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Abraham’s Journeys: Ur and Haran (Part 2)

New Dergah Mosque
New Dergah Mosque

There are many traditions regarding the location of Ur Chasdim including Islam and the classical writer Eusebius.

According to Islamic tradition, the birthplace of Abraham – Ur Chasdim – is location not in Mesopotamia but in southern Turkey. Islamic tradition places Ur Chasdim in the ancient city of Edessa (now known as Sanliufra or simply as Urfa).1

In 1848 J.J. Benjamin II visited the town of Urfa and wrote about his travels there in his book Eight years in Asia and Africa.

“Eighteen hours’ journey from Birdschak lies, in a desert neighbourhood, the town of Urfa, likewise enclosed by a wall. Round about the town are to be found a great number of grottoes, built by human hand; these are all open, and lead into a subterranean passage, which is said to be several hours’ journey in length. Regular gates, doors, streets, extensive places and even wells are to be found here. It is beyond all doubt that these are the traces of a town destroyed by an earthquake. Could it not be the ancient “Ur” of the Chaldees, of which Moses speaks? *

In Urfa are to be found monuments of antiquity, which date from the oldest biblical times; some are preserved up to this day; others are lying in ruins. We mention here some of the most remarkable:

1) The house, in which Abraham was born. It is an artificial grotto, hewn out of a single piece of rock; and a cradle of white stone. The grotto is closed and guarded by the Arabs; one can however enter it on payment of a small gratuity. The Arabs are wont to carry thither their sick children, and to lay them in Abraham’s cradle, in which they leave the little ones for the whole night; if they are not found dead the next morning, their recovery can be looked forward to with safety.”2

Eusebius wrote about the city of Ur Chasdim in his book Preparation for the Gospel. Eusebius  preserves a portion of Alexander Polyhistor’s work Concerning the Jews which in turn quotes from the historian Eupolemus’ work Concerning the Jewish of Assyria.

“CHAPTER XVII
AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word:

[ALEXANDER POLYHISTOR] ‘Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history.

‘But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth. And in the tenth generation, he says, in Camarina a city of Babylonia, which some call the city Uria (and which is by interpretation the city of the Chaldees), + in the thirteenth generation + Abraham was born, who surpassed all men in nobility and wisdom, who was also the inventor of astronomy and the Chaldaic art, and pleased God well by his zeal towards religion.”3

Bereishit יא (Genesis 11)

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Haran was the city, according to the Torah, where Abram and his family journeyed when they left Ur Chasdim on their way to Canaan. It was in this place that Abram’s father Terah died. When Abram was 75 years old, Abram, Sarai, Lot, their extended family and servants left Haran to continue onto Canaan. There is an indication later in Bereishit (27:42-43) that some of Abram’s relatives remained in Haran.

Biblical Haran is identified by scholars with the city Harran in modern-day Turkey. This city was the chief home of the Mesopotamian god Sin and remained the chief city of the pagan god under the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Romans.4 According to the Christian apocryphal work The Book of the Cave of Treasures, Nimrod is credited with founding the city of Harran.

And in the fiftieth year of [the life of] Reu, Nimrod went up and built Nisibis, and Edessa, and Harrân, which is Edessa. And Harrânîth, the wife of Dâsân, the priest of the mountain, surrounded it with a wall, and the people of Harrân made a statue of her and worshipped her. And Baltîn, who was given to Tamûzâ (Tammuz)–now because B`êlshemîn loved her, Tammuz fled before him–set fire to Harrân and burned it. (The Book of the Cave of Treasures – The Fourth Thousand Years)5

The death and burial of Abram’s father Terah in Harran is also mentioned in the Arabic work Kitab al-Magall.

When Terah, father of Abraham, reached two hundred and three years he died. Abraham and Lot buried him in the city of Haran. [God] commanded him that he should travel to the Holy Land.6

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1Wikipedia. Ur Kasdim. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ur_Ka%C5%9Bdim#Islamic_tradition]
2Benjamin, J. Eight Years in Asia and Africa From 1846 to 1855. (Hanover, 1859).
3Gifford, E. H. Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica. (1903). [http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_09_book9.htm]
4“Harran.” britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Web. 23 October 2011. [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/255841/Harran]
5Budge, E. A. W. The Book of the Cave of Treasures. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1927).
6Gibson, M. D. “Kitab al-Magall or The Book of Rolls” Apocrypha Arabica. (London, 1901).

Abraham’s Journeys: Ur and Haran (Part 1)

Sumer
Sumer

Bereishit יא (Genesis 11)

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. 29 And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milka, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milka, and the father of Yiska. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 And Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur-kasdim, to go into the land of Kena’an; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Although not specifically mentioned in the Tanakh, Ur Chasdim is identified as Abraham’s placed of birth.

Terach took his son Avram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai (Avram’s wife). With them, he left Ur-kasdim, heading toward the land of Kena’an. They came as far as Haran and settled there. (Bereishit 11:31)1

Various people have attempted to identify the location of Ur Chasdim throughout the centuries including Maimonides (Rambam) and Josephus. Maimonides spoke of Abraham being reared in Kutha which could then be associated as “Ur Chasdim” – the birthplace of Abraham.

Abraham was brought up in Kutha; when he differed from the people and declared that there is a Maker besides the sun, they raised certain objections, and mentioned in their arguments the evident and manifest action of the sun in the Universe. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:29)2

Kutha was an ancient Sumerian city on the eastern branch of the Upper Euphrates River about 25 miles northeast of Babylon.3

According to Josephus, Ur was located in the Chaldean territory and Haran was distant from Ur and not located in Chaldea.

Now Abram had two brethren, Nahor and Haran: of these Haran left a son, Lot; as also Sarai and Milcha his daughters; and died among the Chaldeans, in a city of the Chaldeans, called Ur; and his monument is shown to this day. These married their nieces. Nabor married Milcha, and Abram married Sarai. Now Terah hating Chaldea, on account of his mourning for Ilaran, they all removed to Haran of Mesopotamia, where Terah died, and was buried, when he had lived to be two hundred and five years old… (Antiquities of the Jews 1:6:5)4

Josephus locates the area of Chaldea near Babylon.

