Sunday, November 29, 2015

How "Sar" Became "Sag" - Explaining Tehillim 14 & 53 Variants with Paleo Hebrew

One of my beloved amateur hobbies of late is an interest in ancient Hebrew scripts. So I was excited when I found something on the topic to post about.

From around 1000 BCE to the Babylonian exile, the script in primary use by Israelites/Jews is what we today call "Paleo Hebrew" (or "ktav ivri" as it's referred to in the Talmud). If you live in Israel, you're walking around with examples of it in your pocket right now. On the back of the 1-shekel coin are the letters Yud Hei Dalet, meaning "Yehud," which was the name of the Jewish province in Judah when it was reestablished after Cyrus the Great's decree. The 10-shekel coin also bears a Paleo Hebrew inscription.

I may write more about script development another time, but right now I want to use Paleo Hebrew to offer a possible explanation for a textual variation between two chapters of Tehillim (Psalms), numbers 14 and 53. The two chapters are nearly identical, aside from a few word changes. The below chart (which I found here) highlights the differences.

Some of the variations can be accounted for by editorial preferences, e.g. the choice of which name of God to use. Some are textual additions, like those in 53:6. (That assumes Psalm 53 came later; alternatively, we can say 14:5-6 is a later, condensed version.) Others are minor grammatical changes, like the word kulo instead of hakol, both of which mean "all." These kinds of variations are attested in other duplicate texts throughout Tanakh.

There is one variation however that caught my eye, which is sar (14:3) versus sag (53:4). Sar (סר) means "turn aside" or "depart." Sag (סג) means "turn away" or "move back." Two very similar words, implying departure, the first possibly connoting more of a sideways movement, a change in direction, and the second more of a backwards movement, a retreat of sorts.

The question is how or why does sar change to sag?

One possibility is that it's an intentional change. That could mean a deliberate editorial revision, using two different words to communicate subtly different meanings. It could also be more of an inexact "retelling" of the psalm. Meaning, the author or scribe didn't feel the need to repeat it word for word. It was simply written to impart roughly the same idea, and for that purpose sag works as well as sar.

A second possibility is that the intent was in fact to duplicate the verse, but the result was slightly off.

Inadvertent changes can result from auditory, memory-related or visual factors. If the scribe works by taking dictation, the person may call out "sar" but the scribe hears it as "sag." If the scribe transcribes by rote memory, it could be that they've memorized it (perhaps even heard it recited by others) as sag. The two words after all do sound similar and mean almost the same thing, so it's easy to see how such an inadvertent substitution could occur. Then there's the visual factor, which gets to what I wanted to offer in this post.

In modern Hebrew, sar and sag might look vaguely similar, by virtue of being two-letter words beginning with a samekh, but they're still fairly easy to tell apart. You wouldn't tend to mistake resh and gimel for one another. Likewise, in early modern Hebrew, the "Jewish script" of the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE, the two letters have significantly different forms, not easily misread one as the other. However, when you go back to Paleo Hebrew script, resh and gimel are almost identical apart from an additional connecting bar that distinguishes the resh. See the chart below.

Let's say that this particular scribe is working by reading directly from a source text. If the letter resh in the word sar has a less pronounced connecting bar (i.e. it's drawn close to the upper bar, which in fact occurs in some instances of the Paleo resh), or even if it doesn't but we're talking about a mere half-second glance at the source text, that resh could easily be mistaken for a gimel. The scribe then copies it that way, and sar henceforth becomes sag. It doesn't get subsequently corrected, since sag is a word in its own right, and even has a similar meaning.

If this is how the variant was created, it would indicate that the change from sar to sag (or the other way around, depending on which psalm is older) goes back to pre-exilic times, when writing was done in Paleo Hebrew.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that this is necessarily how sar became sag, or vice-versa. As I mentioned, there are a number of potential explanations for how the two versions came to be, including it being an intentional change. I only put this forward as a possibility to add to the mix, one which might normally escape our modern eyes due to our lack of familiarity with ancient Hebrew scripts. (And like I say, I do have a soft spot for Paleo Hebrew.)

