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Costa Concordia


The world press had a field day over the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the Italian coast. We can now add to the list of popular Italian books, such as the “Short History of Italian War Heroes” and “The Berlusconi Handbook of Underage Girls.” Now we have “The Italian Sea Captain’s Advice on How to Abandon Ship”. Captain Francesco Schettino jumped into a lifeboat ahead of almost everyone else. His excuse was that he slipped. I guess his other excuse was that he couldn’t abandon ship (the lifeboat!) even when he was ordered repeatedly to get back on board the sinking cruise liner! I seem to remember some Law of the Sea that as long as the captain stayed on the ship, salvage companies could not claim it. Which boat was he saving?

Is he a typical Italian? They do seem to have great joie de vivre–singing, drinking, laughing, eating, joking, and seducing each other as the ship of state sinks further and further into debt. They turn tax evasion into an art form and shift all their savings into Switzerland. Italian men treat women like beautiful objects of adoration but have no notion of “faithfulness”. They are amongst the most fervent of Catholics and yet also the most secular. What other country rivals their toxic mix of Medicis and Borgias?

Captain Francesco Schettino typifies everything I have said. He comes across as a vain Lothario. Not only did he ignore the ancient cry of captains of sinking ships, “Women and children first”, he put himself before everyone else.

But wait! Haven’t I just delivered myself of the most spectacular example of crass generalizations and a completely one-sided view of Italy and Italians? Of course I have.

But doesn’t the press do precisely this all the time? The past month I have been reading a constant flow of silly, dishonest generalizations about the Charedi world, in sources from “Haaretz” to the “New York Times”. I don’t need to reiterate my own anger at the way Charedi bullyboys are tolerated and ignored by those who should know better. The Charedi world really is shooting itself in the foot, the way we Jews of all kinds do. Just take that idiotic Jewish newspaper owner in Atlanta who wrote an editorial suggesting assassinating Obama might be in the cards. Thank goodness he resigned and put the paper up for sale. But not before the damage had been done.

I have often argued that Charedi leadership ought to be making a much stronger effort to rein in the fanatics or boot them out. The view that these religious hooligans are at least keeping our religion alive and represent the most intense form of Judaism is deluded and catastrophic. All they are perpetuating is a distortion, a mutation. But to tar all of the Charedi world, all its scholars and saints, with the brush of the lunatic fringe is no different than taking Captain Schettino as typical of all Italians.

Amongst the crimes placed at Charedi doors is their supposed lack of regard for women. I have seen it said that had there been a Charedi captain of the Costa Concordia he would have forced all the women to go to the back of the line. But the fact is that the strictest of halacha nowadays insists that one does not differentiate between any human beings when it comes to matters of life and death. The current petty discriminatory practices (not laws) are a distortion, albeit a well-supported one. More the result of zeitgeist than tradition.

There is, indeed, a debate in the Talmud about who takes precedence, but this precedence is symbolic not practical. For example in the Talmud Horyot 13a, “A scholar takes precedence over a king of Israel, for if a scholar dies there is none to replace him, while if a king of Israel dies, all Israel are eligible for kingship.” Or, “If a man and his father and his teacher were in captivity, he takes precedence over his teacher and his teacher takes precedence over his father, while his mother takes precedence over all of them.” The overwhelming number of Charedi authorities agree that in such situations as the Costa Concordia, natural tragedies, fires, or life-threatening car crashes, we face a situation of “triage” where a decision should be made on which situation or individual circumstance is more likely to result in preserving life, rather than which person is most important to save.

The context of differentiating between men and women is not a civil one, for in civil damages there is no distinction in Biblical Law between males and females, unlike the nearest comparison, the Code of Hammurabi. And whereas it is true that in ritual matters men and women played different roles, this never meant that their lives were of any different value, even if the prevailing mores of all cultures was heavily tipped in favor of men and wealthy women.

I am extremely proud that thousands of years before the equality of the sexes became an issue, the rabbis refused to differentiate between males and females on this issue of who should take preference (I only wish they had taken a few other steps as well). Yet, for all of that, I am so conditioned by my Western education that it still seems natural that women and children should go into the lifeboats first, even though it is now rather anachronistic, since both rescuers and doctors, secular and religious, use other criteria. Surprisingly, in our egalitarian society traditional halacha seems to be remarkably fair and modern. Captain Schettino followed neither!

40 thoughts on “Costa Concordia

  1. Interesting piece. However, I think that you have glossed over some significant points.

    You state that in civil damages there's no difference between men and women. Perhaps this is so, but in other civil contexts there are differences. By default, are husbands entitled to their wives' earnings?