And Nicolaus of Damascus, in the fourth book of his History, says thus: “Abram reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans… (Antiquities of the Jews 1:7:2)4

Josephus distinguishes the land of the Chaldeans (descendants of Arphaxad) from Syria (descendants of Aram) where Haran is located.

Shem, the third son of Noah, had five sons, who inhabited the land that began at Euphrates, and reached to the Indian Ocean. For Elam left behind him the Elamites, the ancestors of the Persians. Ashur lived at the city Nineve; and named his subjects Assyrians, who became the most fortunate nation, beyond others. Arphaxad named the Arphaxadites, who are now called Chaldeans. Aram had the Aramites, which the Greeks called Syrians… (Antiquities of the Jews 1:6:4)4

According to Josephus, Ur Chasdim is located in Southern Mesopotamia and not in Syria or Turkey as some others have stated.

Nachmanides (Ramban) declares that Ur Chasdim is in fact Abraham’s birthplace. Not only does he declare this to be his birthplace but Nachamnides places Ur Chasdim in the area of Aram-naharim in Mesopotamia based upon Bereishit 24:10.

[The] verse stating, “And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river and led him throughout all the land of Canaan [Yehoshua 24:3], should have stated, ‘And I took your father from Ur of the Chaldees and led him throughout all the land of Canaan,’ for it was from there that he was taken, and it was there that he was given [the command to get out of his country and from his birthplace – Bereishit 12:1]. (Commentary on the Torah – Lech Lecha)5

According to the Talmud, Ur is associated with the city Erech.

…Between the two there is [a distance] of one hundred parasangs and its circumference one thousand parasangs . And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. ‘Babel’ in its usual sense; ‘Erech’ ‘ i.e. Urikath; ‘Accad’, i.e. Baskar;15 ‘Calneh’, i.e. Nupar — Ninpi. Out of that land went Ashur. (Babylonian Talmud – Yoma 10a)6

Uruk was the ancient name for Erech, a city in Chaldea (Kasdim, a region on the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf which was originally the southern part of Babylonia). This was near the city of Ur, the birthplace of Avraham, on the lower Euphrates River which was then on the Persian Gulf (before it receded).7

The apocryphal Book of Jubilees also implies that it is in Ur Chasdim that Abraham was born by linking the city “Ur” back to Abraham’s ancestor Serug (Sêrôḫ).

And in the thirty-fifth jubilee, in the third week, in the first year thereof, Reu took to himself a wife, and her name was ’Ôrâ, the daughter of ’Ûr, the son of Kêsêd, and she bare him a son, and he called his name Sêrôḫ, in the seventh year of this week in this jubilee. 2. And the sons of Noah began to war on each other, to take captive and to slay each other, and to shed the blood of men on the earth, and to eat blood, and to build strong cities, and walls, and towers, and individuals (began) to exalt themselves above the nation, and to found the beginnings of kingdoms, and to go to war people against people, and nation against nation, and city against city, and all (began) to do evil, and to acquire arms, and to teach their sons war, and they began to capture cities, and to sell male and female slaves. 3. And ’Ûr, the son of Kêsêd, built the city of ’Arâ of the Chaldees, and called its name after his own name and the name of his father. (Book of Jubilees 11:1-3)8

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1Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Torah. (New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981).
2M. Friedlander (translator). The Guide for the Perplexed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1904). [http://sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/index.htm]
3Wikipedia. Kutha. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kutha]
4William Whiston (translator). The Works of Flavius Josephus. (1737).
5Charles Chavel. Ramban: Commentary on the Torah (Genesis). (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1971).
6I. Epstein Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949).  [http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Yoma.pdf]
7Dafyomi Advancement Forum. Background on the Daily Daf – Yoma 10. [http://dafyomi.shemayisrael.co.il/yoma/backgrnd/yo-in-010.htm]
8R.H. Charles (translator). The Book of Jubilees. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917).

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Martyrdom and Offerings

Daniel praying
Daniel praying

Martyrdom
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi points to the prayer of Dani’el and asks why Dani’el would risk his life to pray if there is not a mitzvah in the Torah to actually pray. Without an “Oral Law” to explain martyrdom there is no way to know when and where one may become a martyr.2

When Dani’el learned that the writing [prohibiting prayer to anyone other than the king for thirty days] had been inscribed, he went home. He had windows open in his upper story, facing Yerushalayim, and three times a day he fell to his knees and prayed and gave thanks before his God, exactly as he used to do before this. (Dani’el 6:11)3

The first thing to notice is that prayer was a usual occurrence for him and this is not something that he did infrequently.

Second, Dani’el realizes that he cannot bow down to the statue of the king and pray to the king for we are told: “You are not to have any other gods before my presence” (Shemot 20:3).1

Third, obviously Dani’el would have been praying to ask for assistance from God due to the dangerous situation he was in at the time. There are plenty of verses throughout the Tanakh that show various people praying to God for assistance.

Fourth, Dani’el is following the mitzvah as expressed by Shlomo ha-Melekh.

When they sin against You – for there is no man who never sins – and You become angry with them, and You deliver them to an enemy, and their captors take them captive to the enemy’s land, faraway or nearby, and they take it to heart in the land where they were taken captive and they repent and supplicate to You in the land of their captors, saying, “We have sinned; we have been iniquitous; we have been wicked,” and they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who had captured them, and pray to You by way of their land that You gave to their forefathers, and [by way of] the city that You have chosen and [through] the Beit HaMikdash that I built for Your Name – may You hear their prayer and their supplication from Heaven, the foundation of Your abode and carry out their judgment, and forgive Your people who sinned against You, and all their transgressions that they transgressed against You, and let them inspire mercy before their captors, so that they will treat them mercifully. (Melakhim Aleph 8:46-50)3

There is no indication that Dani’el had the intention of becoming a martyr. However, I am sure that he knew it was a possibility but he left that up to God. He continued to follow the mitzvot and put his trust in God. This is no proof for an “Oral Law.”

