Sunday, 29 September 2013

Masechet Makkot

We have been studying tractate Makkot for a while. It discusses the array of punishments that a Beth Din - a Jewish court - can mete out. Makkot literally means "lashes". Sitting around me are students of all ages - from the smooth-cheeked Hasidic kid that's just turned Bar Mitzvah to the lugubrious senior student that is part of the Yeshiva kollel, married with an ever-expanding family.

One punishment that Beth Din can administer is serefah which involves pouring molten lead down the throat of the condemned. Another is sekila in which the condemned is hurled off a building and then stoned. The texts are occasionally gory and graphic.

I am struck by the dichotomy between Orthodox and non-Orthodox principles. In non-religious circles, violence and sex are both regarded as adult topics. The BBFC's rating on the back of DVDs which determines the suitability of a film for various age groups is based primarily on these factors. Either graphic violence or explicit sexual activity will earn an adult rating.

However, in Yeshiva and in the orthodox community, censoring is primarily about sex. 

The cereal packages have gaping holes where once were the pictures of young, smiling women. Frumpy middle-aged women obediently cover their hair with hats or wigs - occasionally both - so as to appear "modest". Girls are instructed about the appropriate length of a neckline and the hem of a skirt. Boys wearing shorts while jogging in the streets is a risqué business; girls wearing trousers is inexcusable sluttishness.

But this censorship isn't extended to violence. From a young age, children are taught the episodes of the Old Testament: the killing of the Egyptian firstborns, the commanded annihilation of the Amalekite people, and the stoning of a man that gathered sticks on Sabbath, many of which evidence the wrath of a vengeful God. Children become inured to these violent punishments and eventually respond with indifference where they might have otherwise recoiled in horror.

The tragic consequence of this is that depravities will be committed by God-fearing, decent people in the name of their faith.

A pair of students are blithely discussing whether the punishment of makkot entails 39 or 40 lashes. The discussion revolves around its technicalities; not its suitability or purpose. The morality of capital or corporal punishment is not explored for when all morals are derived from God, attempting to understand them is a needless distraction. I am friendly with one of the students. He is enthusiastically reasoning with his study partner. I reflect on whether he'd nonchalantly kill me on account of my sexuality if Beth Din was in operation.

I'm not sure.

I close my gemara and leave.

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