Author Archives: Dr. Robert Gordis

About Dr. Robert Gordis

Dr. Robert Gordis (1908-1992) taught for over half a century at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as Professor of Bible and Rapoport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion. He served as a congregational rabbi and as editor of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal. Among his many books are Love and Sex and Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.

Agunot: A Different Kind of Hostage

The following article is excerpted from “A Different Kind of Hostage,” originally published in Moment magazine. Reprinted here with permission from the estate of Robert Gordis.

The most agonizing moral challenge confronting Jewish law in modern times is nearly 2,000 years old. It is the plight of the agunah, “the chained wife,” which has troubled Jews through the centuries. No one who has read Chaim Grade’s powerful novel The Agunah will soon forget its tragic heroine, whose husband has left her and refuses to give her a get (Jewish divorce), so that she can never remarry.

A Problem Since Biblical Times

Actually, the novel describes only one of several categories of agunah. Fundamentally, the pathetic situation of these women stems from the fact that the rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 places the initiative for the issuance of a get solely in the hands of the husband. The tragedy has been immeasurably compounded in modern times by the erosion of authority in the Jewish community, so that the community itself is now powerless to compel the husband’s obedience.

jewish divorceThe problem has a long and painful history. The ancient and medieval rabbis were highly sensitive to the woman’s undeserved suffering and sought every conceivable method of freeing the agunah from her chains. Thus, the Talmud went so far as to rule that if the woman herself had evidence that her husband had died, her unsubstantiated testimony would be acceptable and she would be declared a widow, free to remarry.

The radical character of this decision becomes clear if it is recalled that this ruling sets aside three fundamental principles of halakhah [Jewish law]–first, the rabbinic rule that a woman is ineligible to testify as a witness; second, the biblical law that two witnesses are required to establish valid evidence; third, the rabbinic principle “adam karov etzel atzmo“–“every person is close and partial to himself”–and, therefore, his testimony on a case in which he is involved is invalid. Nonetheless, the rabbis accepted the woman’s sole testimony as a witness.

In the Theocentric Universe, Human Beings Are Not Masters

A profound theological basis for ecology, including the right of animals in the world, is to be found in a biblical source that to my knowledge has hitherto never been invoked in this connection. The Book of Job is unique in its conception of the purpose of Creation, which is adumbrated in its climax in the Speeches of the Lord Out of the Whirlwind [38:1-42:6]. After the debate of Job and his friends has ended and the brash young Elihu, though uninvited, has made his contribution to the heartrending problem of human suffering, the Lord, speaking out of the whirlwind confronts Job in two speeches.

He offers no facile answer to the mystery of evil; instead he raises the discussion to an altogether higher level. With exultant joy, the Lord has the world that he has created pass in review before Job, and he challenges him to understand, let alone share in, the task of creation. In powerful lines, the wonders of inanimate nature are described. The creation of heaven and earth, stars and seas, morning and night, light and darkness is pictured. The snow and the hail, the flood and the lightning, the rain, the dew, the frost, and the clouds– all are revelations of God as Creator.

But we do not have here a cold ”scientific” catalogue of natural phenomena, such as is to be found in the Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenemope. What is significant is not the explicit listing of the items, but the implication the poet draws from them — like the rain in the uninhabited desert, they were all called into being without man as their purpose and they remain beyond his power and control (Job 38:1-38). This significant implication will be underscored more strongly as the speech proceeds.

The World of Animal Life

The Lord now turns to the world of animate nature and glowingly describes seven creatures: the lion, the mountain goat, the wild ass, the buffalo, the ostrich, the wild horse, and the hawk. What they have in common, apart from being beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power, is that they have not been created for man’s use; they have their own independent reason for being, known only to their Creator.