Offerings
Rabbi Duran notes that Shlomo ha-Melekh offered sacrifices at the dedication of the Beit HaMikdash.2

On that day the king sanctified the interior of the Courtyard that was before the Beit HaMikdash of the Eternal One for there he performed the service of the elevation-offering, the meal-offering and the fats of the peace-offering; for the Copper Altar that was before the Eternal One was too small to contain the elevation-offering, the meal-offering and the fats of the peace-offering. (Melakhim Aleph 8:64)3

The Hebrew word in question according to Rabbi Duran’s argument is עָשָׂה (asah) which is translated as “performed” in this text.2 The word in question – asah – does not necessarily mean “performed” but instead means to do, to make, to produce, to prepare, to appoint, or to put in order. In reality this text can be translated as “On that day the king sanctified the interior of the Courtyard that was before the Beit HaMikdash of the Eternal One for there he prepared [or put in order] the service…” If we translate the verse in this way we can clear up any ambiguities. It is clear that Shlomo ha-Melekh was making preparations for the offerings by bringing forth the prescribed offering to the priests. There is no need for an “Oral Law” in this case since Shlomo ha-Melekh did not actually perform the service himself.

Rabbi Duran also points out the difficulty with Eliyahu’s sacrifice on Har Karmel.2

Eliyahu took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of the tribes B’nei Ya’aqov (to whom the word of the Eternal One came saying, “Your name shall be Yisrael”). He built the stones into an altar for the Name of the Eternal one, and he made a trench large enough to plant two se’ahs of seed around the altar. He arranged the wood, he cut up the bull, and put it on the wood. (Melakhim Aleph 18:31-33)3

Rabbi Duran points out that sacrifices are not permitted anywhere but at the Beit HaMikdash.4

Take … care, lest you offer up your offerings up in any place you might see. Rather, in the place that the Eternal One chooses in one of your tribal-districts,there you are to offer up your offerings, there you are to observe all that I command you. (Devarim 12:13-14)1

We can see that the reason for this command is to stop people from setting up in any place that they see fit to do so. The offerings spoken of in this text are the offerings that are specified in the Torah (such as peace-offerings and sin-offerings). The offering that was offered up by Eliyahu was not any of these types of offerings. The command from Devarim is not applicable to this situation so there is no reason from an “Oral Law.”

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1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Gil Student. “The Oral Law.” aishdas.org. The AishDas Soceity, 2001, accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.aishdas.org/student/oral.htm]
3Nosson Scherman, ed. The Stone Edition Tanakh. New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2007.

Book Review: An Introduction to Karaite Judaism

An Introduction to Karaite Judaism
An Introduction to Karaite Judaism

An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom
Author: Al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite Studies
Publisher: Al-Qirqisani Center Year: 2003
Pages: 245 plus Introduction and Appendix

An Introduction to Karaite Judaism is the al-Qirqisani Center’s attempt to bring to light the history, theology, practices, and customs of worldwide Karaite Judaism. The book begins with a brief introduction as to the motivations behind writing this particular book. Karaite Judaism maintains that only the Tanakh is the valid text for determining theological issues and the commands given by God. However, Karaites also maintain that there is need for interpretation of the text and An Introduction to Karaite Judaism offers some of the interpretations of the Tanakh that have been handed down over the years in the Karaite community.

An Introduction to Karaite Judaism begins with a brief history of the roots of Karaite Judaism. The story begins with the revelation at Mount Sinai to Moses and the Children of Israel. This is the basis of the Karaite beliefs. The strong belief in a binding covenant between God and the Children of Israel along with the Land that was given to the Children of Israel (as promised to Abraham) form the solid foundation upon which Karaite Judaism is based. The book goes on to discuss the name “Karaite” and how this name became attached to the Jews who do not believe in an “Oral Law.” While the term “Karaite” – meaning Followers of the Scripture – is a new name, the Karaites maintain that they are the descendents (physical or spiritual) of the Jews who received the covenant at Mount Sinai but never added an “Oral Law” to that covenant. For the most part, the separation of the Karaite Jews from the Rabbinate Jews began in full-force after the destruction of the Second Temple. There have always been pockets of Karaite/non- Rabbinical Jews throughout the world but after the destruction of the Temple they found themselves with an influx of Rabbinical Jews into their areas. For the most part the Karaites and Rabbinates lived peacefully side-by-side for many years. However, with outside pressures – mostly from Muslim invaders – the differences became more enhanced and would eventually lead to great conflict. Much of this conflict surrounded the idea of halakhah. Karaites only use the Tanakh as their covenantal source for determining halakhah but the Rabbinates use an “Oral Law.” Different beliefs, practices, and interpretations were developed by Karaite Judaism as is explained in An Introduction to Karaite Judaism.

Karaite Judaism teaches that all Jews are to be righteous and holy just was they were commanded by God. To this end, works of kindness, charity, and justice are prominently taught and maintained by the Karaites. Karaites also consistently follow the mitzvot of tzitzit (fringes) – for males and females – as well as avoiding the forbidden mixtures of seeds, animals, and cloth. Avodah Zarah (foreign worship) is also strictly forbidden. Karaites teach – and practice – honoring the elders as well as honoring oaths. An Introduction to Karaite Judaism also touches upon the idea of the usage of the name (יהוה) by Karaites. The name of God is spoken by many within the Karaite community but it is also an accepted practice to say HaShem, God, or Lord as a substitute for speaking the name. The concepts of tahorah (clean) and tum’ah (unclean) as spelled out in the Tanakh are also maintained within the Karaite Jewish community. This includes such things as “kashrut” (kosher), niddah (period), and contact with the dead. All the commands given in the Tanakh regarding clean/unclean are followed by the members of the Karaite Jewish community. The family unit is also highly regarded in Karaite Judaism. There is a great emphasis on honoring one’s parents and educating the children and bringing them up with the knowledge of Tanakh.

If one would step into a Karaite Beit Knesset (synagogue) one could easily mistake it for a masjid (mosque). There are no chairs and for the purposes of modesty, men and women are separated (the women are usually behind the men or in a balcony if there is not enough room on the main floor). The two main personnel in a beit knesset are the hakham – learned leader – and the hazzan – prayer leader. The beit knesset is considered holy space and as such it must remain ritually pure. There is a reverence associated with this area and idle talk and talking about business, etc. is discouraged. Prayers take place twice daily and on Shabbat and Yomim Tovim (holidays). The style of prayer is also taken from the Tanakh and involves standing, sitting, and prostrating. The siddur that is used takes the prayers from various places in the Tanakh and are read in a responsive technique between the congregants and the hazzan. Shabbat is maintained in a very strict fashion according to the commands of the Tanakh and the interpretation upon these commands. Work (as defined according to clues in the Tanakh) of any kind is strictly forbidden.

Karaite Judaism does not use the same calendar as the Rabbinates but instead maintains the calendar as it is spelled out in the Tanakh. The months begin when there is a sighting of the new moon. This is done today by people in Israel announcing the sighting of the new moon. The yearly calendar begins in the month of the aviv – as commanded in the Torah. This is in contrast to the Rabbinates who begin the year in the fall with “Rosh Hashannah.” A search for the aviv barley in Israel is conducted early in the spring to determine when the new year has begun. If the aviv barley has been found the new year will begin on the next new moon and Chag Hamatzot (Passover) will begin on the fifteenth day of the first month. The holidays are set according to the new moons and the month of the aviv. There are many differences between the holidays as practiced by the Karaites and the Rabbinates. The differences are too many to succinctly write about in this review. However, here is a list of the holidays as named (according to the Tanakh names) and celebrated by the Karaite Jews.

  • Chag HaMatzot (Passover)
  • Omer
  • Chag HaShavuot (Shavuot)
  • Yom HaTeru’ah (Rosh Hashannah)
  • Ten Days of Repentance
  • Yom HaKippurim (Yom Kippur)
  • Chag HaSukkot (Sukkot)
  • Purim

In addition, secular holidays such as Yom HaAzmaut, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Yerushalayim are also observed by Karaite Jews.

The various life events of a person are also given special prominence in Karaite Judaism. Brit Milah (circumcision) is performed on every male child eight days after his birth. Traditions have been maintained surrounding this day in order to enhance the celebration. In addition, Karaites also have traditions and practices regarding the naming of girls as a parallel celebration to the brit milah. Adoption is permitted within Karaite Judaism but there are many hurtles (such as Jewishness) that need to be overcome. In instances where an adopted child is not born to a Jewish father he or she will be converted in infancy (or as soon as possible after the adoption) but is permitted to maintain or reject the conversion upon reaching bar/bat mitzvah age. Conversion of adults is also discussed in An Introduction to Karaite Judaism – the traditions and practices of which are different than those of Rabbinical Judaism. Marriage is a joyous occasion in Karaite Judaism. There are traditions and practices that are unique to Karaites but they also share some common traditions with Rabbinical Judaism – such as a ketubah (marriage contract) and the three stages/parts of marriage. Intermarriage is strictly forbidden – not just between a Jew and non-Jew but also between a Karaite Jew and a Rabbinical Jew. If the non-Jewish partner (or non-Karaite Jewish partner) wishes to completely embrace Karaite Judaism and convert then the marriage may be permitted. Divorce is looked upon unfavorably and is strictly limited to the reasons for divorce as maintained in the Tanakh. According to Karaite Judaism, either the husband or the wife can initiate a divorce proceeding. The petitioner will go to the beit din (Jewish court) and present his/her case. If a divorce is granted then the husband must give his wife a get (divorce document) and the marriage will be dissolved. The death and mourning rituals of the Karaites are very similar to those of the Rabbinates. These rituals are maintained with a sense of holiness – as are all the rituals in one’s life.

An Introduction to Karaite Judaism is a good read for anyone interested in the basics of Karaite Judaism. The basic, short facts offered throughout the book offer an overview of the Karaite Jewish community and its differing theologies and practices. This book is a good recommendation for those wishing to better understand the world of Karaite Judaism.

Judaism 101: Who is a Jew?

Yemenite Jew, Jerusalem
Yemenite Jew, Jerusalem

The term “Jew” – Yehudi in Hebrew – can mean various things depending upon the context and the time period the term is used.

Originally a Yehudi would have been a member of the Tribe of Yehuda. The original Yehudim were members of this tribe. Later the term Yehudi was used to refer to anyone residing in the Kingdom of Yehuda which would include members from not only the tribe of Yehuda but also of the tribes of Levi, Binyamin, and the other tribes. This is why we see Mordecai referred to as both a member of the tribe of Binyamin and a Yehudi.

In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew (יְהוּדִי) by the name of Mordecai, son of Ya’ir son of Shim’i son of Qish a Benjamite (אִישׁ יְמִינִי) . (Ester 2:5)1

After B’nei Yisrael was exiled by the Romans from Eretz Yisrael the term “Jew” began to refer to anyone who descended from Yaakov or those who converted to Judaism. This is the modern-day usage of the term “Jew.”

Yehuda was born to Le’a and Yaakov and in the verse announcing Yehuda’s birth we see the meaning of his name.

She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise יהוה [the Eternal One].” Therefore she named him Yehuda (יְהוּדָה). Then she stopped bearing. (Bereishit 29:35)1

The name Yehuda (יהודה) means “she (Le’a) praises יהוה [the Eternal One].”

יְהוּדָה = + ה + הוד + יהו

יהו – abbreviated form of יהוה
הוד – praise, worship
ה – feminine suffix

The term Yahadut (יהדות) means “you praise יהוה [the Eternal One].” This is the Hebrew word for what is commonly known as Judaism.

יהו – abbreviated form of יהוה
הוד – praise, worship
ת – second-person suffix

The term Yehudi (יהודי) means “I praise יהוה [the Eternal One].”

יהו – abbreviated form of יהוה
הוד – praise, worship
י – first-person suffix

So, why was Mordecai called a Yehudi and a member of the tribe of Binyamin? He was called a Yehudi because he praised the Eternal One.

We even see in Divrei Hayamim that the daughter of Par’o is called a Yehudi.

