based on Iraqi Muslim scholars’ meeting with Jewish ditto, why then use the term rajm, and not for example shaql, based on the Hebrew s’qilah, or a derivation thereof? Why do we not see more similarities, or rather any similarities? Why is one judge enough to judge in Islam, when twenty-three (or more) is needed in Judaism? Why are four witnesses needed in Islam, when two is enough in Judaism? Why is Islam more focused on the status of the person, when Judaism is more focused on the crime being done? And so on. It seems a little weird to claim that the Jewish concept of stoning should be the base for the Islamic ditto, when so little is similar between. And Roman law is totally out of the question – as far as I know – since stoning is not used as a capital punishment.
I would rather believe that the roots of Islamic stoning is found in a Semitic environment not being too exposed to non-Semitic cultural encounters, and of all places I can think of the Arabian Peninsula is the only place that could be, which would mean that stoning in Islam most likely is based on pre-Islamic Arabic practices. And if that is the case, then this is definitely going in Hallaq’s favour.
Of course, stoning could be based on Sassanian law (pre-Islamic Persian dynasty), but my knowledge about Sassanian law is close to non-existent. So if anyone out there can enlighten me on that subject I would be grateful.
Some notes here in the end I probably need to share, which is obvious from the paper itself, but not from what I have written here: The Quran says nothing about stoning as a punishment. On the contrary, the Quran prescribes lashes as punishment for adultery. I related only to Sunni-Fiqh, not Shi’a, and I based the paper on the Maliki al-Muwatta, though many of the hadiths I related to also are found both in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. I also only related to the Mishnah, not so much to the Gemarrah, since the Mishnah lays the foundation and the Gemarrah only relates to the broadening of details. Furthermore I spent some space in the paper on discussing the hadith about the two Jews being brought to Muhammad, and the problematic nature of ‘Abdullah ibn Salâm’s involvement, considering that he should have been a learned rabbi, in comparison to the details being presented in the hadith.
With that said I think it’s time to stop. Thanks for your time.
All the best.
Warning: This post might be somewhat offending to some Muslims, since it deals in part with the Quran outside the Islamic traditional understanding of it and its message.
As I explained in my last post I did four assignments, and one of them was about how the Quran views and understands the Biblical scriptures. I am not going into detail or post the whole assignments here, that would be a little too much, but there were some aspects which I found rather interesting.
First off, I based the assignments on the findings of Gabriel Said Reynolds (which can be found in his “The Qur’ân and its Biblical Subtext”), who argues that the Quran, as far is it being studied by academics and on its own, should be studied in light of the Biblical texts, which – for him – gives more sense than reading it in light of tafsirs (Islamic commentaries), since that would mean that one would study the Quran through an afterthought, rather than relating to what might be the basis for the Quranic thought, which according to Reynolds are the Biblical texts, and I understand why he thinks so.
Though Reynolds’ book in itself is very interesting I won’t deal so much with its details here – though I might in another post – but more relate to his overall concept.
The second scholar I related to is Mondher Sfar and his “In Search of the Original Koran: The True Story of the Revealed Text” (translated by Emilia Lanier). This book is most likely to offend quite a lot of Muslim minds, since it basically attempts to challenge the Islamic traditional understanding of the Quran as revealed text and how it is revealed. Nevertheless I found it being somewhat in line with Reynolds’ book, and since I did want to challenge the normal understanding of how the Quran viewed the Biblical texts, I related to these two books.
Besides that I related to a etymological inquiry into certain terms, which normally are considered to be related to the Biblical texts, such as Tawrat (Torah, the Five Books of Moses), Zabur (the Psalms of David), and the Injil (the Gospel, relating more to the revelation Jesus got according to the Quran, rather than the four gospels and the New Testament as a whole). I also delved into the usage of suhuf, meaning scrolls or parchment, as well as kitab, meaning book. The two last terms seemed to be rather general, so I did not spend so much time on them. Here I related heavily on Jastrow’s dictionary, as well as the six translations of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Sahih International, Muhsin Khan, and Dr. Ghali (all as found at Quran.com – I can highly recommend the website).
