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Cardinal Pell’s Foot


The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell, recently took on the noted Atheist Richard Dawkins in a public debate, during the course of which he said of the ancient Jews that they were ”the poor, the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds…stuck between these great powers” of their time, such as the Egyptians and Babylonians, and that this reflected their intellectual development. Now Abraham and Moses were certainly in the shepherding business, but surely not just shepherds. When he was pressed on this point and asked if he thought the same of Jesus, who was, after all, (according to the Gospels) a Jew born some 1800 years after the prophet Abraham. The cardinal replied, ”Exactly.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry conveyed its ”serious concern”, in response to which Cardinal Pell released a statement saying he was trying to ”make a point about the unique place of the Jewish people in human history as the first to receive the revelation of the one true God while I was being regularly interrupted and distracted by the chairman”.

He suggested that ”historically” or ”culturally,” unequal might have been a better term to have used than ”intellectually”. ”My esteem for the Jewish faith is a matter of public record,” he said, “and the last thing I would want to do is give offense.”

Relations between Cardinal Pell and the Jewish community are very good. He is well liked and highly regarded by the Jewish community of Sydney and there has never been any question of anti-Semitism. So what he was trying to say?

It seems pretty obvious to me that he must have been under pressure from Dawkins, who, like many opponents of religion, loves to take selected Biblical laws out of context, and out of time, to show how primitive Biblical Law was. It is true, the Bible was indeed written when there were slaves, underage daughters were betrothed, criminals were stoned, and pagans had sex with anything that moved. But some of us have changed, have we not, over the past three thousand years? So to attack religion on the basis of ancient texts is rather puerile.

After all, if I wanted to make fun of English law today, would I quote from the Magna Carta or Hanging Judge Jeffreys? If attacking American law, would I want to refer to the Salem witch trials? I think not. Religion, it is true, has not always been and still is not always a force for good. On the other hand neither has modernity achieved all that we might have hoped for. If religions have not progressed as far or as fast as they should have, I could also argue that too many quick and hastily agreed changes in many spheres, on the basis of fads and political correctness, have been shown to have been pretty disastrous, with hindsight. Which medical professional goes in for lobotomy nowadays?

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point. The Orthodox position is that we have all been getting less spiritual and intellectually brilliant since the original revelation and the Talmudic era. “The generations have been diminishing.” But Pell’s position is a fair one for Christianity, because it takes the view that Christianity made things better; that the Old Testament was a prototype for a simpler nomadic era and the New Testament was the spanking new updated covenant.

For Jews the Biblical Canon ends with the Books of Nehemiah and Chronicles. There is no new deal. But I see no evidence that with the sudden arrival of the New Testament the world became a morally different place. Nevertheless, I can see from a Christian’s point of view that they believe we Jews were an earlier stage of evolution. I only get into slanging matches when someone attacks my position first!

Still, if we claim that every word of the Torah is holy, then what are we to make of commands to stone, burn, and kill? Conversely, how does such a supposedly primitive code get to include “love your neighbor”, “do not take revenge”, and all the amazing social and spiritual rules of rest, self-control, and spirit that are even more relevant today than they were then?

Is it enough to say that the Torah spoke at a moment in history, in a specific context, in a language that people of the time could make sense of, and yet still carry within it the noblest and most eternal of messages? Yes, I think it is. And its message is needed today by everyone as much as it ever was, but that does not mean there can be no advance, no new situations, no new solutions, and no new interpretations. We might dream of perfection, but in human terms it is still elusive, and for as long as it is elusive, the Torah has a role. For all this it still does not mean that everyone then was necessarily on a higher level, any more than everyone today is wiser. The real problem is with generalizations…all people, all Jews, all Christians, all shepherds.

We Jews are and always have been a mixture of the sublime and the primitive. The Talmud asks why we are compared to the “stars of the heavens” and the “dust of the earth”. It answers, because we are capable of both rising to the heights and sinking to the depths. That is us, and that is humanity; that is the world we inhabit and the world God created. The good and the bad are always interconnected, two faces of the same. Holy and profane—are the same words in Hebrew. It is up to us to make the choices. Religions, like any branch of humanity, can claim what they like; the record shows their limitations. That does not mean they are valueless.

The Pell incident highlights our exaggerated sensitivity. The moment anyone suggests we might not be the brightest and the best, the phantoms of anti-Semitism are let loose. Thousands of years of hatred and persecution distort one’s perspective, and my goodness gracious we DO have huge chips on our shoulders. The current mood of condemnation toward Jews, even by many Jews, is enough to put anyone on the defensive. But isn’t it about time we stopped being so neurotic?

