Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kimchis's Careless Kohanim and the Flashy Princess

Guest post

My impression from what I've read and conversations I've had with friends who went to Bais Yaakov is that there are two frequently cited prooftexts for the importance of tznius. Particularly, for the primary importance tznius is given in frum women's religious life.

The first is the story of Kimchis. As the story is told to talmidos, Kimchis was zoche to have all seven of her sons serve as Kohen Gadol. The rabbonim asked her what she had done to merit this honor, and she replied that the beams of her house had never seen her hair. This proves how important tznius is. If you are careful about tznius, the girls are told, you will merit great things. Things like all of your sons serving in the highest religious position.

Unfortunately for those who want to use Kimchis's example as a guide to the ideal way a bas Yisrael should behave, there is more to the story. There are two versions of the story, one in the Yerushalmi[1] and one in the Bavli[2]. They have similar outlines, but different details.  In both stories, there is a woman named Kimchis whose son is the Kohen Gadol. He goes for a walk and some spit from a person he is talking to lands on him, making him taamei, and one of his brothers performs the avodah in his place. The names of the sons, the people the Kohen Gadol talks to, and the circumstances of his excursion are differ between the two versions of the story.

The differing details, including the name of the Kohen Gadol involved, make it likely that this was a folktale and/or a polemic rather than something that really happened. Both versions are subtly critical of the Kohen Gadol, and the story revolves around an issue of tumah and tahara, which was a point of contention between the Perushim and the Tzedukim[3]. The Tzedukim, the priestly class, thought that the common people didn't need to concern themselves with purity. It you were taamei, don't come to the Beis HaMikdash, but unless you were a cohen who needed to perform the avodah, it wasn't something to be concerned about. The Perushim, who were populists, felt that everyone should try to remain tahar.

In the version of the story in the Bavli, Kimchis's son Rabbi Yishmael was Kohen Gadol[4]. He apparently had a habit of carelessly conversing with people in the market, because twice saliva from a person he was talking with landed on his clothes and made him taamie. In one incident, his brother Yesheivav performs the avodah for him, and in the other, his brother Yosef. The Gemara quotes a bareisa that says all seven of Kimchis's sons served as Kohen Gadol, implying that Rabbi Yishmael was often  invalidated for service and his brothers had to fill in for him. 

This story is making fun of the Tzedukim, who claimed to be uniquely concerned about their purity. The Kohen Gadol, who should have been the most careful, became tammei all the time! So much for the Tzeduki claim that tumah and tahara were too much trouble for the commoners, concerns only for the elite. If even the most elite, the Kohen Gadol, couldn't stay tahor, then the Tzedukim could not claim ritual purity as their special concern.

The rabbonim asked Kimchis, "What did you do to merit this?" (Having all of your sons serve as Kohen Gadol.) Their question could be read as sarcastic, but Kimchis takes it at face value and answers that it was because of her exceptional purity, "In all my days, the beams of my house did not see the braids of my hair." The rabbis dismiss her explanation, saying that it was commonplace, nothing special, and none of the other women who had this practice were so rewarded for it. They refute Kimchis's suggestion that her Tzeduki devotion to purity is anything special or praiseworthy.

Kimchis, then, is not an exemplar of tznius who was rewarded for her exceptional modesty, but a foil for the rabbonim in a polemic about purity. Holding her up as a model a pure bas Yisroel should strive to emulate is to not only miss the point, but to mangle it.

The version of the story in the Yerushalmi is kinder to Kimchis, but harder on her son. In this version, the Kohen Gadol is named Shimon. He took a walk with the king on erev Yom Kippur. When a drop of spit from the king's mouth made him taamei, his brother Yehuda performed the avodah in his place. This is a stronger condemnation of Tzeduki claim of being an elite unuiqly concerned with purity than is the Bavli version of the story. Not only does the Kohen Gadol, the most elite member of the priestly class, carelessly allow himself to become tammei, he allows it to happen on erev Yom Kippur, when he is supposed to be sequestered to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. Nor was this a one time thing. It happened so often that all of his brothers serve as Kohen Gadol!

The biggest difference between the two versions of the story is that in the Yerushalmi version when Kimchis tells the rabbonim that she merited all of her sons serving as Kohen Gadol because her house never saw her hair (and in this version, her undergarments), they agree with her that this is praiseworthy. They praise her with the pasuk from tehillim[5], "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia; Mimishbi'tzos zahav livusha," "All glorious is the princess within the palace; her clothing is of checker work interwoven with gold." Yet even here, the focus seems not to be on tznius, per se, but on reading the pasuk as describing cause and effect. The "princess," Kimchis, kept her "glory" hidden even in the "palace," her house, and therefore she merited "clothing… interwoven with gold," the clothing of the Kohen Gadol which are described as being interwoven with gold. Her care for her purity was the cause of her seven sons wearing the clothing of the Kohen Gadol. Yet even here, in their praise for her, one can detect the rabbonim poking fun at the idea of purity as a priestly concern. Kimchis's obsession with her purity might have merited her seven sons who served as Kohen Gadol, but what of the sons? They failed at keeping themselves pure.