And his Judahite (הַיְהֻדִיָּה) wife bore Yered father of Gedor, Hever father of Sokho, and Yequti’el father of Zanoah. These were the sons of Bitya daughter of Par’o, whom Mered married. (Divrei Hayamim Aleph 4:18)1

In the simplest meaning, a “Jew” – a Yehudi – is anyone who praises the Eternal One. This is why the patriarchs – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov – can be rightfully called Yehudim. Since the matriarchs – Sara, Rivka, Rachel, and Le’a – also praised the Eternal One they can also be called Yehudim.

According to Rabbinic Judaism a child is born a Jew if he or she is born to a mother who was a Jew at the time of his or her birth. According to Karaite Judaism it is the father who determines who is and who is not a born Jew.

For the person who is not born of a Jewish mother – in Rabbinic Judaism – or a Jewish father in Karaite Judaism, there is an open invitation to accept the Eternal One as their God and become a Yehudi.

According to Rabbinic Judaism in order for one to convert there must be a period of study under a sponsoring rabbi (or someone appointed by the rabbi). After a period of time the person will go before a beit din – a court of rabbis – who will determine if the person is going to be accepted for conversion. If the person is accepted the males must be circumcised. The person must state that he or she gives up any other faith systems and will follow Torah and all the mitzvot as defined by the rabbis. Finally, the person must go and immerse in a mikvah before the beit din.

According to Karaite Judaism a person who declares his or her intention before witnesses of following the Eternal One as God and keeping Torah is considered a Yehudi. The only additional requirement is for all males to be circumcised.

For those wishing to convert Karaite Judaism he or she must accept the three fundamental principles of Karaite Judaism.3
1. Believe in the Eternal One as the only God and renounce all others.
2. Believe in the Tanakh as the words of the Eternal One and the only religious authority – renounce all other writings, doctrines, and creeds as words of men.
3. Study and keep the Tanakh while striving to interpret the Tanakh according to its peshat (plain) meaning.

In addition, the person will also need to accept the principles expressed in the ancient Karaite Vow:

By the covenant of Mount Sinai and the statutes of Mount Horev I will keep the holy appointed times of YHVH according to the New Moon and the finding of the Aviv in the Holy Land of Yisrael, when possible.3

All males who wish to convert to Karaite Judaism must be circumcised. Circumcision can be performed by any qualified medical professional.

Finally, when the person is ready to formally convert it is important that he or she join himself or herself to the Eternal One by vowing before other Yisraelites that “יהוה [the Eternal One] is my God and Israel is my people.”

A Yehudi is someone who believes that the Eternal One is the One and only God, declares his or her intention to follow Tanakh, and declare that Yisrael is his or her people. There is always an open invitation for those who wish to leave the non-Tanakh based faith systems of the world to become a Yehudi.

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1David Stein (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philaelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
2al-Qirqisani Center. An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom. Troy, NY: al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite Studies, 2003.
3Nehemia Gordon. “Conversion FAQ.” karaite-korner.org. Karaite-Korner, n.d.

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Instructions and Judgment

Moses
Moses

Instructions
Rabbi Shimon ben-Tzemach Duran points out the following passage as proof of an “Oral Law.”

You should make clear to them the laws and the instructions, you should make known to them the way they should go, and the deed that they should do… (Shemot 18:20)1

Rabbi Duran asks why Moshe would need to give further instruction to the chiefs of the people if all the mitzvot were given in the Written Torah. What, asks Rabbi Duran, was Moshe supposed to instruct them?2

First, if a man is given a written instruction manual is he no longer in need of further verbal clarification? Yes, it is possible but if the instruction manual is regarding something that he has never done and knew nothing about wouldn’t he be in need of further verbal clarification? This in no way means that there is an “oral instruction” that is given in addition to the written instruction.

Second, we read in Devarim 31:9: “Now Moshe wrote down this Instruction and gave it to the priests, the Sons of Levi, those carrying the coffer of the Covenant of יהוה, and to all the elders of Yisrael.”1 We can plainly see that Moshe ha-navi wrote down the Torah over the 40 years in the Wilderness. He did not write the entire Torah at Har Sinai since יהוה did not give the entire Torah at Har Sinai. So, if the Torah was given to Moshe over time he would have needed to teach it to the chiefs.

Legal Judgments
Rabbi Duran also points to the following scripture as proof for an “Oral Law.”2

When any legal matter is too extraordinary [פָּלָא] for you, in justice, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, between stroke and stroke, in matters of quarreling within your gates, you are to arise and go up to the place that יהוה your God chooses, you are to come to the Levitical priests and to the judge that there is in those days; you are to inquire and they are to tell you the word of judgment. You are to do according to this word that is told you, in that place that יהוה chooses; you are to take care to observe what they instruct you. According to the instruction that they instruct you, by the regulation that they tell you, you are to do; you are not to turn away from the word that they tell you, right or left. (Devarim 17:8-11)1

Rabbi Duran asks what knowledge can be “hidden?” The issue is that this is an incorrect understanding of the Hebrew word פָּלָא (pala) which means difficult, wonderful, or marvelous, but not “hidden” as Rabbi Duran claims. He also makes the statement that if there was no “Oral Law” the only basis for judgment is in the Torah which is open for anybody to study. He claims that the basis for a central court implies an “Oral Law” which serves as the basis for the court’s judgment.2

He is correct that the Torah is open for everyone to study. However, these passages tell us that we are to take care of judgments between ourselves whenever possible because the Yisraelites learned the complete Torah every seven years. If the judgment is not possible then the Yisraelites are to go to the Levites for assistance. If the judgment still cannot be rendered then the judge of that era was to be consulted. Only after these steps was the central court to be approached. This in no way indicates an “Oral Law” but instead indicates a mutli-level judicial system.

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1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Gil Student. “The Oral Law.” aishdas.org. The AishDas Soceity, 2001, accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.aishdas.org/student/oral.htm]

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Exegesis and Grammar

Page of Talmud
Page of Talmud

Rabbinic Judaism (specifically Orthodox and Conservative) offers to the world the idea that the “Oral Law” – as enthroned in the Talmud – was given to Moshe at Har Sinai along with the Written Torah. Orthodox and Conservative Jews claim that there are multiple proofs given from the Written Torah to show that there were indeed two Torahs given at Sinai.

