Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Good Impression; Life-Saving Transgressions; Women Learning Torah

I have three items for my write-up today on Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy.

1. Telushkin talks about how Jews are supposed to make a good impression on Gentiles so as to sanctify God's name in their daily life. On pages 459-460, Telushkin says that this entails Jews making Gentiles aware of the Torah's teachings so that the Gentiles will see the wisdom of Israel's God (Deuteronomy 4:6), and Jews refraining from laws that discriminate against Gentiles, for discriminatory laws give the Torah and the God who revealed it a bad name. For an example of the latter principle, Telushkin cites a story in Jerusalem Talmud Mava Mezia 2:5 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3, in which Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach insisted that his pupils return a jewel that belonged to an Arab (which was found in a donkey that the Arab sold to them) even though keeping it would not be stealing, and Jews were not legally mandated to return lost items to Gentiles. The idea was that returning the jewel to the Gentile would bring glory to the God of Israel. Telushkin's discussion intrigued me on account of a teaching in rabbinic literature that Gentiles are not allowed to learn the Torah, as well as halakhot in rabbinic literature that discriminate against Gentiles.

2.  On page 471, Telushkin refers to the principle in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a that says that Jews can transgress any command of the Torah if doing the command would cost them their lives, except for the commands against idolatry, murder, and sexual transgressions such as incest.  Telushkin then discusses contrary voices within Judaism.  There is a view in Sanhedrin 74a that Jews should be willing to be martyred for less serious commandments of the Torah in times when Judaism is being persecuted.  And in II Maccabees 6, a devout Jew is martyred when the choice Antiochus IV's regime lays before him is to eat pork or to be killed.  Rabbi Ishmael in Sanhedrin 74a, however, says that a Jew can even perform an idolatrous act if threatened, as long as he does so in private; the idea is probably that the Jew doing the act publicly would be more likely to undermine Judaism.

On pages 473-474, Telushkin tackles the question of what Jews should do when oppressive Gentile authorities ask them what their religion is. Should they disclose that they are Jews and face martyrdom, or should they keep their Jewish identity a secret? The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 157:2) states that Jews at risk of martyrdom should not claim to be idolaters to avoid death. Telushkin then goes on to refer to another viewpoint: "On the other hand, it is permitted to offer ambiguous, intentionally misleading answers when an enemy asks our religion, and some Rabbis ruled that it was permitted to wear Christian garb to mislead antisemites (see Ramah Yoreh Deah 157:2...)." This discussion reminded me of the Muslim concept of taqiyyah, which affirms (as I understand it) that Muslims can lie about being practitioners of Islam if doing so will save their lives.

3. A while back, I wrote a post about whether or not Judaism permits women to learn the Torah. See here. Remember the movie Yentl, in which Barbara Streisand plays a Jewish woman who pretends to be a man so that she can study Torah and Talmud? On page 499, Telushkin offers a take on the issue:

"...even highly conservative elements within the Jewish community acknowledge that women must be taught the laws that apply to them (see, for example, the eighteenth century Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 'Laws of Torah Study' 1:4). For much of Jewish history, this ruling was interpreted restrictively, as if the only laws women need to know concern commandments such as lighting Shabbat candles or the prohibition of sexual, and all physical, contact between a couple during and after a woman's period. The truth is, however, that the large majority of Jewish laws pertain to men and women alike. Thus a woman who has not studied Judaism's interpersonal laws will not know the laws concerning charity, unfair speech, and judging others fairly. Similarly, women are obligated, as are men, to observe the Jewish holidays, recite blessings, fear and love God, and observe Kashrut; therefore they must learn these laws."

2 comments:

  1. There was a BBC4 TV program last night, on Shakespeare in the early 1600s. It was a period of persecution of Catholics by the Protestants (especially after the Gunpowder Plot 1605). A Jesuit was implicated and executed, and my point of relevance is: he had written a treatise on equivocation, or lying, that was found by the authorities. In it he said such things as: if asked by the authorities looking for Catholics if anyone is hiding in one's house, one can answer "No-one lieth in the house" (lieth meaning staying in the house) and not be lying even if someone is in the house by thinking to oneself while saying it that one is meaning that no-one is lying (telling a lie) in the house. The Protestant authorities found it disgaceful that someone could counsel such things.

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  2. I guess that's one way technically not to be telling an untruth!

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