It’s no news that contemporary Orthodox Judaism has cascaded into the reactionary world of rightwing politics now overwhelmed by MAGA and with no end in sight. This cri de coeur by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko posted here at the Times of Israel gives strong insider dissident expression against that political drift in America.
What caught my attention is Poupko’s keen attention to life and death. He identifies the coupling that is the rabid anti-Semitism in GOP-MAGA world now tolerated by mainstream orthodox Judaism + gun violence + the gutting of abortion rights + the fatal response to Covid:
The branding of extreme GOP politics as normative Orthodoxy while ostracizing everything that is taken for granted by Jews in every other Western country, such as the right to vote, the right to healthcare, and your children’s right to not get shot up in school or somewhere else in a mass shooting, hurts us all. If you thought that being a thoughtful armchair conservative who is “just concerned about the judiciary” from your home in New York, this week’s Supreme Court decision is delivering open carry handguns to a subway or street corner near you. If you are an Orthodox woman in Florida who was “just concerned with how woke the country has become,” the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and their promise in the decision to change much more will jeopardize the health, maternal mortality, and life expectancy of Orthodox women in red states in ways that most people in our community cannot begin to imagine. There is good reason for the double-digit gap between life expectancy and average income in New York and many other red states. Public policy, investments in health and education, and regulations that are shared with the rest of the developed world make a difference and have real outcomes.
The fact that Americans died from COVID at the rate of three times more than in other countries and that the Orthodox community has died at an even higher rate than the general American population, is another one of the prices we pay for political extremism in our community. These are not abstract discussions
By way of postscript and going forward, I will be adding links to articles about pushback within Orthodox communities to this rightwing political drift.
At issue is the direct threat to women’s lives. This one published here “Leading Orthodox groups cheered the end of Roe v. Wade. Many Orthodox women are panicking” concerns pro-choice modern orthodox women and splits within modern orthodox communities after the Supreme Court overruled Roe. There are multiple links all worth reading, including this one here by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a prominent report that aggregates orthodox women’s stories about abortion.
What were the actual talmudic texts that Christians found so irksome? What do we actually learn about Talmud from its most caustic critics, the elite Christian accusers from the High Medieval Age?
The Trial of the Talmud Paris 1240 is a remarkable little volume published by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies with translations by John Friedman and Jean Connell Hoff and a historical introduction by Robert Chazan. It pulls together the documents relating to the public trial of the Talmud in Paris in 1240. Included are letters from Pope Gregory IX to William of Auvergne and others, including the archbishops of France and Sancho II (king of Portugal). There is also the letter from Pope Innocent IV to King Louis IX, and a very angry letter from Odo of Chateauroux, bishop of Tusculum, written to Pope Innocent IV (after the latter rescinded a prior ban against the Talmud). Also the disputation of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris and a dirge by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg that laments the burning of the Talmud. Arguably, the central and most interesting protagonist is Nicholas Donin, the Jewish apostate to Christianity who brought the 35 articles of the “Latin Accusations” (Bilbliothèque nationale in Paris MS Lat, 16558, fols.211b—217d).
The texts mentioned by Donin that are most easily parried by Rabbi Yehiel are those that are presumed to convey a total anti-gentile animus and those that suggest that Jews cannot be trusted to not violate oaths. Yehiel’s argument is very simple. Texts that convey anti-gentile animus refer to gentiles who are hostile to Jews, not to Christians who protect Jews. The only vows that a Jew can annul are ones expressed unwittingly which do not affect another person. Vows between a person and their fellow can only be annulled with the consent of the fellow. Much less persuasive are those moments when Yehiel flatly rejects the notion that the Jesus and Mary pilloried in the Talmud refer to the Christian Jesus and Mary. Yehiel’s basic point is that Jews put more stock in law (halakhah), not lore (aggadah), and that there is simply no way to interpret the Written Law without Talmud. Innocent recognized this point when he rescinded the ban.
Most interesting are the actual corpus of Talmudic passages cited by Donin, most of which concern Aggadah. How strange they must have looked, texts that are not. theocentric, not centered on Bible. Truth be told, these texts continue to take my students by surprise when I teach these and their like in my introduction to Judaism. They are not what they expect from “religion.” What we learn from the Christian critics at the height of their chagrin concerns the free-form of Talmud and the Judaism it reflects.
In their rough order of appearance in the Latin Accusation by Donin. “These are the articles about which Pope Gregory ordered that the books containing them be burned (p.121):
Talmud affirms the existence of two laws, not one; that the Oral Torah goes back to Moses at Sinai; the superiority of Oral Torah, the excessiveness of the Oral Torah. Talmud is full of so-called silly notions like the superiority of sages over prophets. Talmud overturns the Written Law, affirms the power of the sage over the Law itself, and warns not to stray from the words of the sages; children study Talmud, not Bible. So-called blasphemies against God include passages that tell of God regretting or atoning for God’s acts. There are oaths made by in anger by God, who says “woe is Me,” and roars like a lion because God destroyed God’s temple and enslaved his children, who lied to Abraham so as not to embarrass him, who lies for the sake of peace, who is left with nothing by the 4 cubits of Halakha after the destruction of the Temple. God engages in study, asks himself to have mercy on the Jews, prays that God’s mercies prevail over God’s anger with the Jews, who is defeated by the Jews in the legal disputations, cries three times a day. About Jews, the Talmud says that Jews who sin the sins of the body don’t suffer more than 12 months in hell, are rewarded in the world to come for the study of Talmud. Also, Adam had sex with animals and Ham castrated Noah.
The very things faulted by the Christian critics are precisely those “things” that modern Jews have come to love: the way Oral Torah exceeds “the Law,” the fables and fancies, the free and audacious authority of the rabbis assume before the law and before God. The famous story concerning the Oven of Aknai gets special notice. About the earlier form of oral teaching, the Jews hold that the teachings of Mishnah and Talmud are better than Bible “since they are learned only by heart and pass into oblivion” (p.104).
Included as an appendix is the dirge by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg lamenting the burning of the Talmud in Paris. The poem gives a strong sense of the animating spirit of medieval Ashkenaz, suggesting that devotion to Talmud makes for a great freedom of words. The dirge reflects a kind of anti-theodicy that builds on the love of Talmud. With more questions than answers, there is no justification of God and the ways of God with Israel. The Talmud that comes across is earthy and direct, familiar, not formal.
Most of the dirge is addressed to the Talmud in the second person. O you consumed by the flame. How could it be and how do your mourners fare? There is a quick and cutting address to the nations, also addressed in the second person: how long will you dwell in tranquility while the children of God suffer? Addressed to God: Is this why You gave the Law in flame and fire to let it come to this, that flame and fire would edge these scrolls? Addressed to Sinai, Why give the law if this is its end? Mount Sinai should cover itself in sackcloth. Addressed again to Talmud in second person, I do not understand your ways. The loneliness of the poet is like that of an abandoned parent, like one who is stunned by the light of day that leaves him in darkness. Addressed again to Talmud, wail bitterly to God over your annihilation. And finally, the remarkable concluding image to the dirge. Speaking directly to the Talmud, the poet waits for God to renew your days; this is a lovely image of the Talmud donned in crimson with timbrel, dancing once again in the circles of a round dance.
Falling under the rubric of Reactionary Bio-Politics, a lot of this is flying online under the radar, both the discourse of transphobic activism and critical writing pushing back against it. If any of this is to be believed, there are strong links there, online and then out in the actual world, between trans-phobic activism, so-called Gender Critical feminism, Deep Green Resistance, Nazi white nationalism, and anti-Semitism. They are all anti-modern and anti-technology and anti-capitalist in their ideological orientation, obsessed by the threat of industrial cabals specializing in bio-tech, and by the threat posed especially to children by bio-tech and so-called transhumanism. Transhumanism refers to the notion that human beings are advancing beyond the material basis in bodies. The mutation of transhumanism on view here is decidedly dystopian.
