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Ki Tetze 2009


I gave a D’var Torah on this sedra a couple of years ago, when I spoke about the law of the rebellious son and, separately, the doctrine of free will.  Although there is no shortage of material in the sedra – containing, as it does, 74 mitzvot -- I thought that this time I would talk about a book that I had been given called Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi, which I had not yet begun to read.  My hope was that there would be something in it relevant to the sedra.  So you can imagine my relief when the first Torah reference in the book, on page 8, was about the law of cross-dressing, and the second, not much later, on the law of levirate marriage, both of which are included within Ki Tetze.

I’ll return to these later, but first of all I want to tell you about the book, and specifically about the central character, one John Selden.  Heard of him?  I hadn’t either. He lived in the years 1584-1654.  But, I can almost hear you think, the Jews were not readmitted to Britain until 1656, two years after his death: so how could he possibly be “Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi”?  The answer, of course is that he wasn’t – he wasn’t even Jewish.  But he had the most phenomenal knowledge of Rabbinical Judaism, and such an enlightened outlook about the Jewish religion, that he fully merits the title bestowed by the author, one Jason P Rosenblatt, who is a Professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington DC. 

So who was John Selden?  He was born near Worthing in 1584, and attended Oxford.  He became a barrister in 1612.  He had a lucrative conveyancing practice.  His History of Tithes was published in 1618, in which he made much of the complexities of the ancient Jewish customs on tithes, but the book was censored and suppressed.  This seems to have provoked his entry into politics.  Although he was not in Parliament, he was the instigator and perhaps the draughtsman of the 1621 protestation on the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. This led to a brief period of imprisonment in the Tower, which he was sent to again in 1629.  It was on this occasion that he asked for a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud to be sent to him, as a result of which he developed a love of Halacha.  He seems to have been equally conversant with English, Latin and Hebrew, and later Arabic.  In the run-up to the Civil War, he supported Parliament against King Charles, because (he said) he was certain the latter was acting illegally, whilst he wasn’t certain about the former.  He lived with his mistress, the Countess of the Kent, after the death of her husband, but there is uncertainty whether he married her formally.  He is buried in the Temple Church in London.

His early published works were on various aspects of the history of English law.  In 1617 his De Diis Syris was his first book on Semitic subjects, dealing among other things with cross-dressing and bisexual gods.  Unlike the half-dozen important Rabbinical works of his later years, it referred only sparingly to the Talmud.  The later works were heavily influenced by his reading of Maimonides. He was particularly insistent on the applicability of the seven Noachide laws to non-Jews, and, conversely, the non-applicability of the other mitvot to them.  Without doubt, he takes a very Jewish view in this connection.  Here is an example of his pragmatic way of thinking, in a quotation from his 1640 magisterial publication called De Jure Naturali et Gentium juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum (which Rosenblatt calls “one of the most genuinely philosemitic works produced by a Christian Hebraist in early modern Europe”):

“Why should I think all the fourth commandment [the Sabbath] belongs to me, when all the fifth [honouring parents] does not?  What land will the Lord give me for honouring my father?  It was spoken to the Jews with reference to the Land of Canaan; but the meaning is, if I honour my parents, God, will also bless me.  We read the commandments in the church-service, as we do David’s Psalms; not that all there concerns us, but a great deal of them does.”

Or listen to what Selden says in his book Table Talk about the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, etc:

“ That does not mean that,  if I put out another man’s eye, therefore I must lose one of my own (for what is he the better for that?), though this is commonly received; but it means that I shall give him what satisfaction an eye shall be judged to be worth.”

This is, of course, exactly the received Jewish view of what that law means, in contrast to the anti-semitic literal interpretation commonly put upon it by Christians in the past.

Selden also wrote a three-volume work on the Sanhedrin (De Synedriis), which he regarded as a model that the British Parliament should follow. He was particularly attracted by its non-priestly, secular, composition, which accorded with his view (known as Erastian) that ecclesiastical courts should be subservient to the civil jurisdiction. 

