Orthodoxy and Interpretation

From: "Jewish History, Jewish Religion:

The Weight of Three Thousand Years"

by Professor Israel Shahak

THIS CHAPTER is devoted to a more detailed description of the theologico-legal structure of classical Judaism. 1 However, before embarking on that description it is necessary to dispel at least some of the many misconceptions disseminated in almost all foreign-language (that is, non-Hebrew) accounts of Judaism, especially by those who propagate such currently fashionable phrases as 'the Judeo-Christian tradition' or 'the common values of the monotheistic religions'.

   Because of considerations of space I shall only deal in detail with the most important of these popular delusions: that the Jewish religion is, and always was, monotheistic. Now, as many biblical scholars know, and as a careful reading of the Old Testament easily reveals, this ahistorical view is quite wrong. In many, if not most, books of the Old Testament the existence and power of 'other gods' are clearly acknowledged, but Yahweh (Jehovah), who is the most powerful god,2 is also very jealous of his rivals and forbids his people to worship them.3 It is only very late in the Bible, in some of the later prophets, that the existence of all gods other than Yahweh is denied.4

   What concerns us, however, is not biblical but classical Judaism; and it is quite clear, though much less widely realized, that the latter, during its last few hundred years, was for the most part far from pure monotheism. The same can be said about the real doctrines dominant in present-day Orthodox Judaism, which is a direct continuation of classical Judaism. The decay of monotheism came about through the spread of Jewish mysticism (the cabbala) which developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, and by the late 16th century had won an almost complete victory in virtually all the centers of Judaism. The Jewish Enlightenment, which arose out of the crisis of classical Judaism, had to fight against this mysticism and its influence more than against anything else, but in latter-day Jewish Orthodoxy, especially among the rabbis, the influence of the cabbala has remained predominant.5 For example, the Gush Emunim movement is inspired to a great extent by cabbalistic ideas.

   Knowledge and understanding of these ideas is therefore important for two reasons. First, without it one cannot understand the true beliefs of Judaism at the end of its classical period. Secondly, these ideas play an important contemporary political role, inasmuch as they form part of the explicit system of beliefs of many religious politicians, including most leaders of Gush Emunim, and have an indirect influence on many Zionist leaders of all parties, including the zionist left.

   According to the cabbala, the universe is ruled not by one god but by several deities, of various characters and influences, emanated by a dim, distant First Cause. Omitting many details, one can summarize the system as follows. From the First Cause, first a male god called 'Wisdom' or 'Father' and then a female goddess called 'Knowledge' or 'Mother' were emanated or born. From the marriage of these two, a pair of younger gods were born: Son, also called by many other names such as 'Small Face' or 'The Holy Blessed One'; and Daughter, also called 'Lady' (or 'Matronit', a word derived from Latin), 'Shekhinah', 'Queen', and so on. These two younger gods should be united, but their union is prevented by the machinations of Satan, who in this system is a very important and independent personage. The Creation was undertaken by the First Cause in order to allow them to unite, but because of the Fall they became more disunited than ever, and indeed Satan has managed to come very close to the divine Daughter and even to rape her (either seemingly or in fact - opinions differ on this). The creation of the Jewish people was undertaken in order to mend the break caused by Adam and Eve, and under Mount Sinai this was for a moment achieved: the male god Son, incarnated in Moses, was united with the goddess Shekhinah. Unfortunately, the sin of the Golden Calf again caused disunity in the godhead; but the repentance of the Jewish people has mended matters to some extent. Similarly, each incident of biblical Jewish history is believed to be associated with the union or disunion of the divine pair. The Jewish conquest of Palestine from the Canaanites and the building of the first and second Temple are particularly propitious for their union, while the destruction of the Temples and exile of the Jews from the Holy Land are merely external signs not only of the divine disunion but also of a real 'whoring after strange gods': Daughter falls closely into the power of Satan, while Son takes various female satanic personages to his bed, instead of his proper wife.

   The duty of pious Jews is to restore through their prayers and religious acts the perfect divine unity, in the form of sexual union, between the male and female deities.6 Thus before most ritual acts, which every devout Jew has to perform many times each day, the following cabbalistic formula is recited: 'For the sake of the [sexual] congress7 of the Holy Blessed One and his Shekhinah... ' The Jewish morning prayers are also arranged so as to promote this sexual union, if only temporarily. Successive parts of the prayer mystically correspond to successive stages of the union: at one point the goddess approaches with her hand-maidens, at another the god puts his arm around her neck and fondles her breast, and finally the sexual act is supposed to take place.

