Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More blow-back on the Times divorce story

I'm not done with the topic, in part because some trash-talkers at have been making snippy comments. Here's the one I like least:
You can't always equate halacha with morality. Since his premise is off, his conclusion is too
Sorry, but my premise was not that halacha and morality are the same thing.(1) My premise is that we --all of us -- use our own sense of right and wrong, our own moral criteria, to decide how to interpret the words of the Sages. There's nothing wrong with this, by the way. Its inevitable and part of being human. The problem comes when people deny they are engaging in interpretation, and insist that their apologetic reworking of something a Sage said is consistent with what the Sage originally meant. In this case, Rabbi Akiva clearly says men may divorce their wives even if its just because "he found someone more appealing". It sounds ugly to our ears, I agree, and deeply unfair to women but to claim Rabbi Akiva meant something else, is not right, and not supported by the evidence.

My other premise is that some people insist that whatever the Sages said is true and binding forever -- except when it suits them. This is why some of the same people who cheerfully quote the Sages on the inferiority of gentiles, or the reproductive habits of lice, or the weak female brain, suddenly remember that we have Rishonim, Achronim and a halachic process when it comes to Rabbi Akiva's opinion on divorce. You can't have it both ways, folks. If you're going to ignore all the Rishonim who say Chazal were wrong when they spoke about science or history or the nature of Midrash don't trot out some of those same Rishonim now.

My final premise is that Sages had a different set of values then we do. This is why Judaism didn't get around to banning bigamy until the 13th 10th century. It's also why their science was so deeply flawed, one hesitates to call it science at all. Science didn't become science until men developed a modern epistemology, and the development of that epistemology is evidence of a change in values. The ancients didn't rely on observable, empirical, measurable evidence. They relied on tradition. And though tradition might be the right way to keep a culture living and vibrant, it provides no information on how to build an airplane. For that you need other values, other methods for acquiring knowledge. Rabbi Akiva was an ancient man, with ancient values and we should not expect those values to coincide with ours.

(1) Though I think most Jews would disagree with this. The whole point of the Torah is to teach us how to live, that is, to behave morally. If the laws aren't moral (a) why do we follow them?

(a) By the way, the laws -- some of them anyway - definitely aren't moral. We're told to do all sorts of things that a 21st century person would correctly find morally offensive. There are a couple of ways for a believing Jew to get around this, but denying that the Torah allows slavery isn't one of them, nor is insisting (as some of my friends do) that "Torah-style slavery" is, in fact, really quite moral. Both those approaches are dishonest, dead ends.

(2) Questions like "Would he recommend it" are red herrings. We have no idea what kind of marital advice Rabbi Akiva might give, nor do we know how he'd evaluate the surrounding set of circumstances. All we know is that Rabbi Akiva said a man who divorces his wife over an infatuation had exercised a valid divorce --  which means he thinks its moral to divorce your wife for virtually no reason (as opposed to Shammai and the Christians who thought such a thing was immoral and wrong, and would say such a divorce was invalid.)

Search for more information about how people misunderstand Chazal at

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