Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Premarital Interpretations

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the first half of a debate on God's existence between the Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe and outspoken author Sam Harris. I will not discuss the specifics of their arguments in this post, although I reserve the right to do so in the future. For the time being, I would like to address the interpretation of a passage that Sam Harris cited during his attack on Biblical morality. I found it mildly but not altogether surprising that Wolpe failed to challenge Harris' take on these verses, inasmuch as Harris' description of their content did not accord with the traditional understanding at all. (I suppose, as a Conservative Rabbi, it could be that Wolpe himself does not accept the rabbinic interpretation of these verses.)

DISCLAIMER: In this post, I do not plan on dealing with moral issues related to the death penalty in general, nor do I plan on addressing the propriety of punishing adulterers with execution. This are interesting subjects for future posts.

In an attempt to criticize the moral principles of the Bible, Harris referred to the following passage in Deuteronomy:

When a man takes a wife, lives with her and comes to hate her; and he makes false accusations against her, ruining her reputation, and he says, "I married this woman and came close to her, and did not find her to be a virgin"...And if the matter is true - the young woman was not a virgin - then they shall take the young woman out to the door of her father's house. The people of her ciity shall stone her with stones till she dies, for she committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father; and you shall eliminate the evil from your midst.

Harris did not quote these verses; instead, he cited Deuteronomy as teaching that premarital sex should be punished by death.

First of all, we should note that this is NOT the traditional interpretation or application of this passage. Let us clarify the Rabbinic conception of this law before proceeding to analyze the text more carefully.


I. The Traditional View

In Biblical - and subsequently, Talmudic - times, marriage was conducted in two stages, known as erusin or qiddushin and nissuin, respectively. Erusin, sometimes loosely translated as "betrothal", was a state of full marriage in every sense, except that the partners did not yet live together in one household. The transition to cohabitation as a married couple was marked with nissuin, the truly festive celebration now associated with standing under the huppah, the recitation of the seven marital blessings and the eventual consummation of the relationship.

According to the Rabbis, the Book of Deuteronomy quoted above is speaking of a case in which a woman is suspected of having committed adultery during the "erusin" period, while she was legally married but still dwelling in the house of her father. Premarital sexual relations, on the other hand, are not viewed by Jewish law as a capital crime.

Furthermore, the Oral Tradition teaches that the penalty mentioned at the conclusion of the passage in Deuteronomy would only be applied if two bona fide witnesses testified to the fact that a married woman indeed had relations with a man other than her husband. Circumstantial evidence related to her lack of the biological signs of virginity would never be a valid basis for punishment, because such evidence is never admissible in Jewish courts.

(Interestingly, Alexander Rofe, in his book on Deuteronomy, discusses this problem at length, commenting on how the simple meaning of this passages stands in obvious contradiction to several principles of law and morality expressed elsewhere in the Bible. He notes that the distinction between "betrothed" and "married" invoked by the Torah was widely recognized in the Ancient Near East, and discusses the Rabbinical approach to the difficulty we are discussing in this post. His book also - unintentionally and unfortunately - is an excellent example of how superficial, arbitrary and capricious the arguments of academic biblical scholars can be. His rush to attribute consecutive passages in a single text to multiple authors based on the slightest real or imagined stylistic discrepancy between them is noteworthy. So is the nonchalant manner in which he 'emends' texts whenever they conflict with his theory. But he provides nice resources in any case.)

So there are two key differences between Harris' caricature of the Torah's teaching and the traditional interpretation:

1) According to Harris, the Torah speaks of a woman who had premarital sexual relations, whereas according to the Oral Law it is speaking of a woman who was legally married and committed adultery.

2) According to Harris' reading, we mete out the death penalty based solely on the woman's lack of a hymen. However, the Rabbis insist that such a punishment can only be implemented when the testimony of two witnesses indicts the accused. Mere discovery that a woman is not a virgin is of no significance to us whatsoever.

A survey of some non-traditional commentaries reveals that they are divided in their interpretations of the exact "offense" being punished in the text. (Please note I do not have the JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy at my disposal, so I was not able to consult with it for this post).