   Other prayers or religious acts, as interpreted by the cabbalists, are designed to deceive various angels (imagined as minor deities with a measure of independence) or to propitiate Satan. At a certain point in the morning prayer, some verses in Aramaic (rather than the more usual Hebrew) are pronounced.8 This is supposed to be a means for tricking the angels who operate the gates through which prayers enter heaven and who have the power to block the prayers of the pious. The angels only understand Hebrew and are baffled by the Aramaic verses; being somewhat dull-witted (presumably they are far less clever than the cabbalists) they open the gates, and at this moment all the prayers, including those in Hebrew, get through. Or take another example: both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God, by promoting the divine union of Son and Daughter; but on the other he is worshiping Satan, who likes Jewish prayers and ritual acts so much that when he is offered a few of them it keeps him busy for a while and he forgets to pester the divine Daughter. Indeed, the cabbalists believe that some of the sacrifices burnt in the Temple were intended for Satan. For example, the seventy bullocks sacrificed during the seven days of the feast of Tabernacles9 were supposedly offered to Satan in his capacity as ruler of all the Gentiles,10 in order to keep him too busy to interfere on the eighth day, when sacrifice is made to God. Many other examples of the same kind can be given.

   Several points should be made concerning this system and its importance for the proper understanding of Judaism, both in its classical period and in its present political involvement in Zionist practice.

   First, whatever can be said about this cabbalistic system, it cannot be regarded as monotheistic, unless one is also prepared to regard Hinduism, the late Graeco-Roman religion, or even the religion of ancient Egypt, as 'monotheistic'.

   Secondly, the real nature of classical Judaism is illustrated by the ease with which this system was adopted. Faith and beliefs (except nationalistic beliefs) play an extremely small part in classical Judaism. What is of prime importance is the ritual act, rather than the significance which that act is supposed to have or the belief attached to it. Therefore in times when a minority of religious Jews refused to accept the cabbala (as is the case today), one could see some few Jews performing a given religious ritual believing it to be an act of worship of God, while others do exactly the same thing with the intention of propitiating Satan - but so long as the act is the same they would pray together and remain members of the same congregation, however much they might dislike each other. But if instead of the intention attached to the ritual washing of hands anyone would dare to introduce an innovation in the manner of washing,11 a real schism would certainly ensue.

   The same can be said about all sacred formulas of Judaism. Provided the working is left intact, the meaning is at best a secondary matter. For example, perhaps the most sacred Jewish formula, 'Hear 0 Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one', recited several times each day by every pious Jew, can at the present time mean two contrary things. It can mean that the Lord is indeed 'one'; but it can also mean that a certain stage in the union of the male and female deities has been reached or is being promoted by the proper recitation of this formula. However, when Jews of a Reformed congregation recite this formula in any language other than Hebrew, all Orthodox rabbis, whether they believe in unity or in the divine sexual union, are very angry indeed.

   Finally, all this is of considerable importance in Israel (and in other Jewish centers) even at present. The enormous significance attached to mere formulas (such as the 'Law of Jerusalem'); the ideas and motivations of Gush Emunim; the urgency behind the hate for non-Jews presently living in Palestine; the fatalistic attitude towards all peace attempts by Arab states - all these and many other traits of Zionist politics, which puzzle so many well-meaning people who have a false notion about classical Judaism, become more intelligible against this religious and mystical background. I must warn, however, against falling into the other extreme and trying to explain all zionist politics in terms of this background. Obviously, the latter's influences vary in extent. Ben-Gurion was adept at manipulating them in a controlled way for specific ends. Under Begin the past exerts a much greater influence upon the present. But what one should never do is to ignore the past and its influences, because only by knowing it can one transcend its blind power.


Interpretation of the Bible

It will be seen from the foregoing example that what most supposedly well-informed people think they know about Judaism may be very misleading, unless they can read Hebrew. All the details mentioned above can be found in the original texts or, in some cases, in modern books written in Hebrew for a rather specialized readership. In English one would look for them in vain, even where the omission of such socially important facts distorts the whole picture.

   There is yet another misconception about Judaism which is particularly common among Christians, or people heavily influenced by Christian tradition and culture. This is the misleading idea that Judaism is a 'biblical religion'; that the Old Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority which the Bible has for Protestant or even Catholic Christianity.

   Again, this is connected with the question of interpretation. We have seen that in matters of belief there is great latitude. Exactly the opposite holds with respect to the legal interpretation of sacred texts. Here the interpretation is rigidly fixed - but by the Talmud rather than by the Bible itself.12 Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing religious acts and obligations are 'understood' by classical Judaism, and by present-day Orthodoxy, in a sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament, who only see the plain text. The same division exists at present in Israel between those educated in Jewish religious schools and those educated in 'secular' Hebrew schools, where on the whole the plain meaning of the Old Testament is taught.

   This important point can only be understood through examples. It will be noted that the changes in meaning do not all go in the same direction from the point of view of ethics, as the term is understood now. Apologetics of Judaism claim that the interpretation of the Bible, originated by the Pharisees and fixed in the Talmud, is always more liberal than the literal sense. But some of the examples below show that this is far from being the case.

(1) Let us start with the Decalogue itself. The Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt not steal' (Exodus, 20:15), is taken to be a prohibition against 'stealing' (that is, kidnapping) a Jewish person. The reason is that according to the Talmud all acts forbidden by the Decalogue are capital offenses. Stealing property is not a capital offense (while kidnapping of Gentiles by Jews is allowed by talmudic law) - hence the interpretation. A virtually identical sentence - 'Ye shall not steal' (Leviticus, 19:11) - is however allowed to have its literal meaning.

(2) The famous verse 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth' etc. (Exodus, 21:24) is taken to mean 'eye-money for eye', that is payment of a fine rather than physical retribution.

(3) Here is a notorious case of turning the literal meaning into its exact opposite. The biblical text plainly warns against following the bandwagon in an unjust cause: thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment' (Exodus, 23:2). The last words of this sentence - 'Decline after many to wrest judgment' - are torn out of their context and interpreted as an injunction to follow the majority

(4) The verse 'Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk' (Exodus, 23:19) is interpreted as a ban on mixing any kind of meat with any milk or milk product. Since the same verse is repeated in two other places in the Pentateuch, the mere repetition is taken to be a treble ban, forbidding a Jew (i) to eat such a mixture, (ii) to cook it for any purpose and (iii) to enjoy or benefit from it in any way.13

(5 ) In numerous cases general terms such as 'thy fellow', 'stranger', or even 'man' are taken to have an exclusivist chauvinistic meaning. The famous verse 'thou shalt love thy fellow14 as thyself (Leviticus, 19:18) is understood by classical (and present-day Orthodox) Judaism as an injunction to love one's fellow Jew, not any fellow human. Similarly, the verse 'neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow' (ibid., 16) is supposed to mean that one must not stand idly by when the life ('blood') of a fellow Jew is in danger; but, as will be seen in Chapter 5, a Jew is in general forbidden to save the life of a Gentile, because 'he is not thy fellow'. The generous injunction to leave the gleanings of one's field and vineyard 'for the poor and the stranger' (ibid., 9-10) is interpreted as referring exclusively to the Jewish poor and to converts to Judaism. The taboo laws relating to corpses begin with the verse 'This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent ... shall be unclean seven days' (Numbers, 19:16). But the word 'man' (adam) is taken to mean 'Jew', so that only a Jewish corpse is taboo (that is, both 'unclean' and sacred). Based on this interpretation, pious Jews have a tremendous magic reverence towards Jewish corpses and Jewish cemeteries, but have no respect towards non-Jewish corpses and cemeteries. Thus hundreds of Muslim cemeteries have been utterly destroyed in Israel (in one case in order to make room for the Tel-Aviv Hilton) but there was a great outcry because the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was damaged under Jordanian rule. Examples of this kind are too numerous to quote. Some of the inhuman consequences of this type of interpretation will be discussed in Chapter 5.

(6 ) Finally, consider one of the most beautiful prophetic passages, Isaiah's magnificent condemnation of hypocrisy and empty ritual, and exhortation to common decency. One verse (Isaiah, 1:15) in this passage is: 'And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.' Since Jewish priests 'spread their hands' when blessing the people during service, this verse is supposed to mean that a priest who commits accidental homicide is disqualified from 'spreading his hands' in blessing (even if repentant) because they are 'full of blood'. It is quite clear even from these examples that when Orthodox Jews today (or all Jews before about 1780) read the Bible, they are reading a very different book, with a totally different meaning, from the Bible as read by non-Jews or non-Orthodox Jews. This distinction applies even in Israel, although both parties read the text in Hebrew. Experience, particularly since 1967, has repeatedly corroborated this. Many Jews in Israel (and elsewhere), who are not Orthodox and have little detailed knowledge of the Jewish religion, have tried to shame Orthodox Israelis (or right-wingers who are strongly influenced by religion) out of their inhuman attitude towards the Palestinians, by quoting at them verses from the Bible in their plain humane sense. It was always found, however, that such arguments do not have the slightest effect on those who follow classical Judaism; they simply do not understand what is being said to them, because to them the biblical text means something quite different than to everyone else.

   If such a communication gap exists in Israel, where people read Hebrew and can readily obtain correct information if they wish, one can imagine how deep is the misconception abroad, say among people educated in the Christian tradition. In fact, the more such a person reads the Bible, the less he or she knows about Orthodox Judaism. For the latter regards the Old Testament as a text of immutable sacred formulas, whose recitation is an act of great merit, but whose meaning is wholly determined elsewhere. And, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice, behind the problem of who can determine the meaning of words, there stands the real question: 'Which is to be master?'


Structure of the Talmud

It should therefore be clearly understood that the source of authority for all the practices of classical (and present-day Orthodox) Judaism, the determining base of its legal structure, is the Talmud, or, to be precise, the so-called Babylonian Talmud; while the rest of the talmudic literature (including the so~called Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) acts as a supplementary authority.

   We cannot enter here into a detailed description of the Talmud and talmudic literature, but confine ourselves to a few principal points needed for our argument. Basically, the Talmud consists of two parts. First, the Mishnah - a terse legal code consisting of six volumes, each subdivided into several tractates, written in Hebrew, redacted in Palestine around AD 200 out of the much more extensive (and largely oral) legal material composed during the preceding two centuries. The second and by far predominant part is the Gemarah - a voluminous record of discussions on and around the Mishnah. There are two, roughly parallel, sets of Gemarah, one composed in Mesopotamia ('Babylon') between about AD 200 and 500, the other in Palestine between about AD 200 and some unknown date long before 500. The Babylonian Talmud (that is, the Mishnah plus the Mesopotamian Gemarah) is much more extensive and better arranged than the Palestinian, and it alone is regarded as definitive and authoritative. The Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud is accorded a decidedly lower status as a legal authority, along with a number of compilations, known collectively as the 'talmudic literature', containing material which the editors of the two Talmuds had left out.

   Contrary to the Mishnah, the rest of the Talmud and talmudic literature is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the latter language predominating in the Babylonian Talmud. Also, it is not limited to legal matters. Without any apparent order or reason, the legal discussion can suddenly be interrupted by what is referred to as 'Narrative' (Aggadah) a medley of tales and anecdotes about rabbis or ordinary folk, biblical figures, angels, demons, witchcraft and miracles.15 These narrative passages, although of great popular influence in Judaism through the ages, were always considered (even by the Talmud itself) as having secondary value. Of greatest importance for classical Judaism are the legal parts of the text, particularly the discussion of cases which are regarded as problematic. The Talmud itself defines the various categories of Jews, in ascending order, as follows, The lowest are the totally ignorant, then come those who only know the Bible, then those who are familiar with the Mishnah or Aggadah, and the superior class are those who have studied, and are able to discuss the legal part of the Gemarah. It is only the latter who are fit to lead their fellow Jews in all things.

   The legal system of the Talmud can be described as totally comprehensive, rigidly authoritarian, and yet capable of infinite development, without however any change in its dogmatic base. Every aspect of Jewish life, both individual and social, is covered, usually in considerable detail, with sanctions and punishments provided for every conceivable sin or infringement of the rules. The basic rules for every problem are stated dogmatically and cannot be questioned. What can be and is discussed at very great length is the elaboration and practical definition of these rules. Let me give a few examples.

   'Not doing any work' on the sabbath. The concept work is defined as comprising exactly 39 types of work, neither more nor less. The criterion for inclusion in this list has nothing to do with the arduousness of a given task; it is simply a matter of dogmatic definition. One forbidden type of 'work' is writing. The question then arises: How many characters must one write in order to commit the sin of writing on the sabbath? (Answer: Two). Is the sin the same, irrespective of which hand is used? (Answer: No). However, in order to guard against falling into sin, the primary prohibition on writing is hedged with a secondary ban on touching any writing implement on the sabbath.

   Another prototypical work forbidden on the sabbath is the grinding of grain. From this it is deduced, by analogy, that any kind of grinding of anything whatsoever is forbidden. And this in turn is hedged by a ban on the practice of medicine on the sabbath (except in cases of danger to Jewish life), in order to guard against falling into the sin of grinding a medicament. It is in vain to point out that in modern times such a danger does not exist (nor, for that matter, did it exist in many cases even in talmudic times); for, as a hedge around the hedge, the Talmud explicitly forbids liquid medicines and restorative drinks on the sabbath. What has been fixed remains for ever fixed, however absurd. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, had written, 'I believe it because it is absurd.' This can serve as a motto for the majority of talmudic rules, with the word 'believe' replaced by 'practice'.

   The following example illustrates even better the level of absurdity reached by this system. One of the prototypes of work forbidden on the sabbath is harvesting. This is stretched, by analogy, to a ban on breaking a branch off a tree. Hence, riding a horse (or any other animal) is forbidden, as a hedge against the temptation to break a branch off a tree for flogging the beast. It is useless to argue that you have a ready-made whip, or that you intend to ride where there are no trees. What is forbidden remains forbidden for ever. It can, however, be stretched and made stricter: in modern times, riding a bicycle on the sabbath has been forbidden, because it is analogous to riding a horse.

   My final example illustrates how the same methods are used also in purely theoretical cases, having no conceivable application in reality. During the existence of the Temple, the High Priest was only allowed to marry a virgin. Although during virtually the whole of the talmudic period there was no longer a Temple or a High Priest, the Talmud devotes one of its more involved (and bizarre) discussions to the precise definition of the term 'virgin' fit to marry a High Priest. What about a woman whose hymen had been broken by accident? Does it make any difference whether the accident occurred before or after the age of three? By the impact of metal or of wood? Was she climbing a tree? And if so, was she climbing up or down? Did it happen naturally or unnaturally? All this and much else besides is discussed in lengthy detail. And every scholar in classical Judaism had to master hundreds of such problems. Great scholars were measured by their ability to develop these problems still further, for as shown by the examples there is always scope for further development - if only in one direction - and such development did actually continue after the final redaction of the Talmud.

   However, there are two great differences between the talmudic period (ending around AD 500) and the period of classical Judaism (from about AD 800). The geographical area reflected in the Talmud is confined, whereas the Jewish society reflected in it is a 'complete' society, with Jewish agriculture as its basis. (This is true for Mesopotamia as well as Palestine.) Although at that time there were Jews living throughout the Roman Empire and in many areas of the Sassanid Empire, it is quite evident from the talmudic text that its composition - over half a millennium - was a strictly local affair. No scholars from countries other than Mesopotamia and Palestine took part in it, nor does the text reflect social conditions outside these two areas.

   Very little is known about the social and religious conditions of the Jews in the intervening three centuries. But from AD 800 on, when more detailed historical information is again available, we find that the two features mentioned above had been reversed. The Babylonian Talmud (and to a much lesser degree the rest of the talmudic literature) is acknowledged as authoritative, studied and developed in all Jewish communities. At the same time, Jewish society had undergone a deep change: whatever and wherever it is, it does not include peasants.

   The social system resulting from this change will be discussed in Chapter 4. Here we shall describe how the Talmud was adapted to the conditions - geographically much wider and socially much narrower, and at any rate radically different - of classical Judaism. We shall concentrate on what is in my opinion the most important method of adaptation, namely the dispensations.


The Dispensations

As noted above, the talmudic system is most dogmatic and does not allow any relaxation of its rules even when they are reduced to absurdity by a change in circumstances. And in the case of the Talmud - contrary to that of the Bible - the literal sense of the text is binding, and one is not allowed to interpret it away. But in the period of classical Judaism various talmudic laws became untenable for the Jewish ruling classes - the rabbis and the rich. In the interest of these ruling classes, a method of systematic deception was devised for keeping the letter of the law, while violating its spirit and intention. It was this hypocritical system of 'dispensations' (heterirn) which, in my view, was the most important cause of the debasement of Judaism in its classical epoch. (The second cause was Jewish mysticism, which however operated for a much shorter period of time.) Again, some examples are needed to illustrate how the system works.

(1) Taking of interest. The Talmud strictly forbids a Jew, on pain of severe punishment, to take interest on a loan made to another Jew. (According to a majority of talmudic authorities, it is a religious duty to take as much interest as possible on a loan made to a Gentile.) Very detailed rules forbid even the most far-fetched forms in which a Jewish lender might benefit from a Jewish debtor. All Jewish accomplices to such an illicit transaction, including the scribe and the witnesses, are branded by the Talmud as infamous persons, disqualified from testifying in court, because by participating in such an act a Jew as good as declares that 'he has no part in the god of Israel'. It is evident that this law is well suited to the needs of Jewish peasants or artisans, or of small Jewish communities who use their money for lending to non-Jews. But the situation was very different in east Europe (mainly in Poland) by the 16th century. There was a relatively big Jewish community, which constituted the majority in many towns. The peasants, subjected to strict serfdom not far removed from slavery, were hardly in a position to borrow at all, while lending to the nobility was the business of a few very rich Jews. Many Jews were doing business with each other.

   In these circumstances, the following arrangement (called heter 'isqa - 'business dispensation') was devised for an interest-bearing loan between Jews, which does not violate the letter of the law, because formally it is not a loan at all. The lender 'invests' his money in the business of the borrower, stipulating two conditions. First, that the borrower will pay the lender at an agreed future date a stated sum of money (in reality, the interest in the loan) as the lender's 'share in the profits'. Secondly, that the borrower will be presumed to have made sufficient profit to give the lender his share, unless a claim to the contrary is corroborated by the testimony of the town's rabbi or rabbinical judge, etc, - who, by arrangement, refuse to testify in such cases. In practice all that is required is to take a text of this dispensation, written in Aramaic and entirely incomprehensible to the great majority, and put it on a wall of the room where the transaction is made (a copy of this text is displayed in all branches of Israeli banks) or even to keep it in a chest - and the interest-bearing loan between Jews becomes perfectly legal and blameless,

(2) The sabbatical year. According to talmudic law (based on Leviticus, 25) Jewish-owned land in Palestine16 must be left fallow every seventh ('sabbatical') year, when all agricultural work (including harvesting) on such land is forbidden. There is ample evidence that this law was rigorously observed for about one thousand years, from the 5th century BC till the disappearance of Jewish agriculture in Palestine. Later, when there was no occasion to apply the law in practice, it was kept theoretically intact. However, in the 1880s, with the establishment of the first Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine, it became a matter of practical concern. Rabbis sympathetic to the settlers helpfully devised a dispensation, which was later perfected by their successors in the religious zionist parties and has become an established Israeli practice.

   This is how it works. Shortly before a sabbatical year, the Israeli Minister of Internal Affairs gives the Chief Rabbi a document making him the legal owner of all Israeli land, both private and public. Armed with this paper, the Chief Rabbi goes to a non-Jew and sells him all the land of Israel (and, since 1967, the Occupied Territories) for a nominal sum. A separate document stipulates that the 'buyer' will 'resell' the land back after the year is over. And this transaction is repeated every seven years, usually with the same 'buyer'.

   Non-zionist rabbis do not recognize the validity of this dispensation,17 claiming correctly that, since religious law forbids Jews to sell land in Palestine to Gentiles, the whole transaction is based on a sin and hence null and void. The zionist rabbis reply, however, that what is forbidden is a real sale, not a fictitious one!

(3) Milking on the sabbath. This has been forbidden in post-talmudic times, through the process of increasing religious severity mentioned above. The ban could easily be kept in the diaspora, since Jews who had cows of their own were usually rich enough to have non-Jewish servants, who could be ordered (using one of the subterfuges described below) to do the milking. The early Jewish colonists in Palestine employed Arabs for this and other purposes, but with the forcible imposition of the Zionist policy of exclusive Jewish labor there was need for a dispensation. (This was particularly important before the introduction of mechanized milking in the late 1950s.) Here too there was a difference between zionist and non-zionist rabbis.

   According to the former, the forbidden milking becomes permitted provided the milk is not white but dyed blue. This blue Saturday milk is then used exclusively for making cheese, and the dye is washed off into the whey. Non-zionist rabbis have devised a much subtler scheme (which I personally witnessed operating in a religious kibbutz in 1952). They discovered an old provision which allows the udders of a cow to be emptied on the sabbath, purely for relieving the suffering caused to the animal by bloated udders, and on the strict condition that the milk runs to waste on the ground. Now, this is what is actually done: on Saturday morning, a pious kibbutznik goes to the cowshed and places pails under the cows. (There is no ban on such work in the whole of the talmudic literature.) He then goes to the synagogue to pray. Then comes his colleague, whose 'honest intention' is to relieve the animals' pain and let their milk run to the floor. But if, by chance, a pail happens to be standing there, is he under any obligation to remove it? Of course not. He simply 'ignores' the pails, fulfills his mission of mercy and goes to the synagogue. Finally a third pious colleague goes into the cowshed and discovers, to his great surprise, the pails full of milk. So he puts them in cold storage and follows his comrades to the synagogue. Now all is well, and there is no need to waste money on blue dye.

(4) Mixed crops. Similar dispensations were issued by zionist rabbis in respect of the ban (based on Leviticus, 19:19) against sowing two different species of crop in the same field. Modern agronomy has however shown that in some cases (especially in growing fodder) mixed sowing is the most profitable. The rabbis invented a dispensation according to which one man sows the field length-wise with one kind of seed, and later that day his comrade, who 'does not know' about the former, sows another kind of seed crosswise. However, this method was felt to be too wasteful of labor, and a better one was devised: one man makes a heap of one kind of seed in a public place and carefully covers it with a sack or piece of board. The second kind of seed is then put on top of the cover. Later, another man comes and exclaims, in front of witnesses, 'I need this sack (or board)' and removes it, so that the seeds mix 'naturally'. Finally, a third man comes along and is told,'Take this and sow the field,' which he proceeds to do.18

(5) Leavened substances must not be eaten or even kept in the possession of a Jew during the seven (or, outside Palestine, eight) days of Passover. The concept 'leavened substances' was continually broadened and the aversion to so much as seeing them during the festival approached hysteria. They include all kinds of flour and even unground grain. In the original talmudic society this was bearable, because bread (leavened or not) was usually baked once a week; a peasant family would use the last of the previous year's grain to bake unleavened bread for the festival, which ushers in the new harvest season. However, in the conditions of post-Talmudic European Jewry the observance was very hard on a middle-class Jewish family and even more so on a corn merchant. A dispensation was therefore devised, by which all those substances are sold in a fictitious sale to a Gentile before the festival and bought back automatically after it. The one thing that must be done is to lock up the taboo substances for the duration of the festival. In Israel this fictitious sale has been made more efficient. Religious Jews 'sell' their leavened substances to their local rabbis, who in turn 'sell' them to the Chief Rabbis; the latter sell them to a Gentile, and by a special dispensation this sale is presumed to include also the leavened substances of non-practising Jews.

(6) Sabbath-Goy. Perhaps the most developed dispensations concern the 'Goy (Gentile) of Sabbath'. As mentioned above, the range of tasks banned on the sabbath has widened continually; but the range of tasks that must be carried out or supervised to satisfy needs or to increase comfort also keeps widening. This is particularly true in modern times, but the effect of technological change began to be felt long ago. The ban against grinding on the sabbath was a relatively light matter for a Jewish peasant or artisan, say in second-century Palestine, who used a hand mill for domestic purposes. It was quite a different matter for a tenant of a water mill or windmill one of the most common Jewish occupations in eastern Europe. But even such a simple human problem as the wish to have a hot cup of tea on a Saturday afternoon becomes much greater with the tempting samovar, used regularly on weekdays, standing in the room. These are just two examples out of a very large number of so-called 'problems of sabbath observance'. And one can state with certainty that for a community composed exclusively of Orthodox Jews they were quite insoluble, at least during the last eight or ten centuries, without the 'help' of non-Jews. This is even more true today in the 'Jewish state', because many public services, such as water, gas and electricity, fall in this category. Classical Judaism could not exist even for a whole week without using some non-Jews.

   But without special dispensations there is a great obstacle in employing non-Jews to do these Saturday jobs; for talmudic regulations forbid Jews to ask a Gentile to do on the sabbath any work which they themselves are banned from doing.19 I shall describe two of the many types of dispensation used for such purposes.

   First, there is the method of 'hinting', which depends on the casuistic logic according to which a sinful demand becomes blameless if it is phrased slyly. As rule, the hint must be obscure', but in cases of extreme need a 'clear' hint is allowed. For example, in a recent booklet on religious observance for the use of Israeli soldiers, the latter are taught how to talk to Arab workers employed by the army as sabbath-Goy. In urgent cases, such as when it is very cold and a fire must be lit, or when light is needed for a religious service, a pious Jewish soldier may use a 'clear' hint and tell the Arab: 'It is cold (or dark) here'. But normally an 'obscure' hint must suffice, for example: 'It would be more pleasant if it were warmer here'.20 This method of 'hinting' is particularly repulsive and degrading inasmuch as it is normally used on non-Jews who, due to their poverty or subordinate social position, are wholly in the power of their Jewish employer. A Gentile servant (or employee of the Israeli army) who does not train himself to interpret 'obscure hints' as orders will be pitilessly dismissed.

   The second method is used in cases where what the Gentile is required to do on Saturday is not an occasional task or personal service, which can be 'hinted' at as the need arises, but a routine or regular job without constant Jewish supervision. According to this method - called 'implicit inclusion' (havla'ah) of the sabbath among weekdays - the Gentile is hired 'for the whole week (or year)', without the sabbath being so much as mentioned in the contract. But in reality work is only performed on the sabbath. This method was used in the past in hiring a Gentile to put out the candles in the synagogue after the sabbath-eve prayer (rather than wastefully allowing them to burn out). Modern Israeli examples are: regulating the water supply or watching over water reservoirs on Saturdays.21

A similar idea is used also in the case of Jews, but for a different end. Jews are forbidden to receive any payment for work done on the sabbath, even if the work itself is permitted. The chief example here concerns the sacred professions: the rabbi or talmudic scholar who preaches or teaches on the sabbath, the cantor who sings only on Saturdays and other holy days (on which similar bans apply), the sexton and similar officials. In talmudic times, and in some countries even several centuries after, such jobs were unpaid. But later, when these became salaried professions, the dispensation of 'implicit inclusion was used, and they were hired on a 'monthly' or 'yearly' basis. In the case of rabbis and talmudic scholars the problem is particularly complicated, because the Talmud forbids them to receive any payment for preaching, teaching or studying talmudic matters even on weekdays.22 For them an additional dispensation stipulates that their salary is not really a salary at all but 'compensation for idleness' (dmey batalah). As a combined result of these two fictions, what is in reality payment for work done mainly, or even solely, on the sabbath is transmogrified into payment for being idle on weekdays. Social Aspects of Dispensations Two social features of these and many similar practices deserve special mention.

   First, a dominant feature of this system of dispensations, and of classical Judaism inasmuch as it is based on them, is deception - deception primarily of God, if this word can be used for an imaginary being so easily deceived by the rabbis, who consider themselves cleverer than him. No greater contrast can be conceived than that between the God of the Bible (particularly of the greater prophets) and of the God of classical Judaism. The latter is more like the early Roman Jupiter, who was likewise bamboozled by his worshipers, or the gods described in Frazer's Golden Bough.

   From the ethical point of view, classical Judaism represents a process of degeneration, which is still going on; and this degeneration into a tribal collection of empty rituals and magic superstitions has very important social and political consequences. For it must be remembered that it is precisely the superstitions of classical Judaism which have the greatest hold on the Jewish masses, rather than those parts of the Bible or even the Talmud which are of real religious and ethical value. (The same can be observed also in other religions which are now undergoing revival.) What is popularly regarded as the most 'holy' and solemn occasion of the Jewish liturgical year, attended even by very many Jews who are otherwise far from religion? It is the Kol Nidrey prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur - a chanting of a particularly absurd and deceptive dispensation. by which all private vows made to God in the following year are declared in advance to be null and void.23 Or, in the area of personal religion, the Qadish prayer, said on days of mourning by sons for their parents in order to elevate their departed souls to paradise - a recitation of an Aramaic text, incomprehensible to the great majority. Quite obviously, the. popular regard given to these, the most superstitious parts of the Jewish religion, is not given to its better parts.

   Together with the deception of God goes the deception of other Jews, mainly in the interest of the Jewish ruling class. It is characteristic that no dispensations were allowed in the specific interest of the Jewish poor. For example, Jews who were starving but not actually on the point of death were never allowed by their rabbis (who did not often go hungry themselves) to eat any sort of forbidden food, though kosher food is usually more expensive.

   The second dominant feature of the dispensations is that they are in large part obviously motivated by the spirit of profit. And it is this combination of hypocrisy and the profit motive which increasingly dominated classical Judaism. In Israel, where the process goes on, this is dimly perceived by popular opinion, despite all the official brainwashing promoted by the education system and the media. The religious establishment - the rabbis and the religious parties - and, by association, to some extent the Orthodox community as a whole, are quite unpopular in Israel. One of the most important reasons for this is precisely their reputation for duplicity and venality. Of course, popular opinion (which may often be prejudiced) is not the same thing as social analysis; but in this particular case it is actually true that the Jewish religious establishment does have a strong tendency to chicanery and graft, due to the corrupting influence of the Orthodox Jewish religion. Because in general social life religion is only one of the social influences, its effect on the mass of believers is not nearly so great as on the rabbis and leaders of the religious parties. Those religious Jews in Israel who are honest, as the majority of them undoubtedly are, are so not because of the influence of their religion and rabbis, but in spite of it. On the other hand, in those few areas of public life in Israel which are wholly dominated by religious circles, the level of chicanery, venality and corruption is notorious, far surpassing the 'average' level tolerated by general, non-religious Israeli society.

   In Chapter 4 we shall see how the dominance of the profit motive in classical Judaism is connected with the structure of Jewish society and its articulation with the general society in the midst of which Jews lived in the 'classical' period. Here I merely want to observe that the profit motive is not characteristic of Judaism in all periods of its history. Only the platonist confusion which seeks for the metaphysical timeless 'essence' of Judaism, instead of looking at the historical changes in Jewish society, has obscured this fact. (And this confusion has been greatly encouraged by zionism, in its reliance on 'historical rights' ahistorically derived from the Bible.) Thus, apologists of Judaism claim, quite correctly, that the Bible is hostile to the profit motive while the Talmud is indifferent to it. But this was caused by the very different social conditions in which they were composed. As was pointed out above, the Talmud was composed in two well-defined areas, in a period when the Jews living there constituted a society based on agriculture and consisting mainly of peasants - very different indeed from the society of classical Judaism.

   In Chapter 5 we shall deal in detail with the hostile attitudes and deceptions practiced by classical Judaism against non-Jews. But more important as a social feature is the profit-motivated deception practiced by the rich Jews against poor fellow Jews (such as the dispensation concerning interest on loans). Here I must say, in spite of my opposition to marxism both in philosophy and as a social theory, that Marx was quite right when, in his two articles about Judaism, he characterized it as dominated by profit-seeking - provided this is limited to Judaism as he knew it, that is, to classical Judaism which in his youth had already entered the period of its dissolution. True, he stated this arbitrarily, ahistorically and without proof. Obviously he came to his conclusion by intuition; but his intuition in this case - and with the proper historical limitation - was right. jewhis3.htm
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First published 1994 by Pluto Press
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98 97 96 95
7 6 5 4 3
Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 first appeared in the journal
Khamsin and
are reproduced with permission
Foreword copyright 1994 Gore Vidal
Copyright 1994 Israel Shahak
The right of Israel Shahak to be identified as the author of this
work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the
British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Shahak, Israel.
  Jewish history, Jewish religion: the weight of three thousand
  years/Israel Shahak
  ll8pp. 22cm.
  Includes bibliographical references and index.
  ISBN 0-7453-0818-X
  1. Israel - Politics and government. 2. Orthodox Judaism
  - Israel - Controversial literature. 3. Zionism -
  Controversial literature. 4. Palestinian Arabs - Israel.
  I. Title. II. Series.
  D5102.95.S52  1994
  956.94-dc20    94-1596
ISBN 0 7453 0818 X hardback
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