Ephraim Osgood

Derech Agav-Parenthetically Speaking: A Daily Lesson (Not) To Take

As this is my first post on this platform a short word regarding my Blogs title, “Derech Agav-Parenthetically Speaking.” My writing (and teaching style) tends towards “stream of  consciousness.” In writing this tends to express itself with the violent overuse of parenthesis. It’s ironic that my first post is on the topic of Talmud as this method is one of the defining characteristics of the Talmud (i.e. allowing itself to get off topic,sometimes for pages at a time, before returning to the topic at hand). I hope that my ideas (the main ones as well as ancillary) are written in an interesting and engaging enough manner, that the reader doesn’t bother asking “What was he talking about anyway?” Unfortunately, I know too many grammar nerds to hope that this introduction has the desired affect of keeping them from pointing out my disregard for their precious rules. On that note please enjoy, and please share your lengthy grammatical notes via email. 

When I began attending a Daf Yomi (two pages of Talmud EVERY day with the goal of completing the entire Babylonian Talmud in around 7 1/2 year) class a few months back (I started on Daf 22 in Yebamot to be exact), I was shocked to find that my new synagogue’s  Daf Yomi class was not just a collection of fellow insomniacs (we start at 6 a.m. or earlier, depending on the day of the week) . It’s actually a fascinating communal cross section of back rounds, hashkafah(religious philosophy), and practice.  Beginning with two Volumes in Nashim (the section dealing with marriage, divorce, rape, seduction, and much more) has been an amazing opportunity to see this diverse cross section of Skokie, Illinois’s religious community, and their varied reactions to 2000 year old opinions on issues that are very relevant today. I personally have learned  many a Talmudic passage over these past few months that I found to be an anachronism. Yesterday morning, however,  we learned  a line that may have outdone them all. But first let me share with you a little bit more personal back round (which will become relevant as my tale unfolds).

Although I spent 10 years learning in Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, the last five were in Kollelim (smaller learning circles sometimes contained within larger Yeshivot, and generally limited to married men) that specialized in Halacha . I was actually invited to join a Kollel a few years before meeting my wife (as it made sense practically due to my taking a position as a dorm counselor in my old Yeshiva).By that point (after about 3 years learning full time in Yeshiva) I had realized that I had much more of an interest in taking a look at the practical result rather than spending most of my day in a world where the conclusion is rarely clear (Yeshivot generally spend most if not the entire day learning Talmud exclusively). Although our Kollel  always began our study of a specific legal topic  in the Talmud, we spent a nominal amount of time there, familiarizing ourselves with the original source material. This worked out well for me as I enjoyed it more and after deciding that I wanted to become a teacher, I decided to get a Semicha. Semicha (the modern day version of Rabbinic ordination), ironically is rewarded for mastery of Halachik topics alone). Since beginning to teach lower elementary school 10 years ago my classes never got past the level of Mishna. I have had many Chavruta’s (learning partners) as well as small groups and classes that I led/taught in that time as well. However, as they were generally once a week get togethers, I generally suggested that we learn something that we would be comfortable learning only once a week. Talmud I rationalized,  was too complex and involved for a weekly endeavor. We would just end up spending half of each lesson reviewing the previous weeks learning. I did believe that, but I’m sure that I also wanted to gear the sessions towards my area of interest as well. Over the past few years I have been sleeping less and less (generally 2-3 hours at a time) due to factors outside of my control. Although I have used man of my newly found waking hours on Netflix, researching material for my Shiurim (where I use Pop Culture in explaining Torah concepts), I am an avid bibliophile as well. My interests range across the spectrum of Kodesh and Chol, and since beginning to teach Tanach my interest in text centered study of the written law (Talmud and Mishna are considered Oral Law even though they were both committed to writing over 1500 years ago)  has increased. Thus,  I found myself spending many early morning hours researching topics in Tanach, sometimes for a class and sometimes for my own curiosity and interest. At one point it dawned on me that all of this time learning might be an opportunity to increase my knowledge in an area that I am unlikely to have the discipline to tackle on my own … The Sea of Talmud.

The next morning was Daf 22 of Yebamot, and I decided not to delay putting my idea into action. I wish that I could relate that is has been a struggle it has been to wake up at around 5:00 each morning and drag myself out of bed. Unfortunately, I can probably count the amount of times that I have needed to rely on my alarm for this early morning adventure  on Mordechai Brown’s fingers.

