O-bashing, continued
Third in an ever-more intermittent series.

I don't think boys younger than bar-mitzvah age should ever wear suits. It makes them look like Little Lord Fauntleroy or pint-size members of the Mob. Yet this appears to be de rigueur in many of my neighborhood Charedi shuls. Is the Shtetl, as imagined by Orthodox ideologues, populated by suit-wearing nine-year-olds?

(A Shtetl, thus capitalized, is a magical, mythically pious place, which even in the modern age harbored no doubt, heresy, or heterodoxy. Some very important Orthodox rabbis, whose naivete in this matter is charming, have quoted works of Yiddish literature [literature! that's imaginative writing, folks, whose relationship to reality is -- at its closest -- beside the point!] as a faithful historical record of what life in the Shtetl must have been like. Cf. R. Soloveitchik in Halachic Man, part 2, with a long footnote quoting I.L. Peretz, and, I believe, R. Aharon Lichtenstein referencing Sholem Aleichem, though I can't find the Lichtenstein text right now.)

But these are aesthetic criticisms, and can easily be refuted. ("Why, I find suit-wearing nine-year-olds deliciously heartwarming!")

This installment address a broader fault of Orthodoxy, viz.: the inability to admit (or, better, face the fact) that great rabbis of the past were often wrong in many ways. I'll take two examples in summary form. (These are examples I've encountered recently in my own Torah study, which means they're more interesting for me to blog about than rehashed and well-known sources [e.g. misogynistic sayings from the Gemara]).

In the tractate Eruvin of the Babylonian Talmud, page 59a (ערובין נט. תוספות ד"ה ותחומין דרבנן, for those of you following along at home), the writers of the Tosefot talk about whether certain classes of people are believable as witnesses for certain classes of ritual law (eruvs, kosher slaughter, setting aside of the challah). Their argument concludes: "If searching for chametz were a Torah-level requirement, women would not be believable [as to their testimony that such a search had been properly completed], even if they're directly involved in the task, because searching for chametz requires punctiliousness and great care. Therefore [in this case] one should worry about women's laziness more than in another case. That too is the meaning of the Jerusalem Talmud, [where it is said that] women are not believable with regard to searching for chametz, because they are lazy and search only the most minimal amount."

Now, I can't say that I'm surprised at such a statement. Misogynistic statements in the Gemara are a dime-a-dozen (as are legal innovations for the benefit of women, albeit with lesser frequency). Nor is this Tosfos a vital pillar of Jewish thought or law (though women's "unfitness" as witnesses has been a long and, actually, quite sordid chapter of halachah). (It's a very interesting Tosfos, of course, as most of them are, but not for its misogyny. I think this Tosfos might hint that "bedikas khomets" is more akin to "Pesach cleaning" than a modern-day halachist would admit.) The reason I bring it up here is that I can guess exactly how an average Orthodox rabbi would respond to it: with apologetics. Perhaps "Oh, we don't pasken like Tosfos here" (I don't know if we do or not), or "This is a metaphysical truth about women's innate capacities" or even "Who are we to criticize Tosfos"?

Here's the most cogent and satisfying way to read the statement of Tosfos with regard to women's laziness: It's wrong. Case closed. This doesn't mean that I'm arrogant, or reject the authority of Torah, or think I know more than the Baalei Tosfos. It doesn't even mean that I eat pork chops with a side of cheescake on Yom Kippur. It just means that sometimes rabbis are wrong. We gay-loving, jeans-wearing, Debbie Friedman-singing Conservative Jews certainly have our faults (hint: only one of those three activities is a sin in my book, and it's not being gay), but we can respect rabbis while calling them on their mistakes and not get tied up in knots about it.

There's a second example I'll give. It's shorter. According to halachah (the Rambam, at any rate, and I believe the Shulchan Aruch and the Remo as well; consult your local rabbi if you're brave enough to talk to her about it!), you're not allowed to have sex during the daytime or by the light of a candle. Why's that? A longish discussion in tractate Niddah of the Babylonian Talmud, starting on 16b, comes down to this: there's an angel (or demon, pick your translation) who deals with conception, and she's only active at night. Now this Gemara is not wrong, exactly. It's a convincing and consistent implication of a magical state of affairs. Unfortunately, I don't believe in the Gemara's magic. What do I do about it? Again, I could wax apologetic (it's a metaphorical apperception of a metaphysical truth! it's a guard against overpromiscuousness in the married couple! it's a segule for exciting lovemaking!), or I could say: I understand (or at least I think I do), and I don't agree. Case closed.

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