That Jews tend to figure regularly in conspiracy theory is by now old news. Also old news is the figuration of modern Jews around gender and homosexuality. Jews are the anti-humanist figure par excellence in the western tradition. And the figure of perversion. Anti-Semitism speaks to the organization and weaponization of the fear people have of difference, transgression and transformation. You can read about the new mutation that is the grafting together of transphobia and anti-Semitism here in this article by Ben Lorber and Heron Greene Smith, and here at the twitter account GCAntisemitism. This, ironically, makes the anti-Semitic point, which is that Jews do actually have a stake in combatting trans-phobia. Peterson’s thread shows in particular how the Holocaust and white genocide looms over the discourse.
Recently mainstreamed at Tablet Magazine, Bilek is a go-to figure in transphobic Gender Critical feminism. You can read more about her here in this long Twitter thread. The creator of this thread, Christa Peterson, notes in particular this article here by Bilek at The Federalist. Another example of the dystopian transhumanism is the wretched piece published by Bilek at Tablet Magazine; you can find screenshots here.
It is no little irony, itself a feature of digital culture, that these kinds of hybrid anti-technological formations are themselves technological, new media products, They are the creation of the very thing feared most by the purveyors of the discourse. These formations generate first online as fringe phenomena before they make their appearance in more “normal” online digital platforms, mainstream media, the actual world of culture and politics, and into open violence against gay, queer, and trans people as per this report here.
The story is already only just a little old already, but it’s worth chiming in about the Tikvah Fund and Gov. Ron DeSantis at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, which bills itself as A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. About moral and political boundaries, cancelling Ron DeSantis and the Tikvah Fund Jewish Leadership Conference marks everything that is right about the organized Jewish community. Because at the Tikvah Fund, the “Jewish ideas” are now promoting a radical anti-gay and anti-trans agenda as part of a full-on rightwing Christian assault against liberal values and American democracy. The Tikvah Fund is attaching its star to the up-and-coming Ron DeSantis. Unlike his more normal colleagues in the politically compromised GOP, DeSantis could not bring himself to condemn a Nazi march in Orlando Florida. His example shows the degree to which the GOP is a Nazi adjacent political part. As if condemning Nazis is some kind of a gotcha for Republican Party office holders. The Jewish right represented by the Tikvah Fund wants to draw the Jewish community into that orbit.
The Tikvah Fund has always been duplicitous about the culture and politics they promote, even today when it is more than clear that Tikvah is a rightwing outfit. That’s what they said about the their university programming, the Jewish Review of Books, and so on. Here again, they insist that the event at The Museum of Jewish Heritage was not a political event. Maybe snagging DeSantis was a last minute coup. Or maybe the Tikvah Fund deliberately did not inform the museum about the DeSantis appearance. As reported here, “It was after Cohen signed the contract that the museum learned DeSantis was a scheduled speaker, Cohen said. Cohen said he had spoken by phone with the museum’s CEO, Jack Kliger, who told him that the museum does not welcome political speakers of any ideology.”
Indeed you can see the familiar evasion that is the hiding behind “ideas” that has been a part of the DNA at Tikvah since its founding. In his response, Eric Cohen of the Tikvah Fund claimed, as reported here, that “The museum has implied that Tikvah wanted to host a partisan political event.” But Mr. Cohen said. “Our event endorses no candidates and serves no political party. It is all about ideas, just like every prior conference we have held at the museum.”
“All about ideas” is a lie. This piece here at the JTA gives something of the feel of and hearty applause given to the anti-gay and anti-trans consensus at the conference. “‘The age of Jewish liberalism is ending,’ Tikvah Fund CEO Eric Cohen said in his opening remarks. He added that conservatism is good for the Jews, as it fights for religious freedom, school choice and an independent Jewish state.” About the anti-gay ideas, you can find a report about DeSantis’ speech in this piece here, Lastly, and for his part, “Tikvah Fund Chairman Elliot Abrams, a former foreign policy official under Presidents Trump and George W. Bush, told the New York Jewish Week that he would “not discuss politics” when asked to respond to criticism that DeSantis’s rhetoric threatens LGBTQ people.”
About DeSantis speaking at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, it is worth noting an earlier refusal on his part to condemn and offend a significant part of the GOP base. The story relates to a small Nazi rally in Orlando, FL in early 2022. It would have been an easy thing to condemn, except maybe it isn’t in Republican circles. About the controversy reported here, his press secretary deflected by way of tweeting: “So – If the governor himself does not issue a public statement of specific condemnation of whoever this group is, within a time period that the Left deems acceptable, he is smeared as a Nazi sympathizer by default?” As reported here, a few days later, “DeSantis said those critics were trying to ‘use this as some type of political issue,’ adding: ‘We’re not playing their game.’” The remarks are in line with the ones about commemorating the Jan. 6 Trump Insurrection/Coup, as per here.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage was right not to play the “game” put on by the Tikvah Fund.
Museum director Kliger wrote here in response to an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal by Cohen and Abrams complaining about being cancelled. (I’d post the link but it’s behind a paywall.) In this letter he made it sound more like a logistical problem when the initial reporting suggested the decision was based on values of inclusion. But his remarks sum up a lot about Tikvah and the regnant culture of hatred on the political right. “When we declined to host the event, Tikvah resorted to threats, saying we had created an enemy. Tikvah knew that this was not about banning anyone from speaking but decided to make the false claim anyway. We will not respond to such political bullying.” And then, Kliger concludes, “We welcome Governor DeSantis and elected officials from across the spectrum to visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust for a tour of our new exhibition, The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do, when it opens this summer.”
About what hate can do and the spillover these “ideas” take into the actual world, there is this article here about current spikes in anti-gay and anti-trans violence.
2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
Abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) was a master hermeneut. He is generally recognized as one of the great Christian thinkers of the High Middle Ages. Also recognized is how he marks a new Church aggressiveness in relation to Jews, Muslims, and heretics that marks the twelfth century in Europe. Underneath the caustic venom, he had actually interesting things to say about Talmud and Christianity, monsters, animality, the power of the false and other simulacra as constitutive of religion writ large.
Talmud was grist for the Christian mill. Do the Jews even abide by the law? Not just against Jesus, do they set themselves up over against God? Almost like the record of a first encounter, the recognition of radical Jewish difference revealed in the Christian “study” of Talmud is part of that new intolerance. In the Christian view represented by Peter, Talmud pushes the Church and Christians away from any spiritual or human commonality with Jews and Judaism.
In his own Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem (Against the inveterate obduracy of the jews), Peter picks up the thread by Petrus Alfonsi. But the writing in this polemic is more effulgent. As a monk and abbot, Peter lived in a self-contained and intense textual universe that was at once glorious and “unreal.” The intensity of that unreality lies at the heart of his own doubts about the reality of Christian miracle that we see in this unbridled attack against Talmud.
The polemical masterpiece that is Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem is a thick tapestry of scriptural citation. It’s a little hard to read, At first glance, there’s almost nothing else to the polemic other than verses. Peter himself seems to understand this. At the very moment when a reader is maybe getting numb, Peter cuts in with a little meta-discourse. He refers to the “overwhelming press of so many powerful prooftexts that will confound you, O Jew” (pp.84-5). The press of verses is confounding indeed. But for Peter to stop and say this suggests a vivid sense of being self-aware. The intentional break in the flow of the discourse is a first suggestion that something is not right.