After completing Yebamot my oldest son Bentzy, who is 12, asked me if he could begin attending Daf Yomi with me. Although Bentzy really enjoys the intellectual aspect of Talmud (i.e. learning how to argue more effectively), I was still surprised by this request. It showed me a strong parenting lesson that we can benefit from remembering (as we lecture our kids on the same subject for the umpteenth time). Children learn by example. They watch everything that we do and imitate it. If we ask our children to follow our lead, their immediate instinct towards independence and self determination begins to work towards figuring out how to do the exact opposite. Many times however if we set a proper example, we will  find them mysteriously following our lead (without ever being told to). Unfortunately  the same holds true for our bad habits as well as our good ones. This is always exemplified for me by that commercial that I grew up with where the Dad finds the kid frying his brain “like an egg”, and the sons retort to his fathers admonition is the dreaded “I learnt it from watching you Dad” (repeated for dramatic effect). Needless to say, I was thrilled that he asked and after discussing it with my wife, I decided that I should probably ask the Rabbi whether he was comfortable with my 12 year old son attending his class  that would cover the topics of rape, seduction, divorce, and all kinds of sexual situations. He happily and immediately agreed. If this surprises you, I cannot say that I was the least bit shocked with the Rabbi’s ready assent. I will share with you my thinking on the topic which I have had to share with more than one critic (I know you are shocked that someone would offer unsolicited parenting advice in today’s day and age). My son is in the sixth grade of an allegedly (hopefully I’ll return to that topic in a future post) Modern Orthodox day school. Although in our home, our children’s consumption of media is closely monitored and regulated, I know that the same cannot be said for his classmates. I stopped being surprised long ago by students younger than my son who’s parents allow them to watch R rated movies and cable television indiscriminately.  My son will be exposed to these ideas sooner rather than later. I would much rather have him approach them with the reverence and seriousness that comes from learning them in a Torah class (one he attended with adults no less). I will admit that the Rabbi has been extremely adept at knowing which topics to discuss overtly and which to refer to euphemistically. Regardless, Bentzy has the Artscoll (lucid english translation and explanation of the Talmudic text) open in front of him, and as Bentzy is an avid reader none of the words being used are completely unfamiliar to him. The Rabbi’s method affords me the opportunity to discuss the more challenging topics with him in an adult and mature fashion after class. I feel as if he is much less likely to 1) Take these topics as a joke 2) Misinterpret and distort the ideas as prepubescent boys tend to do with these topics on the first go, if I show him the respect and trust that he will act in a mature manner (respect and trust are unfortunately vastly underrated in our day school, in my opinion). The first class  afforded me the opportunity to explain (for example) the role of the hymen as well as a brief introduction to the female menstrual cycle (Full Disclosure: Bentzy began to question his mother about the “Birds and the Bees” in earnest in the 1st Grade,and after running it by me, she has the privilege of having that discussion with an extremely inquisitive 6 year old). That lengthy introduction was (arguably) necessary to put yesterday mornings Daf and it’s specific challenge for me, into proper context.

Yesterday for those of you not keeping score at home was Daf 51 in Ketubot. The statement in question was made in the context of a discussion regarding whether a man is obligated to divorce his wife if she was raped. It is important to know that in a case of willing adultery a man is obligated to divorce his wife ( despite the myriad of difficult issues that we could discuss here I would like to limit it to just this one for now). In terms of the practical halacha, a regular Jew would not be obligated to divorce his wife in the case of rape.A Cohen, however, (who must live by a higher standard) will be forced to divorce his wife if he has knowledge that she has been raped  (this “has knowledge” actually may allow for some leeway, but I don’t want to get too far off topic). At this point the Gemara quotes the Father of Shmuel (a first generation Talmudic sage of the highest caliber) who makes a statement to support the (later rejected in practice) idea that a Yisrael (i.e. non-kohen)  would be forced to divorce his wife if she was raped. His rational for this is “We are concerned that (the rape) began against her will, but (by the) end (she was engaging in the rape) as a willing participant .” I almost fell out of my seat upon hearing this notion. Just to be clear, the Talmud is not suggesting that in the most extreme of circumstances a truly sad deranged women might enjoy being raped. The Talmud is suggesting that there is enough of a concern (at least a majority of women) who, by the time this ultimate violation is complete, end up enjoying it. By the way, the fact that the Talmud rejects this notion may indicate that they believe that anywhere up to (but not more than 49% of women eventually enjoy being raped. It is at times like this that I must remind myself of a few important points in order to retain both my sanity and my respect for the Rabbis and the document that are the foundation of our legal system. They are:

1)I believe that the Torah (both written and oral contain much that is an anachronism. In line with the Rambam’s explanation regarding Korbanot being given to “wean us off of idolotry”, the Rationalist approach to Torah includes the notion that the Torah is dynamic in that it’s laws not only  evolve with society but are in fact the impetus for much of that positive growth. An example would be,  that even though the Torah contained a slavery model (more than one as a matter of fact), it was one designed to move us away from slavery by introducing the concept that the slave is a human being that must be treated with dignity and respect. This is reflected by the Talmud’s statement that “one who purchases a slave has (in fact) purchased a master (i.e. your obligations towards him mandate that in many ways you treat his needs before your own). Already in the time of the Talmud statements like this were showing that although the law might be in affect it met the general disapproval of the Rabbis.Abolitionists could (and did) fairly point to religious values as the motivation for their movement. This does not make me feel good about  or comfortable with slavery, but I believe that it is  foolish to harshly judge past generations  by our standards. If we followed such a logic ad absurdam we would view any of our grandparents who disciplined using corporal punishment as child abusers. This is not to say that corporal punishment taken to the extreme, at that time, was not depraved and abusive. The only way that we were able to evolve from the accepted norms was by not accepting things as they were but looking for a better way.