  2. It seems to me that fanaticism is frumkeit for the unhinged, no matter what the religion. Caring and kindness seem to fly out of the window and false edicts take their place. But it seems all too easy, as you have pointed out, to cast the whole of Judaism as damned because of a few meshuggoyim. Indeed, we live in unhappy times for some Jewish communities round the world, fostered in many cases by a hostile press who are only too glad to have something vicious to report.

    As for the captain and his peccadillos, he has little to be proud of. Thank God he's not Jewish!

  3. This sentence needs to be amended,

    "And whereas it is true that in ritual matters men and women played different AND UNEQUAL roles…"

    But don't change anything if you'd happily swap a tallis for a pinny.

  4. Adam:
    A good point Adam. You see originally a woman's findings went to her husband in exchange fir his religious obligations to support, feed and clothe her etc. In the same way that males inherited first on the understanding that their obligation and the first call on the estate was to provide for unmarried sisters in a world where women did not have the opportunity to make fortunes ( only inherit them) . But women of substance always were able and did insert protective conditions into their marriage documents and fathers could always bequeath what ever they wanted to their daughters in their live time. Once again without a broader view of the picture one can get a distorted image. Now if you tell me there were or are male chauvinist judges in Judaism who distort the spirit of the law, tell me of any legal system in which this doesn't happen If you want to join me in castigating the moral failure of religious leadership in our times by all means but halacha itself is pretty impressive now, let alone two thousand years ago.

  5. Leila:
    Its now obvious, the Charedi leadership will jump into print, pashkevillim and Piskei Halacha on absolutely anything except for their own bad behaviour. Its a scandalous betrayal of genuine spiritual leadership. It cant go on. I shall come back to it, never fear.
    Shavua Tov

  6. dk:
    No, I don't agree at all with your use of unequal as a value judgment. Priests Levites and Israelite males were just as 'Unequal". Difference does not necessarily have anything to do with equality.

  7. R Rosen,

    There's a difference between a situation where judges distort the law, and where the law itself is biased.

    Why do you see maintenance as being a religious matter any more than an goring another?

  8. One other point, isn't this exchange of maintenance for earnings and findings the basis for the PNA intended to prevent agunot?

  9. Adam:

    For the purpose of this exchange I see the issue of a woman's findings a matter of what we would call civil law. The trouble of course is that in pre-Western terms there is no such distinction in Judaism and this is always where difficulties arise in comparing dissimilar legal, political, structures.

    So the second issue is typical of how this bifurcation has played out in modern society. Religious authorities refuse to change the law even though there are ways and precedents to remove anomalies such as men only giving a get and women placed at a disadvantage and then they rely on secular /civil authorities to help them out. It is a stain on the religious integrity of Judaism if it has to rely on others to sort its own problems out.


  10. "Difference does not necessarily have anything to do with equality."

    Oh I do agree. Difference is not at all the same as equality, there's a difference for example between an apple and orange. If one is preferred over the other, that is merely a matter of individual taste.

    However, in Judaism, the differences prescribed for woman seem to me practically solely to do with giving women the smallest slice of the pie, or no slice at all.

    You tell me, how is:

    * cleaning a chicken, as good as going to shul?

    * not learning Hebrew, as good as learning it?

    * not singing, as good as singing?

    * not being counted in a minyan (because women come into the same category as children and morons, so they don't count, as Jews), as good as being counted?

    * sitting in the seats furthest from the action, as good as sitting in the closer seats?

    * following, as good as taking the lead?

    As they say, on other blogs, 'do turkeys vote for Christmas?' Men like their privileged roles so they continue to equivocate on the semantics of difference versus equality. Is that the sort of thing they said to black people when white ones had all the power? It's just 'different' to walk in the gutter rather than on the pavement.

  11. R Rosen,

    I take your point, though I would be interested in learning more about how the ways and precedents to which you referred can be used to rebalance the asymmetry in divorce.

  12. dk:

    I accept that the Torah was given in a historical context thousands of years before it occurred to so called civilized societies that men and women were equal intellectually and socially.

    Remarkably two thousand years ago a whole raft of innovations were introduced to help ameliorate the female civil condition. Not enough by our standards I agree. But then in the UK a woman could not open a Bank Account without her husband's authority until the mid 50's and Switzerland only gave women the vote in the 1970s.

    Throughout Jewish history women of character and wealth have always been able to rise and the real differences have been as much of wealth as gender.

