Slaves or slave-owners?

The Jerusalem Talmud often surprises us. At Passover it’s no different: an extraordinary comment there over-turns our self-image as “slaves in Egypt” and reminds us that we might have been slave-owners there too.

In this reading, Passover commemorates not only the time when we became a free people but also the time when we gave our slaves the gift of freedom.

Learning this part of the Talmud for the first time is shocking. We often believe that we are victims, not perpetrators. In Egypt, we were the weak, not the strong. So learning this discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) might inspire us to think differently about ourselves and about others.

It begins by noting that freeing slaves in the Jubilee year depends on every single person. Rabbi Shemuel bar Yitzhak then relates this idea to a verse in Exodus (6:13) in which Moses and Aaron are commanded not only to tell Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go but also to tell the people of Israel. The command to Pharaoh is obvious – he was a ruler with absolute power – but what command was given to Israel?

Here is Rabbi Shemuel’s answer: “What did he instruct them about? About freeing slaves”.

Rabbi Shemuel is referring to the mitzvah of freeing slaves after six years. The discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud then links our exile in Babylon, hundreds of years later, with our ancestors’ subsequent failure to free their slaves then.

Continuing in the name of Rabbi Ila, “Israel was only ever punished because of not freeing slaves. This is the meaning of the words of Jeremiah who said, “On the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt I made an agreement with them that they would let their slaves go free after six years. And your ancestors did not listen to me . . .”

The historical context of this rebuke from Jeremiah (34:12-17) was a notorious occasion during his lifetime when the Jewish people did free slaves after six years but subsequently changed their minds and forced them return to their previous owners.

By the end of Jeremiah’s life, the nation had indeed been punished with exile from the Land, just as it had been punished by the Romans in the time of Rabbi Shemuel and Rabbi Illa.

Were we slaves or slave-owners in Egypt? The implication of the exchange in the Jerusalem Talmud is that we might have been both. Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk, author of the Meshekh Hokhma, suggests that some of the tribes of Israel were not enslaved in Egypt and did purchase slaves for their own use (see Meshekh Hokhma on Exodus 6:13).

Today this subversive and challenging idea has almost been forgotten. Every year the children ask, “Why is this night different from other nights?” and the parents answer, “Because we were slaves in Egypt”. Nowhere does the Haggadah suggest that we owned slaves, nor that we merited freedom by releasing them.

But the idea might still be told at the Seder table. The word “Haggadah” means “telling”. It is not a history-book: we have the book of Exodus for that.

Rather, the Haggadah is a record of how the story has been told, in different generations and in different settings. It gives us numerous alternate narratives, some as early as the book of Psalms, and these narratives progress through the creation of the first “wrap” by Hillel the Elder – who used to eat his lamb and bitter herbs wrapped up inside a floppy matzah – to the five rabbis who sat up discussing the Exodus until dawn.

The Haggadah commands every generation, our generation too, to see itself as if it had gone out from Egypt and to tell the story afresh, to compose the next chapter in the narrative ourselves.

At Passover this year, we could teach our children that we lived in Egypt, in a society where being born a slave meant living as a slave for ever and dying a slave. And that some Jews there kept slaves too.

But our thinking was not enslaved to Egyptian morality and we let our own slaves go. We merited our own freedom because we gave freedom to others.

We could tell our children more than that. We legislated against slavery in ancient times. We marched for civil rights in Georgia and Alabama. We stood on trial with Nelson Mandela. These stories are part of our history. This year, at the Seder, we could re-tell them all.

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For a consensus on rabbas, learn halacha

‘When all else fails, read the instructions’

The most surprising feature of the Office of the Chief Rabbi’s recent statement in the Jewish Chronicle, opposing women’s ordination, was that it did not mention halacha. Instead it labelled women’s ordination as unacceptable because it lay ‘outside the consensus’.

The Hebrew word ‘halacha’ comes from the same root as ‘walking’ and ‘going’. We might regard it as an instruction-manual for Jewish life. And, while it often ends in community consensus, it begins with an examination of text, precedent and argument, from the Bible and rabbinic writing in the Talmud to commentaries, codes and responsa – real-life answers to questions posed to rabbis by their communities. 

Halacha carries extraordinary capacity for change. In the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the 20th century religious philosopher, it is ‘the bridge over which Torah moves from written word into living deed’. So what might it say today about women’s ordination?

The story – at least in recent times – begins with a discussion in the year 1919 in Israel about women’s suffrage. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, ruled that women should neither vote nor stand for office. Like the Office of the Chief Rabbi last month, he did not refer directly to halachic sources but rested his claim instead on a general idea that the domain of women was in the home and that ‘the duty of fixed public service falls on men’, a quotation from Maimonides.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, responded unequivocally that there was no halachic objection of any kind to women’s suffrage. Furthermore, he thought it inconceivable that women could be denied this personal right – if they were subject to the authority of an elected government, how could they be denied the right to vote for it?

He then investigated the ruling of Maimonides, cited by Rabbi Kook above and by many others in discussion of women’s ordination, that all public appointments in Israel are to be made from men (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5). This ruling is a minority opinion – it lacks Talmudic sources and was never incorporated into the Shulhan Arukh – and Rabbi Uziel brought a number of alternative views before rejecting it, ruling that women could not only vote but could also stand for office.

