Israel Shamir’s review of Judaism Discovered by Michael Hoffman Published in Culture Wars, March 2009
The Talmud Impaled
A Rabbi was brought a fish to determine whether it is kosher; he checked it out and ruled: “It’s kosher, but it stinks”. This piece of Jewish humour came to my mind while reading this heavy volume by Michael Hoffman. Hoffman is worried that his critical view will be considered “bigoted racist anti-Semitic hate”. I am ready to issue him a clean bill of health in this respect: he is not a bigot, nor a racist, neither is he an anti-Semite; his doctrinal view is quite orthodox and should not cause a Christian much worry. He correctly rejects racist anti-Jewish prejudice as unacceptable for Christians. He professes much love for Jews whom he would like to save. He is solidly anti-Zionist, and this is certainly a good quality. However, this is not sufficient to make a book a good, reliable and readable study.
This is a polemical work, almost a pamphlet; a critical book, dealing with beliefs of Jews (Hoffman prefers to turn an adjective “Judaic” into a noun, and writes of “hapless Judaics”, in order to avoid the loaded J-word). That's fine -- political correctness has made much of theology irrelevant by expressly forbidding negative statements about competitors. There is certainly a place for a critical study of Judaism -- for a book that will take into account previous voluminous studies and will move us forward to better understanding of this faith and its adherents. However, Hoffman’s book appears dated, despite being fresh off the press. Books such as this were written by proud Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the 19th century on, say, the faith of the Hindus or even of Catholics (“papists”, to Hoffman). This book is rather a torrent of vituperation: “heathen, heathenish, diabolic, satan-worshipping, counterfeit, delusion, obscenity, racism, superstition, deceit”. Or “the pagan Talmud consisting of abominable wickedness, prodigious filthiness and superlative vileness”.
In the time of WASP supremacy, such a style was considered de rigueur, and indeed British and American missionaries in India or Polynesia employed such language. But nowadays we are supposed to know better. Some of the best literature and art was created by “pagan heathens”, from Homer to Mahabharata. “Filthiness, vileness, obscenity” – all these complaints were brought against Boccaccio and Joyce, and they make precious little impact on us today. I am altogether for a spade being called a spade, but Hoffman turns it into a bloody shovel every time.
For this reason,
Peter Myers, our Australian Catholic friend, refused to do a review of the book,
writing: “The reason I do not deal with Judaism Discovered, is that
Hoffman encases his argument in Protestant spin. He condemns Judaism as an
anti-Biblical reversion to Babylonian paganism. That sort of language leaves me
cold: Babylon , Egypt and the Indus civilization were the three centres from which our
own civilization comes - by borrowing. I am constantly amazed at the Protestant
efflorescence in the US . The US is in a
time-warp; even some genuine scholars pitch their view of the ancient
civilizations in the Bible’s hateful terms.”
Indeed, time-warp is the right word to describe this book by Hoffman: It is as if he had never read Mircea Eliade or Guenon or even The Golden Bough of Frazer; he is not aware of comparative- religion studies. If the language of faith refers to phallus, Hoffman is as shocked as a schoolgirl. “Vagina” knocks him off completely. Sexual union should not be mentioned at all, in his view. The word “heathen” is used throughout his book as a label of moral deprivation and degradation. A comparison with Buddhism and Hinduism (in the case of esoteric belief in reincarnation) should seal the doom of Judaism, in Hoffman’s eyes. I doubt that this book can be read outside of the Bible Belt, where such language and attitudes are still considered valid.
This time-warp is an American, or Anglo-American phenomenon. Hoffman refers (with a touch of envy) to a multitude of anti-Muslim books with lurid titles like “Dark Side of Islam” or “Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam” or “Islam’s War against the World”. Indeed every criticism of Hoffman’s book is equally (or even more) valid with regard to these anti-Muslim diatribes. I feel much sympathy for Michael Hoffman when he exclaims: Do with Judaism what they did with Islam and your name will be blotted out. This is true: Muslim-baiting is permitted, but Jews may be referred to only in hushed voices of adoration. For this reason I do think that Hoffman’s book has some positive value as a counterbalance to Jewish attacks on Islam and Christianity. It may teach some Jews modesty, and that is also a worthy goal. Ideologically, I may approve of some of this book’s pugnacious attitude, or of Hoffman’s wish to bring the light of Christ to Jews. However, that does not make it a good, or even readable book.
The book is poorly edited: the spelling is not uniform; on the same line, one finds chacham and khokhem (sage); Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciations are alternated confusingly. Both are valid, but one has to choose. There are many inserts with different type-faces whose provenance is not made clear to the reader. It is full of various cuttings and quotes from newspapers and internet-sites, not harmonised or organised properly. Some pages are left blank – the printers did a poor job. A professional editor, publisher and book-designer could improve this amateur product to a great extent -- maybe even make it readable.
