The burning of the Talmud is a powerful image. Next week, as many Jews fast on Tisha be-Av, we will read a dirge composed to commemorate the destruction of as many as ten thousand Talmudic manuscripts in Paris in 1242.
But yesterday I was hoping that a certain volume of Talmud would burst into flame. It was in a Jerusalem courtroom, on the table of the defense counsel for Malka Leifer, captured by my friend Ittay Flescher for Plus61J Media, which covers the Jewish world for an Australian audience. Leifer is facing 74 counts of child abuse from her time as an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school principal in Melbourne, and this was her 69th hearing since three sisters came forward a decade ago to tell their harrowing story of victimization at her hands.
So whose Talmud was it? Her longtime lawyer Yehuda Fried brought the gigantic ArtScroll edition (Pesachim, Volume I, it appears) to peruse while her new counsel Nick Kaufman (famous for fighting extradition for Serbian genocidists and Muammar Gaddafi’s kids) used the opportunity to blame the victims. Yes, they were minors, but they almost weren’t. Who’s to say these 16- and 17-year-old students weren’t really the ones at fault? To extradite Leifer for a trial that will determine her guilt or innocence, the Israeli courts must first find her guilty! And she’s such a pious woman, how could she maintain her religious standards in an Australian prison?
These arguments are patently ludicrous, and hopefully Judge Chana Miriam Lomp will reject them. But they do so sound awful… Talmudic. The Talmud is often criticized for sophistry, for picayune dissection of impossible abstractions. However, some of the wildest theoretical discussions in the Talmud have turned out to be essential over the millennia. A flying tower crossing over a graveyard, a flying camel ferrying witnesses from one far-flung location to another, a cow giving birth to a donkey, a woman getting pregnant from a bath – these all seemed ridiculous until we developed analogous technology.
But that is the difference between a beit midrash and a beit mishpat, a study hall and the halls of justice. In a courtroom, we are dealing with real people, not teasing out theoreticals.
Am I arguing that Malka Leifer does not deserve a fair trial with a vigorous defense? Not at all; that is what awaits her in Australia. In Israel, it has all been about fraud and denying justice by delaying justice. This 69th hearing was the first extradition hearing, as the previous 68 were about feigning various forms of illness, mental and otherwise, aided and abetted by too many in the ultra-Orthodox community, up to and including our (recently former) Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, whom the police have recommended indicting for his part in the affair. This case has tarnished the image of Torah and the image of Israel in the world. A hillul ha-Shem, desecration of God’s name, in every sense of the term.
And let’s not forget what the Talmud symbolizes for Orthodox Jewish women, which include not only the accused and the victims, but the presiding judge as well. Until recently, the Talmud was a symbol of patriarchy, a part of Jewish tradition controlling nearly every aspect of the lives of Jewish women but which they were forbidden to open. Only in the mid-20th century did this begin to change, and in many parts of the Orthodox community, especially the ultra-Orthodox sects, it hasn’t really changed at all. So when Fried peruses his Gemara while Kaufman proffers klutz kashyas that even Hillel the Great wouldn’t have entertained, this sends a message of intimidation, telling women that they will never be equal. Or even heard.
As our Sages might have said: Better that the words of Talmud be burnt than that they be used to oppress and to victimize.