Rabbi Dov Linzer on Christian Ethics

Amy Jill-Levine in her talks on anti-Semitism points out how liberal Protestant feminists portray the Old Testament and Judaism as patriarchal and misogynist. In contrast, they portray the New Testament as feminist and empowering in liberating women from Judaism. It is interesting to find a Jewish equivalent portraying Christianity as repressive and Judaism as liberating from oppressive. We find Rabbi Dov Linzer doing just that.

Linzer open his homily with an urban legend started by anti-religious freethinkers that the Catholic Church banned anesthesia in childbirth. It never happened in any way and can be easily fact checked. More importantly, is that the Catholic Church does not really have a curse of Eve.
Christianity has a much bigger rubric for the reading the narrative, they have a Fall of Humanity and Original Sin. They read the story with the New Testament. Except for a few medieval Christian discussions most discussion of Eve’s Curse are Jewish or small Protestant groups who read Genesis on its own. Eve’s Curse is mainly Jewish or Jewish apologetic against the idea. (Try a google search- even many pages deep.) One of my Catholic colleagues said “Anyone using that phrase Curse of Eve” in Catholic circles would be laughed at. It is a well developed Midrashic theme. For the ten curses of eve see Avot de Rabbi Natan , chapter 42.

The homily goes downhill from there. It still has the early 20th century dichotomy between Lutheran emphasis on faith and theology and the Jewish law, Paul’s emphasis on faith and the Jewish emphasis on law. (see Adolf von Harnack, 1899 ) That dichotomy is neither doctrine of Catholic and most Protestants or current Scholarship. Pope Benedict emphasizes the continuity of Jewish ritual, priestly codes, and institutions in the Catholic Church and considers Harnack & Linzer’s approach a heresy. Evangelicals emphasize Deuteronomy with its wrath against those who violate God’s rules and they care more about legislating people’s personal lives than theology. Scholars present a Paul who still observed the law (for a basic summary, see the books What Are They Saying About Paul and the Law? or Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship). As a general point of the emphasis of the two faiths, I could give it a pass but using law/theology to argue for feminism the dichotomy has no force. And the reading of the Aggadah does not prove it.

The theological question of evil Roman governor Titus Arinius Rufus is shockingly identified with the Christian position. In fact, the Romans were against alms to the poor and Early Christians share the Jewish value of helping the poor. (see for early example the Didache and Susan R. Holmaneditor Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society).

The proof that Judaism is action centered and not theological is the story in Bava Batra 10a, but that only works if you completely truncate the story and its context. The Rabbi Akiva story is about earning redemption and being saved from Gehenna; the same concerns as most Christian stories. And Rabbi Akiva wins the debate by arguing that our theology is that we are the children of God- chosen and given providential concern. The rest of the sugya is a gold mine of Rabbinic theology- especially that in the absence of the Temple, which Titus Rufus plowed over, zedakah redeems and plays the role of the Temple sacrifice. It is hard to read that daf as anything but theology.

Next Rav Soloveitchik is used as a proof text for this theology less approach by citing that Rav Soloveitchik idea that we don’t ask to understand a theology of suffering. But that does not mean we don’t ask about other topics. In the same essay, Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the “thematic halakhah” which deals with the theological issues of the Gemara as opposed to the “topical halakhah.”The thematic must grasp reality beyond human action and reach up to the infinite, up to the ideal order. Thematic Halakhah refers to the philosophical and theological motifs of Judaism.

The text from 1 Cor is not any standard reading since the concept of “head” here means source as in head of a river, not head as in rule over. Paul did not relegate women to inferior positions. Women are mentioned in 1 Cor. as deacons apostles and other positions. Linzer did get Eph. 5:22 correct, but any modern Evangelical apologist would not explain it that way.

With this false dichotomy in place, Linzer argues like the liberal Protestants for rectifying patriarchy. Just like we alleviate suffering and use anesthesia we should correct what he calls “male dominance as part of the Torah’s mandate, as part of our halakhic responsibility.”

Parshat Breishit – Eve’s Curse
After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and are cursed with a life of hard work, pain, and travail… The life that she would nurture in her body, would also only come forth with pain and suffering: “I will terribly sharpen your birth pangs, in pain shall you bear children…” (3:16).

How are we to understand the religious import of these curses? Are these to be understood as a divine decree of how things must be? That is, is it now God’s will that we exert toil in raising crops, that women suffer in childbirth? Or, alternatively, are these curses, a change of the natural order, no doubt, but a change for the worse, a change that – given our mandate to “fill the earth and conquer it,” – it is our responsibility to work to reverse, a broken state of affairs that we must strive to improve, to fix?