The prude Hoffman is horrified by many rules of the Talmud which prescribe certain behavior in the bathroom and bedroom. He takes it too personally, Hoffman does. It could be an entertaining tidbit – whether the rabbis thought one should strain oneself in a toilet, or compared the colour of menstrual blood in to that of squashed lice, or whether one may fornicate in the presence of mice and cats (alas, he missed this one). One may be fascinated by or disregard such sixth century trivia, written fourteen hundred years ago in Iraq, but Hoffman is as upset as though it had been written by his employees during working hours instead of their preparing the annual report.
He reports at length the Jewish customs of niddah, menstruation impurity, and appears to be shocked. I am sure that any modern book of advices to menstruating women could be made shocking, but these are instructions for internal use.
Hoffman is so devoid of a sense of humour that it pains the reader. He quotes entertaining items of Jewish folklore – that Nebuchadnezzar’ s prick extended one hundred fifty yards long at seeing the last Judean king, while that of Ahasuerus extended six yards when he saw Esther. For me, it recalls Mae West with her immortal “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” But Hoffman goes into hysterics and condemns “the Talmud’s insanely filthy prurience”.
Jewish fairy tales about Metatron, the mega-size cobbler angel who joins the worlds together, do not fascinate him, but are described as “unconscionable hyperbole and incessant lying”. I wonder whether he ever read Jack and the Beanstalk as a child -- or did he reject the nursery tales as “incessant lying”? For if he had read it, he’d have found a lot of similarities: the beanstalk extends even longer than Nebuchadnezzar’ s cock, and the ogre senses the human smell of Jack as far away as Metatron smells Enoch.
More annoying are his provincial-lawyer diatribes; he is a Little Rock attorney of sorts, who hurls accusations while not bothering about their consistency. He jumps to baseless conclusions, too fast and too often. For instance, he quotes the Talmud’s R. Johanan: “a gentile who studies the Law deserves the death penalty” and he jumps to a strange conclusion: “Jesus Christ … had no right to study the Law and He paid for His study with His life” But Jesus was not a gentile; he was a rightful descendent of King David and of other great kings. He was certainly entitled to study the Law, even if we believe that this ban was in existence in the days of Christ.
Hoffman notices the Talmudic passion for casuist tricks and dissembling with its “escape clauses”. He brings a few entertaining examples of how rabbis manage to go against a direct commandment by subterfuge. Thus, in order to justify bribing of a judge it is enough to claim that there is reason to believe that a judge is looking to deal harshly with a Jewish defendant; so the purpose of the bribe is to level the playing field; or in order to achieve leniency rather than a corrupt verdict.
This is an interesting subject, and one could add a lot to Hoffman’s narrative here. For instance, the Bible postulates that debts should be voided every seventh year. The Talmud turned it into a right of the debtor, who is entitled to refuse to pay the debt, but may still pay it. In other words, after the seventh year, any debt becomes like a debt of honour, i.e. non-enforceable. At that stage, the Talmud allowed creditor to tie up the debtor and keep him tied up until he “voluntarily” paid the voided debt.
This device is also used by rabbinic courts in order to force a man to grant divorce to his wife, as a woman may not divorce her man according to Jewish law: only a man may divorce his wife by an act of free will. So the court orders the arrest and imprisonment of the man until he says “I wish to divorce her.”
Perversion of God’s word? Sure, but such casuistry is hardly the monopoly of Jews. In Homer’s Odyssey we learn that Hermes taught Autolykos, Ulysses’ maternal grandfather, to “cajole any man alive on his bodily oath”. “Autolykos was the noble father of Odysseus’ own mother, and excelled all mankind in thieving and subtlety of oaths, having won this mastery from the god Hermes himself (Homer, Odyssey 19.396) Jews are Mercurial, as Slezkine has said, and so naturally they are able to perform this trickery.
In the Palestinian village of Taybe , I heard a story about a subtle oath which would bring delight to the heart of any Mercurian: There were a few Bedouin from the South who came to live next to Taybe and they claimed that they had a rightful title to the land. They were asked to swear in the name of Allah and the Prophet that it was so, and they swore that they were standing on their own land. It was said by their adversaries that they had brought a sackful of their own land from the South, poured it into their boots and so “stood” on it while swearing.
Far away from the Semitic Mediterranean, another famous example of an ambiguous oath can be found in Tristan and Isolde. Isolde took a ride on Tristan’s shoulders so she’d be able to swear that no other man ever was between her thighs. It is pity that Hoffman could not offer some comparable features from other cultures: this would undermine his list of charges, but it would enhance the reader’s pleasure.
Hoffman’s understanding of Jewish laws pertaining to sexual intercourse is obscured by his desire to convict. He claims that Judaism “institutionalizes child molestation” and quotes profusely to make his point. However, the quotations he adduces fail to do the job he wants. They actually refer to definitions. In general, Hebrew law considers sexual relations as relations between two mature persons. A boy is considered mature at age of nine; so if an eight-year old boy “has sex” with a woman; it is not considered “sexual relations”. Subsequently, the woman is not forced to marry the eight-year-old, she is not jailed, he is not killed, and her marriage prospects are not diminished – though probably she would be greatly disapproved of in a traditional society.
