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Things That Suck but the Talmud Says Are Okay

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It’s probably just as well that rabbinical school is on hold right now. My coming-to-Moses moment about my life in Chicago and my personal Jewish practice has had some serious consequences for my estimation of some central elements of Jewish law. The greatest issue I had with rabbinical school, surprisingly, was Talmud.

The notion that a massive book of collected religious laws and commentary written by several dozen rabbis over several hundred years that ended over 1,500 years ago was not open to question was impossible for me to take seriously.

It’s interesting that I thought I wanted a rabbinic education that was highly text based. When researching schools, I questioned the attitude of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that Jewish law was only important in cultural terms. Part of me still does. The law was codified for a reason–to maintain a sense of religious order for Jews who could no longer practice what they originally knew of as Judaism after the Second Temple fell two millennia ago.

But it’s supposed to be a living tradition and I don’t honestly believe that it is given the way that we deal with Talmud in modern times. I don’t understand the pedestal that it’s on, especially in the non-Orthodox world that doesn’t claim that one’s ability to achieve closeness with God depends utterly on following the letter of the law.

It’s a discomfort I’ve danced around various times when I’ve made educated Reform Jewish decisions regarding the way I choose to observe Yom KippurPassover, Sukkot, and the December holiday season. Regarding Passover in particular, I bridled at the idea that the only reason Jews outside of Israel mark the holiday for eight days instead of seven is because the last official Sanhedrin, or religious high court, stopped meeting in the year 358.

The same way I find it ludicrous for Jews to consider ourselves beholden to a court that hasn’t met in more than 1,600 years, I can’t abide the idea that the pronouncements of men who similarly lived a millennium and a half ago are not open to question. Especially since so much of Talmudic opinion–and modern poskim, or Jewish legal decisions, as well–is based on a wink and a nod. When you decide the law is not open to change, only tightening–as is the traditional perspective regarding halacha–when it becomes obvious that the law must change, there’s not much you can do that doesn’t seem in some ways like a total sham.

Do we still stone adulterers to death? No. Is it still technically allowed by Jewish law? Yes. So why don’t we–besides that fact that it’s illegal, anyway? Because ancient and modern opinions on halacha include all sorts of loopholes and qualifications to erase laws like that by making them impossible to actually carry out. But they’re still there.

In some cases where existing law flies directly in the face of contemporary social mores but isn’t technically illegal (or immoral), it not only remains but is upheld by more traditional Jews. Orthodox Judaism maintains strict standards of tzniut (modesty) and gender separation, for example. Why? Because to those several dozen men who lived 1,500 years ago it seemed like a good idea, and we have no Sanhedrin to say otherwise.

It really is as simple as that.

When you can’t officially change your laws, you end up with competing religious streams which differ on what to do about that fact. That difference of opinion is what distinguishes the major streams of Judaism. Reconstructionist and Reform Jews acknowledge that some halacha really is bad halacha, even outright dangerous and damaging by contemporary standards, by throwing the baby out with the bath water and declaring Jewish law, simply, optional as you see fit to follow it. Conservative Judaism makes a similar acknowledgement, but still holds that halacha is binding–except, wink wink, nod nod, we know that’s not really how our congregants follow it.

Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, believes halacha to be more important than the contemporary world and modern liberal values. And since that pesky Sanhedrin hasn’t existed since Roman times, no matter what that law says, one must abide by it. And since one must abide by it, instead of helping today’s Jews live in the contemporary world, legal decisions in the Orthodox world concentrate upon building higher and higher “fences” around ancient law.

Because Orthodox Jewish leaders are currently accorded great political control in Israel, that makes life difficult for anyone who isn’t Orthodox. Outdated, socially unjust halacha is not only taken for granted, but often promulgated. Which brings me back to tzniut and gender segregation.

In ancient Jewish law, modest dress for men and women in public and gender segregation during prayer are both based upon the assumption that men and woman cannot control themselves or their thoughts when they’re around each other, and hence would be thinking of sex and not higher things (like God) if mixed together. Modesty and gender segregation are also based on the assumption that all Jews are heterosexual, and on the secondary assumptions that homosexual Jews are not valid Jews and that their needs need not be taken into account.

So the moment you accept the requirements of modest dress in public and gender segregation during prayer–central norms in the Orthodox Jewish community–you accept that human beings cannot think beyond their private parts, and that only human beings who use their private parts with the opposite sex matter. You can’t have it both ways, they’re mutually exclusive. And even that’s fine if that’s how you choose to roll religiously on a personal level.

The problem is when ideologies like that are given official political expression. In Israel, that has led in recent years to women being forced to sit in the back of buses that service ultra-Orthodox communities, women’s photos blotted out of newspapers with high religious readership, women being forced to walk on the opposite side of the street from men in some neighborhoods, women’s voices barred from some radio stations, and women being restricted from praying at Judaism holiest site, the Western Wall. And to a lot of this not changing even after Israeli Supreme Court decisions saying that gender segregation is illegal in the public realm.

The usual protestations from the Orthodox community are that modesty and gender segregation allow for a higher feeling of religiosity and prayer. That they’re good things. Except that they’re built specifically upon the denigration of normal human sexuality, the rejection of gay Jews, and the refusal to believe in the ability of Jewish men and women to act like adults. Which makes that higher feeling of religiosity and prayer nothing more than a feeling, and a misplaced one, at that.

Not that this is a screed aimed at Orthodox Judaism. At least, not at Orthodox Judaism, alone. No matter the stream of Judaism, whether we consider halacha totally binding or just folkloric, we certainly idolize that halacha and the ancient men who wrote it down. Of course, idolatry–or holding something to be more important than God–is the greatest sin in Judaism. But when even the most liberal stream of Judaism agrees that the words of the Sages are above reproach (hence, ignore it all if you wish since you can’t change it)–although some of those words obviously conflict with how human beings live in the world today, and in some ways have always lived–I don’t know what else you’d call it.

You can either observe laws of modesty and gender segregation that assume a completely heterosexual world or you can acknowledge human beings as God made us, in all of our diversity. But you can’t do both. Setting things in stone doesn’t stop the world from changing. It just keeps you permanently caught up in your underpants. This is the biggest reason why liberal Jews look at Orthodox Jews and shake their heads.

And this is the biggest reason why post-denominational Jews, one of which I more and more clearly see myself to be, look at institutional Judaism in general, get depressed, and shrug.


Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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4 replies

  1. Were women segregated from men on public throughfares during the Second Temple Period? I would not have thought so.

  2. To Aaron M. Renn:
    To say “Rabbinic Judaism represents only one of the strains of Jewish thought” is similar to saying that good wine represents only one of the strains of wine production – there is also not really good wine, bad wine, really bad wine, outrageously shitty wine…Definitely, all the stains find their rightful place in the post-judgmental world of embracing diversity.

  3. Part of it is that Rabbinic Judaism represents only one of the strains of Jewish thought coming out of the Second Temple period. The trauma of the first century extinguished a lot of the plurality of thinking and left two basic strands, one of which became Christianity, and the other Rabbinic Judaism.

    You may also be interested in reading some non-Rabbinic accounts of the Mosaic Law. Jacob Milgrom was widely considered the foremost scholar on Leviticus. He wrote a 2,500 page three volume commentary on it, but there’s a condensed single volume available that’s excellent. (Milgrom was a Conservative Jew). Also, Mary Douglas’ Leviticus at Literature is specular. Both of these non-Christian sources bring tremendous insight to a difficult part of the text. They also both wrote on Numbers as well.

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