II. Alter and Harris' View

Robert Alter seems to agree with Harris' hyperliteral approach that premarital sex is being condemned here. However, there are two serious problems with this explanation.

The first is that, if simply not being a virgin is worthy of the death penalty, then the husband who falsely accuses his wife of this "crime" should receive the selfsame punishment. This would be consistent with the general Biblical principle, established in Deuteronomy itself, that one who testifies falsely against another should be made to suffer the same consequence he tried to inflict upon his victim. Yet we see that, in fact, the husband is merely lashed and forced to offer financial compensation to the disgraced family. This suggests that his accusation, had it been confirmed, would not have led to anything more than financial consequences for the girl - which is exactly what we would have expected based on the Torah's treatment of similar cases in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. (Rofe takes note of this point in his book.)

The second and more fundamental problem with this is that we have clear sources in the Torah that demonstrate that premarital relations are not punishable by death. The most obvious is found in the Book of Exodus, where we read as follows:

When a man seduces a virgin girl who is not 'betrothed' and has relations with her; he shall pay the bride-price* and make her his wife. If the father of the girl refuses, then [the seducer] shall pay him silver according to the bride-price of a virgin.

* It was customary in the Ancient Near East that a groom would pay the father of his bride a fixed sum of money as 'compensation' for the loss the father sustained when his daughter left the household. This is called "mohar", loosely translated as "bride price".

We see that the one-night stand between the paramours in the verse is treated as a financial issue more than any kind of moral transgression (not that it is encouraged, but it certainly isn't seriously condemned either.) So the view that premarital relations alone would make a woman liable for the death penalty is not tenable.


III. Plaut's View

Another explanation is put forth in Gunther Plaut's commentary to the Torah. He argues that it is not the woman's lack of virginity that makes her worthy of death, but her misrepresentation of herself as a virgin that is seen as a heinous crime.

Aside from the moral difficulty involved in the notion that telling a rather trivial lie should make one worthy of death, there is a technical problem with this interpretation - it contradicts the verse itself:

For she committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father.

Hence, the implication is that we are punishing this young woman not for the false advertising, but for the behavior she engaged in while in the house of her father. Whatever penalty she receives is due to immoral conduct that took place before the wedding and not to what she claimed or didn't claim to be when she consented to marriage.

Upon closer inspection, this verse raises many questions. First of all, how do we know she engaged in illicit relations in the house of her father? Simply finding that she is not a virgin might give us pause but does not prove this conclusively. And, as a rule, the Torah demands solid evidence in capital cases.

Moreover, why is the girl's activity in her father's house offered as the basis for her punishment? The husband is concerned with her lack of virginity, and apparently wants to divorce her without financial consequences because he was duped into wedding a non-virgin. The notion that the woman was living immorally in her father's home isn't even alluded to in the husband's speech. It is not a part of his "case".


IV. Substantiating the Rabbinical View

For these reasons, I believe the traditional interpretation is most compelling, even on the level of peshat (simple reading).

The woman in question was already an "arusah", betrothed, in her father's house, and when the man married her he discovered she was not a virgin. This created grounds for suspicion, and perhaps an investigation ensued.

It was subsequently determined, through the testimony of two witnesses, that she had been intimate with another man during the period of time when she was already legally wedded to her husband but was still living at home - i.e., that she had committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father. And it was this fact, and not the claim of the husband per se, that causes her to receive capital punishment.

In fact, the term "liznot bet aviha", which we have translated "to act immorally in the house of her father), is reminiscent of the description of Tamar's behavior when her pregnancy is discovered.

As you may recall, the Book of Genesis recounts that Yehuda's son Er married Tamar, but died without children. In keeping with ancient custom of levirate marriage, Er's brother Onan married Tamar after his brother's death; however, he too died without any children. Tamar was promised as a wife to the third brother, Shelah, who would naturally assume the obligation to marry his childless brother's widow just as Onan did. Yehuda, though, fearing for the life of his youngest son, delays the union as long as he possibly can.

