Texts of Terror…Again

So the Rabbi nominated to be the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Force (IDF), Rabbi Karim, has been accused of permitting the rape of non-Jewish women during war in an online answer to a question several years ago (amongst other fairly hideous things he’s described as saying).

I have colleagues who have responded to the specific allegations and, according to the JC, state “As rabbinic leaders we fiercely refute the notion that any part of Jewish law has condoned the use of rape in wartime.” A fuller report from a different perspective can be found here.

What this does is demonstrate to us the problem of our texts of terror (a subject I deal with here). I agree that no part of Jewish law has condoned rape in wartime – and even those texts which deal with battlefield rape do not indicate that it is part of the military strategy.

However, there is no getting around the text of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 which states:

י  כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ; וּנְתָנוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּיָדֶךָ–וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. 10 When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive,
יא  וְרָאִיתָ, בַּשִּׁבְיָה, אֵשֶׁת, יְפַת-תֹּאַר; וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ, וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה. 11 and seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her to thee to wife;
יב  וַהֲבֵאתָהּ, אֶל-תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ; וְגִלְּחָה, אֶת-רֹאשָׁהּ, וְעָשְׂתָה, אֶת-צִפָּרְנֶיהָ. 12 then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
יג  וְהֵסִירָה אֶת-שִׂמְלַת שִׁבְיָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וְיָשְׁבָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבָכְתָה אֶת-אָבִיהָ וְאֶת-אִמָּהּ, יֶרַח יָמִים; וְאַחַר כֵּן תָּבוֹא אֵלֶיהָ, וּבְעַלְתָּהּ, וְהָיְתָה לְךָ, לְאִשָּׁה. 13 and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
יד  וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא חָפַצְתָּ בָּהּ, וְשִׁלַּחְתָּהּ לְנַפְשָׁהּ, וּמָכֹר לֹא-תִמְכְּרֶנָּה, בַּכָּסֶף; לֹא-תִתְעַמֵּר בָּהּ, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר עִנִּיתָהּ.  {ס} 14 And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.

(In full disclosure aspects of this text are the subject of my PhD research)

How are we to interpret this text if not permitting battlefield rape? Of course, there are interpretations of this text, for which I have some sympathy. For example, this could be a demonstration of the Hebrew Bible trying to steer a vector away from a prevalent practice – in which women were raped and then abandoned by the rapist. The Bible may seem to steer the ancient Israelite world towards a protection of women – in which, whilst the woman may still be raped (there is no getting away from this horror), she cannot then be abandoned. Deuteronomy seems to imply, if a man is to be permitted to rape a woman on the battlefield, he must then marry her and provide for her for the rest of her life as a wife.

The rabbinic texts narrow this yet further – they define the specifics of the war being described, that the man cannot rape multiple women or take extra women for his father, the purposes of the rituals that she undergoes and, in relation to Rabbi Karim’s comments, the reason why the Torah may permit such an act in the first place (not to mention a disturbing – as 21st century readers – amount of victim blaming). Actually each layer of interpretation of this text – historically and through cultures – requires a serious engagement with the historical milieu in order to be understood fully.

Of course, the rabbinic texts from nearly 2000 years ago, are all only imagining a scenario that was never witnessed in living memory. The rabbis had not been out in battle. But they do imagine the possibility of a Jewish soldier raping a non-Jewish woman on the battlefield. From that plain sense there is no escape. Why do they imagine that case – well to understand what is going on here, we also have to understand many other things: Jerusalem (as symbol of the Jewish people) was portrayed as being carried away as a captive woman by Rome, as evidenced by Roman coins and the fantasy of violence is something that cultures and communities always have to contend with, especially when victims of violence. Moreover, we need to enter the debate about exogamous marriage – since the woman and man are married and this is not a commonly permitted state of affairs in the Jewish community of late antiquity. And connected to this, we have the way the rabbinic community imagined non-Jewish identity and behaviour. We also have to understand the nature of desire that the rabbinic community struggles to deal with in themselves – their own libido. Finally, we have another problem of widespread misogyny in many cultures of late antiquity – the rabbinic world was no different. These issues are really unpacked through the Deuteronomy text by the rabbis.

This, of course, is all with relation to the rabbinic period – around the time of the first 4-5 centuries of the common era. How this text is interpreted in the medieval period and modern period must also be analysed distinctly.