Assemble the people, the men, the women, and the little-ones, and your sojourner that is in your gates, in order that they may hearken, in order that they may learn and have awe for the Eternal One your God, to carefully observe all the words of this Instruction; and (that) their children, who do not know, may hearken and learn to have awe for the Eternal One your God, all the days that you remain alive on the soil that you are crossing over the Yarden to possess. (Devarim 31:12-13)1

Exegesis
An argument for the “Oral Law” is that one of the components of the “Oral Law” offers thirteen principles of Torah exegesis. The argument is that when Moshe was given the Written Torah he was also given instructions as to how one is to study and understand Torah.2 We see however that these thirteen principles are not followed by all rabbis or all communities. Are we to follow the seven rules of Hillel, the 13 rules of Rabbi Ishmael, or the 32 rules of Rabbi Eliezer ben-Yose HaGelili?3 If this is a proof as to the inspired work of the Talmud how can there be various arguments as to what is and is not the proper principles of Torah exegesis?

Grammar
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi argued that it is impossible to read and understand Torah without a tradition regarding the vowels and punctuation. He argues that a simple reading of the Torah would necessarily require an oral tradition. One who accepts the vowels and punctuations must also accept the “Oral Law” since the only existing tradition regarding the Torah text includes traditions about the vowels and punctuation.4

There is no real indication or reason that the Yisraelites would not have known how to properly pronounce the words of the Tanakh – especially when seen in context – since they were all fluent Hebrew speakers. Even today we see that there are many people who are able to speak and understand a language without actually being able to read or write the language. In addition, people are able to read a text in their native-language without any vowels or punctuation marks so why would this be any different for the ancient Yisraelites?

It is accepted that before the Masoretic text of the Tanakh there were no vowels or punctuation marks within the text of the Tanakh. The Masoretes were the first to write down the Tanakh with standard vowel and punctuation markings. The Masoretic text – specifically the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex – is the basis for nearly all translations of the modern-day Tanakhs and Old Testaments. The Masoretic Text was primarily copied, edited, and distributed by a group of Jews called the Masoretes between the seventh and tenth-centuries. There are very little differences between the Masoretic Text and the second-century texts and the even older texts from Qumran. The Masoretes were groups of Jews made up primarily of Karaite scribes and scholars. It seems odd that the texts of the Masoretes that have been accepted as the standard – correct – text of the Tanakh were produced by Jews who rejected an “Oral Law!” Aharon ben-Moshe ben-Asher, a Karaite Jewish scribe, refined the Tiberian system for writing the vowels in Hebrew which serves as the basis for grammatical analysis that is still in use today.

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1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Naftali Silberberg. “What is the ‘Oral Torah?’” chabad.org. Chabad, n.d., accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812102/jewish/What-is-the-Oral-Torah.htm]
3Jewish Encyclopedia. “Talmud Hermeneutics.”  jewishencyclopedia.com. The Kopelman Foundation, 1906, accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10801-middot-the-seven-of-hillel]
4Gil Student. “The Oral Law.” aishdas.org. The AishDas Soceity, 2001, accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.aishdas.org/student/oral.htm]

Intermarriage and the HUC-JIR

Hebrew Union College Campus Jerusalem
Hebrew Union College Campus, Jerusalem

A couple months ago rabbinical student Daniel Kirzane wrote a post related to his student senior sermon. His topic was a discussion about the current position of the HUC-JIR regarding applicants to its rabbinical school who are married to or involved with a non-Jew. As Brandon Bernstein puts it:

Currently, applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices, except for one: an agreement not to be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.” This policy is therefore crucial for its significant symbolic value—it is the one and only commitment to living a Jewish life expected by HUC of future Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal workers. (Reform Judaism Online – Spring 2013)

I agree with Brandon, if HUC-JIR removes the rule that a future rabbinical student cannot be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to” a non-Jew then what other rules should also be removed? Why not permit a rabbinical student applicant to believe the messiah has already arrived? Even though I consider myself non-denominational I do believe that there needs to be some set standards for future rabbis.

I understand that there are Jews who fall in love with non-Jews. This is simply a fact of life and we need to realize this fact. However, if a potential rabbinical student is serious about his/her Judaism then shouldn’t the individual also be serious about being intermarried (or involved with) a non-Jew? Are we not told in the Torah not to intermarry? If so, then how can someone supposedly serious enough to attend rabbinical school argue that intermarriage is okay? Yes, I realize that Daniel is a Reform Jew but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he – even according to Reform Judaism beliefs – can rightfully ignore Torah law when it is advantageous.

I am not saying that intermarried people should be ignored or thrown out of the synagogues. I believe that it is our responsibility to win over the non-Jew so he/she will convert. We absolutely cannot run-off the Jew in these intermarried relationships but we cannot go on simply ignoring the situation. Any future rabbi must be aware of, and sympathetic to, intermarried couples but this does not mean there must be an indication of acceptance.

Rabbinical schools must have set standards for potential students. HUC-JIR has a position which means that a potential rabbinical student cannot be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to” a non-Jew. I personally applaud this rule. This is a Torah-based rule that should not be changed. If a person is truly committed to Judaism – enough to become a rabbi – then he/she should be serious enough to not be intermarried. If the person is already intermarried then bringing the non-Jewish spouse/partner to Judaism should be a primary goal. If this can be accomplished then he/she can attend rabbinical school at a later time.

I applaud HUC-JIR for their stand and I hope they stand strong against the forces pushing them to give up their stand.

Women and the Kotel – Part 3

Jewish Chaplain
Jewish Chaplain

We have now established that the mechitza is actually something that started centuries after the destruction of the Temple. We have also established the fact that there are no ancient synagogues that separated women and men. So now let’s turn our attention to the other issues of women and the Kotel.

Not only are women and men separated at the Kotel but women are also forbidden by a 2003 court order from wearing tefillin or tallit at the Kotel. They are also forbidden from singing or reading the Torah while at the Kotel.