Selden was widely acknowledged as the most learned Christian Hebraist in the seventeenth century, which was itself England’s golden age of Christian Hebraism.  He had a profound influence on, among others, John Milton and the playwright Ben Jonson.

So now I want to say something about our sedra provoked by comments in this book by Rosenblatt.  I shall not draw on the discussion of bisexual gods and cross-dressing, because this is a family occasion.  Instead, I’ll focus on the law of levirate marriage in Devarim, 25:5-10 – namely, the requirement to marry a dead brother’s widow if there had been no children of the marriage, unless the ceremony of chalitzah is performed.  It is known as levirate marriage, not because of anything to do with the word ‘levi’, but because the word ‘levir’ in Latin means brother-in-law.  In Hebrew it is known as Yibbum – the last word in 25:5 is veyibmah, which means ‘and he will perform the duty of a husband’s brother’.

The concept of levirate marriage is not unique to Judaism; it has been practised by other societies with a strong clan structure.  The most famous example in the Torah is of Judah and Tamar.  Judah was, of course, Tamar’s father-in-law, but he only came to be in the position of being obliged to marry her because his three sons had failed to produce a child by her.  Another famous case analogous to both yibbum and chaltizah, albeit not strictly the same, was that of Ruth, Boaz and his kinsman, the anonymous Ploni Almoni.

Now the interesting thing is that the law of levirate marriage is in direct contradiction, and actually a specific exception, to the law in Acharei Mot in Vayikra,18:16:  “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness.”  This is repeated in the next sedra, Kedoshim, 20:21: “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”

Topically, given that this year is the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession, it is worth noting that these verses in Leviticus were at the root of Henry’s case that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was invalid and therefore should be annulled.  She had been married to Prince Arthur, Henry’s brother, who had died before they had children.  The Pope had given Henry a dispensation from the Leviticus prohibition to marry Katherine, but, in view of her inability to give him a male heir, he claimed that he was being punished according to this law and that the marriage should never have been allowed in the first place.  For her part, Katherine claimed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so that she had in fact never been properly married to him anyway, thus legitimising her union with Henry.  Of course the verses in today’s sedra about levirate marriage would fatally undermine Henry’s case (taken literally, he would be obliged to marry Katherine), and were indeed cited by opponents of the divorce, including most prominently Bishop John Fisher, who lost his head for his pains.  As we know, the story ends with Henry insisting on his interpretation, and breaking away from the authority of the Pope (who refused to rescind the earlier dispensation).

In point of fact, and the view taken by Selden on all this, is that neither the Leviticus prohibition nor the Deuteronomy obligation was binding on a non-Jew, so that the whole argument was spurious.  But what I would like to emphasise was how well-known this Torah material was to educated Christians at that time, and how seriously they took it (whether or not you believe that Henry was genuine in his “scruple of conscience”, as he called it, or cynically manipulating the rules to achieve the result he wanted).  And, by the way, similar issues crop up in Hamlet, which flows from the marriage of Claudius to his brother’s widow.

I should add that the Jewish approach to levirate marriage has been more to emphasise the ability to escape from it, via chalitzah, rather than to enforce the obligation to marry a dead brother’s childless widow.

In conclusion, and returning to Selden, we cannot know how he would have reacted to Manasseh ben Israel’s petition of 1655 to allow the return of the Jews to England.  But I think we can guess, and the clues may be found in this summary paragraph from Rosenblatt’s book:

“It is at least worth remembering that in the first half of the seventeenth century the most learned person in England [Milton’s description of Selden] rejected the biblical decalogue as intended only for Jews and accepted the rabbinic Noachide laws as binding upon all of humankind.  On the basis of those laws and the Talmudic discussions occasioned by them, he expressed hope in eternal life for those outside his own confession, rejected the myth of Jewish xenophobia, and emphasised the humaneness of rabbinic exegesis.”

Stephen Collins

29 August, 2009

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