Christian faith is at a serious disadvantage, and Peter knows it. In fact, Peter knows that he needs the Jews more than they need him Suggesting actual alarm is the statement by Peter that if the Jews won’t assent to the Christian apostles, then “we” will not assent to “your prophets” (p.188). The tit-for-tat is almost childish,
Sensitive to scripture, and to fables, Peter’s anti-Jewish polemic is full of simulacral beings: the Talmud is a monster; the Jews are pigs, dogs, animals. About this, Peter is certain. But is that enough to put to rest Christian doubt in the face of the possibility that maybe all that a Christian has to rest upon are an overwhelming press of verses? On one hand, the sublimity of Christian doctrine about God stands in contrast to Talmudic stories, which are a “huge mound of dust” offending the glory and omnipotence of God Himself; the rabbis set themselves up over against God. On the other hand, there is the doubt that maybe Christian belief is itself the very virtual stuff of magic, fictions, fables, and simulacra.
The nub of this doubt about magic projected onto the Talmud is the undergirding doubt that maybe Christian belief is itself nothing but a web of figments and fictions. At the core of this anti-Jewish discourse with its rhetoric of Jewish animality rests a press of doubts about what is really “human,” and what is true in the fictional universe of religion.
For very long quotes, continue reading below. I have taken them from my reading notes and organized them according to a thematic of my own interest whose keywords you can search below: human, animal, pig, sublimity, glory, power, omnipotent, impotent, magic, miracle, fabricate, fiction, phantasm, trick, stage-players, false, not deceitfully but truly.
[Am updating my long Sefat Emet digest with a digest of Leviticus + Shavuot] [You can see the whole digest here, still in progress, from Genesis and Hanukah]]
After Exodus, the Sefas Emes on Leviticus dives more deeply into the human, setting Torah-Tree-of-Life inside the burning holiness of the Tabernacle-Temple. What I am picking out in my digest of the commentary is an overriding focus on the human creature that is Israel and the human powers and the spiritual form and image that are unique to human beings and to Torah that are drawn out from the ritual act. The Sefas Emes is in this respect “iconic” in that it is modelled on an image of the perfect form of human being that does not die. As befits any study on ritual, running throughout the Sefas Emes on Leviticus is the consistent attention to special times (Shabbat and holidays), special places (The Land of Israel, the Mishkan-Temple), and special souls (the animating angelic nefesh and the power of the extra soul or neshama of Klal Yisrael, the collective body of the people Israel. Holiness is something one “feels” with the skin, as it were. There is a hot quality felt by the body in relation to the animating soul, or nefesh. Particular to holiness is the ethos of separation, the clarification (birur) of good from evil, God and Israel from the world and nations. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel needs the Mishkan-Temple. The ultimate purpose is purity, pure life, Tree of Life, signaled by the nullification (bitul) of all creaturely things and all human wills for the sake of God.
This focus of this parsha: the angelic being of Israel, ritual offerings, perfection of the animating nefesh and repair of the body
What is human? Inside the apparatus of the commentary, Israel are angels (really, mamash). The Sefas Emes is concerned already in the first parsha with the perfection of the human animating spirit (shleimut ha’nefesh). He is preoccupied more by the repair (tikkun) of sin than by sin itself, about which relatively little is said. The Sefas Emes teaches that each individual Jew has a repair special to them, and that the individual person was sent to the world to clarify that tikkun by drawing the body after the nefesh. This speaks to the capacity of the Jewish nefesh to come near to God, to clarify the Kingdom of Heaven, and to apprehend God’s glory. Israel are angels at Sinai receiving divine power in Torah. They themselves were Torah (really, mamash). The Sefas Emes bases this idea on the notion that God Torah, and Israel are one. But the people at Sinai cannot stay at this level of perfection. They sin and fall from this rung. Moses and the offerings then raise the level of Israel, drawing the nefesh of Israel to God. While this perfection of the animating nefesh depends upon repair of the body, action is required to draw the soul (neshama) to help nefesh overcome the body. The offerings at the Tabernacle-Temple are self-sacrifice (mesirat nefesh) to God. Nefesh is illumined and completed according to the service of a person, drawing the power of the neshama or soul to the body so as to empower the nefesh over the body, which is brought into the klal or spiritual collective of life.
This focus of this parsha: peace, love, heart, fire ecstasy, burning
This might be the key parsha for understanding how the Sefas Emes understood ritual action and the human heart at their highest intensity. In the next parsha, with the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, we are shown what can go wrong with this intensity. Recalling the miracle in and above nature, the days before Passover renew love and will in the hearts of all Israel. This commentary to this parsha is especially warm. The offering that seems to matter most for the Sefas Emes are the peace offerings which signal peace in the world, hidden miracles in the world, of nature, and God’s governing. Peace is the connection between creaturely life on earth with the supernal upper root. God’s name is peace. Peace offerings are special for all Israel (not just for priests). Everyone who studies this parsha is as if they brought the offering itself, enjoying that connection and peace. The offerings at the Tabernacle-Temple bring external action near to Torah, which is the inner aspect of the divine. The inner aspect of the offerings is fire, the inner aspect of Torah is for its own sake (l’shma). Being the special place that connects the upper and lower worlds, the Tabernacle-Temple is ready to receive fire from heaven by preparing fire below. The fire of ecstasy burns off distracting thoughts, waste, sin and yetzer; transforms that which is evil into good. There is fire above, fire below, and the place of Israel in both; there is illumining fire and burning fire, the bright light of Torah which is Moses and the softer lamp of mitzvah, which is Aaron. The essence of Torah is God engraving divinity in the nefesh of Israel, which allows Israel to return and draw close (l’hitkarev) to God, which is the purpose of the offerings (korbanot). The essence of offerings is to awaken love hidden in the nefashot of Israel, which they received when they received Torah at Sinai. No sin can douse Torah light. The altar in the Tabernacle-Temple is burning heart, the ecstasy of holiness. In the soul of every Jew the Sefas Emes finds the hidden, fiery point aflame with love of God.
This focus of this parsha: the power of human illuminating action, with an emphasis on Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who drew too close to God unconstrained by the power of commandedness.
The Sefas Emes starts this parsha on a familiar theme: illuminating the hidden inner point, which is now identified as the aspect of the speculum of Moses. The service of Israel brings illumination into action (really, mamash). One does God’s will even without understanding it, and one performs that action without wanting reward. The eighth day of the priestly inauguration service represents leaving nature, the priests leaving nature to stand before God and the world to come Then one can see in every action the glory of God which is the hidden point, especially in the Temple, the clarification that is the illumination of Shechinah in lower world, the holiness in all things. But the human deed is dependent upon God’s will alone. Therein lies the power of the divine command that animates all things. The power of human action is from side of God’s command, or the power of commandedness (koaḥ tzivui), a phrase which we are encountering here in the Sefas Emes for the first time, and which is meant to limit and contain ecstasy. Nadav and Avihu thought they could repair and lead Israel like before the sin of the Golden Calf, like angels. They were great righteous men (tzadkikim) but their action lacked commandedness. In this parsha, the Sefas Emes builds upon the ethos of separation: separating evil from the holy and being holy, the connection between that holiness and power of the soul-neshama. And the separation of kosher food. Israel is chosen and needs special food, which adds power to the service of God. On one hand, the Sefas Emes says that there is nothing innate about kosher versus unkosher food. But then he says that impure food is too coarse and physical, that one cannot draw out the life force (hiyyut) from the forbidden species, that treif food enslaves the soul to the body. Israel is free and this freedom requires a separation from corporeality. Mosses and Aaron are breasts that nourish Israel. They separate types of food to eat in holiness and purity. Reflected here are two types of contraction (tzimtzum). The first is negative prohibitions against forbidden foods and forbidden sexual relations; these limit pleasure and separate the nefesh from corporeality; they merit revelation of holiness, the aspect of Moses that draws down holiness. The second contraction is God contracting out of love of Israel so Israel can receive holiness in this world, which is the aspect of Aaron. The level of Moses is above nature; the level Aaron is Tabernacle-Temple which prepares the lower world to receive the power of soul to repair body, the soul which hovers over the body in the grave.