On June 4, 2003, the Court issued a ruling, and the legal battle regarding the Women of the Wall came to a close. The majority ruled that, despite the state’s claims to the contrary, the Women of the Wall maintained a legal right to pray at the Western Wall.  Nevertheless, such right was not without boundaries, and the Court was obligated to minimize the harm felt by other worshippers by the form of prayer of the Women of the Wall and to prevent violent incidents between the two warring camps.  In keeping with its opinion, the Court ruled that prayer at Robinson’s Arch would allow the Women of the Wall to pray according to their practice “next to the Western Wall,” so long as the site was revamped within 12 months to accommodate the women’s worship.1

According to Rabbi Rabinowitz and much of Orthodoxy women are not forbidden from wearing tefillin or tallit however they are strongly advised not to do so. (Of course, there are some who erroneously believe that women are forbidden from wearing tefillin and tallit.) In fact the Talmud states that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot but are not forbidden from performing these mitzvot.

All obligations of the son upon the father, men are bound, but women are exempt. But all obligations of the father upon the son, both men and women are bound. All affirmative precepts limited to time, men are liable and women are exempt. But all affirmative precepts not limited to time are binding upon both men and women. And all negative precepts, whether limited to time or not limited to time, are binding upon both men and women; excepting, you shall not round [the corners of your heads], neither shall you mar [the corner of your beard], and, he shall not defile himself to the dead. (Talmud Bavli – Kiddushin 29a)2

The rabbis of the Talmud argue that time-bound mitzvot include sukkah, lulav, shofar, tzitzit, and tefillin. The question is asked how women can be exempt from time-bound mitzvot yet they are commanded to eat matzah during Chag HaMatzot ((Deuteronomy 16:3; Pesachim 43b), rejoicing during Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:14), and assembling to hear the Torah read every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:12). In addition, the study of Torah, procreation, and the redemption of the firstborn are not affirmative time-bound precepts yet women are exempt from them. Rabbi Yohanan reportedly answered that “We cannot learn from general principles, even where exceptions are stated.” (Talmud Bavli – Kiddushin 33b-34a)2

So essentially there is no rationale to say why women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot. Rabbi Yohanan based the reasoning upon an example of an eruv (Kiddushin 34a) which is of course a rabbinic precept and not found within the Tanakh. There is no valid “general principle” to state that women are in fact exempt from time-bound mitzvot. Of course, one will be told that women’s first responsibility is in the household and women are “spiritually superior” to men so they don’t need to fulfill these mitzvot. It is easy to see that both of these responses are simply pandering opinions to both women and men.

According to rabbinic literature women are not forbidden from donning tefillin or tzitzit. So, why does Rabbi Rabinowitz say that women are forbidden from wearing tefillin and tzitzit when they are in fact not forbidden?

Why are women not to read publically from the Torah? There are four answers generally given to this question. First, women are spiritually superior to men and as such do not have the obligation to read from the Torah.3 Second, if a woman is called to the bimah to read from the Torah this is considered immodest according to “Jewish” standards. Third, if a woman is called to read from the Torah it will be assumed that there is no man in the congregation who is able to do so.4 Fourth, even though women are qualified to read from the Torah they are exempt from doing so out of respect for the congregation (Megilah 23a).5 So we learn that women are in fact not forbidden from reading Torah in the public. The only reasons given are rabbinic gymnastics regarding so-called “Jewish” modesty and the potential derogatory nature toward men.

In coordination with not being able to read Torah in public, Orthodoxy also forbids women from singing in public. A woman singing is considered immodest by those in the Orthodox world. The most oft reason given is that a woman’s singing voice is considered arousing for men and therefore forbidden.

Samuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely. (Talmud Bavli – Berachot 24a)6

‘Thus said Samuel,’ he replied, [To listen to] a woman’s voice is indecent.’ (Talmud Bavli – Kiddushin 70a)2

In other words a woman’s singing voice is stimulating for men therefore the women must be silenced. It is the fault of the woman and not the man therefore the woman must be silenced. This is the stand of Rabbi Rabinowitz and therefore the stand of those who represent him and the Foundation at the Kotel.

While some Jews in the world don’t believe in wearing tefillin, many in the Jewish world do believe this is a mitzvah. Wearing tzitzit and studying Torah are both mitzvot from the Torah. The wearing of tzitzit is a mitzvah for both men and women.

Speak unto the children of Yisrael, and bid them that they make throughout their generations tzitzit in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the tzitzit of each corner a thread of blue. (Numbers 15:38)

Women are commanded to wear tzitzit so the fact that the rabbi of the Kotel forbids women from doing so means that he is countermanding God’s own command. Women are permitted to read from the Torah – this is even seen in the Talmud. The idea that for modesty reasons a woman cannot read from Torah is not even mentioned in the Talmud. In fact, the only real reason given for this ban is that it may appear that there is no man who is capable of reading from the Torah and women are exempt from reading Torah out of respect for the congregation. So, for the sake of a man’s ego (which should not even be in play when it comes to a mitzvah) women are not permitted to read from Torah in mixed company. This is the stand of Rabbi Rabinowitz and the Foundation.

In addition, the idea of women being forbidden (for modesty reasons or otherwise) from singing in public is based upon a false belief that it would be stimulating for men. This is something not based upon Tanakh and is a man-made tradition. The idea that a man can be stimulated simply by hearing a woman sing (especially if the woman is singing to/about God!) is simply not realistic. If a man is stimulated in this case then the man should remove himself from the situation and seek help. Women have sung in public even in the Torah.

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them: Sing the Eternal One, for He is highly exalted: the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Rabbi Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation base their decrees upon false beliefs and fraudulent facts. The rabbi decrees that women are not to don tefillin or tzitzit and they are not to read from the Torah or sing in public. These decrees are antithetical not only to Tanakh but also to the Talmud itself! The idea that women are separated from men at the Kotel is counter to Tanakh and the writings of the rabbis – not to mention historical records. Even if the mechitza must stay (and I am not in favor of this) why should women be forced to not worship in their own way – and in the way that they are permitted to do so according to the Tanakh?