This last point highlights a larger issue in terms of knowledge and methodology. If this particular Paleo Hebrew hypothesis doesn't hold up in the face of scholarly scrutiny, that's okay. The point is not to become so invested in our ideas that we feel we have to "advocate" for them. Rather, put the idea out there, see if the evidence supports it, and evaluate how it stacks up against other explanations in terms of plausibility. And know that at the end of the day, the best we may be able to say on a particular subject or question is: "We don't know; X, Y and Z are all possibilities." And that too is a great answer.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Women Rabbis: A Response

An article appeared earlier this week in The Forward, entitled, "On Women Rabbis, We All Talk Past Each Other. Here's Why," penned by Alan Krinsky. I wholeheartedly agree with the title; we certainly do talk past one another. And I agree with the author's contention that the reason relates to a lack of empathy for where the other side is coming from, in terms of values, norms and ideology.

The author cites some intriguing ideas from a book by Professor Jonathan Haidt at NYU, who maps out six dimensions of morality:
  1. Fairness/Cheating
  2. Care/Harm
  3. Liberty/Oppression
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Loyalty/Betrayal
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
According to the author, Professor Haidt contends that:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms, while viewing the others as outside the moral universe. Only conservatives view the maintenance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity as moral goods and obligations, as well as subverting authority, betraying people and traditions, and degrading purity and sanctity in the world as moral crimes.
Conservatives, in a sense, inhabit a much richer moral world, encompassing all six dimensions. Liberals find it difficult to fathom such a world.
The author suggests that this model be used to understand liberal forces within Orthodoxy, who favor women's rabbinic ordination as a manifestation of "fairness," and conservative forces, who oppose it on the grounds that it "subverts authority" and "betrays" the tradition (and arguably because it degrades the sanctity of the Jewish people and Torah). Yet neither side appreciates the perspective of the other:
[A]s per Haidt’s framework, the more “liberal” forces within Orthodoxy continue to see women’s ordination as a matter of justice and fairness, and therefore fail to understand how their opponents can view this all as a major threat and moral disaster. The more “conservative” forces within Orthodoxy remain dumbfounded at how their opponents cannot see the glaringly obvious moral peril.
There is undoubtedly truth to this analysis, but I feel that Professor Haidt's framework falls considerably short in our case as a tool for understanding. Specifically:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms
I would argue that this analysis does not apply the same way to liberal Orthodox Jews; they do very much acknowledge and care deeply about the moral dimensions of authority, loyalty and sanctity.


Even within more conservative (i.e. traditional, "right-wing") Orthodox circles, you can find a wide array of attitudes toward rabbinic authority. Some people scarcely make a move without consulting their rabbi, while others, while they respect the rabbis, live basically autonomous lives. And every such community of course has its own authorities, chosen not simply because of their breadth of Torah knowledge but because they understand and can effectively address the specific needs of that community.

Liberal Orthodox communities are no different. Yes, they generally adopt a more autonomous version of the rabbi-congregant relationship, but liberal Orthodox Jews certainly do rely on and take spiritual and Halakhic guidance from their leaders. To imply that they find it "difficult to fathom" authority is simply incorrect. As for subversion, liberal Orthodoxy would find it morally objectionable if its leaders were out to overthrow or supplant other communities and traditions. They simply wish to maintain a community alongside other Orthodox communities, one that is capable of addressing their unique needs. 


Modern Orthodox communities are called as such because their philosophy is one of integrating the wider, modern world into their religious lives. That involves not only pursuits such as obtaining advanced degrees in secular education and enrolling their kids in sports leagues, but also embracing many of the values of Western society. Among those is what today is considered the self-evidently just and moral idea of women's equality before the law. Under Jewish law, women are not equals to men. Cherished and valued in Jewish tradition, yes, but not equal under the law. Neither are kohen and non-kohen equal, convert and Jewish-born, sighted and non-sighted, et. al. That is simply part of Jewish legal tradition.