This is by no means merely an academic question. If this is to be the divinely decreed state of affairs, then it would be sacrilegious to attempt to reverse it. Indeed, for centuries, the Catholic Church opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth on just such grounds, that it would counteract the “Curse of Eve”. In fact it was not until 1949 that the Pope finally announced the Church’s withdrawal from this centuries-old opposition.

In contrast, Judaism has never seen a curse, even a Divine one, as an ideal or desired state. It is our mandate to alleviate suffering, and it is our mandate to improve the world and to improve our station within it.

What accounts for the difference between these two approaches? I believe two issues are at stake. The first is the relative emphasis that we place on acts as opposed to theology. The Church, concerned as it is first and foremost with theology, gives the greatest weight to theological concerns around the Divine curse. In a similar fashion, the Roman general asked Rabbi Akiva, “If your God cares for the poor, why does He not provide for them?” (Baba Batra, 10a). The implied answer is – it must be that God does not care for them, that their lot in life is divinely decreed, and thus it is not our responsibility, perhaps it is even religiously wrong, for us to try to help them. Judaism, or more specifically halakha, will have none of this. Whatever we think about this theological question – why the poor are poor – is really immaterial. Theological considerations do not override our halakhic responsibilities. When a person in front of us is in pain, we must act to help that person. Our mandate is to deal not with God, but with the person in front of us.

Rav Soloveitchik has explained that it is for this reason that Judaism has never put an enormous amount of effort on answering the question of theodicy, on explaining how a good God can allow good people to suffer. To try to find an answer to that question, said the Rav, is ultimately to try to come to terms with suffering, to make our peace with suffering. As halakhic Jews, however, we are obligated to not come to terms with suffering. To always see it for what it is in the real world, an evil, and to thus do our upmost to eradicate it.

There has never been any theological opposition to the invention of farming machinery, irrigation technology, modern fertilizers and pesticides, and improved farming techniques. Why, then, is women’s curse treated differently?

Perhaps this difference reflects a particular perspective on women’s status, one that is informed by, or finds support in, the story of the creation of woman. Consider the following two passages in the Christian Testament, attributed to Paul:

“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man… For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:3, 9).

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” (Eph. 5:22).

The message seems clear (although it is, and has been, debated by various denominations and throughout history). Eve was created from Adam, she is thus secondary and subservient to him. The man is thus the head, the one in control, and it is a wife’s role to submit to the authority of her husband.

Now, in addition to taking its lead from the story of the creation of Even in chapter 2 of Breishit, these passages also echo the other part of the curse of Eve: “and to your husband shall be your desire, and he shall rule over you.” It seems, then, that at least for some denominations of Christianity, during certain historical periods, these approaches were all of one piece. Women were created as secondary and subservient beings. Their curses, then, rather than being something to be overcome, were to be embraced as they reflected and reinforced this status. Her suffering during childbirth, her dependency on her husband, and her submission to his authority all perfectly dovetailed with her role in the social order. Man, in contrast, who stood at the top of the social order, with only God above him, was free to strive to overcome his curse and to take full dominion over the world.

This reading is by no means the only one, nor even the most compelling one. Regarding the creation of woman, it is now commonplace to note that in the first story, that in chapter 1, man and woman were created equally, blessed by God equally and spoken to by God equally. Thus, at the very least, we have two competing stories regarding the status of woman vis-à-vis man. If we attempt to reconcile them, we must make an interpretive choice whether to read the first story in light of the second, as is most commonly done (perhaps informed by the Christian reading), or the opposite, to read the second story in light of the first. This is what the midrash does when it states that the human was originally half man and half woman, and it was not Adam’s, or the human’s rib, but his side, the female half of him, that was separated off to create woman.

But what about “and he will have dominion over you”? Well, let’s remember what we said about suffering in childbirth. This is part of the curse of Eve, this is not the proper state of affairs. If it is our mandate to alleviate the suffering that is part of the nature of childbirth, then, it can also be argued, it is our responsibility to oppose and alleviate the injustice and the suffering that results from a woman’s dependency on man, on a relationship, or on a society, that is based on male dominance. This can also be seen as part of the Torah’s mandate, as part of our halakhic responsibility. Consider some of the mitzvot of the Torah which seem specifically addressed to protecting women from abuse and injustice that was taken for granted in a male-dominated society: “If she proves to displeasing to her master… he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders since he broke faith with her.” (Shemot 21:8). “If he marries another, he shall not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (21:10). “And it will be if you shall no longer want her that you shall send her free outright. You must not sell her. Since you had your way with her, you must not enslave her.” (Devarim 21:14).