This focus of this parsha: physical-spiritual form, the two-worldly nature of human being; and sin and repair
The contents of this parsha and the commentary to it are very physical. For the Sefas Emes, this means that the human person Israel inherits two worlds, that the human being is itself a two-worldly creature including above and below. Human being is microcosm, all world contained in that which is human, lower and upper. When the Bavli says that God is the artist who creates form within form, the reference is to the human nefesh, whereas the body is the garb of nefesh. Human form is form of the entire world, of Eden (140!!!) (136). The form (tzura) of the body can receive the form (tzura) of nefesh. But the true portion of Israel is the world to come. The human soul-nefesh is sent to the depths below in order to rise and fall. The human person was created to be attached to form (tzura) and cleave to the root, a conception that has a tactile quality. To feel holiness requires the tikkun or repair of the body, the skin itself. After Adam’s sin, the human person is cloaked in a garment of skin, which is a mask or screen that needs to be removed in order to see the light concealed in the dark. The skin afflictions that are the subject in this section of Leviticus come from this screen or mask, this garment of skin. The priest, who is the aspect of peace, heals the skin affliction. The perfect human being can then rejoice in the lowliness which is healed. The impurity (tuma) is drawn outside. The affliction of leprosy (tzara’at) is an affliction of love, its repair and removal, like the removal of the foreskin at circumcision, is meant to clarify awareness (da’at). Again, it is ritual whose function is to clean out waste and purify the person, nullifying everything for the sake of God.
This focus of this parsha: wicked speech versus the healing power of words of Torah
There is something fearsome to the commentary on this parsha, focused on the power human speech (lit: tongue) as a warning to guard against evil speech (lashon ha’ra), to guard the tongue from evil. Sensitive to the phenomenon of human suffering, the Sefas Emes asserts the basic theodicy which is that self-abnegation leads to tikkun or repair of sin. Even paths that lead to distance, to being sent out, ultimately lead to wholeness; and there are times that inwardness needs to be closed up. But words of Torah opens the heart at right time, which is their power. God’s way is not like the ways of a human being. With God, the blow or wounding is the healing itself. Mouth and language open the power of soul-neshama in the human person. About the two birds in the healing ritual for tza’arat, associated with the sin of wicked speech: the one slaughtered is to separate the human person from the sin of idle talk, whereas the one let free prepares the mouth for words of Torah. One who desires that life should guard one’s mouth, while the bird that is let free represents pure speech, which belongs to the human essence. Just like the letters in Hebrew flip, the affliction (nega) is thus transformed into joy (oneg). The human form is itself the form of Eden, a “living soul” or speaking spirit.
This focus of this parsha: living in mitzvot and perfecting the life force and human form/tziur/tzelem
In this parsha, the Sefas Emes returns briefly to the example of Nadav and Abihu. They are tzadikim and Israel merits Yom Kippur thanks to them and their self-soul sacrifice. But the Sefas Emes has already taught that there was something missing in their act and that the entire episode is a trial not to enter Holy of Holies. The primary focus in this parsha is that to accept the Yoke of Heaven is the purpose of mitzvot. Every action carries a mitzvah particular to it whose performance draws the life-force (hiyyut) to all things. All thoughts, then, should be preparation to receive the will of the Omnipresent (Makom), all actions have inwardness. In contrast are Egypt and the Canaanites whose actions are purely external. The Sefas Emes picks upon the famous rabbinic dictum, “If I am not for myself, etc.” which refers to the need to repair human nefesh, tikkun of self and all creation. It all depends on me. Tikkun, doing mitzvot and living in them, inside them, Israel must sanctify all actions to cleave them to the root of the life force (ḥiyyut), adding to holiness at every moment, level by level. In this parsha, there is a lot on the verse “you shall live by/in them” and also “a rose among thorns.” For its part, we now are given (for the first time in the commentary?) to see the Land of Israel, which cannot tolerate the impurity of the Canaanite nations. Israel is a rose among the nations. Torah gives life also in this world. The Sefas Emes returns again to “form.” Nothing in the world is not included in the supernal image (tziur). All creation is in the image (tzelem) of God. The mitzvot repair that tzelem, and Israel is itself destined to wear the garb of that spiritual image (tziur). Everything perfected by mitzvot is part of the essence (ikar) of creation, perfecting the form/tziur/tzelem of the human person. The performance of mitzvot merits the wearing of the first garment, the garment of light first given to the human creature; and then one won’t die. Torah is the Tree of Life. Israel is chosen to cling to the Tree of Life. Then, death won’t rule.
This focus of this parsha: holiness as separation and life, body perfection
The keyword is birur or clarification, associated with holiness, whereas nullification or bitul, associated with purity, will dominate the next parsha. On the one hand, there is the separation, the sifting out of Israel from Egypt, and, on the other hand, the sanctification of this world. The commentary returns to the Tree of Life, to the notion that Torah is the Tree of Life that gives life, and holiness in all creation. But holiness is ultimately above nature and the world, adding more to it. Holy is when Israel is all one in a unity, separate from nations. When united, Israel has Tabernacle-Temple and God in their midst. In this parsha, the inner holiness of Israel stands along with the holiness of God, the oneness and holiness of God, Torah, and Israel. But Israel needs help from Heaven. During its time, that was the function of the Tabernacle, the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple, the Heichal and the Holy of Holies inside the Temple. Today that function belongs to the mitzvot, the purpose of which is to clarify, erect fences and hedges. During the six days of the week, light is garbed in tzimtum or contraction. On Shabbat, holiness is opened only for Israel, revealed as it is by the praises of Israel. Circumcision and special food also open the divine source and flow (shefa). The Land of Israel has its own hidden secrets and God tells how to open and find holiness. Very physical, there is a focus on repairing the body so it feels or senses holiness in speech, action, and thought. Holiness in the human being is compared to blood which circulates through all the limbs of the body. Mitzvot are the holiness special to Israel. Mitzvot repair limbs and illuminate the human image (tziur) which they wear as a garb without the bestial part.
This focus of this parsha: purity, creation, the 10 utterances (ma’amarot) out of which the world was created.
The Sefas Emes shifts from the rung of holiness in the previous parsha to the rung of purity in this parsha. Purity is rooted in the hidden wisdom in Creation, which is revealed only by the power of Torah. Words of God are like silver. Torah is found in all creation, like the silver found in the soil, beaten, and refined. All creation is created by the word of God, by ten sayings, which unfold level by level. These are the divine acts of saying or utterance (emor) that give purity to all things, that raise everything from impurity and externality to purity and inwardness. Pure utterances also bring purity to those human beings who engage in them, purging out the vanity of worldly action, and nullifying-canceling all other wills and willing so as to do God’s will alone. Purity demands the purification of the total human being in speech/words, action/deeds, and thought. This has especially to do with the life of Israel. When a Jew sacrifices themself, i.e. gives up the soul for God, the power of Exodus is aroused, arousing that holiness that is hidden in klal Israel. Israel becomes nothing less than a part of God when and only when Israel is unified as one. The act of mesirat nefesh, giving up one’s soul is what joins the Jew to the klal (collective). At Sinai, God gives purity to Israel. They fall in level, but can rise up by mitzvot and by repentance or teshuvah and cleave to source of purity, which is the source of life. The purity of Torah is such that they do not receive tumah or impurity, which is death itself. The Torah and pure sayings that are “planted” in Israel purify the ones who study them just like water purges and purifies the waste that is mixed into the physical world of nature and bodies.