We cannot re-read their correspondence today without noticing that the original controversy is dead and that the consensus is now clear. Today’s women vote. They occupy leadership positions in synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish universities, and governments of Israel. In Israel and the USA they teach halacha and make halachic decisions. The Office of the Chief Rabbi’s statement itself declares, ‘our communities are stronger when led by both women and men’. Maimonides’s position has been rejected.

If women may now teach halacha and occupy leadership positions in our communities, might they be ordained as rabbis? Two more modern responsa – one written for the Orthodox Union in the USA and another written by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and the recipient of the Israel Prize for his work on the religious customs of the people of Israel – address this question.

The Orthodox Union’s argumentation parallels that of Rabbi Kook: while it cites the ruling of Maimonides that Rabbi Uziel analyzed and rejected, halachic material directly-related to women’s ordination fills less than one of its seventeen pages. Its focus instead is on the importance of tradition, continuity and gender-specific roles. 

And, while it claims that Jewish tradition militates against the ordination of women, it does little to substantiate this claim, cherry-picking Biblical and rabbinic sayings which follow its line but failing to acknowledge that none of these – other than the ruling of Maimonides discussed above – prohibits women’s ordination and that the authentic tradition carries multiple, diverse voices, some of which disagree with the Orthodox Union’s conclusions and many of which might be characterised today as ‘feminist’.

In contrast, Rabbi Sperber’s contribution reflects the style of Rabbi Uziel, citing dozens of halachic sources and historical precedents ranging from Tosafot, the 12th century Talmudic commentators who discuss Deborah the prophetess’s role as a female judge, to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the foremost American halachic authority of the 20th century who, like Rabbi Uziel, rejects Maimonides’s contention that women may not occupy positions of authority (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Volume II, Chapter 44).

Rabbi Sperber’s defence of women’s ordination reads like the great rabbinic responsa of previous eras. While some may disagree with its conclusions, no-one who studies it can fail to recognise the gap between the weight of his arguments and those of his opponents.

What next? A new consensus can only emerge through disagreement and discussion, supported by the rabbinic literature. And, with much of the relevant material readily-available on-line in English (see the links above), every member of a Jewish community in the UK could participate in the debate: studying the material, asking their rabbis to teach it, discussing it with friends, and inviting guest lecturers to present it in their communities.

In the words of the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, ‘When all else fails, read the instructions’.

This article was written at the bedside of Joyce Gessler, a strong and brave woman and a leader of her community, who passed away a few days before its publication. It is presented in her memory.

A version of this article, without links to the sources, appeared on 9th July 2021 in the Jewish Chronicle. Since the publication of this blog-post, the JC has added the links into its own version and readers should feel free to share it.

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Aliyot for women in an orthodox setting?

Last year, members of many orthodox synagogues in the UK created “partnership minyanim” in which women as well as men read from the Torah and were called up.

Surprisingly, the classic rabbinic sources are more open to this practice than are many of today’s rabbis. One article, opposing the introduction of aliyot for women, complained that these women were following “text-based tradition” rather than simply copying what their mothers had done.

In order to shed more light on this debate, and in order to honour a dear friend, I have translated and posted some relevant rabbinic sources here. I hope that these will be of use to the public and will encourage informed debate on this important issue.

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On Israel’s 65th Birthday

Soon after the creation of the state, Rav Soloveitchik wrote an essay called Kol Dodi Dofek.  The title means “The voice of my lover knocks”.  The Rav is referring to the beloved of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.  The beloved is lying alone in bed and the lover knocks on the door, waking her up.  The Rav wants us to understand that history is knocking at the door and that we are in the presence of miracles.  Continue reading

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Innovation and Change in Jewish Thought, from an 18th Century Rabbinic Leader

Innovation.  Development.  Human intelligence.  Human error.

How important are these to Jewish thought and practice?  According to Rabbi Arieh Leib Heller, one of the foremost rabbinic authorities of 18th century Poland, they are essential:  intrinsic to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.  He explains that the written Torah is public property, accessible both to Jews and to others.  But the verbal Torah, innovated and refined over successive generations, ‘is ours’.  It is uniquely Jewish.   Continue reading

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Relations with the enemy

Jewish thought usually takes care not to demonize enemies. But Purim might be an exception.  The rabbis connect Haman, the villain, with Amalek, a destructive nation whom we are commanded to exterminate.  Our relationship with Amalek is close to a tribal feud.  Continue reading

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May Anyone Serve?

What kind of person is qualified to serve in the army?  What qualities should a soldier have? Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, writing nearly two thousand years ago on this week’s Torah portion, gives us a surprising answer to this question.  And his words are still relevant today.   Continue reading

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Jewish Rights to the Land of Israel?

Many people believe that Jews have a right to the land of Israel.  Much ink and blood have been spilled on this claim.  So it might surprise us to learn that our last two Torah readings teach the opposite: the tighter we hold onto ownership of the Land the more we risk losing it entirely.

The core of last week’s Torah reading is the commandment of “shemita”, leaving the land alone every seventh year.  Continue reading

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Four Songs

A poem by Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook

There is one who sings the song of his own life, and in himself he finds everything, his full spiritual satisfaction.

There is another who sings the song of his peopleContinue reading

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