Eve’s curse. Is it God’s will or is it an evil to overcome? While we may grapple over how to best read the verses and how we theologically approach the concept of a Divine curse, let us never forget that as halakhic Jews it is our mandate to alleviate suffering and to fight injustice wherever we may find it.

8 responses to “Rabbi Dov Linzer on Christian Ethics

  1. one thing was unclear to me.linzer didn’t say that there is absolutely no law in Christianity .He said that the emphasis was on theology as opposed to law.is this not true?when one becomes a monk he starts leaning theology and scholastics.a yeshiva bucher learns Gemara most of the day.In general there just is much much less law in Christianity any way you look at it.

    • Monks? too much medieval history!
      A Catholic seminary education in the 21st century is similar to a Jewish seminary education.
      First year- Bible, Intro to Theology, Church History, How to perform the sacraments
      Year Two- More Bible, Canon Law, Homiletics, Liturgy, Pastoral Psych
      Year Three- More Bible, Ecceisiology, Christian Ethics, Liturgy, Marriage
      Year Four -electives, modern theology- lots of practical skills
      You usually get to major in one field. If one does not major in theology then usually what Jews think Catholic do as theology is about 2 classes.
      The majority of seminarians now come from overseas and do not have the English or general education to major in theology. The Americans come with a background in business or computers.
      According to Fr Boyle, the Vatican librarian In the 14th century, the part of Aquinas that was most studied was the “book of sales and contracts”

  2. If you’re willing to foray across the pond, I’m curious to hear what you think about Shai Piron’s reading of Rufus’s position in BB 10a (and other sources). Here’s a link to Piron’s vort: http://www.ypt.co.il/show.asp?id=32921

  3. I have seen that one many times before. gehena as lose of community solidarity is likely Wiesel and may go back to Ahad Haam or other early Zionists.
    and fyi-Rav Cherlow on Piron–http://www.ypt.co.il/show.asp?id=55363

    • R. Cherlow wrote that like a politician (“I’m not joining the fray this time…”) and beats up a straw man – Likud has 7 Religious Zionist MKs, more than Bayit Yehudi and NU together. R. Cherlow knows better than to suggest that Piron joining a secular party is a chiddush, which makes me think that he’s doing little more than campaigning for his buddy.

      Back to Piron’s vort, I think he misreads Rufus as asking a question of theodicy (he, after all, assumes Rufus to be some sort of philosopher) – he paraphrases Rufus as saying “how can God allow there to be poor people?” It seems more likely, as you pointed out above, that Rufus’s theological question has a more practical dimension that does not question God’s judgment: if God does not feed these people, it would undermine God’s will to do so.

      Fascinating genealogy of the identification of Gehenna with individualist capitalism. I wonder how many Yesh Atid voters know that Piron is a Socialist.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: I am disapointed that R. Linzer who is a fine and sophisticated Talmid Hakham is so shockingly slovenly in dealing with Christian belief.

    One caveat: The most studied part of Aquinas in the 14th c. may have been his Book on Sales, but Aquinas’ authority derived frnom his position as a theologian, while that of Maimonides, say, derived from his position as a halakhist.

  5. I thank Alan Brill for pointing out the errors that I made in this piece. I should have taken much more care to check my facts before presenting and discussing the faith of another.

  6. Note please that in none of these fine old texts is there a woman’s voice discussing how women might be treated, or indeed desire to be treated. Just varieties of how I am supposed to live and define myself with reference to duties to God, husband, father, and sons. As for their part, there’s a set of boundaries as to how horribly they might treat me — if she does this, do that, but never go so far as the other.

    Between this, the liturgical obsessions with war and fealty to the boss, and the American community’s genuinely miserable response to our own poor — fear of our recognizing own poor, if you ask me — I found that even though I had wanted to bring my daughter up going to shul on Shabbos, going to services, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand next to her and say these words. So we show up late and just hang around with people at the kiddush, just to be with Jews (there aren’t many around here).

    Alan, I’ve been reading this blog with interest, but today I went and searched on the word “women”. And while many posts come up, so far I have not hit one whose main subject is a careful look at why women, specifically, leave Orthodoxy. I’ve already told my own story: the absence of respect for and authority of was obvious and palpable even to a 12-year-old. It’s right there in the design of the shul. (If anyone wants to argue with that, switch: find you a lady rabbi, put the women in the middle on the floor, men, you can go behind the mechitza and in the galleries, and hush you; and the ladies will run things as they will. The very idea makes you crazy, no? And stop sticking your fingers through the holes and distracting the women with orders about what to do. Go home and make lunch, why don’t you.) I expect, though, that women leave for other reasons too, and it would be interesting to hear about that. Nearly all the voices on this blog are male.

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