    The differences in ritual are in my opinion not intended as derogatorily as you imply. Originally Judaism from the bible and beyond saw itself as a family religion ( as well as a national one). This week we read how the first law given to the Jews was to do with a family meal. The Sanctuary, tabernacle and temple was an after thought, probably a response to external culture.

    Genuine spiritual Judaism does not need the public arena and ceremonial and all the corruption that goes with it.
    In the home there should be a perfect partnership between male and female. This the ultimate goal of living the Torah describes. The perfect union.

    In one way the rabbis who brought synagogues unto the religion were right at the time to look for some ritual to bring everyone together in the absence of the Temple. But it came at a price. the price was the male nature and characteristic of the synagogue with all the aspects of it I intensely dislike.

    I believe the more Judaism focuses on synagogues and less on homes the more detrimental it is.

    I do not favour tinkering or changing the ancient traditions precisely because they are male.

    What I want to see is the emergence of an alternative female form of worship and spirituality with an integrity of its own and then everyone male and female can choose which form better suits their spiritual natures.

    And at the same time I want to see a new era of religious leadership which actually uses halacha to resolve issues that affect women rather than falling back on civil courts to do their dirty work.

    As in other areas and despite my loyalty to the halachic process and tradition, I believe the current halachic rabbinical leadership in Judaism is failing in its duty and moral authority.


  13. Adam:
    There are several options.
    The Pre Nuptial Agreement should be accepted by all and incorporated into all Ketubot
    The use of annulling marriages where the husband proves himself to be a man of no moral probity by refusing to grant a divorce.
    The refusal to use the Heter Meah Rabbanim
    The reintroduction of financial and physical pressure to ensure divorce be given ( that was stopped only as recently as Rabbeynu Tam).

  14. R Rosen,

    Of the four options you present, only the second and third make sense.

    You remark that financial and physical pressure were stopped as recently as Rabbeynu Tam. Rabbeynu Tam died over eight hundred years ago.

    PNAs are undesirable because (i) the increase the power of those who you earlier claimed were obdurate. (ii) they do not address cases were a husband is incapacitated, or were chalitzah is necessary. (iii) why would anyone take on an undefined commitment like a PNA? They usually require a couple to appear before a (named?) bet din. With all respect to your professional colleagues, these are not the most transparent of institutions. Procedures, policies, selection criteria, decision making are all shrouded in impenetrable opacity to make the Star Chamber appear a beacon of moral and ethical virtue. Before giving people more power, one should ask how well they're using the power they already have.

    There's a fundamental inconsistency in how marriage is viewed. On the one hand is a private consensual arrangement between man and woman, and on the other it is a relationship endorsed by society. PNAs seem to reinforce this problem. Your idea of annulment attacks the problem head on by stressing the societal aspects of marriage.

    Your first and fourth ideas don't address the asymmetry that currently exists.

  15. Jeremy,

    The blogger software doesn't allow long comments so to answer with just one comment:

    Were a whole raft of innovations needed to explicate what "do not steal" means, or was one straightforward commandment enough? Where is the one for 'do not treat women worse than you'd treat men'? Why does it even need a 'whole raft'? Hillel didn't think so. Was he mistaken?

  16. dk:

    I still do not get your drift. The moral laws of interhuman behaviour in the Torah, as given in Vayikra 19 for example, simply do not distinguish between male and female.

    Neither do the laws regarding life and death. But in the area of contract laws relating to marriage obligations and inheritance there were differences based on economic custom and changing circumstance. Different parts of the corpus have their own qualifications and criteria. The principles that apply to Kashrut as in Yoreh Dea are often different to those that apply in Choshen Mishpat as they are to Orach Chayim as they are to Even HaEzer.

  17. Jeremy,

    You say that the current worship service is masculine and that women should develop their own separate kind of worship.

    It is true that at the time that the synagogue service was developed, public participation was restricted to men and women's sphere of activity was more private.

    But today women are involved in universities, government, and business–all institutions which could have originally been considered "masculine".

    When men and women work together in society, they each bring their own particular qualities to create a balanced whole. Why should this not be the case with a worship service, rather than having things divided up?

    This would not, of course, preclude single-sex activities, and certain kinds of activities tend naturally to attract one sex more than the other. But this is no longer the case when it comes to public life and public worship.


  18. "The principles that apply to Kashrut as in Yoreh Dea are often different to those that apply in Choshen Mishpat as they are to Orach Chayim as they are to Even HaEzer."

