In which the calendar takes me somewhere strange.

‘Yiddish’ is Yiddish for ‘Jewish’

Do you speak Jewish? I’m learning. But it’s not easy. Not even always fun.

The word ‘Jewish’, of course, is used most often to refer a religion. Sometimes, it is used to mean an ethnicity (loosely defined), and sometimes to a nationality [Today, when the word ‘nation’ seems inextricably tied to the concept of ‘state’, one might better say, a cultural identity]. But in Yiddish, the word ‘Jewish’ also means the language. The deeper one goes the more this asserts itself. It is not a neutral code for talking about the world. When you learn to read and to speak Jewish, you learn to think through the lens of our religious and national history.

So, for example, studying Yiddish impels a certain level of engagement with the foundational texts. Toyre (Torah) is so central to Jewish life that secular Jewish writers both quote it and assume knowledge of it in their literature. Even the dates on the Jewish calendar are not dependably given as a month and day, but at least as frequently indicated by the nearest weekly Torah portion. So, I’ve added the Torah portions to my calendar. [If you like, you can, too:

Ki Teitsei

Doing that tempted me to at least give this week’s portion a glance. And immediately all the ambivalence flooded in. Here’s how the Yehoash translation begins the portion my calendar calls “Ki Seitsei” (more usually transliterated as ‘Teitsei’):

“Un du vest aroysgeyn in milkhome akegn dayne faynt, un got dayn her vet zey gebn in dayn hant, un vest fangen fun zey gefangene, un vest zen tsvishn di gefangene a froy sheyn in gestalt, un vest ze glustn, un vest zi dir veln nemen far a vayb, zolstu zi brengen in dayn hoyz, un zi zol opgoln ir kop, un opshnaydn ire negl; un zi zol oyston fun zikh di kleydung fun ir gefangenshaft un zitsn in dayn hoyz, un baveynen ir foter un ir muter a khoydes tsayt, un dernokh zolstu qumen zu ir un zi bamanen, un zi zol dir vern far a vayb.”

Having read that far, I close the TaNaKh and put it away. No, not because it’s an extreme run-on sentence. In fact, I’ve always found run-on sentences rather compelling, a kind of breathless storytelling, which can either be childlike or, as in this case, suspenseful and cumulative in its power. Here’s the English:

“And (when) you will go forth in war against your enemies, and your Lord God will deliver them into your hands, and you will capture prisoners, and you will see a woman among the prisoners who is lovely in form, and will desire her, and want to take her for a wife, you shall bring her into your house and she shall shave her head and cut her nails, and she shall take off the clothing of her captivity and sit in your house, and mourn her father and her mother for a month’s time, and then you shall go to her and be her husband, and she will become your wife.”

Later, I did go back and read more, but not much. Basically, the Law is domesticating rape and slavery. The domestication takes the form of trying to mitigate the worst horrors of treating people as the spoils of war. In fact, it has been suggested this form of slavery should not even be called by that name. A manservant or maidservant had the Sabbath off,  was fed of the same food the master ate, and had certain other rights. In the case of this particular passage, a man who wanted to take a captive for a wife had to treat her as a wife. Having done so, if he got tired of her, he could not undo that choice. He could divorce her, but then had to set her free and was explicitly forbidden from selling her. Furthermore, he had to acknowledge their children as his legitimate children.

Slavery is Slavery

I’m not impressed. Here is an apologia of sorts, from contemporary Chabadnik Tsvi Freeman, of slavery in the Jewish tradition. Naturally, I am not impressed by this either:

The argument is that in a long-ago world surrounded by other slaveholding cultures, to prescribe a kind of kinder-and-gentler slavery, a slavery with ethical limits would, first, be pragmatically enforceable and, second, would lead inexorably to abolition. The act of seeing slaves as human beings, coupled with the humanistic tradition elsewhere in Judaism would make eventual abolition inevitable. But leaving that inevitable outcome to be arrived at through the rabbinic tradition and the Talmud, making the Jews themselves come to this conclusion over time, would cause them to endorse it and internalize it more deeply.

I call bullshit. Slavery is slavery. Here’s the clearest argument I can think of against a reformist approach to a categorical evil. The same parsha (portion) has an unambiguous prohibition against re-imprisoning a runaway slave: Zolst nisht iberentfern a knekht tsu zayn har, az er vet zikh rateven tsu dir fun zayn har.


Yet, on September 18th, 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, explicitly requiring Northern states to return runaway slaves to the south. There cannot be a “half slavery”. Treating people as property has its own inexorable logic. So much so, that people who called themselves Christians, and who cited “The Bible” as their justification for slavery, ignored that same book when it told them their “property” must have rights.

The passage has many other unpleasant bits in it. Every year, people who like a good story start the Torah from the beginning, and blessedly peter out long before we get to Dvarim (Deuteronomy).

But knowing what is in the Torah is a source of humility, a tonic against thinking our people and our tradition are somehow better than other peoples or other traditions. Our long memory is a great advantage, precisely for its preservation of our failings. And, too, it forms the best possible defense against fundamentalism. So, I will continue to look in this ancient mirror from time to time, and to keep these reminders in my calendar.

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