The pasuk the rabbonim cite is the second commonly cited prooftext for the central importance of tznius for Jewish women. More accurately, the first half of the pasuk, "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia," is repeated as a mantra for tznius. It's taken out of context and mistranslated as, "The glory of a princess is inside." A princess doesn't wear flashy clothes or draw attention to herself. She is reserved, and her glory is not in her physical appearance, but her inner attributes. Every bas Yisrael is a bas melech, the girls are told, and should comport themselves appropriately.

There is no small irony in trying to convince women that focusing on their appearance is improper with the first half of a pasuk that goes on to describe magnificent gold-embroidered clothing in its second half. This is not exactly a modest outfit. The pasuk is part of a passage describing the wedding procession of a princess. It is not a prescription of an ideal of modesty for the metaphorical daughters of the King, i.e., Jewish women to whom God is a King and Father. Rather, it is a description of a literal princess as she goes to meet her future husband in his palace.

So it seems that two of the frequently cited sources used to support the centrality of tznius in Jewish women's religious life are misunderstanding or misrepresentations of those sources. The story of Kimchis isn't a morality tale about a paragon of purity we should seek to emulate. It's a farce undercutting the Tzeduki claim that tummah and tahara were a special concern of the priestly elite.  And "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia" isn't a prescription teaching Jewish women that they shouldn't focus on their appearance, but a truncated pasuk about a radiantly attired princess that's been quoted wildly out of context.


[1] Yerushalmi. Yoma 1:1 (38d)
[2] Bavli Yoma 47a
[3] Schiffman, L.H. (2003), Understanding Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House
[4] It's interesting that he's given the title "Rabbi," a Perushi honorific. At the same time the rabbonim are making fun of him in a polemic undermining the elitist attitudes of the Tzedukim, they also give him a title that lets them claim the position of Kohen Gadol for one of their own.
[5] Psalms 45

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Jared and Ivanka's Shabbos Inauguration Psak


It won't be a surprise to you to learn that I do not like Donald Trump, but you may be surprised to hear that I am tried of reading the petty and uninformed criticism of Jared and Ivanka's rabbinicaly sanctioned decision to use a car on the night of the Inauguration.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Get Rabbinic Pass To Ride in Car on Inauguration Shabbat
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been given a free rabbinical pass to travel by car following Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday.
FORWARD.COM

I don't know if they got an actual psak or not, but they said they did. That's where the whole matter should end. If they spoke to a rabbi, and are relying on his ruling, their choice is no longer open to criticism.

Now, I fully admit to not being able to fully understand the rationale behind such a psak, as the parties they attended on Friday evening were optional, but at the same time, I know that being driven in a car is not the very worst thing a Jew can do on shabbos.

For example, I know from experience that a child under a certain age (6 or 9) can be driven home from the emergency room or hospital on shabbos, and an adult guardian can go along. I know, also from experience, that a doctor can be driven to the hospital on shabbos to perform ordinary, non-life saving services. And from experience again I know that if you're stuck on the road after the zman on Friday night, with kids and luggage a non-Jewish driver can pick you up and bring you to your destination.

So its not true to say, as many have, that the dispensation the Kushners received is available only for serious life-saving situations.

I am not especially well trained in psak halacha and as a result I can't tell you how the Trump case matches up with these examples of mine. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don't. The point though is that my own experiences satisfy me that their psak passes the smell test





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Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Flood of Myths

Guest post

It's a story we're all familiar with. A man is divinely warned of a coming flood and is commanded to build a boat. He takes his family and all the animals on board and rides out the storm, which wipes out the rest of humanity. When the storm stops, his boat grounds itself on a mountain, and he sends out birds to see if the land is dry. He exits the boat and brings sacrifices to the deity.

Who is that man? Noach, of course! Or is it? Maybe it's Ziusudra, or Atrahasis, or Utnapishtim, or Xisuthrus. All of them are the protagonists of Ancient Near Eastern myths that suspiciously similar to Noach's story.

Isn't that amazing? Here we have proof that the mabul really happened! Independent corroboration from sources outside the Torah that Noach really built the teivah!