2) In fact the Rabbis throughout the Talmud are over and over concerning themselves with the welfare of young ladies who they view as unprotected. That they are doing it according to the standards and values of their time just tells us that they were human beings who lived in a world and a society that affected their thoughts and opinions. I believe that a bitter irony can be found in the fact that this entire section of the Oral Torah is called “Nashim”-Women. That this entire section was written about women, whilst they were in no way party to the discussion is troubling. As many laws as the Rabbis set up to “protect” women there are just as many that point to a fundamental objectification on the part of the Rabbis. An example of this is found in Yebamot 18b where it is recorded that  Rav and Rav Nachman both having a custom of “marrying”  a different  woman in each town they traveled to in order that  they have companionship for the day. Is this not what we would refer to as prostitution? Does the fact that they did it under the guise of marriage make a difference? I believe that it does. It shows that while they were a product of their era and society they were looking to elevate that behavior and do it in (arguably) a more moral fashion. It is Rashi (not the Talmud itself as many believe) who tells us the tragic outcome when Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruriah got into an argument over Rabbi Meir’s contention that women are of “lighter intellect.” Rashi’s un-sourced version has Rabbi Meir proving his point by having his student seduce Bruriah to prove how easily she was able to be manipulated. In the end Bruriah commits suicide in shame. Although many other commentators take umbrage with Rashi’s version, this is the view of the Talmuds greatest commentator on one of the only women who “dared” to argue with the Rabbis sexist views (and in terms if sexist comments Rabbi Meir is unparalleled). The fact that Rabbis who lived in earlier times were a product of said times can be accepted and understood. Few historic “heroes” have fared better when put to the test of even today’s most basic values (e.g. our founding fathers as slave owners). What is far more troubling and dangerous is those Rabbis today (and in the Orthodox world it is the overwhelming majority), who refuse to find any fault with any statement, thought, or action of Chazal or even Rishonim (medievalists) like Rashi. To disagree with any comment of Rashi (and A Fortiori the sages of the Talmud is viewed in today’s Yeshivot as being totally sacrilegious (not to mention arrogant and disrespectful). This topic deserves its own discussion, but I believe that the danger of this approach is at this highest when encountering just such Talmudic passages as we did in yesterdays Daf. When I discussed my feelings of consternation regarding this Talmudic passage with a Rabbinic colleague (who I actually consider to be generally quite rational and reasonable), his response was ostensibly that “If the Rabbis say that a women generally can end up enjoying rape then I must believe that it’s true.” I can’t say that our Christian colleague and friend was not horrified by this “logical” argument. My Jewish History students remembered having learnt this passage last year, and their Rebbe certainly did not take this opportunity to warn the students against taking such words as “Torah MiSinai” (i.e. part and parcel of the divine revelation). I can’t help but make a connection between the scourge of sexual abuse that we are realizing all too late is decimating our community. When we hear of countless testimonials of victims who were told by Battei Dinim (Courts of Jewish Law), educators, and even Chasidic Rebbes who told the victims that they were to blame for their rape and abuse, how can we avoid connecting these attitudes with reverence for such archaic notions as “We are concerned that (the rape) began against her will, but (by the) end (she was engaging in the rape) as a willing participant .” When a prominent Chasidic leader was informed that his future son in law had been accused of sexual abuse, it is reported that the first question he asked concerning the victim was not “Is he ok?”, “Did he commit suicide? (as so many victims who feel ignored do), or “Have the victims had counseling?”, but rather, “DID THEY ENJOY IT?” Rape is in no way an enjoyable activity. It is a physical and emotional violation of the highest order that can take years (if ever) to recover from. To know that this type of mis-education is the result of mis-placed reverence is shameful and and embarrassment. This is the lesson that I will be teaching Bentzy (and my other children as it becomes age appropriate). I will NOT rely our  teachers and community leaders. We are seeing positive signs that we as a community will no longer be silent in the face of rape and abuse. I am not claiming that there is one cause for this plague. It is certainly not so simple a problem to destroy. As a Rebbe and a parent I do believe that when we want to change a community and their archaic views (and I believe the same to be true of fundamentalist Islam), it all starts with changing the education that is A  (if not THE cause) but certainly exacerbates the problem.

About the Author
Rabbi Ephraim Osgood has been a teacher of Torah and Jewish History in Los Angeles and Chicago for the past 10 years. In his free time he enjoys reading graphic novels (that's comic books in layman's terms), Jewish History, and anything that piques his interest. He has six children one all of whom are well behaved, adorable budding prodigies.
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