Debating Ethical Standards

Why should Orthodox Jews be surprised or even upset when non-Jews react strongly against the Talmud's teaching, for example, that it is legitimate for a man to have sexual relations with a little girl, just so long as she is under the age of three? The Mishnah says: "WHEN A GROWN-UP MAN HAS HAD SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH A LITTLE GIRL, OR WHEN A SMALL BOY HAS HAD INTERCOURSE WITH A GROWN-UP WOMAN, OR [when a girl was accidentally] INJURED BY A PIECE OF WOOD [IN ALL CASES] THEIR KETHUBAH IS TWO HUNDRED [ZUZ]; SO ACCORDING TO R. MEIR."34 Then the Gemara explains: "It means this: When a grown-up man has intercourse with a little girl it is nothing, for when the girl is less than this [annotation: "Lit., 'here', that is, less than three years old"] it is as if one puts a finger into the eye; . . ."35 Should Orthodox Jews really expect Christians to accept the moral validity of such a teaching? Surely the vast majority ofJews today would reject it if they knew about it, which they do not.

As I said earlier, it might be argued that the rabbis were not really arguing for such a seemingly grotesque ethical principle, that it was all some sort of hypothetical debate. This particular debate in the Talmud concerned the kethubah. The kethubah was a deed given by a husband to his bride which specified that if he divorced her, she would receive a monetary payment. The minimum payment was 200 zuz for virgins, but only 100 zuz for non-virgins.36 A defender of the Talmud might argue that what the Mishnah really teaches is the perfectly reasonable principle that very young girls who are subjected to the kinds of intercourse described in the text are to be considered as virgins. While it would be possible to argue that this law's ethical concern focuses only on the innocence of the girl under three year old who is used sexually abused, and that the words "it is nothing" refer only to

34. Kethuboth 11 a.

35. Kethuboth lib.

36. Cf. "Ketubbah," in The Principles of Jewish Law, edited by Menachem Elon

(Jerusalem: Keter, [1975?]), col. 387. The zuz was the smallest Jewish coin.

her, and not to her abuser, then the question inevitably arises: What about the girl aged three years and older? Why treat a four-year-old sexually abused girl as a willing fornicator for the purposes of establishing her kethubah price? Furthermore, why treat as a virgin an adult woman who deliberately has had sexual relations with a small boy who is "less than nine years of age,"37 as the annotator says?

Christians do not ask such questions today. Therefore, Jews do not answer them. The fact is, virtually all modern Christian scholars — at least those who publish — are completely unfamiliar with the passages in the Talmud that I have cited in this essay, and Jews do not try to defend such passages; they remain discreetly silent. There has been a kind of implicit cease-fire agreement regarding the ethical details of the Talmud, and a willingness on both sides to limit all discussions of the ethics of traditional Judaism and especially the Talmud to general ethical principles that have been derived from the less controversial passages. So, over the years, the Talmud has fallen into the shadows. Hardly anyone reads it any more. Yet it is only here that we find a detailed account of what Paul calls "the traditions of my fathers" (Gala-tians 1:14).

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