    No doubt. How would I know? As you know perfectly well.

  19. Shoshi:

    I should preface my response by saying there are very few synagogues anywhere, but particularly in the Diaspora, that I enjoy praying in or get any spiritual sustenance from.

    Those I do, tend to be of the smaller more intimate or more chassidish/yeshivish sort. But they do have a character of their own that I recognize and enjoy and one that I have not found in any egalitarian or women's prayer groups that I have attended, although I have always encouraged them (not I agree that I have either found anything I like in the larger community, Young Israel, Modern Orthodox synagogues either).

    I endorse the range and variety and I would no more want a Carlebach style service to be merged with a Lithuanian one than I think turning a male Orthodox service into an egalitarian one will satisfy either side in general.

    But successful models of spirituality have always tended to be innovative creations rather than modified adaptations and that is why I do not think that tinkering with Orthodox services to make them egalitarian can work, leaving aside the halachic issues.

    But, still, if there are people who think it does work for them I would encourage them to try, despite my profound skepticism. I do think there is a big difference between civil legal rights and creating a spiritual aesthetic atmosphere and I do see the value in preserving traditions that seem outdated if they satisfy. One is danger of destroying one without creating another.

    I think it was the genius of original Biblical Judaism that the home was the centre of spiritual life and (if you take the version that the Tabernacle was only a response to the Golden Calf) the public area of worship was an afterthought and not the ideal.


  20. Jeremy,

    E.M. Broner wrote an entire book, "Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal" chronicling her attempts to say kaddish for her father and the reactions of orthodox men who thought she shouldn't be saying it in shul.

    I think considering different synagogue styles is irrelevant while we have a culture that makes it possible for Broner to experience what she experienced. Why can't we change a few small details to make this impossible? Is it really so difficult to allow women to say kaddish? At some point most of us will experience a death so this is not some sort of obscure point of little general relevance.

  21. R Rosen,

    I was responding to the comment in which you suggested several remedies to the inequality in divorce. Which of my points were unclear?

  22. dk:
    I only meant to explain why it is possible for me to say that the exchange of 'findings' for 'maintenance' is negotiable and economic, as opposed to other say ritual laws that might not be. the case. I honestly do not know how much you do or do not know so I certainly did not intend to be condescending and I'm sorry if I gave that impression.

  23. Jeremy,

    I have no objection to the idea of men's prayer groups, such as the traditional shteibelach you describe.

    However, in societies where men and women are equal participants in public life, I do not see that the desire by men for a male atmosphere is a legitimate basis to crowd women out of the primary worship service. There's nothing wrong with having men's clubs, but it doesn't seem right that the vast majority of the resources in a normal synagogue should be used for predominantly male activities in otherwise egalitarian cultures.


  24. Jeremy,

    Indeed. But don't make the communal worship service a men's club.

    As for "mixed", I read that Rav Amital referred to mixed youth groups (like Bnei Akiva) as chevra sheleima, rather than mixed, to indicate that male and female working in equal partnership forms a complete community.

    I wouldn't have anything against the idea of distinct roles within a community, in principle. But we see how it plays out in reality and where it leads.

    My feeling is that the Torah's having made those improvements to women's situation in the ancient world (and the later innovations you mentioned) are part of a process to manifest an underlying value that men and women are equally subjects (as opposed to objects). Just as the laws on how to treat slaves pointed the way toward an increasing understanding of the respect all humans should be shown, rather than being an endorsement of slavery.


  25. Adam:

    I gave you some options that exist within Jewish Law to ameliorate the situation. 

    I did not suggest they were perfect solutions but the really perfect solution of changing the basic law is an even remoter possibility.

  26. Shoshi:
    I believe the synagogue and synagogue services should NOT be the core of communal worship and that should be replaced by study which is a far more central and traditionally significant substitute and there is plenty of support for this in the Talmud. I predict a time when synagogues will decline relatively in importance.

  27. dk:
    On that score I completely agree. In none of the Orthodox synagogues I have ever been involved with personally were women discouraged from saying Kaddish. But the issue is that I don't see why one should feel the need to say Kaddish in synagogue rather than privately if one prefers to in much the same way I see no reason why one cannot when one feels like it, pray alone. If there is to be change I want to see a more radical form of change.

  28. R Rosen,

    The suggestions you offered are unlikely to be effective for one or more of the following reasons.

    They may rely too much on the dispositions of those who hitherto have proved not to be sympathetic to the issue.