Does any of this mean that Jewish law today permits battlefield rape. Actually, I would say, we can be categorical in our answer: Judaism does not permit soldiers to rape women (Jew or non-Jew) on the battlefield or rape anyone at any time. But is there a part of our tradition that suggests under certain circumstances no longer applicable there was permission to rape, even if it was never condoned – well I think that needs to be dealt with openly. I also happen to think that, according to the reports, Rabbi Karim has misinterpreted the texts – nowhere have I seen in Jewish literature has battlefield rape been described as part of successful waging of war because of soldier’s sexual inclinations. Why the rape was permitted is a debate but it does not seem to be an attempt to keep up good spirits amongst soldiers – sickening as it is to even contemplate such a possibility. The Biblical texts are dealing with the consequences of warfare and horrific strategies of war in the Ancient Near East which included the rape and subjugation of your enemy by all sorts of means (let’s admit it is still the case today that rape is used as a weapon of warfare in many theatres of war). The rabbinic texts are also dealing with marriage, sexual desire and coping with men’s inability (at least as the rabbis imagined) to control their libido – and all the other issues mentioned above.

Horrific, disturbing, sad and challenging it may be, but I would argue, only by opening up our interpretative community, honestly and sincerely, can we deal with the problem of texts of terror like Deuteronomy 21.

And there is something else. I have just finished teaching rabbinic students at the Leo Baeck College a whole semester about some of these texts. In fact, we began starting with a Legal Case asked of Maimonides in the 12th century about a man and his servant who were having an affair – he was asked if she could be converted and the couple married. Maimonides is asked if the case of Deuteronomy 21 may be applied, not because of the rape, but rather because it is a text that explicitly permits ‘intermarriage’. As a result, Maimonides touches on the laws of warfare that include permission to eat unkosher meat during warfare (as mentioned by Rabbi Karim) – specifically warfare during the conquest of the land of Canaan described in the Bible (not present day – Maimonides’ or ours) – and Maimonides considers the problem of sexual desire.

Throughout our learning together at the Leo Baeck College we shared moments of disgust and horror. None of us contemplated the possibility of the laws of Deuteronomy ever being applicable to today. It wasn’t the purpose of the learning. However, that said, there is a point at which we do need to recognise that in a time of national sovereignty in the State of Israel someone might think not only is the defence of the land the same as the conquest of the land of the Bible, but that laws of warfare described in Deuteronomy might also be applicable. Even if that was not what Rabbi Karim intended his remarks to imply (a debate that I can’t answer here).

My PhD supervisor and I have discussed more than once the problem of at least two interpretative communities laying claim to Judaism (or indeed any religion).  There are followers of religions who are interpreting texts in ways that are abhorrent. We must accept that this too could happen in Judaism. That is so scary, it is terrifying. But unless we confront it, the scourge of violent religious interpretations, of insular, racist, misogynistic, and unethical interpretations will not just fester, they will overtake us in the stakes of authenticity.

I concluded my last blog post on this problem as follows:

Read in isolation the texts are those of terror. From a visitor to synagogue hearing the words for the first time or a naïve zealot studying them alone at home – and everything in between – this isolation of context, history and interpretative tradition leave us vulnerable to undermining what our Judaism might stand for and/or inspired to carry out fundamentalist acts of violence.

Our contemporary social context and interpretative tradition is part of what protects us.  And at the same time, we have a choice to make – we cannot remain silent in the face of the terror in our texts. We must read them to also verbalise a stance that says this is not our way. We have chosen to lead authentic Jewish lives that are different. We have to be cognisant of the parts of our textual tradition that are not all noble ideals and more than that, we have to accept that these strains of thought are in our library of sacred texts. They could have been Judaism, but they are not and we will never let them become Judaism.

Of course there will always be people who are willing to commit atrocities (most do not need religion to help them) and religious texts (of many faiths) can be used to justify horrendous acts (see this sermon on the subject). Our duty is to not allow humanity to be dragged back into the dark ages. Acknowledging texts of terror in our scriptural traditions and choosing another way is part of that duty to humanity.

Frankenstein and Golem – Power, Redemption and the Human Condition

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol – the Sabbath before Pesach. It reminded me of the Great Rabbi Loew of Prague’s (the Maharal) extended Shabbat Hagadol sermon which is a preface to his Haggadah. One thing, understandably, that it does not mention (in fact nothing of the Maharal’s writing mentions) the deed most famously associated with the Maharal, ‘The Golem of Prague’.

I was reminded of this story as we finally took down a piece of my children’s artwork from the kitchen walls, preparing for the room to be repainted. It was something we had done together on Daddy day – when my children got to spend time just with me. We had got old boxes together and glued and covered them to make a robot – the picture we took down was the original plan! What would our robot do, I asked the kids, if it could do anything at all. First on the list was play games, it had a built in whisk to make cupcakes, a portable lego set and, the bit that I snuck in – its feet could turn into lawnmowers. But our robot was always a robot – even if we endowed it with improbable abilities to play. Nothing like a golem made from the clay.