Except… what if their stories aren't a corroboration of Noach's? What if Noach's story and the others are corroborating Utnapishtim's story? Is there a reason to privilege Noach's story as the "real" one? It's the one we're all most familiar with, the one that appears in the Torah, and that gives it primacy in our minds. But all of these stories were part of the religious literature of their cultures, as familiar to the people who told them as Noach is to us. If we point to the other stories as proof that Hashem told Noach to build the teivah and brought the mabul to wipe out the sinful generation, doesn't that mean that the Assyrians could point to Noach and the other stories as proof that the god Ea told Utnapishtim to build a boat and the gods brought a flood to cleanse an overpopulated world?

That doesn't seem right.

While the flood myths of the ANE, including the story of Noach, differ in the names of their protagonists and in some details, they also share many similarities and even whole passages with each other, indicating that these are all retellings of the same story. They share a global flood; a god warning the protagonist, instructing him to build a boat, and to take animals aboard; the destruction of the rest of humanity; landing on a mountain; sending out birds; and the protagonist sacrificing to the god(s) after the flood.

There are other flood myths from all over the world, probably because settlements are often built next to water, and rivers, lakes, and oceans tend to flood. It is only the stories from the Ancient Near East, though, that are so similar. The differences between the ANE myths and flood myths from other parts of the world indicate that the flood myths from around the world are not a shared memory of a world-wide flood. That there are flood myths in so many different cultures indicates that this was a typical type of story for cultures to develop, and the ANE myth is no more likely to be grounded in literal history than any other. And the similarities between the ANE myths indicate that the story of Noach in the Torah is one among many versions of a popular ANE myth, no more likely to be the original than any of the other versions.

Let's look at a few of the ANE myths and at a sampling of other flood myths from around the world. I chose the world myths more or less at random from a list of dozens of myths at talkorigins.org. I picked one from each continent / region, and chose samples that were long enough to have enough details to compare to other myths, but short enough to be quickly summarized. First I'll summarize each myth, then compare them to each other in a chart.

ANE Myths
The Bible:
God warned Noach that He would bring a flood to wipe out the sinful people of the Earth and commanded him to bring aboard all of the animals, which he did. Noach, his three sons, their wives, and the animals were the only survivors of the forty day flood. After the rain stopped, Noach sent out a raven, which returned, then sent out a dove, which returned, then sent it our again, and it retuned with an olive branch, showing the water had receded. Noach left the ark and sacrificed to God. God showed Noach a rainbow as a promise that he wouldn't flood the world again.[1]

Sumerian
The god Enlil warns Ziusudra about the comng flood and tells him to build a boat and take animals and birds on board. The flood covered the Earth for a week, after which Ziusudra opened a window, allowing the sunlight in.[2] He leaves the boat and sacrifices a sheep and an ox to the gods, who grant him eternal life for preserving all of the animals.[3]

Babylonian
 The gods are concerned about human overpopulation. The god Enki warns Atrahasis that a flood was coming that would wipe everything out, and he should build a boat.  Atrahasis built the boat and brought his family, animals, and birds on board.[4] After the flood, Atrahasis makes an offering to the gods. Enki created barrenness in women and stillbirth to avoid the problem in the future.[5]

Assyrian,  The Epic of Gilgamesh (from the Royal Library at Nineveh) (Originally Sumerian)
The god Ea warns Utnapishtim of the coming flood. Utnapishtim builds a boat and brings on board his family, the craftsmen who helped him build the boat, and "all seed of life." The flood killed all the people. After the rain stopped, the boat landed on the top of Mt. Nisur, the only spot not covered by water. Utnapishtim released a dove, which returned, then a sparrow, and then finally a raven, which did not return. Everyone left the boat, and Utnapishtim sacrificed to the gods. The gods gave Utnapishtim  and his wife immortality.[6][7]

Chaldean
The god Cronos appeared to the king Xisuthrus and warned him that a flood was coming whish would destroy humanity. Cronos commanded Xisuthrus to write a history of the world, and to build a boat anf take aboard his family, friends, and all the animals and birds. When the flood stopped, Xisuthrus sent out birds, which returned. The second time, the birds returned with mud on their feet. The third time, they didn't come back. After exiting the boat, Xisuthrus found he was on the side of a mountain. He brought sacrifices to the gods.[8]

World Myths
Greek (Europe)
The god Prometheus warns his son, Deucalion, that Zeus is going to send a flood to wipe out all people, and instructs him to build a chest. Zeus floods most of Greece, and everyone is killed, except for Deucalion and his wife and a few people who fled to the mountains.[9]  After the flood Deucalion brings sacrifices to Zeus.[10]

Cameroon (Africa)
A girl was grinding flour, and allowed a goat to eat from it. In return, the goat warned her a flood was coming. She and her brother ran away. After the flood they saw their village underwater. They lived alone, until the goat returned an told them they may marry each other.[11]
(A brother and sister / mother and son / father daughter being the only survivors of their village and marrying each other is a recurring theme in these myths, and brings to mind the story of Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom.)