19 thoughts on “Cardinal Pell’s Foot

  1. You raise a very difficult issue that is not easy to defend.

    You suggest that just as it it would be unfair to judge contemporary British or American law on the basis of Magna Carta, Judge Jefferys, or the Salem witch trials so it is unfair to judge us on the basis of biblical law.

    The big difference, of course, is that British and American law are open to correction. Many of the ancient laws remain on the books. There was a reported case a few years ago of a father in the middle of what was probably an unpleasant divorce who betrothed his minor daughter. Whether or not it happened is not as important as that it could have happened with halchic effect. We could raise polygamy, asymmetry in divorce, aguna, mamzeirut, inheritance, participation of ladies in the judiciary, etc etc.

  2. But the fact is that the Oral Law does provide for re-evaluation, reconfiguration and innovation. The only criticisms could be that it is too fluid and dependent on debate and consensus which may delay due process. But sometimes caution is no bad thing. Its not as though other systems of law and governance dont have their drawbacks either.

    And one can also complain that the decision making process because it depends on a much wider group of different experts than say a Supreme Court might be less capable of reaching a decision.

    Our current experts do not seem willing to take the measure previous experts did and ironically it is because modernity with such easy access to international communication enables much greater pressure to be brought on individuals.

    I dont believe the problem is the system. Rather its the poor quality of leadership and fear of one leader to be rubbished by another.

    There will always be individuals who will try to abuse the law and the system. No major rabbinic authority of the first rank has approved of your example of betrothing minors. In most of the cases you mentioned solutions have been found if authorities want to take advantage of them and many do. There are still conservative yahoos who refuse to budge I am afraid, everywhere.


  3. Rabbi –

    Not to gang up, but I agree with Adam, and I’ll go further:

    1 – In Western Law not only is a codicil, statute, law, etc. that is found to be unfair / outmoded / immoral etc., in many instances left remaining on the books as a place marker (but struck-through as "repealed, ammended"); but such a law is also attributed to, if not directly in its own western style of "Torah Shebictzav" as wrong and altogether immoral and evil, but certainly in its western style of " Torah SheBa'al Peh" as having been wrought through the "errors of the time" in multiple legal commentaries for all lawyers and judges to subsequently refer to and learn from.

    2 – To borrow from a famous colleague of yours, and his many tomes, your argument of the comparative non-altruism, overall immorality, and un-holiness of Times' Thousands of secular Evil Empires, as compared to the mis-steps of Torah SheBaal Peh is entirely "Sacksian", and in my protest, an indefensible, dissimulating, straw man.

    [While simultaneously being sweet, kind, and articulate, just as the eponymic author of this way of thinking is]. To wit:

    To the degree than Dictators Tyrants and Warlords starting with Sargon II, through Ghengis Khan, Atila, The Pagan Kings of the Danelaw, and ending with Adolf and Ho Chi Min / Mao and Stalin all either fatuously claimed the cloak of Heaven as their plaything of destiny in place of "moral established" religion, or instead abandoned all pretense of moral legitimacy – comfortable as they were with the "simple" display of raw power, lex talionis, for its own sake, [as Thucydides has the Athenians saying: " Let us no longer talk of what is right"]; the thing of it is, the "barbarians" did not HAVE the onus of proving, the responsibility of following and living by, nor did they make the public remonstration of SWEARING BY the concept OF purporting to behave and rule and legislate in a "moral" or imitatio dei fashion!

    Therefore, THEIR legislative, jurisprudential, and enforcement failures and wrongs, corruptions and abominations, derelections and panderings, incompetencies, sins of omission, as well as their premeditated evils, were unlike those of a strain of humanity which did NOT lift its arm to swear by G-d, invoke His blessing, and claim His guidance as a reason for demanding abject obsequiousness from society to its adjudications.

    (Continued on next post – sorry for being so verbose Michael H)

  4. Therefore, THEIR legislative, jurisprudential, and enforcement failures and wrongs, corruptions and abominations, derelections and panderings, incompetencies, sins of omission, as well as their premeditated evils, were unlike those of a strain of humanity which did NOT lift its arm to swear by G-d, invoke His blessing, and claim His guidance as a reason for demanding abject obsequiousness from society to its adjudications.

    The behaving in the most gruesome ways “under color of office” under these circumstances could not possibly be tolerated, socio-politicially, specifically because it would prove not only the error(s) of the legislature / judiciary; but it would de facto mean that either G-d was wrong in the words He gave, or the Kings/Judges were wrong in how they carried the rule of law out. In the former – There is no G-d; in the latter, there is no RELIGIOUSLY MORAL reason to follow your theocratic leaders or their assigns!