This introduces a tension, particularly for those to whom "justice" intuitively, necessarily, includes women's equality before the law. What does one do with that tension? One can suppress it or dismiss it as coming from a "non-Jewish" place, a position often advanced by Orthodox conservatives. For more liberal-minded Orthodox Jews however, the choices are a) to leave Orthodoxy entirely, b) to respectfully dismiss those parts of the legal tradition which don't conform to the modern, expanded definition of "justice" (i.e. to depart from Orthodoxy in part) or c) to work creatively within the Halakhic tradition to afford women maximum equality in the confines of the law. The third position is effectively what liberal Orthodoxy aspires to do. Such an approach takes great care and time. Far be it to imply that such work is undertaken as an act of "betrayal"; no, it is done precisely because loyalty to the tradition is recognized as an important value. 


Throughout Jewish tradition, we are reminded that ritual observance alone does not render individuals pure and holy. This is only achieved when such observance is combined with sensitivity and care toward our neighbors, fellow human beings. Ritual observance without justice and compassion is not simply an empty religious facade; it is a sham, a degradation of Judaism. Acting toward others with the dignity and respect they deserve is every bit as "sacred" a duty as fasting on Yom Kippur.

As said above, liberal Orthodoxy possesses an expanded sense of justice and fairness, which includes the sacred value of equality of women before the law. It is considered "sacred" in the sense of being deemed a precious moral commodity, and because it is something to be fiercely guarded, protected against "degradation," and wholeheartedly and vigorously acted upon. To suggest that liberal Orthodoxy lacks a sensitivity to the moral dimension of the pure and the sacred is to fundamentally misunderstand the deep religious motivations - purity of heart and elevating the sacred - which underlie their efforts toward greater women's equality in Judaism.

* * *

So liberal Orthodox Jews certainly acknowledge and indeed embrace the values of authority, loyalty and sanctity - i.e. "all six dimensions." What's more, if any side might be understood as not embracing all these moral dimensions, it is arguably conservative Orthodoxy.

While Orthodox conservatives would agree that fairness is an important value where it comes to business practices (e.g. guarding against using incorrect weights and measures or selling damaged goods) and legal proceedings (e.g. not favoring litigants or taking a bribe), they will be quick to tell you that the modern, Western notion of "fairness" is something else entirely. Equal rights for women may be enshrined as "fair and just" by secular standards, but a faithful Jew will follow the divine will, regardless of what the surrounding society deems to be "fair" or "unfair."

Even more tenuous is conservative Orthodoxy's relationship to liberty. Yes, freedom from slavery is valued, as is freedom from materialism and decadence, and the freedom of the soul through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. But "liberty" per se, the notion that a person should be able to live as he or she chooses? This is in fact anathema to the traditional, conservative Orthodox mindset. One must subordinate him/herself to the will of God and live accordingly.

So on both sides of the equation, liberal Orthodox and conservative Orthodox, it is not clear that Professor Haidt's model is entirely accurate.
A lesson we can learn from Haidt is that we can and need to do much more to understand the moral and theological universe of those with whom we disagree.
With this, I wholeheartedly concur. I just happen to believe that the model the author cites has limited utility insofar as gaining an accurate understanding of both religious sides of this debate.

A Suggestion

This merits its own post, but I will say it concisely now. The best way to encourage peace and amicable relations is to endeavor to follow the model of live and let live. If you wish to affiliate with an Orthodox community that supports female rabbinic ordination, then simply do so, and at the same time do not condemn others as backward, oppressive, or anti-women. Such terms do not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. And if you prefer a more "conservative" Orthodox community that ordains male rabbis only, by all means make that your home, and do not condemn liberal Orthodoxy as heretical, subversive or anti-Torah. That too does not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. Understand that every community has its own needs, and that its unique halakhic and normative approach is designed for one singularly positive reason only: to meet those unique needs. Your community's solutions would leave others wanting, just as those of a different community would leave you wanting.

Instead, be thrilled when everyone has precisely what they need.