May 16, 2022

Yevamot 53

If you’ve been following my commentary on Massechet Yevamot (and especially my remarks on Yevamot 3 –, Yevamot 8 – and Yevamot 39, then you understand that while the Mishna and Gemara often speak about the legal consequences of cohabitation (in terms of them transforming the automatic partial marital bond between a yavam and yevama into a full marriage), since this process can be so easily abused, strong moral objections were raised by our Sages which subsequently led to the institution of the ma’amar ceremony.
Nevertheless, some texts such as the Mishna (Yevamot 6:1) in today’s daf (Yevamot 53b), if read without explanation and interpretation, can be understood as giving license to what is morally repugnant. Admittedly these texts are hard and troubling. Yet it is important to remember that while they speak from the perspective of outcome, they do not speak from the perspective of righteousness.
As I recently explained to a friend, while there are those who take the view that it is our task to accept such texts without explanation or interpretation (which, as noted below, is a form of Karaite Judaism), and others who, upon encountering such texts, simply dismiss them, I wrestle – at times successfully, at times not. But I nevertheless wrestle because – ultimately – that is what it means to be a Jew. As Rabbi Yehuda Amital explains: ‘Just as Judaism rejects the Karaite negation of the Oral Law, maintaining instead that there is no Written Law without the interpretation of the Oral Law, so we must also reject a ‘Karaite’ approach to Halacha. Halacha that is devoid of the exegesis of reality is a sort of Karaite law.’ (Commitment and Complexity p. 49).
What this means is to read the Mishna in today’s daf without the kinds of explanations found in the Gemara and later commentaries such as those I have quoted, and instead, to read it as giving license to what is morally repugnant, is to be מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה – ‘to share perspectives of the Torah which are not reflective of Jewish law’. And this is because ‘Halacha that is devoid of the exegesis…is a sort of Karaite law’.
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