Is the Torah still relevant? Part II
The following post contains excerpts of an email conversation between a Jew in the City reader and our Rabbinic Correspondent, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz. Due to the length, it has been broken into two parts. Part I here.
Dear Jew in the City,
Am I to view the troubling and seemingly irrelevant parts of the Torah as a history book? We celebrate the receiving of the Torah every Shavous but what are we celebrating? I know that our rabbis and educators always focus on the positive messages of the Torah but are they white-washing the facts? When reading about G-d in many troubling parshios, I don’t recognize the compassionate and just G-d that I’ve been taught to love. This is still causing me to be skeptical that the Torah is the true and binding word of G-d.
III. Women’s Issues
Q: I recently read your post about the sotah (the woman suspected of adultery) and I was wondering if you could help me with questions that I’ve been having. I was born to and am part of an ultra-orthodox community but I’ve become skeptical of many mitzvos in the Torah and I am having trouble viewing the Torah as true and timeless. I am troubled by the mitzvah of Isha sota (only the woman is shamed and there is no such shaming for a man who is suspected) and polygamy. I’m troubled by the fact that he Torah gives the man power to suspect his wife not the other way around. Meaning why couldn’t a woman bring her husband to the kohen. (If she suspected her husband secluded himself with a married women since polygamy was allowed) How can I view the Torah as true timeless? These laws contradict our modern values. How can I pray for these laws to be restored?
I discuss the sotah in the article you mention, so I’ll just address the part about shaming. This one is strictly pragmatic. The husband can warn his wife, but he has no authority to warn random people. He can take her to the Beis HaMikdash, and divorce her if she refuses. Even if he knows who the man is and is able to find him, there’s no reason the suspected adulterer would agree to accompany him to the Beis HaMikdash. So, if guilty, the adulterer would also be punished. And the entire process was discontinued when adultery became rampant and the husbands were as guilty as the wives they were accusing. But the equity only goes so far. Dragging the suspected adulterers to the Temple would be impractical and unenforceable.
Polygamy was permitted for practical reasons – and, for the woman’s benefit! Let’s say that Israel went to war against Aram and 100,000 Jewish soldiers were killed. This creates a huge shidduch crisis and many women would be unable to find mates. Polygamy reduces this concern (and a man could not take on additional wives if it would reduce the first wife’s standard of living). I’m sure you know that polygamy has since been banned but even when it was permitted, it was never recommended. (See more here.)
In all of my examples, the rabbis stopped people from doing something that was formerly permitted. A man didn’t have to take his wife to the sotah process, he was allowed to. Chazal said, “Don’t do that anymore.” Yibum (marrying a deceased brother’s widow) always had an alternative in chalitzah (the shoe-removal ceremony); the rabbis ruled not to use the yibum option anymore. The same is true for banning polygamy, slavery, and other things permitted by the Torah. This is no different from banning chicken and milk, which the Torah would also permit. It’s VERY different from saying “Shabbos is about resting, therefore we can drive instead of walking” or “kashrus is about health, therefore we can eat pork nowadays.” Those are examples of permitting things that the Torah prohibits. We can’t do that. The rabbis always had the authority to ban permitted things. Stopping people from having concubines is conceptually no different from any other prohibition they might institute, like not handling muktzeh on Shabbos.
In the Middle East of 3,500 years ago (and in some places even today), a man might divorce, beat, or even execute a wife he suspected of adultery. The sotah process – while imperfect by the standards of our society – was designed to give husbands a process to follow so they would not mete out vigilante justice. A soldier might well rape a captive woman; the isha yefas toar process gave him something to do that we might think is flawed but that was designed to transition klal Yisroel from the behavior of their times to a more moral lifestyle. The same is true of many other mitzvos.
You will note that certain things have been legislated away. The sotah process was suspended even when the Beis HaMikdash was still standing. Polygamy has been prohibited, as have concubines. We don’t do yibum anymore. We understand why these things were initially permitted but we’ve grown to a point where we may no longer need them. None of the mitzvos you seem to object to are currently practiced. You can see the purposes they served in helping us to get from point A to point B and they’re non-issues today. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, Rambam held that animal sacrifices served as a “halfway house” to get us from where we were to where we should be and that the Third Temple will not have them.
It seems your ultimate objection is if any of these things will be practiced again when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt. Let’s take the example of not eating chicken with milk, which is a rabbinic law. Will that still apply when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt? I assume so, since there were rabbinic laws in Temple times. Will Ashkenazim still refrain from eating kitniyos (legumes) on Pesach? I have no idea. For that matter, I have no idea whether Pesach will still be celebrated since there is an opinion that the holidays will be suspended in the time of the third Temple. So will the sotah process be restored when the Mikdash is rebuilt? Will there be slavery or polygamy? I have no idea. Nothing indicates that all rabbinic laws will be abolished, but we also see that even Biblical laws may be altered (i.e. animal sacrifices no longer being done). All we know for sure is that the time of the third Mikdash will be an era of peace, universal recognition of one G-d, without oppression. The details remain to be seen.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent