Tuesday, January 11, 2005

cultural influences in halacha

A number of books that I have been reading have coalesced and ganged up on me. Louis Epstein, in Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism(among others) have documented how talmudic views on women's clothing mirrored the society around them. It is well known that the customs of the Seder mirror a Roman banquet. R. Eliezer Berkowitz, the student of R. Ya'akov Yechiel Weinberg, and one of the more reknown graduates of the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, in Jewish women in time and Torah, holds that the negative remarks regarding women in the Talmud reflect the culture of the time, and not a halachic imperative. In this manner, statements such as 'he who teaches his daughter torah is as if he taught her tiflut(foolishness, some translate liscentiousness) are reflections of the common understanding of the time, not a Torah based commandment or view.

This view is not widely accepted, even in MO circles. R. Emanuel Rackman, in trying to help agunot, tried to argue with the widely held concept that a woman would rather be married than not at all, which has implications in divorce(get) law. RYBS criticized him severely for this.

We know that at least some of the science in the Talmud is not accurate, and it is not reasonable to expect human beings 2000 years ago, even on the level of tannaim and amoraim to have knowledge that we have unearthed only in the last few hundred years. Can this admitted imperfection be generalized from the "hard sciences" to "soft sciences" or culture? One could argue that "human nature" has not changed, and that the talmud bases itself on mesorah, and observations and knowledge of human nature and desires, not on changing cultural values. it would be a coincidence, that these statements just happen to reflect popular culture exactly at that time.

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