Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The little lies of Jewish history

Via the great Miriam Shaviv, I see that the also-sort-of-great Marc Shapiro has contributed to the defeat of yet another set of lies about Jewish history*. It turns out:
  • Divorce was common in the Middle Ages (at least 20 percent Miriam says)
  • Women sometimes attended cheder** (the ratio, she says, was about 1:8)
  • Matchmakers were not used by poor Jews
  • Teenage marriage was rare
All of this matters, as Miriam aptly notes, because Orthodox Jews argue for their own 21st century way of living on the grounds that there is something original or authentic about it in a First Cause sort of way. This is false, as one scholar after another has revealed. Their social practices, like their religious ideas, are contingent, and forever developing and changing in ways large and small. 

This need to be repeated as often as possible, if only because too much human happiness is stifled for the sake of achieving a false authenticity. 

Foot notes and more after the jump
*Previously, Marc Shapiro taught us that Rambam's famous 13 principles were not accepted in their entirety by all Sages at every time in every place.  If this is still news to you, please, please, please, read his paradigm demolishing The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. The main take-away point of this book, for me, is that you can be as legitimately Jewish as your local fundie black-hatter even if you disagree with him about what appear to be key points of hashkofa.  Don't think our Torah is a word-for-word match with the Torah Moshe received at Sinai? So what. Many great Sages shared your skepticism. Think midrashim are interpretations invented by the early Rabbis? So did most of the Geonim and Rishonim. And so on and so forth.

** Women also attended shul in far greater numbers than black-hatters today imagine. I know this from Life Is With People an excellent little sociological study of life in the shtetl by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. In fact, some learned women even served as the Zogerin, a sort of female chazan who read the prayers aloud for the benefit of the illiterate or those too poor to purchase prayer books.

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