    Loss of power – both religious and political – since they were in essence inseperable, the money, position, and perquisites which come with such loss. Even the consideration of legal or extra-legal retribution for your poor performance in office! Intolerable!

    THAT is why laws cannot simply be "struck-through" and stamped "repealed [forever]" but instead some continuing and ever more painful causistry must be enacted to preserve the "original rightness" of an "only now seen as wrong" concept; the bribed or pandered rigging of a judicial judgment a “teaching moment” from G-d.

    The "Barbarians", and even The "Humanists" never had overall infallibility strangling them with ever increasing weight, like The Mariners' Albatross. It was NEVER the Barbarians, or the Humanists who had to explain why they behaved like Barbarians. THEY never set up the bet. Only those who believe in G-d did. It was, and has always been, in stark contradistinction to the Sacksian equation, The G-d Fearers' responsibility to explain why THEY behaved like Barbarians, not the other way around.

    And for all his brilliance, and yours, R' Sacks cannot change that.

    Shavua Tov

    Michael H

    Sorry again for the verbosity

  5. Michael

    I do not know of any human system that does not subvert, corrupt and politicize the most perfect of ideals be they democratic or religious.

    I have never justified the corruption of religion indeed I have never tried to justify the corruption in Judaism at the highest of levels and I have suffered from it personally more than you can imagine. But I still maintain that as a system it has more to commend it than the abuses of many of its leaders. "The Torah was not given to or for angels."

    And the most important difference between me and Rabbi Sacks is that he is part of the system and has willingly played its games and I am not and have not.


  6. > No major rabbinic authority of the first rank has
    > approved of your example of betrothing minors

    Approval or disapproval isn't the point. The point
    is that if it were done, it would be binding.

    You also seem to be arguing two contradictory positions.
    On the one hand you write: "I dont believe the problem
    is the system", but later on in response to Michael H
    you do seem to blame the "system", and go one to contrast
    R Sacks with yourself.

  7. R Rosen –

    Hopefully, you did not take my comparison to R Sacks as anything but a sincerely meant and significant compliment. If I gave the impression that it was anything else, I profoundly apologize.

    For all that I disagree with his conclusions, (and I do – with many – voiciferously) he is very well read, articulate, "of this world", and a very intelligent and thoughtful person – traits I attribute to you as well.

    And again, I apologize for the verbosity, and probably should have simply said: saying you are going to be evil, g-dless, and immoral, and then following through on your word, or just plain doing it without such a preface, is one thing; being arrogant enough to say you are "Kadosh", and have a personal conduit to The Almighty, and then being duplicitous and lying as well as just as evil as the g-dless horde, is quite another.

    I believe the latter does, in fact, deserve both a worse punishment in this world, AND a "lower place in Hades" {longer in Gehenna?] than the former, SPECIFICALLY because of the duplicity. In short, while it is not good to be evil, it IS worse to be G-d fearing and evil than not G-d fearing and evil, IMHO of course.

    Kol Tuv


  8. Rabbinical apologetics are not just worse than other varieties of distortion because they are made in the name of holiness, rather than for example, for commercial gain, but specifically because they undermine what they apparently support. If we had more of Rosen and less of Sacks et al, we might actually have a system that did not look in need of fixing. As it is, we have a faulty system and a leadership bent on perpetuating the faults. Jeremy's blog consistently stays on the right side of ordinary, lived reality, while Sacks and others, too frequently disappear in a cloud of nonsense that strains both credulity and ethics.

  9. I dont know of one major rabbinic authority who agrees that is binding to commit/betroth a minor nowadays.
    I agree I have used System in two different ways.
    System is the way an establishment applies the rules.
    The other way I used it misguidingly is to apply it to the Constitution.
    I have always avoided the rabbinic establishment because I do not trust it.
    I love the Constitution. Hope this clarifies

  10. Reb Michoel

    Heaven forfend that I should take offence on the contrary I appreciate and value your contribution. And neither do I take your comparison badly. I dont want to sound dismissive of Rabbi Sacks, just sadly disappointed! But then the Establishment can corrupt the purest of minds and inyentions.


  11. > I dont know of one major rabbinic authority who agrees
    > that is binding to commit/betroth a minor nowadays.

    I don't know how to read this. Are you saying that no
    major authority today says one must betroth a minor?
    That isn't very radical.

    Or do you mean to say that if it were done, no major
    authority would recognize the act as having any

  12. > The latter.