What is interesting is not so much that the Quran views itself as being from the same source (God), or that carries the same significance – that it is sent in order to guide in the right direction, as a law from God. What is interesting is that it hints several places that the details of this divine law is not the same as it is presented in the Tawrat, Injil and in the Quran itself. It does hint at the Tawrat being specifically for the Jews, the Injil specifically for the Christians, and the Quran specifically for the Arabs/Muslims. We see it particularly in the fifth Surah (chapter), where Muhammad deals with the question of law and judgment.
What I was especially surprised about was the zabur, which traditionally has been interpreted and understood as being the Psalms of David. This is understandable, considering that David is connected with a revelation called “zabur,” but the term is also used in other contexts. In the following I will quote what I wrote in the assignment:
“Zabûr (زَبُور )
Zabur, which root (ز ب ر ) appears 11 times in the Quran, in the forms zubar (زُبَر – 18:96), zubur (زُبُر – 3:184, 16:44, 23:53, 26:196, 35:25, 54:43, 54:52), and zabur (زَبُور – 4:163, 17:55, 21:105), is normally understood as the Psalms given to David, though it is not clear whether it is the collections of psalms as they appear in the Bible (תהילים ).
In Lane’s dictionary he relates to Ibn Barî saying that the ”zibur” (الزبر ) means ”the Book of the Law revealed to Moses and the Gospel and the Kur-an [together]” (Lane, ”Arabic-English Lexicon”, on زبر, pp. 1211). I do not see the sense in relating this root to any other than the one hinted at by Ibn Barî, though he does not mention David in this relation, which is related to the zabûr in the Quran.
21:105 vs. 54:52 – 21:105 speaks of it being told that the righteous will inherit the land, while 54:52 speaks about recording deeds of the criminals. It could be understood from this, that the Zabur is something holding records of people deeds (?). But is it all people, and if so, all in the same “zabur”, or is it only the criminals as it might appear from 54:52 (in this case relate to Pickthall’s translation of zubur to “books of dark prophecies”).
When we relate to the use of the term, we see that it is used with different though related meanings. From a number of verses do we learn that zabur is something sent to more messengers (Quran 3:184, 16:44, 26:196, 35:25 – all expressed in the plural). There does seem to be a contrast between zabur, used in singular, and other messages sent to prophets, where the messages in general is sent to a number of messengers, but the zabur, with the definite article, is related to David only (Quran 4:163, 17:55). These are two of the only times zabur in singular definite form is mentioned in the Quran, the third being in relation to a statement about the righteous and their destiny as being the inheritants of “the land” (Quran 21:105), a statement which reflects Isaiah 60:21 – a possible connection – which could tell of an understanding which covers more than only the Psalms of the Bible. This could hint at the real understanding subscribed to the term, zabûr, to cover those part of the Bible (the TaNaCh part), which includes the Prophetical books as well as the Scriptures (the “NaCh” part, if not all, then at least in the overall meaning). This would also seem to confirm Reynolds’ approach, confirming the link and connection to the Biblical texts. If we relate to the Jewish traditional organization of the Bible, the prophets are gathered under one, “Nevi’im”, and it would seem that this could be the relation between the zabûr and the Biblical texts, except though in the case of the linking of the zabûr to David. Why zabûr is connected, if at all, to the Psalms though these are not normally considered prophetical by the Jewish tradition, can be related to how the Christian tradition views them, indeed as being prophetical, and considering how often the Psalms are connected to being prophecies about Jesus, in some way or another, it is no wonder if the Quran would view the Psalms as being part of the Divine revelations.
Based on this I believe that it would be correct to only understand zabûr as the Book of Psalms in the two cases when it is prescribed to David, if we should understand it in this relation at all, while in any other case, when the Quran talks about az-zubur and az-zabûr (in 21:105) as covering the Bible, except the Torah. It would also seem weird that the Quran did not have any concept of the rest of the books in the Bible, if we only understand zabûr either in context of the Book of Psalms or as covering all Scriptures in general, an understanding I believe we rather should find in the usage of kitâb.”
And with that I will stop here. Please comment and ask if there should be any questions.
All the best