Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Noted teacher, author and lecturer in the areas of Bible and Jewish liturgy, Dean Rachel Friedman, founder of Lamdeinu: The Center for Jewish Learning in Teaneck, New Jersey, was the speaker at the Orthodox Jewish Forum of Highland Park/Edison’s program on December 17. She presented a talk called “Through the Prism of Law and Narrative: Yibbum, Chalitzah and the Biblical Woman.” Inspired by that week’s Torah portion, Friedman talked about the experience of levirate marriage for women as described in Torah and Tanach—in the stories of Judah and Tamar, in the legal section of Devarim 25 and in Megillat Ruth. Orthodox Forum Chairperson Mark Abraham opened the session by welcoming virtual and in-person attendees.

Dean Friedman began by stating that in addition to the topic’s relevance to the Torah reading, the motivation for delving further into the subject was “to think of the deeper messages of the Torah way of life and the moral values and foundation of Judaism.” She noted that while most don’t often come upon the topic of levirate marriage in their day-to-day lives, Israeli cinema and television have taken the subject matter and brought it to the general public via Netflix and other streaming services. Dean Friedman noted that levirate marriage is “not a relic of ancient law, but a key to understanding and creating a society of justice and rule of law” aimed at protecting the weakest members of society, in this case ensuring that a childless widow has the ability to maintain a home and income for food and personal needs. As seen in the book of Genesis, the story of Dina and Judah—and the Abrahamic tradition—refers to ways of justice and righteousness and “restores the status quo of society even in the event of an untimely death.”

The book of Ruth notes early on that the events take place in the time of the Judges (Shoftim). This historical reference points to a time of anarchy and social behaviors with unrestrained powers of male relatives. Dean Friedman said that Boaz’s actions towards Ruth reverse the “pattern of subjugation of women” during that time and replaces it with respectful behavior in redeeming the lands that belonged to the husbands of Ruth and Naomi—meriting him to become the ancestor of King David via the son with whom Hashem blessed Ruth and Boaz. The charitable act contrasts significantly with other events in the similar time frame that include the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in appreciation of a war victory and the rape and death of the concubine of Givah. The common treatment of women as possessions at that time was in direct conflict with the Torah way of life that Boaz modeled.

Dean Friedman stated, “The Torah is not just a book of laws, it is a book of life and moral values that are subtly told via real people and their stories.” Her husband’s abusive behavior led the concubine of Givah to initially return to her father’s house, leading the Gemara to teach that someone should not instill fear in their household. It is clear that the laws of levirate marriage teach the crucial biblical message of “tzedek and mishpat (justice and righteousness).”

Interestingly, the root of the Hebrew word for levirate marriage refusal, chalitzah, is usually used as a term of war—yet it also is the root for a word for conflict resolution in a peaceful society.

A lively question-and-answer session following the presentation was indicative of the high level of attention the audience paid to the material presented.

While all programs of the Orthodox Forum are free of charge to the public, season and program-specific sponsorships are welcomed. For more information about donations and upcoming events, visit: https://orthodoxjewishforum.dreamhosters.com/hpedison/.

By Deborah Melman


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