Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud that is currently being dissected around the world, devotes a great deal of time to explaining why women are exempt from time-bound commandments: girls don’t don phylacteries, for example, or study Torah. In fact, rabbis emphatically denounced the transgressive idea of wives or daughters tussling with the Talmud; Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus declared that anyone who teaches his daughter Talmud teaches her tiflut – sexual license or lewdness. Learning Torah, he feared, would impart enough wisdom to women to outwit their men.
Ben Azzai, who lived a little later, went a step further still. He worried that, since the merit of Talmud is known to postpone punishment, women could stray, study, and then not swell up from the gelatinous muck that fallen women are forced to drink. Imagine that, if you dare.
Not to be outdone, Rabbi Eliezer stated, unequivocally, that the words of the Torah are better burned than entrusted to women. Now there’s a thought to ponder.
However, in Israel and around the world, women’s Talmud study groups are sprouting like white hairs in the Rabbis’ beards. And, in the run-up to Covid, when people were still meeting in living rooms but starting to panic at the smallest sneeze, I joined a Daf Yomi study group in a quiet street of a little town near Tel Aviv. I am not religious, but I am Jewish in my blood cells and on my skin; I also have a decent background in biblical texts, Jewish liturgy, and the history of my people. But I knew very little about what compelled our sages in days of yore when they were creating the codes and commandments that form our religion.
I tiptoed into the Talmud one wintery morning not really knowing what to expect, but certainly not anticipating answers to what you should do if you rather unfortunately expel foul gas in the middle of prayer. (Answer: take four steps back, wait for odor to disperse, and walk forward again.) To my amazement, apart from long discussions on what constitutes carrying on Shabbat (is walking home with undigested cholent in your guts considered ‘carrying?’), and how to become betrothed to a woman (through a document, a gift of money, or, to put it as bluntly as our wise teachers did, through sexual intercourse), there were also disputations about deviant sexual behavior.
If a woman, for example, is ‘atypically’ raped by 10 men, is she still considered a virgin? After all, physically, she might still be intact; go to Kiddushin for graphic reasons why.
Call me cynical, call me uncultured, call me a person with zero sensibility or spirituality, but all I could think of as I read of men falling naked off roofs into the waiting bodies of women on the ground below was: you’ve got to be kidding me. I was amazed, and amused, and ultimately enraged that my taxes, and the taxes of my army-going, reserve-duty-serving, university-fee-paying children, fund bochers in big black hats to study minutia like this for lifetimes.
It’s unreal, and it’s just plain unfair.
I was moved to write about this; my. My book “Doing the Daf as Israel Implodes” examines the craziness enveloping the not-so-Holy Land today – the misogyny, the racism, the extremism, the burgeoning religiosity… and traces much of it back to the Talmud. When men sit in dimly lit study rooms for decades, learning about how a hundred women don’t equal two men when it comes to saying Grace after Meals, or how chatting to a man in a marketplace with uncovered hair is grounds for divorce, is it any wonder that they shunt women to the back of the bus, erase female faces from billboards, spit at young girls who dare to bare an elbow?
Itamar Ben Gvir presumably keeps all the commandments of kashrut and Shabbat, as does Bezalel Smotrich, Simcha Rothman, Shlomo Karchi and others. They are ruling the country now, and imposing their terrifying dogma on every facet of our society. The homophobic Avi Maoz is religious; he’s in charge of part of our children’s education. Just last week, 4 million shekels were budgeted to subsidize the cultists going to Uman. Some do drugs, some visit prostitutes, some were caught smuggling drugs in a Sefer Torah. On my tax money.
It’s pretty terrifying. It’s turning mainstream Jews into antisemites. And it might just stem from the Talmud.
For more, and to read the whole book, please go to Doing the Daf as Israel Implodes.