    Or they may be limited in their applicability, such as not covering cases where a husband is incapacitated, or has a brother and dies leaving a childless widow.

    Or they don't address the basic issue. I have in mind what you wrote about heter meah rabbanim. Depriving men of that option doesn't improve the situation for women.

    Of the options that you presented the only one that really goes any way to face up to the systemic asymmetry is the one that advocates annullment.

  29. Adam:
    Yes, I completely agree (except for the PNA part, because you can insert conditions to meet all your reservations); there is no chance of the Charedi world moving on this issue whatsoever at the moment.
    Much to my disgust.

  30. Adam:

    Yes, I have been asked once in Israel and once in the UK.

    I never have, never would and believe it to be a scandalous abuse of a rabbinic principle.

    The device was concocted in Medieval times, a thousand years ago, as a response to the decree of Rabbeynu Gershom forbidding a man to marry more than one wife at the same time which applied only to the Askenazi world that came under his jurisdiction. Under Islam one could and only when the remnant of Islamic Jewry came to Israel after 1948 was bigamy banned universally.

    There was a theoretical idea found in Geonic literature that a Rabbinic decree could be suspended if 100 Rabbis agreed and I believe the idea was based on the conviction that one would never be able to find 100 rabbis. Nevertheless where a woman could not assent to a divorce either through force of circumstance or a feeling of betrayal etc etc, the Heter Meah Rabbanim was used as a way of overriding Rabbeynu Gershom's decree and enabling the man to marry another wife even if he was still technically married to the first. There are very rare occasions when it was used. Only in recent years where access to a hundred men of learning became prevalent that the decree was used more regularly in certain Ultra Orthodox communities.

    I believe it is an abuse of the original intent. A scandalous way of letting males off the hook that is not available to females and a blot on our religion.

    I have consistently refused to have anything to do with such a mockery of the Divine law.


  31. Rabbi Rosen –

    Just started reading your blog (and this particular thread). Without asking you to write an entire "Shas", what would you respond to an enquirer who postulated that, while your view of personal / "home, and hearth" worship was original intent, much more heimishe, and all around good stuff – that the construct of shul worship begun in Mishnaic times had, as one of its "very poorly hidden secrets" the 1) Easily facilitated "Dogmatic" and "cultic" control of the entirety of the constituency through the immersion experience of attending shul three times per day, rather than having to "monitor" each family door to door 2) Through the same centralized, big-brother mechanism, provide more easily for the funding of sweetheart projects of the religious oligarchy (like their salaries!) by making "tzedaka drives" more efficient, etc. who, after all, WERE the ones who wrote the rules!

    (I'm paraphrasing terribly here – forgive me. From Brachot: "One who prays with a minyan his prayers will be heard more than one who prays alone". etc. etc. etc.)

  32. Michael:

    Yes indeed the establishment of formal prayers as obligatory, dates to the post destruction era and was intended to replace the two daily communal sacrifices the Tamid of Dawn and Dusk ( the evening prayer came later).

    So you could argue that since, apart from Temple service , Judaism placed the focus and priority on the home , this was an attempt to at least have some ritual that would bring the community together.

    Or if you wished to be cynical you could read it as a devious manuipulative way of forcing the community into ( as you so bluntly put it) a dogmatic, cultic straight jacket.

    Though it does strike me that this was on the contrary an attempt to get away from the cultic sanctuary which was in one place and hierarchichal in the priestly sense, and replace it with a more flexible, multi sited, meritocratic system.


  33. Rabbi Rosen – thanks for your comments. I didn't get the response, however, (if you included one and I missed it) regarding my closing line, which I included as a representative bon-mot if you will, to show the very concious, mechanistic approach of Chazal of (not so) subliminally equating and then exchanging centralized worship and patronization of a professional religious corps for kedusha and kavannah. After all, if worship at home, centered around the Pesach table (one of the themes forwarded by you which resonates for me greatly) was more original intent, and indeed, it and personal / family bamot preceeded the Temple by eons and shows itself so in Chumash, then why not only the establishment of "little mikdash-es" instead of reversion to the home worship mode, but more to the point, why the specific denigration of such a mode of worship by Chazal as being less meritorious of a divine hearing?

    Thanks once again

  34. Michael:
    I follow the Maimonidean position that prayer as a biblical commandment can be in any language and at any time and is a spontaneous personal process based on home/normal life rather than a sanctury. The prayer that was instituted after the Temple was rabbinic and specifically communal that is why one needs a minyan and its primary function was communal, not as a replacement of personal prayer altogether but as an addition.

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