Modernizing Our “Stone-Age” Tenets

hero image

Caveman cave computerSo, on the side, I’ve been helping out a little with Jew in the City.  Jew in the City is a wonderful web site run by a woman named Allison Josephs, who may be familiar to you through her own contributions to OU Life. Through Jew in the City, Allison addresses many misconceptions people may have regarding Jewish law, Jewish thought and Jewish life. In one of her YouTube videos, she addresses the practice of Jewish women to attend the mikvah. The comments section there contains the usual lively discussion, though one comment in particular caught my eye. (WARNING: Offensive language ahead!) It reads:

“I love how all retarded religions have to reinvent themselves and modernize their retarded stone-age tenets by revising their claims about what the scriptures are really saying. Do you really think the retarded Jews thousands of years ago have this post-modern view of women and empowering women with renewal powers of sexuality? Please stop the retarded historical revisionism and just admit you follow these retarded rules out of dogma.”

In reprinting it here, I cleaned up the punctuation a little. I wish I could clean up the language. I certainly wish I could clean up the vitriol behind it.

This person clearly has issues with religion. What else would motivate a person to use the word “retarded” five times in a 70-word comment, apparently accounting for more than 7% of their vocabulary? (For the record, we’re okay with using the word “retarded” exactly zero times, so that’s the last time you’ll be seeing it here.)

While this writer’s heart is certainly in the wrong place, he or she does raise a valid question. Do we really believe that our ancestors held such enlightened views on women? My answer is, “No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.” But that doesn’t mean that the Torah doesn’t.

In my book The Taryag Companion, I discuss how the Torah does not generally give us the reasons for mitzvos. This is because if we knew the reasons, human nature is such that people would invariably decide that the reasons don’t apply in their circumstances. A perfect example is found in Deuteronomy 17:16-17:

“The king shall not gather himself many horses, which would cause the people to return to Egypt in order to get horses, since G-d told you not to return that way again. Nor shall the king take many wives for himself, as this will cause his heart to turn astray…”

This is a rare instance in which the reasons for mitzvos are stated outright. A few centuries later, King Solomon, the wisest of all men, decided that he could collect horses without the people returning to Egypt and marry many women without it distracting from the service of G-d. And what happened was that many people moved to Egypt to engage in the lucrative horse trade (I Kings 10:29) and some of those wives set up idols in the king’s palace, for which Solomon was held responsible (I Kings 11:4). If the world’s smartest man was not immune to this hazard, certainly we would be in danger if we were given the reasons for mitzvos!

So, instead of being given reasons for the mitzvos, I suggest we look for the lessons inherent in the mitzvos. The lessons we derive may be different for different people living in different times and places. That doesn’t mean they’re mutually exclusive or untrue.

Let’s take the case of the sotah, a woman suspected of adultery. This is (wrongly) viewed by many as one of the most anti-woman mitzvos in the Torah. If a woman secludes herself with a man about whom her husband had previously expressed jealously and warned her about in the presence of witnesses, she becomes a sotah. The sotah is brought to the Temple, where she was ultimately given water to drink that had a scroll erased in it. People then envision the sotah exploding like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark (or Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure), though such is not the case. If she was guilty, she might gradually waste away over the course of a year or more. If she was innocent, her reward for being falsely suspected was that she would conceive a child.

It bewilders me how strongly some people object to this mitzvah, since it’s the only mitzvah in which G-d Himself promises to exact a particular, visible punishment. If one believes in G-d, how can one object to that? If one doesn’t believe in G-d, then what’s the problem? She drinks some water and goes home. In either case, consider the alternative if this mitzvah did not exist. Imagine a man living in the Middle East 3,500 years ago. He warns his wife not to be alone with a certain man and she disregards his warning. If this mitzvah did not exist, what course of action would the man have? Divorce? A beating? “Honor” killing? Part of the lesson of this mitzvah is to discourage vigilante justice in favor of the rule of law. Rather than anti-woman, it protected women. While this mitzvah is not practiced today, its message still rings true.

Slavery is one of the most reprehensible practices ever conceived. Since the Torah permits slavery, some people (wrongly) take this as proof of its backwardness.  The Torah’s idea of slavery is so far removed from what the Jews experienced in Egypt – or from the black experience in America – that to call them by the same word is a grave injustice.

In Jewish law, a slave is someone sold by the courts as restitution to pay for stolen property, or by himself to pay his debts. The period of servitude only lasts until the next sabbatical year, though the servant can opt to extend his service until the next Jubilee year. A master is not allowed to mistreat his servant, nor to give him back-breaking labor or “busy work.” If the master injures the slave, the slave goes free. A slave is to be given a nice severance package upon his release. A master has many more such responsibilities to his servant – so many, in fact, that the Talmud tells us (Kiddushin 20a) that a person who acquires a slave really acquires a master for himself. Far from barbaric, the Torah’s idea of slavery tells us how to treat people, it does not condone mistreating them!

There are many more such examples. Many people mistakenly think that a rape victim is obligated to marry the one who assaulted her. This is completely untrue! The rapist no longer has a choice in the matter as a consequence of his actions, but the victim is not compelled to marry anyone against her will. She retains free choice. Why would a rape victim ever choose to marry her attacker? In many times and places, finding a more suitable mate would have been precluded by such victimization. Again, the purpose of this law is actually to protect the woman, not to oppress her.

I could cite many more such examples. Far from being backwards or barbaric, the laws of the Torah are forward-thinking and progressive. Did our ancestors necessarily view them the same way we did? Probably not. But how do you think mankind’s thinking evolved? Rather than us “modernizing stone-age tenets by revising claims about what the scriptures are really saying,” it is humanity that is gradually growing into the type of ideals expressed by the Torah.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.