After a while, Tamar, living in her father's house awaiting another levirate marriage, becomes impatient and decides to take matters into her own hands. Her father-in-law, Yehuda, is in town, just now recovering emotionally from the recent death of his wife. (Keep in mind that before the giving of the Torah, the custom of levirate marriage was not restricted to brothers of the deceased husband; the husband's father could also stand in.)

Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the roadside. Not recognizing her as his daughter-in-law, Yehuda propositions her and she accepts. Tamar, now pregnant from her secret encounter with Yehuda, returns to her father's home to bide her time. As her pregnancy progresses, it becomes noticeable to others and they inform Yehuda as follows:

"...Behold, your daughter-in-law Tamar acted immorally (zantah), and now she is pregnant as a result of her indiscretions (zenunim)."

(A more precise rendition of "zantah", "liznot", etc., would probably be "to stray", but it is quite often used in a sexual context so I am taking liberty with the translation to fit the context more smoothly.)

Because of the institution of levirate marriage, Tamar was already considered "betrothed" and was expected to remain faithful to her intended husband for as long as was necessary. She was accused of committing the legal equivalent of adultery in her father's house. And here too, the death penalty was recommended only until it was discovered that her affair was with Yehudah himself, making the union a fulfillment, rather than a violation, of her obligation.

Indeed, from this story it is obvious that premarital relations are not a death penalty offense in the Torah's eyes. If they were, then the fact that Tamar wound up with Yehuda should not have been a mitigating factor - after all, the bottom line is that they were not married at the time of their encounter, and they had relations and conceived children out of wedlock!

This proves, contra Sam Harris, that premarital intercourse is not, in and of itself, treated as a capital offense in the Bible. The presumed guilt of Tamar and her initial condemnation were based on her status as a "married woman in her father's house" who committed adultery, and had nothing to do with promiscuity per se. The same goes for the newly married woman in Deuteronomy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Interesting Fallacy

Biblical critics and adherents of the Documentary Hypothesis (especially outspoken ones in the Blogosphere) often argue along these lines:

It is true that believers can offer convincing responses to some of the problems raised by Biblical Criticism. Use of literary and other innovative approaches to textual analysis may indeed remove some of the difficulties that academics have found with the Torah. However, while traditional scholars need to develop new responses for every one of challenges with which they are confronted, the superiority of the Documentary Hypothesis lies in the fact that it provides a single answer (i.e., multiple authorship) that accounts for all of the questions at once. In other words, Occham's Razor supports the Critical Theory.

The fallacy of this approach should seemingly be obvious but is often overlooked. Occham's Razor is a methodological principle that teaches that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon or set of phenomena is always the preferred one. The reason we prefer simplicity is because more complex explanations require us to posit the existence of additional factors or entities that are superfluous under the circumstances.

Let us take an imaginary example to illustrate this point. When a ball is released midair, it falls to the ground. The same thing happens when an apple, a tire, a kerchief, or a stone is dropped. A scientist will infer that there is a single physical force at work, called gravity, which is responsible for the observed attraction between all material bodies and the Earth.

If another investigator were to come along and suggest an alternative approach to the problem - ex., that one invisible angel carries balls downward, an invisible demon carries apples downward, an invisible fairy carries kerchiefs downward and an invisible troll carries stones downward - we would hesitate to accept it. This is because, whereas the scientist's explanation involves only two basic entities (the Earth and the object) the alternative explanation requires us to introduce additional, unnecessary forces or entities (the various supernatural beings) to account for the same set of phenomena. Only when a simpler explanatory model fails would we be pressed to assume that there are more entities at work than meet the eye.

Academics try to draw an analogy between the aforementioned case and that of traditional scholars' responses to skeptical questions. They believe that the fact that the traditionalists must offer new and innovative analyses and readings to deal with each difficulty they raise is akin to the activity of the alternative "scientist" who invokes a different metaphysical being to account for each instance of falling objects.

The fallacy of Biblical Critics who try to utilize Occham in support of their views is that they confuse the complexity of an explanatory model with the number of problems that require resolution. In other words, let us assume that academics raised 500 difficulties with the Torah's text, and that, for each one of these difficulties, a cogent answer was offered. Again, the temptation is to equate this with a laboratory setting in which 500 observed falling objects are accounted for with 500 different explanations rather than a single, unified, elegant one.

