In my two previous posts, I have presented information about the Hillel-Shammai divorce debate in Palestine, at the time of Christ. Both Hillel and Shammai were so venerated in their time that they had followers and disciples who came to them for teaching and instruction. The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were both physical (disciples) and ideological (interpretations of Torah). That these two men lived and debated at the same time in history had the result of reshaping Judaism.
For our contemporary world, and for the Church, their teachings have had and still has impact on marriage.
Why Is Hillel-Shammai Debate So Important?
In the first post, I did a summation of the Hillel-Shammai debate, showing that Rabbi Hillel introduced the idea that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. This teaching, within two-three generations, became the accepted belief and practice of Judah and revolutionized how marriage was treated in Judah by the time of Christ, and in Judaism for the next 2000 years.
Prior to Hillel, there were four (count ‘em, FOUR) accepted, valid reasons for divorce: sexual immorality (Deut. 24:1), and failure to provide food, clothing or conjugal rights (Ex. 21:10-11). These four reasons couldn’t just be claimed and acted upon; to initiate divorce proceedings, you had to go to court (well, their version of court. It was a public accusation.) And note, under this application of Israel’s divorce laws, a woman could initiate divorce; it wasn’t the sole province of men, as it is now in orthodox Judaism. Rather, divorce could only be initiated by the injured spouse against the spouse that had broken faith with the marriage vow.
So what did Rabbi Hillel do that completely changed the Jewish approach to marriage and divorce? He applied Talmudic Reasoning.
Talmudic Reasoning? What’s That?
I found an excellent description of Talmudic reasoning:
In the Talmudic method of text study, the starting point is the principle that any text that is deemed worthy of serious study must be assumed to have been written with such care and precision that every term,expression, generalization or exception is significant not so much for what it states as for what it implies. The contents of ideas as well as the diction and phraseology in which they are clothed are to enter into the reasoning.
Please take note of the text in bold; that is crucial, as it epitomizes what happened to Judaism, and was the type of thinking that Jesus condemned when he accused the Pharisees of nullifying the word of God.
“…for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
(Matt. 15:6, Mk. 7:13)
In a previous post, I mentioned prayer shawls and tzitzit, the fringes at the corners of prayer shawls. According to conservative and orthodox Jewish tradition, prayer shawls can only be worn during daylight hours, not at night. Why? Because of Talmudic Reasoning.
The command for tzitzit is found in Num. 15:37-39
The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD….
A simple command, but where is the prohibition against wearing tzitzit at night? It’s in the phrase “… a tassel for you to look at….” Remember, this is in a time before electricity, right? Rabbis studied this text and concluded that a man had to be able to see the tassels, and he couldn’t do this at night, in the dark; ergo tzitzit were not to be worn at night.
Jesus’ frustration with this method of approaching Scripture and life boiled over at the end of His ministry, with His seven-fold Woes in Matt. 23, where He accuses them of, among other things, straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
Hillel: “Marriage, meet Talmudic Reasoning”
As I wrote in my last post, Rabbi Hillel looked at Deut 24:1 and decided that, through Talmudic Reasoning, he saw that men could divorce their wives for “Any Cause”. Here is that verse; you tell me where it says “Any Cause”:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, (ESV)
Do you see it? Believe it or not, it’s there according to Hillel. Here is the operative clause, according to him:
found some indecency
Just as this phrase is three words long in the ESV, there are three words in the Hebrew that comprise this phrase: makah dabar ervah.
Makah – found/find.
Dabar – thing/matter.
Ervah – indecency.
Inkstone-Brewer says that a more literal translation of this phrase is
… found a cause of sexual immorality ….
“What’s the problem?”, you may ask. “How does this description of divorce for sexual immorality morph into ‘Any Cause’? After all, this is specifically about sexual immorality!”
“Not so fast,” Hillel said. “Look at that phrase, again – makah dabar ervah. Why didn’t Moses just write ‘makah ervah’? “If a man finds indecency”? Why did he write makah DABAR ervah, “finds A MATTER of indecency”?
And it’s that one word, dabar, that became the basis for “Any Cause.” “That word must be there for a reason!”, Hillel proclaimed, and proceeded to say that its presence implied that this passage was saying that, “yes, sexual immorality IS a legitimate reason to divorce. BUT the fact that the word DABAR is included means that there are other reasons, other causes, for which a man may divorce his wife.” (Remember, Talmudic Reasoning looks for implied meaning, in addition to explicit meaning.)
And, according to Rabbi Hillel, these causes for divorce fall into two categories: sexual immorality (ervah) and non-sexual reasons (dabar). And, yes, since Deut. 24 says “if the wife has found no favor” in her husband’s eyes, then no matter what his complaint against his wife might be, it is a valid reason to divorce.
I’m reading from the LIV** here:
And the Lord said unto them, “Are you out of your rock-pickin’ mind? The only reason that Moses wrote about in Deut. 24 is sexual immorality. Sheesh!”
(**Librarian’s Improvised Version – a spunky translation with a limited readership. Limited appeal, too.)
Okay, so maybe the LIV won’t be a big seller, but I’m pretty sure that I’m nearer to the actual tense(ness) than many a more accepted text. Jesus not only “picked a side,” He explained what God intended when He created man and woman and marriage. And then, when they tried to spring their trap (remember, this had all been to ‘test’ Jesus, to catch Him in a trap), He took them back to the original text of Deut. 24:1, absent any and all Talmudic teaching and tradition:
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
And He reiterated the original, plain teaching of scripture, that Deuteronomy only gave one cause for divorce. On top of that, He disarmed their trap, the “command to divorce”, but moves the discussion to hard-heartedness.
Which I want to discuss in my next post.