    And how do you think they would disqualify the act?
    By death through a thousand qualifications, ie, by
    conjecturing that the procedure wasn't conducted
    correctly (eg, improper witnesses, etc etc), and
    is therefore invalid? Or by rejecting the concept
    in toto on grounds of public policy?

  13. Adam:

    When Eirusin ( Biblical engagement, betrothal) was combined with Nissuin, marriage, into what is now the Chupa ceremony, two thousand years ago at least, the whole system of underage betrothal fell by the wayside. In fact Biblical Eirusin was almost as strict as marriage itself.

    But whether one could or could not betroth a minor, then became a civil rather than a religious issue.

    Much later the custom of Tenaim was introduced to effect an official engagement for purely financial considerations such as who compensates a father for money spent preparing a wedding that does not take place.
    The case you are referring to was where someone tried to reinstate a biblical law for the purposes of blackmailing his wife over a Get. And after a lot of publicity the matter was laughed out of court. Surely you can come up with something better than that?


  14. > And after a lot of publicity the matter was laughed
    > out of court

    R Rosen,

    Yours is refreshing voice to hear. It's not often that
    one hears ethical sensitivity in the Orthodox world.

    We must recognize, however, that we in the traditional
    camp often engage in apologetics. There are things in
    our tradition which offend contemporary sensibilities.

    I don't think that your response answered the question.
    We know that the case was dismissed. The question was
    about the mechanism by which it was done so. Was the
    concept declared abolished, or was this instance
    disqualified because it was not properly executed.

    How about mamzeirut?

  15. Thank you !

    With respect I think I did answer your question but let me put it another way. Biblical Judaism allows concubines. For thousands of years no rabbinic authority has allowed concubines. There was actually an attempt in seventeenth century Amstedam to revive it because so many Jews had mistresses and the rabbis were worried about the identity of children but they were unanimously overruled. If some mane were today declare that a woman is his concubine he could declare it till Kingdom Come but no rabbi would consider it other than laughable.

    As for Mamzerut that indeed worries me too and I dont like the apologetics that the reality is that what parents do does affect children. But since the Gemara in Sanhedrin we have always made a point of NOT looking for trouble and doing whatever we can to avoid mamzerut. Indeed even in the famous Langer Affair where the secular lobby in Israel wanted to make an issue of it, even then Rav Goren ZL found a way of getting around it. Or Rav Moshe's insistence on not recognizing Reform marriages so as to obviate this specific problem. So it cannot be said that there is no serious attempt to tackle the issue. Once again I believe the Biblical Law is essentially now a moral lesson rather than a legal reality.


  16. Thanks for the reply. Here are some thoughts.

    I appreciate your optimism.

    However, the fact remains that many of these concepts
    remain on the books. I am not aware of the attempt
    to revive to revive concubinage you mentioned. Without
    knowing anything else I would guess that the objections
    were on the basis that it's a privilege open to kings
    but not commoners, but not an outright rejection of the

    The difficulty I have is this. Eliminating something
    by attaching so many conditions so as to make it all
    but impossible (eg, rebellious son) is wonderful for
    preserving the illusion of immutability. The cost,
    though, of keeping these sorts of things on the books
    is that they can be revived. Do you think that if
    certain groups had the capability to enforce their
    view of shabbat observance they would not hesitate to
    do so?

    Should Jewish doctors treat non-Jewish patients on shabbat?
    Rather than give an unqualified yes, the way it was
    permitted was to invoke the "because of peace" argument.
    I read recently that Ovadia Yosef stated that in Israel
    today this would not apply, and that a Jewish doctor should
    not treat non-Jewish patients on shabbat.

    The mamzeirut question is difficult. This fear of exposing
    mamzerim may well be laudable, but can lead to injustices.
    I understand that battei din in Israel won't accept DNA
    evidence to establish paternity for this reason. This
    is all very well, but if a lady has a child with a man
    other than a husband, the battei din will not allow the
    husband to contest paternity on that basis. They may well
    have the child's interest in mind in preferring to avoid
    declaring the child a mamzer. But why should the husband
    be on the hook from maintenance?

  17. I hope you don't mind if I offer a Catholic perspective on what Cardinal Pell said. Although it's a while since I watched the debate, I'm pretty sure that the Cardinal was simply trying to make the point that God doesn't speak to the powerful and the educated, and the points about the primitiveness of the Jews were intended to show that they were not chosen because of their worldly status. Whatever differences there are between Catholicism and Judaism, I don't think this is one of them: God looks to the heart and not to worldly power.

    That is, of course, a truth lost on Dawkins.

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