However, in every case regarding the Bible, the erroneous premise of a question, or the clarification of the meaning of a passage in the text, is presented in response to the Critic's challenge. It is quite possible - and in my opinion, quite likely - that each one of the challenges thus deflated was simply ill conceived, superficially based or otherwise flawed from the outset, and that further investigation just served to reveal what was already the case. Nothing new is actually introduced at any point in the process of clarification.

The 500 answers brought to resolve the 500 problems do not require us to invoke the existence of hundreds of newfound entities or causal factors to function as part of a cumbersome explanatory model. That would indeed be a gross violation of Occham's Razor. On the contrary, the premise of the answers is that the problems are merely imaginary, and that a more lucid reading of the text, or a correction of shabby thinking, can eliminate them systematically.

Unlike falling objects - multiple phenomena that should rightly be accounted for with one theory and attributed to a single cause - the traditionalists attempt to show that the questions of the skeptics never were real 'phenomena' to begin with! The believing scholars are not introducing new factors to explain something, because a difficulty is not itself a "something". Rather, they are delving into the text to expose the shaky foundations of the academics' challenges and, as a result, the problems dissipate of their own accord.

In summary, problems are not phenomena, they represent a lack of understanding in need of correction. So it should come as no surprise that multiple answers are offered for multiple problems, since each difficulty may need to be addressed and disposed of separately. Occham's Razor, on the other hand, states that we should posit the smallest number of really existing causal factors to account for the greatest number of really existing observed phenomena possible, thus minimizing the assumptions we make in our explanatory models. This has no relevance whatsoever to the literary and/or logical rejoinders offered by traditionalists to counter the claims of skeptics and Biblical Critics.

On the other hand, taking a single, unified text, accepted and understood as such for millenia, and attributing it to multiple authors with multiple motivations at different periods of time, whose work was subsequently covered up by anonymous redactors and priests who then presented it in its current form to a gullible population long after it was purported to have been written - now that sounds like a violation of Occham's Razor if I've ever heard one....

Rambam on Hametz II

...Has just been posted on Resheet Daat. Enjoy, and please leave feedback, comments, criticism, etc.!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rambam on Hametz

Please take a moment to read the first installment of a new mini-series of Pesah-themed posts at Resheet Daat, in which I lay out several difficulties with the first chapter of the Rambam's Laws of Hametz and Matzah.

The difficulties identified there will serve as the point of departure for an in-depth analysis of Maimonides' remarkable approach to the prohibition of hametz on Passover. I hope to have the first follow-up post completed either later today or by tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, stay tuned for updates and additions on all three of my blogs!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Off The Topic

A classic question that can be asked regarding the Haggada is as follows:

The text relates that even outstanding scholars are obligated to retell the story of the Exodus on the first night of Passover. The Haggada then describes the famous "Bnei Beraq" Seder, in which rabbinic luminaries engage in a discussion about the mitsvah of recalling the Exodus on a daily basis. Specifically, they debate whether or not this mitsvah must be fulfilled at nighttime or only during the day.

The difficulty is that the discussion of the Rabbis, albeit tangentially related to the Exodus, has nothing to do with Passover at all. Their focus is on a commandment that applies 365 days a year, and is not specifically related to Pesah. Why would Rabbis who are supposed to be exploring the depth of the Exodus narrative, or the intricacies of the laws of Passover, instead delve into laws about mentioning the Exodus in the context of an ordinary, daily prayer service? It is especially surprising that this apparently off-topic conversation is included in the Haggada itself, as a "paradigm" example of how scholars should conduct themselves at the Seder!

I believe that the answer to this question lies in a deeper appreciation of the pivotal role that the Exodus plays in our knowledge of and relationship to Hashem. The foundation of the Jewish people's recognition of God was established through the experience of the Exodus, and is perpetuated from generation to generation at the Seder. The primary objective of the enslavement, plagues and eventual liberation from Egypt was to educate and enlighten the Jewish people, providing them with clear evidence of the existence and providence of the Creator. This newfound understanding was intended to serve as a basis for their acceptance and observance of the Torah and its commandments moving forward.