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1Women of the Wall. “Summary of the verdict of Women of the Wall’s court case.” n.d. [http://womenofthewall.org.il/about/legal-status/summary-of-the-verdict-of-women-of-the-walls-court-case/]
2I. Epstein. “Tractate Kiddushin.” n.d. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/nashim/Kiddushin.pdf]
3Chani Benjaminson. “Why can’t my daughter have a real bat mitzvah?” Chabad, n.d. [http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/480254/jewish/Why-Cant-My-Daughter-Have-a-Real-Bat-Mitzvah.htm]
4Shlomo Chein. “Why don’t women get called up to the Torah in Orthodox synagogues?” Ask Moses, n.d. [http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/235,2074748/Why-dont-women-get-called-up-to-the-Torah-in-Orthodox-synagogues.html]
5I. Epstein. “Tractate Megilah.” n.d. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Megilah.pdf]
6I. Epstein. “Tractate Berachot.” n.d. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/zeraim/Berachoth.pdf]

Women and the Kotel – Part 2

Kotel
Kotel

The mechitza is a modern tradition pushed upon all Jews regardless of the traditions or beliefs of non-Orthodox Jews or even other Orthodox Jews. As I explained in part one, the mechitza comes from the supposed separation of men and women during the Simchat Beit HaShoevah (Water Drawing Ceremony) of Sukkot. Based upon the Talmud Orthodox rabbis believe that the balcony in the Temple was biblically ordained and therefore Orthodox Jews must not pray in a synagogue without a mechitza. There are some Orthodox rabbis who believe that the mechitza is an “ancestral custom” which cannot be changed.1

This balcony was made in the Court of the Women – a place where men and women were both permitted without a barrier between them. This was the furthest a woman could travel on the Temple Mount. It can be safely assumed that before the balcony was built men and women worshiped together in this court without a mechitza or other barrier. In addition during certain times of the year – especially Yom HaKippurim and Yom HaTeruah – the smaller Women’s Court would not be able to contain all the worshipers which meant the Outer Court (Court of the Gentiles) was utilized by worshippers where there is no indication of a mechitza.

There are late-nineteenth century drawings and early-twentieth century photographs of men and women worshipping at the Kotel without a mechitza. When Rabbi Rabinowitz is asked about the photographs showing men and women praying without a mechitza he rejects this argument stating that the photographs are meaningless since the Kotel wasn’t under Jewish sovereignty. “‘They couldn’t read Torah or blow the shofar,’ he said. ‘They could hardly pray there. The British did terrible things. You want to go back to that? The British didn’t establish local custom.’”2 However, if one goes back further in time to the Mishnaic and Talmudic period one will also find no archaeological basis for assuming the existence of a separation between the genders. The first mention of separation of men and women occurs toward the end of the Geonic era (eleventh-century CE) but from this point onward there is only a passing mention of such separation. It was not until the end of the nineteenth-century that a halakhic source requires the separation of genders in the synagogue. The Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud Bavli all state that the erection of the balcony in the Temple was a rabbinic enactment and it tells us nothing about the synagogues. There is however “considerable evidence of mixed prayer in the Bible and in the Apocrypha. With reference to the Second Temple period many sources indicate that mixing was the norm in the Women’s Court.”3

Some in the Orthodox world will argue that women simply did not attend synagogue so there was no need for separate seating. This argument is not supported by archaeological or literary evidence. In fact, there are plenty of proofs that women did in fact attend synagogue. There was a halakhic ruling that a non-Jewish woman can help prepare a meal until the Jewish woman of that household returns from the synagogue (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 38a-b). Women are mentioned as being included among the seven people called to read Torah on Shabbat (Tosefta, Megillah 3, 11-2). In addition the Talmud Yerushalmi tells of a woman from Tiberias who went to synagogue every Friday night. In the fourth-century there is a Christian source from John Chrysostom who mentioned women attending synagogue.4

The separation of men and women in the synagogue developed centuries after the Temple was destroyed. There is no archaeological evidence of a women’s section in any synagogue of antiquity. In addition, even though there are many synagogue inscriptions of the time naming various areas within the synagogue, there has been no evidence found stating that a part of any ancient synagogue was used to separate women from their fellow male worshipers. The majority of these synagogues had a single prayer hall but no balcony and even for those few that had a balcony there is no reason to assume that the balcony served as a women’s gallery. The balcony, even according to rabbinic sources, may have functioned as a meeting space, a place for the beit din (rabbinic court) to practice, meals, study, or even a hazzan’s (cantor) living quarters. Out of all the traditions in rabbinic literature that address the synagogue not one mentions a women’s section. The only rabbinic source that mentions a separation is the balcony used during the Simchat Beit HaShoevah (Water Drawing Ceremony) of Sukkot. However, it appears from this place in the Talmud that during the other times of year men and women mixed together in this portion of the Temple.4

So, with all of this evidence, why does Rabbi Rabinowitz defend the mechitza at the Kotel? I would dare to say that the issue is one of following man-made traditions which are treated as actual mitzvot.  However, why does the rabbi and those at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation refuse to listen to reason? In addition to following man-made traditions instead of Tanakh I would dare say it is due to the fact that the rabbi and those at the Foundation have the power (given to them by the government) to turn the Kotel into a Haredi synagogue.

“The body which has been given the keys of the Kotel by the Israeli government is a non-democratic, non-elected body,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s director. “It’s not a body that gives any kind of representation to world Jewry or Israeli Jewry. They have turned [the Kotel] into a haredi synagogue.”5

Nowhere in the Tanakh is there a command to separate men and women during public worship or assemblies.

Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Eternal One your God, and observe to do all the words of this law… (Deuteronomy 31:12)

And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. (Ezra 8:2)

…to be continued

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1Lisa Katz. “What is a Mechitza?” About.com Judaism, n.d. [http://judaism.about.com/cs/worship/f/mechitza.htm]
2Ben Sales. “Who controls the status quo at the Western Wall?” JTA, 27 November 2012. [http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/11/27/3112941/the-foundation-keeping-the-kotel-orthodox]
3David Golinkin. “The Mehitzah in the Synagogue.” Responsa for Today, 1987. [http://www.responsafortoday.com/engsums/2_1.htm]
4Lee Levine. “In Search of the Synagogue Part V.” Reform Judaism Online, Spring 2009. [http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1458]
5Ben Sales. “Who controls the status quo at the Western Wall?” JTA, 27 November 2012. [http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/11/27/3112941/the-foundation-keeping-the-kotel-orthodox]