This focus of this parsha: Sinai and Schmitta (sabbatical land-year), being slaves of God and sons of God, connecting earth and earthiness to Heaven, and the Land of Israel
This parsha is the one next to last in Leviticus, which is interesting because it roots ritual in a kind of materiality. Focusing in on the sabbatical year giving rest to the land, the Sefas Emes is particularly interested in land-earth and earthiness (artziyut). The connection between Sinai and schmitta-yovel connects heaven and earth with the Land of Israel as foundation. At creation, the earth is a chaos (tohu) and then there is light. 2000 generations of chaos pass before Torah at Sinai. The Land of Israel is ruled by the Canaanites, and then Israel. Physical slavery to a human sovereign give way to the Kingdom of Heaven The mitzvah of schmitta given at Sinai repairs earth (aretz). As the foundation of earth, it is the Land of Israel that connects earth to its supernal root.In one central respect, Israel is a stranger, and the earth is God’s, but ruling all, God gives choice to human beings. At Sinai, Israel was prepared to nullify nature and become like angles. In this world now, Israel serves under two aspects: slave and son. On holidays, Israel goes free to receive the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. On Shavuot, Israel serves God under the aspect of son, whereas on the High Holidays they do so under the aspect of the slave and repentance. The serve God during the six day week like slave; inwardness is hidden, one doesn’t feel the animation in all things, but one believes nonetheless and does God’s will. On Shabbat, Israel serves God like a son, feels the inner animation, does not have to labor to draw near to God because his understanding (de’ah) is equal with the understanding of the father. Even after the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel has these special times to awaken power. The Land of Israel is the special place where Israel unites as one nation. The Land of Israel is given to Israel by God for the sake of schmitta, with Israel drawing the six years of work to the sabbatical year, which frees Israel from servitude to nature to serve God in joy and love. Those who observe schmitta are like angels abstaining from worldly matters.
The focus in this parsha: following paths of ḥukkim (the so-called statutes, or mitzvot whose reason is not readily apparent; the study of Torah and nullification of understanding (de’ah).
The Sefat Emes includes in the commentary to this parsha the familiar idea of doing all for God’s sake, that the greatness of God fills the world, and that there is no place where the power of 10 utterances from Creation and 10 commandments from Sinai are not. Israel is God’s witness, repairing the body to transform it into a vessel to receive soul-neshama and raise the animating spirit (nefesh) to the supernal root. What we learn here is that following the paths of God’s statutes is the ultimate bitul or nullification of self, and that this bitul draws new power and new neshama from above. The Sefas Emes includes an individualistic note. If I am only for myself, etc. Every person has a tikkun particular to that person that no one else can fix for them. But one lives for the sake of the collective-klal, because otherwise, what am I? God gives ḥukkim so that the whole world would depend upon Torah, which binds the world to that which is above reason (sechel). Follow “my statutes,” study Torah even without getting entire meaning of it all, because the entire world depends upon Torah, and clarification or birur of good from waste. One nullifies one’s own will for the statutes of God. A person trues to attain the straight and righteous path to the best of their understanding in order to nullify their own understanding for the sake of the statute. The purpose of all kinds of divine service is to merit God’s help because it’s not in one’s power to find the straight and righteous path. The ways and patterns are engraved by God in the human nefesh, against the yetzer.
The commentary to Shavuot in the Sefas Emes is the second part of the trilogy on the three ḥagim or pilgrimage festival (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot). All three commentaries to these holidays are at once both self-standing and tied up with each other. Passover is freedom. But the root of freedom is on Shavuot when God wants to repair all creation at the giving of Torah. The counting of the Omer after Passover and the custom of all night Torah study (tikkun leil Shavuot) prepare, repair, and purify the heart to receive Torah. The two loaves of bread offered at the Temple hint to the greatness of Torah which gives life in this world and world to come.Leaving bodily garb and constraint at Sinai wrapped up in the seeing of voices and revealing on Shavuot the inner tziur (figure) of the human being created in image of God.
After preparing the, one enters the 50th gate on Shavuot. At root of all is now one, pure unity. That’s why Shavuot is designated in the Written Torah as the holiday of first fruits (bikkurim): the first (reishit) designates renewal and creation (breishit) and the power of Torah. At Sinai, all the world receives inner animation. The inner creation is drawn out from potential to actual, from the secret to revelation, adding power, the renewal to all creation all depending on Israel and the power of Torah. The miracle is that the physical, corporeal world can cleave to the holiness of Torah through submission to truth, the nullification of nature before Israel so that all creatures have their portion in Torah. On Shavuot, Torah descends like water into the lowly world and the animating spirits or nefashot of Israel rise like fire and rule over lowly body. Moses is the man of God, in his human aspect, very humble and low, in his divine aspect elevated above angels. Shechinah speaks through the throat of Moses. God’s voice in Moses’ voice, his prophecy is God’s mouth. Even the angels turn to Israel who in their unity at Sinai receive divinity. The oneness of God is mirrored in the unity of Israel, who unifies God’s name two times everyday, everybody according to their own power of reception. At Sinai every Israel felt illumination of Torah in their limbs. Israel sees that the inwardness in all things is good, and that good is mixed with evil only because of sin. Torah is like water in which one’s image is reflected. Each Jew has a portion in Torah which allows a person to see their form. At Sinai, they see face to face, they see themselves in mirror (aspeklaria), each saw their own form (tzura). This seeing is bound up with act of soul-submission, submitting one’s very life and animating spirt (mesirat nefesh). As their souls leave them at Sinai, each saw by means of holy spirt the essence of their nefesh above. Israel wonders and trembles how in this lowly world they could see this, see their own form (tzura) engraved above. And then, Israel receiving Torah is like a soul (neshama) as it descends into this world. Torah restores them to life against their will because they cleaved with such great love to the world above.
Finally, in this world is the world of Oral Torah. The hidden good was all clarified at the giving of Torah at Sinai. But Oral Torah is that portion of God above hidden in all Israel. Reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot is to teach how the human deed becomes a book and scroll in the Torah of God, forcing the divinity of God to garb the divine light in letters of Torah. The strength of Oral Torah is called “oz.” Boaz (bo-oz) is Oz-Torah. The strength of Oral Torah, which is special to Israel, adds power and strength to Israel, adds to Torah and reveals secrets not apparent in Written Torah. The Sefas Emes praises Boaz for the faith he placed in the sages; they tell him that an Ammonite and a Moabite can’t enter Assembly of Israel, but an Ammonitess and a Moabitess can. In this world, one comes to truth by way of faith. The gathering of converts speaks to the gathering of all bodily action to nefesh, the future redemption depending on the power of Torah awakened on Shavuot, the grasping of which merits redemption speedily and in our day.
Petrus Alfonsi was a Jewish convert to Christianity who grew up in an Iberian-Islamic milieu in Huesca, which became the capital of Aragon atthe time of the Christian reconquest. While it goes unnamed as such, his Dialogus contra Iudaeos (ca. 1109) was the first anti-Jewish Christian polemic to touch upon the Talmud. The protagonists to the dialogue are Petrus (Alfonsi’s Christian name) and Moses (his old or dead Jewish name). The long, rambling dialogue is informed by the author’s interest in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The Dialogue Against the Jews is composed of familiar polemics concerning the correct reading of Hebrew Scripture sitting side by side with a new polemic directed at rabbinic lore or Aggadah, referred to as the “teaching of your sages” (doctrina doctorum vestrorum) (translator’s intro, p.32). The dialogue more or less confirms the scholarly view that Christian anti-Jewish polemics say more about Christian doubt as they do about Judaism. In the case of Alfonsi, who knew more than a thing or two about Judaism, Christianity and Judaism are very much in the mirror of each other.