So the story goes, the Maharal, who lived in the 16th century, was able to manufacture a beast from the clay of the River Vltava. The beast was called a Golem and a golem, unlike Tolkien’s, is a beast that is alive but cannot think – it has the breath of life in it but not the divine spark to create thought. It was on the Golem’s head that the Maharal placed the letters ‘aleph, mem, taf’ spelling Emet, or truth that led to the Golem coming to life and was it the erasure of the aleph, leaving the word ‘met’ (death) that put the Golem back to sleep. So, we’re told the Golem would do anything for the Maharal and his community in their time of antisemitism. As long as each Shabbat the Golem was put to sleep, all was fine. But one week the Maharal forgot to put the Golem to sleep for Shabbat and it went on a rampage. As the Maharal dashed out of the Altneushul in Prague to stop the damage, we’re told the community repeated the singing of Psalm 92 – the Psalm for the Sabbath Day – to delay bringing in Shabbat formally. This gave the Maharal just enough time to put the Golem to sleep for good. The story concludes, the clay from the Golem still sits in the attic of the Altneushul waiting for one day to be brought back into existence.

Now the Maharal of Prague was a great mystic, philosopher and educator and it just so happens that he was my ancestor. My family traces its history back several generations to the Great Rabbi of Prague. Which means that should I wish to endow any lump of clay with the power of life, I could. But I’ll save my powers until we really need them (!) – that’s the point really isn’t it.

The legend of the Golem actually is read back into the character of the Maharal. We don’t really know the origins though probably the Prague story goes back to the early 19th century. But we can be sure that the community were allowing their imagination to roam free in thinking what kind of protection from the forces of antisemitism they could bring into being. The Golem was just that – a protector, a robot, a powerful entity over which the powerless Jews exercised control.

I suppose, interweaving themes, it also makes sense that the clay was from the river Vltava which of course is the name of the river after which Smetana names his piece that contains the folk melody which ultimately becomes part of Hatikva – the national anthem of the State of Israel. And of course, Ma Vlast is used in the advert for Mercedes. What more proof can there be that the Golem was an answer to a community’s needs – the State of Israel and Mercedes.

It is truly fascinating to think of the Golem as a creation to help the community at its greatest time of trouble. To aid the powerless reassert their power. However, the legend probably post-dates the 16th century Maharal by 200 years. Of course around that time a different Gothic novel of humanity’s striving to act like God in creation was born from the pen of Mary Shelley. Literature and Poetry competitions have already started to mark the 200 years since the first publishing of Frankenstein. Whereas the Golem is, in a sense a reflection of the limits to cause the inanimate to live (since the Golem is never truly human), Frankenstein’s wretch is man becoming God. It reflects a desire to understand the most complex aspects of human knowledge, unfolding at the time, and humanity’s desire to master creation. The wretch of Frankenstein and the Golem of Prague.

In 1966, Gershom Scholem (probably the most important modern scholar of Jewish mysticism) wrote a particularly famous essay on the Golem of Prague and the Golem of Rehovoth. The essay was a dedication to a, then, supercomputer in Israel which Scholem named ‘Golem’. Once again the human aspiration for knowledge and power come together in the form of a computer.

The 19th century gave way to the 20th century and yet still we wish to create – possibly create something endowed with human spirit that will surpass us. Some 50 years since Scholem’s article we have advanced greatly.

500 years ago the Maharal was born.

200 years ago Frankenstein was written

50 years ago the greatest expert on Jewish mysticism wrote about the Golem ‘Super computer’, Gershom Scholem.

The point of all these stories and the expectations of each invention is that we will be imbued with the power to be God or at least Godlike. We will be able to create a living thing from something not living. And that thing will able to do our bidding. Of course that’s why such discoveries as the Higgs-Boson (which was nicknamed the God particle) are exhilarating and why Artificial Intelligence is of such fascination to us.

You see we haven’t lost that yearning, not just for the technological advancement, but to call those advances Godlike. It may have been just a nickname for the scientific work that took place, but it shows how the deep psychological insight of Mary Shelley 200 years ago is still something alive in our minds.

But you know the truth is, in the moments of love between a young couple about to embark on their journey as husband and wife together (as we witness today in synagogue); the celebration of new life with a baby-blessing (also today); these are the moments when we transcend our humanity and feel the miraculous presence of God. We don’t need to think of ourselves like God to be godly. To be godly we need to be draw on the nobility of being human – sharing in the beauty of love, that emotion that lodges deep in our hearts and is like an ever-giving fountain. Our world today needs many things, but golems and Frankenstein’s wretches are not them. We have not realised that the truth is, the key to our redemption will not come from things that we can build – though they may be ultimately important – but in human relationships, in the ideas, values, behaviours that are not things but realised in simple human interaction and shared life. Then our closing words of the Pesach seder will come into fruition and we will taste the freedom of a world redeemed.

May that be God’s will and let us say: Amen.