Vogul (Asia)
The Great Woman warned the Great Man that rains were coming. The Great Man told the rest of the giants to make boats and anchor them to trees. When the rains came, all who had not made boats were killed, along with all plants, animals, and even fish. Starving, the survivors prayed to the god Numi-târom, who recreated living things.[12]

Bhil (India)
A fish warned Dhobi that a flood was coming. Dhobi prepared a box in which he rode out the flood with his sister and a rooster. After the flood the god Rama discovered Dhobi when the rooster crowed. Rama told Dhobi to marry his sister to repopulate the earth.[13]

Fiji (Oceana)
The grandsons of the god Ndengei killed his favorite bird and fled to the mountains. There with the help of some carpenters they built a fortress and withstood Ndengei's armies for three months. Ndengei flooded the earth, and the rebels prayed for help. Rokoro, the god of carpenters, brought them canoes, and they picked up survivors of the flood.[14]

Cree (North America)
While Wissaketchak was in his canoe a sea monster tried to kill him, and used its tail to create huge waves which flooded the land. Wissaketchak built a raft and gathered pairs of all animals and birds. He sent a duck to find the bottom, but it couldn't. Next he sent a muskrat, which returned with its throat full of slime.( An alterative version has Wissaketchak sending out a raven and a woodpigeon.) Wissaketchak made the slime into a disc, and this floated on the water and grew, and this is the land that everyone lives on today.[15]

Ipurina  (South America)
The birds collecting things and threw them into a kettle of boiling water. Mayuruberu, the cretor of birds, threw a stone into the kettle, which caused the hot water to splash over the side and flood the world, burning everything. All plants except the cassia tree were destroyed. The sloth crawled up into the tree and threw down kernels, which brought back the sun. The sloth asked Mayuruberu for crops, Mayuruberu brought new plants, and the Ipurina went to work in their fields.[16]


Comparison
Myth
Divine warning of flood
Builds a boat
Takes animals on board
flood wipes out all life not on boat
boat stops on mountain
sends out birds three times
sacrifices to the deity
given eternal life
ANE myths








Bible
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

Sumerian
X
X
X
X


X
X
Babylonian
X
X
X
X


X

Assyrian (Gilgamesh)
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
Chaldean
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

World myths








Greek
X





X

Cameroon








Vogul

X

X




Bhil



X




Fiji








Cree

X
X


\


Ipurina 










Looking at the chart, it is easy to see that the ANE flood myths are very similar to one another and are different from flood myths from other parts of the world. The ANE myths all share at least five points in common with one another, while the world myths share at most two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the only myth with all eight points, and is one of the oldest extant pieces of writing and the oldest extant story of any kind. It seems likely that the other ANE myths, including Noach's story, are retellings of the flood myth that was recorded in Gilgamesh.

I think a reasonable conclusion to draw from the above discussion is that the story of the mabul is not a record of an historical event, but is instead an instance of common mythic motif, the flood story, and of the ANE flood myth in particular.




[1] Genesis 7:1-8:22
[2] The Sumerian Flood Story. Retrieved from http://history-world.org/sumerian_floor_story.htm
[3] Heidel, A. (1949). The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. University of Chicago Press; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[4] The Epic of Atrahasis Retrieved from http://www.livius.org/as-at/atrahasis/atrahasis.html#Atrahasis_Dream_Explained
[5] Dalley, S. (1989). Myths From Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press, Oxford; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[6] Epic of Gilgamish. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/gilgdelu.htm
[7] Sandars, N. K. (1972). The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, England; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[8] Cory, I.P. (1832). Ancient Fragments. London, England: William Pickering.
[9] Apollod. 1.7.2 Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Apollod.+1.7.2&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0022
[10] Apollodorus (1921).The Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[11] Kahler-Meyer, E. (1971). Myth Motifs in Flood Stories from the Grasslands of Cameroon. p. 251-252; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[12] Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. p. 93-94; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[13] Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. pp. 95-96; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[14] Kelsen, H. (1943). The Principle of Retribution in the Flood and Catastrophe Myths. p. 131; Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. p. 106; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[15] Frazer, J.G. (1919). Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1. Macmillan & Co., London. pp. 309-310; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[16] Frazer, J.G. (1919). Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1. Macmillan & Co., London. pp. 259-260; Kelsen, H. (1943). The Principle of Retribution in the Flood and Catastrophe Myths. p. 139; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html