The common thread to the Dialogue Against the Jews is arguably about power. For Alfonsi, the big frame is cosmo-theological. Brought to bear against the Jews are the panoply of astronomy, creation, the boundary of the body as a composite substance, the power of creation, the power of created souls, especially in relation to the body, the power of the messiah, especially vis-à-vis earthly kings, the power of animals to generate offspring and humans to beget children, the power of the Holy Spirit overpowering Mary to beget without a human father, the power of the crucified Christ to free from the devil’s captivity the human beings under his power. More than the powerlessness of the Jews in exile, what Alfonsi notes over against this mighty array under the majesty of God is the imputation of divine impotence and the imputation of powers to the rabbis in rabbinic aggadah.
The proemium sets the tone of the dialogue before the omnipotence of God. Alfonsi’s own cosmic consciousness. It reads, “THE PROEMIUM OF Petrus Alfonsi, an illustrious man and [converted to] a Catholic Christian from a Jew, begins. To the one and first eternal omnipotent creator of all things who is without beginning and without end, knowing all, who accomplishes all that he wills, who placed humankind, endowed with reason and wisdom, above every animal, so that with these two powers he may desire with understanding things that are just and flee from those that are contrary to salvation, [to him be] honor and glory, and may his marvelous name be blessed forever and ever. Amen.” And in the prologue, Alfonsi starts by saying that it was “The Omnipotent One has inspired us with his spirit and led me on the correct path,” revealing to him the “halls of the prophets” and secret palatial places (p.39). At the same time, he demands from “Moses,” “Are you not mindful of your teachers who wrote your teaching, on which your entire law relies, according to you, how they claim that God has a form and a body, and they attribute such things to his ineffable majesty as it is wicked to believe and absurd to hear, seeing that they are not based on reason?” (p.46).
Set in the dialogue against the vast order of the created world is tractate Berachot. What offends Alfonsi there is not just the anthropomorphism, but the attribution of behaviors that do not comport with the idea of an omnipotent God. In the Talmudic legends cited by Alfonsi, God wears tefillin, God inhabits a finite locus, God gets angry, God weeps. Unlike modern readers, Alfonsi has no truck with poetic or allegorical whimsy in religion. While one should not overstate this difference, it is worth noting that his approach to meaning in theological discourse is literalist, whereas rabbinic lore, it has been argued, was originally the mark of a more playful disposition.
Alfonsi is indubitably correct when he says that Talmud is the firm basis that most finally separates Christians from Jews. Alfonsi has his “Moses” confess, that he, “Moses,” now sees “how much my understanding,” by which he means Talmud, “is opposed to the Scriptures, and the extent to which it departs from reason” (pp.74-5). Arguably, Talmud is indeed distant from Scripture in so many respects relating especially to the power of God and to the power of the sages. The God at the Red Sea and at Sinai represent avatars very unlike the avatar of God who inhabits more modestly the four cubits of Torah. For Alfonsi, whose conception of the created universe is big, the idea that God dons phylacteries that carry verses which praise Israel is an offense to the omnipotence of God. The Omnipotent One who inspired Alfonsi with His spirit would not pray, roar, shake, or weep, or laugh. “Petrus” wants incredulously to know if God is impotent, unable to save the Jews or does the fault of the exile lie solely with the people and their sages. He asks about the sages if they indeed have the power to conquer angels and outwit God. About the legendary R. Joshua ben Levi who sneaks into paradise without having to die, Alfonsi asks, “Should we say that it was the impotency of a God that was only able to expel him from paradise by a deception?” Underscoring the impotence of God, Alfonsi contends that these are “nothing but the words of little boys making jokes in school, or of women telling old wives’ tales in the streets” (p.96, see p.46).
Alfonsi was no fan of what in modern times is called folklore. But he was on to at least a little something about jokes, so-called old wives’ tales, and the power of God in the Babylonian Talmud. At the start of the second chapter-titulus, “Moses” is again forced to confess to “Petrus,” this time saying, “you have demonstrated by the light of incontestable arguments that whatever our sages apply, unworthily, to the divine majesty cannot stand either on the authority of Scripture or on the power of any sort of reason” (p.97). Attribution of qualities to God is key here. About “unworthy” attributions to divine majesty, it must have taken a particularly acute Christian sensibility to discern the figure of divine “impotency” in Talmudic lore and to call such caustic attention to it. That he did so in no little bad faith is beside the point. More to the point is that the impotence of God in Talmud is nothing but a mirror image to the incarnation and crucifixion in Christian theology. With their own eye on Hebrew Scripture, it was this very same powerlessness that offended medieval Jewish readers in respect to their own understanding of the power of God. The “twists and turns” that “Petrus” wants to remove from the breast of “Moses” belong to the very structure undergirding this type of close, inter-religious and intra-psychic conflict (p.71).
[For a long quote by Alfonsi on the impotence of God in Talmud, continue below]
[Hans Bellmer, The Doll, 1936] About Freud’s bemusement about Surrealism, that they made him their patron saint, this piece, which you can read here, by Donald Kaplan is excellent.
“On his side, Freud was flattered by such benediction. When the sculptor Oscar Nemon asked him in 1931 how hefelt about his designation as the Patron Saint of Surrealism, Freud replied, “It is wonderful. The Surrealists send me their newspaper daily with a wonderful dedication on the first page.” However, Freud’s next remark conveys a rather familiar modesty with regard to certain cultural matters. “I read it every day—but when I am finished with it—I have to admit—I do not find anything in the paper I really under stand” (Meng /1973, p. 351). This statement accords with what Freud observed about himself all along. His study of the Moses of Michelangelo (1914) begins: “I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman. I am unable rightly to appreciate many of the methods used and the effects obtained in art” (p. 211). As for modern art, Freud was intolerant….”
Donald M. Kaplan, “Surrealism and Psychoanalysis: Notes on a Cultural Affair” in American Imago , Winter 1989, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Winter 1989), 321.
There are also these letters from Freud to Breton published by Frederick Davis, which you can read here.
Many special thanks to Hannah R. Rubenstein for the long letter from Freud about Dali in the comment section to this post
While a firm line of medieval and early modern tradents and modern traditionalists rule that abortion is not permitted according to Jewish law, what we today call the right to abortion, even late term abortion, is, in fact, well grounded in Judaism. At bottom, the fundamental question has to do with what constitutes and what does not constitute human life. About this, as you will see in the sources posted below, there is surprisingly a lot of agreement in the Jewish legal tradition.
The shifting norms and position in the Jewish legal tradition about abortion itself is a complex legacy. Not complex and undisputed are these basic starting points. Prior to forty days, the fetus before forty days is like water and has no legal status; the fetus is a part of the mother’s body, like a limb; the status of a woman’s physical safety trumps fetal life in a life and death emergency; a fetus is not human, not an ensouled being (nefesh); abortion is not murder; the life of the fetus is not protected by legal penalty.
If anything, the halakhic tradition is anti-fetus. Because the fetus is not recognized as a person or living soul until birth, the halakha is not squeamish about late term abortion. It is even violent. To save the woman’s life, the midwife should tear the fetus limb from limb (Mishna). The fetus is not a living soul or nefesh (Rashi). In a pregnancy that threatens the mother’s life up until the moment of birth, the fetus is like a murderer to whom no mercy is due (Maimonides). Even for authorities who prohibit abortion, the person who commits an abortion is not culpable.
A Sefaria page with most of the immediately pertinent biblical, rabbinic and other sources was gathered by Danya Ruttenberg. I am posting these below with her commentary. I am also including two sources below her material that introduce an opposition to abortion. I do so to better contextualize the analysis of the tradition writ large as per Daniel Schiff and David Bleich, whom I mention below. For their part, modern liberal Jews reading Ruttenberg’s source sheet would probably want to rest, i.e. come to a full stop with the position of R. Jacob Emden who permits abortion to safeguard a woman’s general well-being, even when her physical life is not actually endangered.