Since our knowledge of Hashem is rooted in our grasp of the lessons of Yetsiat Mitsrayim, the more profoundly we understand the narrative and its implications, the more meaningful our relationship with God and His Torah should become. Thus, the Seder night - a time consecrated for the purpose of reviewing, refining and advancing our comprehension of the Exodus - enables us to rededicate ourselves to the observance of Torah and to further develop and deepen the intellectual foundations of our belief and practice.

Each time we make reference to the Exodus during the coming year - whether in prayer, on holidays or in other mitsvah contexts - we will be, in effect, hearkening back to the results of our "research" on the Seder night. And, truth be told, the extent to which we advance our understanding of Yetsiat Mitsrayim during this Pesah holiday is most likely where it will remain until next Pesah.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the conversation of our Sages at their Seder revolved around ways in which their level of understanding of the Exodus would impact their intellectual and religious experience even after Passover. They scholars of Israel perceived the exploration of the meaning of the Exodus as a process that would set the tone for their qabbalat ol malchut shamayim - acceptance of Hashem's kingship - all year round. Thus, the logical focus of their discussion was the mitsvah to remember Yetsiat Mitsrayim on a daily basis, a mitsvah that is incorporated into the Shema - our declaration of God's sovereignty - each and every day and night.

This interpretation is bolstered by the "postscript" to the story. The Rabbis' students arrive to inform their teachers that the time for the morning Shema has come and they must leave the Seder table to pray the morning service. Most people assume that this addendum to the tale is included just to show us that the Rabbis stayed up all night because of the intensity of their study.

However, based upon this post, I would suggest that there is a deeper concept implied in this addition to the narrative. The Rabbis went directly from their Seder to the recitation of the morning Shema. They spent all night establishing a renewed foundation for their understanding of God, and this process culminated in the use of that foundation as a platform for the affirmation of Hashem's sovereignty the next morning. Their physical behavior - linking Seder to Shema - serves as a dramatic metaphor for the intellectual link between the level of insight into the Exodus they acquired at the Seder and the quality of their knowledge of Hashem and observance of His mitsvot afterward.

May we all merit to make substantial breakthroughs in our understanding and service of Hashem this Passover. Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Guide to the Laws of Pesah

Please feel free to download the newly updated version for 5768.

Pesah Review

Please allow me to review some of the material I have presented regarding Pesah thus far. I am doing this in part to refresh my own memory and in part to remind myself where I "left off" in discussing these subjects so that I can identify an ideal point of departure for a new post.

Some posts from last year on the subject of Passover:

The Relationship Between Pesah and Matsah
This post explores the 14th and 15th of Nisan, respectively, and how they each reflect one of the two dimensions of the Exodus experience that are commemorated on Passover and are "integrated" on the Seder night.

Pesah and Matsah and Maror - But Why?
This post discusses the reason why explaining the mitsvot observed on Pesah is considered to be the most fundamental component of retelling the story of the Exodus.

This post, and (more importantly) its follow-up post here, also elucidate themes that are highly relevant to Pesah, despite the fact that their primary focus is on Sukkot.

I'm Back!!!

I have been planning to return to blogging for quite a while; in the meantime, a good seven months managed to slip through my fingers!

At some point, the very fact that I had been out of the game for so long - the awkwardness of simply posting new material without offering an extensive explanation for my absence - became, in and of itself, a cause for hesitation on my part.

Then it happened - just as I had finally prepared myself to bite the bullet and post again, I was literally prevented from blogging by "Blogger", because I was suspected of maintaining a "spam blog". As is often the case with frustrating situations in life, my inability to blog actually fueled my desire to do so. This morning, I discovered that the ban had been lifted, and all of the anxious anticipation that had been building up for two weeks inspired me to compose this re-introductory piece.

It's official - I am back in the blogosphere, and over the weeks and months to come I plan to remain active here on a regular basis. So please continue to check back for new posts, and spread the word to readers who may have given up on me by now.