I am including her sources and her commentary here:
The Torah of Reproductive Justice (Annotated Source Sheet)
This learning is part of the work of NCJW, the National Council of Jewish Women. Learn more and get involved at NCJW.org.
Abortion is one of the more charged topics in American political discourse.
Proposals to limit or block access to reproductive health care in most states reflect a specific Christian definition of the beginning of life, and limit the termination of pregnancy even in instances where Jewish law not only permits, but even requires it. Learning the sources that undergird Judaism’s approach to reproductive rights can help illuminate one of the major struggles of our day in new and, sometimes, surprising ways.
(One content note: These texts talk, not surprisingly, about pregnant women. In the context of our contemporary gender categories, it might be useful to remember that, while many (but not all) cisgender women can get pregnant, so too can some non-binary people, some trans men, and some other people whose identities are not reflected in the framework of binary gender.)
Let’s begin by looking at the question of the personhood of a fetus:
(22) When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.(23) But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life,(24) eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,(25) burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
In other words, if someone accidentally causes a miscarriage to take place, they are obligated to pay financial damages only; the case is not treated as manslaughter or murder, which would demand the death penalty. The “other damage” that would demand the death penalty (“life for life”) would be the death of the pregnant person herself (or some other serious punishment relating to the damage caused–”eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”) In other words, causing the termination of a pregnancy is not, in the Torah, considered murder. As the Talmud puts it:
In cases of capital law, the dispute concerning such a prohibition is with regard to the issue that is the subject of the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis, as it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says with regard to that which is written: “If men struggle and they hurt a pregnant woman…and if there shall be a tragedy you shall give a life for a life” (Exodus 21:22–23), the reference is to a monetary payment for the life that he took. The tragedy referenced is the unintentional killing of the mother.
Interestingly, a major factor in some Christian views on abortion were developed through a mistranslation of this passage. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint, completed in 132 BCE), they translated ason, damage or tragedy in these Exodus verses, to exeikonismenon, “from the image,” making the verse seem to be about whether or not the fetus is “perfectly formed,” rather than whether or not the pregnant person dies. That is, the question of whether one pays mere damages or incurs the death penalty would then depend on whether the fetus is “formed,” or sufficiently developed in terms of gestational stages, to warrant a harsher punishment. Notably, the Septuagint translated the word ason in a different, more accurate, way (as malakia, affliction) in the Book of Genesis. There are a few theories as to why this happened, but the ramifications of this poor translation choice continue to this day.
The next few sources look more closely at the status of the fetus:
יבמות ס׳׳ט ב
אי מיעברא עד ארבעים מיא בעלמא היא
If she is found pregnant, until the fortieth day it is mere fluid.
That is to say, the fetus has basically no status whatsoever for the forty days of pregnancy. It is like water–a thing of no legal significance. Was this because of the prevalence of miscarriages? Was it a larger philosophical claim? Regardless, this text is a clear assertion that life does not begin at conception.
It may be worth noting that modern decisors of Jewish law count the 40 days as beginning from conception. Given that contemporary medical practice is to count pregnancy gestation from the last menstrual period–not conception–the end of those 40 days lands at about 7 or 8 weeks of pregnancy, by our current accounting.
גיטין כ׳׳ג ב
מאי טעמא דרבי בהא קסבר עובר ירך אמו הוא
What is the reason for Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s position [in the above conversation]? He holds that a fetus is considered as its mother’s thigh [that is, as part of its mother’s body].
In the middle of a Talmudic debate about whether a fetus is considered separate from the pregnant person, we see a clear statement by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who, as redactor of the Mishnah, holds great authority. His statement, in fact, closes the debate and lends credence to the discussion at hand (about the status of a fetus if its mother is liberated from bondage.) A fetus is not an independent being; it is part of the body of the person carrying it.
(6) If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and brings it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child]. But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.
In a situation in which the pregnant person’s life is in danger from the pregnancy or labor, Jewish law is abundantly clear: The adult’s life takes precedence. The only situation in which that comes into question is if the birth is already more than half completed–only then does the life of the birthing baby come into consideration. As Rabbi David Felman put it, “Implicit in [this] Mishnah is the teaching that the rights of the fetus are secondary to the rights of the mother all the way up until the moment of birth.”
This principle is cited elsewhere in the Talmud in a conversation about self-defense; the Gemara there asserts that abortion to save the pregnant person’s life should be considered self-defense, that the fetus in this case is a rodef, a “pursuer” attempting to kill the pregnant person. Rashi–Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the important 11th century French commentator addresses that discussion. The word nefesh in classical Jewish literature refers both to a “soul” and a “life.”
יצא ראשו – באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת וקתני רישא החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו אבל יצא ראשו אין נוגעים בו להורגו דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש
its head came out: With a women that is experiencing difficulty giving birth and is in [mortal] danger. And it is taught in the first section [of this teaching], “the midwife extends her hand and cuts it up and extracts [the pieces];” as the entire time that that it has not gone out into the air of the world, it is not [considered] a soul, and [so] it is possible to kill it and to save its mother. But when its head came out, we cannot touch it to kill it, as it is like a born [baby]; and we do not push off one soul for the sake of another.
Notably, Rashi defines a nefesh–a life–as taking place at birth, as the head emerges from the birth canal. A fetus does not have this status before then. Rashi may be referencing Genesis 2:7: “Then God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” That is, regarding life as taking place with the first breath, and not before.
Here are a couple more recent texts that show some of the ways in which these texts above have been applied:
אמנם נדון השואל בא”א שזנתה שאלה הגונה היא. וקרוב בעיני להתירה…וגם בעובר כשר הי’ צד להקל לצורך גדול. כל כמה דלא עקר. אפי’ אינו משום פקוח נפש אמו. אלא להציל לה מרעתו. שגורם לה כאב גדול וצ”ע.
Rabbi Jacob Emden, Responsa She’elat Ya”vetz 1:43 (1739-1759)
The questioner asks about an adulterous married woman (who is pregnant) is a good question. It appears to me to permit her (to abort)…And even in the case of a legitimate fetus there is reason to be lenient if there is a great need, as long as the fetus has not begun to emerge; even if the mother’s life is not in jeopardy, but only so as to save her from woe associated with it that would cause her great pain…
Here, abortion is permitted in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause “woe” and “great pain.” One might wonder if any situation in which one is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy would not cause such things.
ברור ופשוט הדבר בהלכה דישראל אינו נהרג על העוברין, ומלבד דעה יחידית סוברים הפוסקים שאיסור מיהא ישנו, אבל דעת הרבה מהפוסקים שהאיסור אינו אלא מדרבנן, או הוא רק משום גדר בנינו של עולם, אבל מחמת איבוד נפשות אין נדנוד כלל, ומשום כך מתיר בשו”ת מהרי”ט ט:צ”ז–צ”ט לסדר בישראלית הפלת ולד בכל היכא שהדבר נחוץ משום רפואת אמו, אפילו באין סיבה של פקו”נ לאם… ובכזאת, ויותר מזאת, צידד להתיר בהדיא בשו”ת שאילת יעב”ץ א:מג, וכותב בלשון: “וגם בעובר כשר יש צד להקל לצורך גדול כל כמה דלא עקר אפילו אינו משום פקוח נפש אמו, אלא להציל לה מרעתו שגורם לה כאב גדול.” הרי בהדיא שדבר הצעת ההיתר בזה של היעב”ץ הוא אפילו כשליכא בכאן שאלת פקו”נ של האם, והמדובר רק כדי להצילה מכאב גדול שיש לה בגללו, ושבכלל יש להקל בזה לצורך גדול…. ויסורים וכאבים נפשיים המה במדה מרובה הרבה יותר גדולים ויותר מכאיבים מיסורים גופיים.
It is clear and obvious as law that a Jew is not killed for a fetus. Aside from one view, the authorities rule that there is a prohibition, but many authorities believe that this prohibition is rabbinic, or it is under “building the world.” But there is no concern for destroying a life, and therefore Maharit 1:97-99 permits arrangement for a Jewish woman to abort a fetus where it is needed for the mother’s health, even without it being a matter of saving the mother’s life… And in such a case, and beyond this, Rabbi Yaakov Emden permitted, writing, “And even with a legitimate fetus, there is room to be lenient for great need, so long as it has not been uprooted [for birth], even without a need to save the mother’s life, but only to save her from her evil, which causes her great pain.” We see clearly that this permission of Rabbi Yaakov Emden is even when it is not a matter of saving the mother’s life, and it is only to save her from great pain because of the child, and that in general there is room to be lenient for great need. …And suffering and emotional pain in great measure are greater and more painful than physical pain.
Here, Rabbi Waldenberg is talking about the great emotional pain a pregnant person might experience knowing that the fetus has been diagnosed with a disease like Tay-Sachs, but the larger legal framework stands: There is room in the tradition to permit abortion in order to relieve someone who is pregnant from “great emotional pain.” And, again, one might speculate that any person who is forced to carry to term an unwanted pregnancy could, indeed, experience exactly that.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective,” Tradition 25:4 (1991)
Here it is clear that saving a life is not the only sanction for permitting an abortion. This is evident from the Talmudic passage that permits a nursing mother to cohabitate using a mokh (a barrier of cotton or wool) to prevent pregnancy… Since this prohibition is waived to facilitate normal family relations (which is why the emission in this context is not “wasteful”), it would follow that other ethical and humane factors may also be taken into account. It would seem to me that issues such as kevod ha-beriyot (dignity of persons), shalom bayit (domestic peace) and tza’ar (pain), which all carry significant halakhic weight in other contexts, should be considered in making these decisions.
Many Jewish values can and should factor in to our understanding of the importance of abortion access for all. Dignity, avoiding pain, valuing relationships, and other factors–including also, perhaps, our Jewish mandate to pursue the creation of a more just society–should be present as we consider both individual cases (and remember that not everyone has the same privileges, or the same choices) and larger systems.
Abortion is not only permitted in Jewish law, but it is required when the life of the pregnant person is in danger.
Our access to reproductive health care is guaranteed not only by the Fourteenth Amendment ━ the right to equality and privacy ━ but also by the First Amendment’s guarantee that no one religion or religious interpretation will be enshrined in law or regulation.
We must not remain idle while barriers to health care place any individual’s health, well-being, autonomy, or economic security at risk.
Reproductive justice is a Jewish issue.
Founded in 1893, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is the oldest Jewish women’s grassroots organization in the country, guided by Jewish values to improve the lives of the most vulnerable women, children, and families. Our 200,000 advocates combine education, advocacy, and community service to engender transformation on local, state, and federal levels. Learn more at NCJW.org.
Not included by Ruttenberg is this statement by Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishne Torah:
“This too is a negative commandment: not to have compassion on the life of the pursuer (rodef). Therefore, the sages ruled that when a woman has difficulty in labor it is permitted to dismember the fetus within her, either by drugs or by surgery, because the fetus is like a rodef pursuing her to kill her. But once the head has emerged, the fetus may not be harmed, for we do not set aside one life for another. This is the natural course of the world” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotzeiach 1:9). (Schief
Also not included by Ruttenberg are the following medieval texts. These are at the basis for the prohibition of abortion in Jewish law.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, gentiles are prohibited from performing an abortion, whereas Jews are not. But what is prohibited to a gentile can not be permitted to a Jew. Itself very much in the spirit of Talmudic reasoning, it is arguably a very thin textual-philosophical support on which to prohibit abortion.
Here are those texts:
“It is stated in that book of Aggadot that the Sages said in the name of Rabbi Yishmael: A descendant of Noah is executed even for killing fetuses. The Gemara asks: What is the reason for the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael? The Gemara answers: It is derived from that which is written: “One who sheds the blood of a person, by a person [ba’adam] his blood shall be shed” (Genesis 9:6). The word ba’adam literally means: In a person, and is interpreted homiletically: What is a person that is in a person? You must say: This is a fetus that is in its mother’s womb. Accordingly, a descendant of Noah is liable for killing a fetus” (b.Sanhedrin 57b).
“A gentile is culpable for the death of a fetus, while a Jew is forbidden to cause its death but is not culpable. Even though [a Jew] is not culpable, nevertheless it is not permitted. What of their statement that when a woman in labor is having difficulty, if its head emerges one does not touch it for one nefesh is not set aside for another, but prior to the head emerging one dismembers the embryo within her to save her life, even though this is forbidden to a gentile? There are those who say that here likewise a Jew is commanded to save her, and it is possible that a gentile is also permitted to save her.” Tosafot to Sanhedrin 59a (tranls Daniel Schief?? Abortion in Judaism, p.62 )
“Even though a gentile (ben Noach) is given capital punishment for aborting a fetus, as it is stated in Sanhedrin 58b – while a Jew is not killed – despite the fact that [a Jew] is not liable for capital punishment, nonetheless [aborting a fetus] is still not permissible for a Jew” (Tosafot to Hullin 33a)
[[On these two tosafot, Schiff comments: “Two important positions emerge from these Tosafot writings: First, the Tosafot hold that because a Jew is not bound by the Noahide laws, and since the fetus is a non-nefesh, the Jew is not subject to capital punishment for an act of feticide. Still, the Tosafot state that such an act is not permissible for a Jew. Second, the Tosafot tentatively relax the prohibition on the non-Jew in the case of a therapeutic abortion and permit the non-Jew to abort a fetus in circumstances where a Jew would be commanded to do so”]]
“And there are those who say that in any case because of pikuach nefesh we transgress the Shabbat for [the fetus’] sake, even though it is permitted to kill it, as in the case of a goses be-yedei adam where one who kills him is not liable . . .” (Tosafot Niddah 44b).
Regardless of one’s point of view, thorough reviews of the pertinent sources are by Daniel Schiff in Abortion in Judaism and David Bleich in “Abortion in Halalkhic Literature,” which you can read here.
Shiff’s is the more complete review of the primary legal sources: biblical, Talmudic, rabbinic, medieval, early modern and modern. His conclusion is a coda on the tension between ethics and halakha. By the end of the study, he will have included women’s voices. David Bleich includes the same material. Readers who read Shiff first will recognize all or almost all of the legal authorities and opinions they then find in Bleich. Whereas Shiff trues to strike a balance, Bleich’s view is that Halakha is in firm opposition to abortion. Oddly enough, Bleich starts his review of the halakhic material with a statement from the Zohar in which abortion is anathematized as demonic. Bleich ends on a note that sounds the rhetoric of fear and trembling, human limits before mystery, with no mention of women. Yet even Bleich assumes that abortion is not murder.
To all of this I want to conclude this post with this op-ed which you can read here by Michal Raucher, the author of Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women. For Raucher, the issue isn’t what Jewish law permits or prohibits. “[W]hen you hear that ‘Jewish law permits and sometimes requires abortion,’ you must also listen to the assumption underlying this statement: Women do not have the bodily autonomy to make that decision on their own. Jewish law must permit it — and sometimes demands it, regardless of what a woman prefers. These statements, often used to express support for abortion rights, are ultimately stymied by the assumptions of rabbinic law, a system that does not support bodily autonomy or the ability to make decisions about one’s own body…. [A] religious argument based on Jewish law and rabbinic texts only goes so far. Those of us who support reproductive health, rights and justice ought to be honest about the connection between that and our rabbinic tradition.” The normative conclusion is that an argument based on bodily autonomy and reproductive health and justice “may not be an argument rooted in Jewish law, but it is a Jewish argument — and it’s time to make it.”