This seems strange to a modern American reader, but so are other foreign customs. For instance, I find it strange that the American law would consider Romeo and Juliette’s union an act of [statutory] rape. One could get into explaining the reasons for this or the other attitude, but that would be beyond scope of this review.
Sodomy in Jewish law is an act of two consenting males who understand what they are doing. Judaism is quite strict regarding sodomy and the preferred cure for it is death penalty. However, this Jewish-law-sodomy rap does not cover other behavior which may be considered sodomy or child molestation or statutory rape in American law. Child molestation which is not sodomy is considered in some cases “seed waste” akin to masturbation and may bear the death penalty.
Moreover, Hoffman quotes a text stressing the extreme prudery of Judaism: it is better to cut off one’s hand than let it touch penis. So he is aware of a Judaist anti-erotic tendency, though he does not understand that this causes sublimation, or eroticization of religious feelings, which shocks him so much. And still, Hoffman claims that this difference in definitions amounts to “institutionalizatio n of child molestation”! This is too unfair even for a Wild West sheriff!
Hoffman tries to pervert the meaning of R. Ilai’s dictum. “R. Ilai said, If one is sorely tempted, let him go away where he is not known; let him put on sordid clothes, don a sordid wrap and do the sordid deed that his heart desires rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.” The text is quite clear: an anti-erotic, Puritan but worldly rabbi understands that an unmarried man may be tempted to have sex with a prostitute; so he sends him to do it elsewhere and in sordid clothes, rather than proudly parade his tendency. This attitude is very foreign to the culture of “gay pride” parades; a modern man would demand the legalization of brothels and issue every whore with an official receipt book. De Maupassant characters would not understand the problem. But in a traditional society, some things were felt best left in the obscuring darkness.
Hoffman mistranslates the temptation of the flesh as the “desire to do evil”, so the worldly advice “go get laid somewhere else, lad” gets a sinister connotation. R. Ilai does not send the student to kill, rob, commit adultery, or whatever, just to have some illicit sex without attracting attention and bringing disrepute to his position. His advice still holds good today – for a Louisiana senator Vitter or a New York Governor Spitzer.
Hoffman does not understand the idea of seclusion, either. The Jewish law forbids a man and woman to be secluded, even to use an elevator together. It is, however, permitted for a man to be secluded with a little girl (below age of three), for obvious reasons – she may need attention, the man may be her father or brother, and she can’t be considered a sex object. A woman indeed may be secluded with a boy below nine years old – she may be his wet nurse, or au pair, or kitchen help, or a female relative. In the dirty mind of Hoffman this reasonable rule means “permission to have sexual intercourse with babies”. Nothing of the sort is intended. Without this exception, rearing of children would be just too difficult.
Likewise, Hoffman quotes with great élan these words: “When a grown-up man has intercourse with a little girl it is nothing, for when the girl is less than this, it is as if one puts the finger into the eye”. This quote is out of context: If one takes time and reads the full text of Kethuboth 11, one understands that this text deals with a specific question: what is the status of a woman who was molested while she was less than three years old. Is she considered a virgin? Is she entitled to full payment in case of subsequent divorce? May she marry a priest? The Jewish law correctly rules that a girl molested at such a young age is considered a virgin, is entitled to full compensation, and may marry a priest. This molestation is of no importance regarding her status, “as if one puts the finger into the eye”. This text does not deal with the question of what should be done to the molester, only what should be done with the victim in a society which puts a high value on virginity.
His dedicated drive to convict Judaism of all possible depravities drives him overboard as he claims that circumcision is the “homosexual molestation of infants”, while sucking off blood during the operation is “fellatio”. One may disapprove of this custom (which is actually widely spread and is practiced by Muslims and by Christian Ethiopians as well), but no fair and sane man would agree with Hoffman’s molestation charge.
A comparison of Judaic practices towards children with other systems would also put things into context: for instance, in Roman law, father has right to kill his children for any reason whatsoever. Nothing would stop a Roman gentleman from taking his pleasure with a male or female of any age. And Roman law (in Justinian’s codification) is contemporaneous with the Talmud. In the Greece of Socrates, there were no taboos on homosexual relations. And the West is the spiritual progeny of Greece and Rome .
Hoffman is on a safer ground when he speaks of the Judaic attitude towards gentiles. This subject is well-researched, and on the Web one can find a few monographs in English, French and Hebrew dealing with it. Indeed, Jewish law is quite awful to a goy and hardly considers him/her a human being. Hoffman is also right when he connects this law with today’s Gaza siege, surely a crime against humanity. However, here a comparison would also be suitable: The ancestors of Hoffman killed off millions of Native Americans without Jewish advice, while the British eliminated Tasmanians and killed millions of Indians, Africans and whoever else came their way. Is it better to be a Palestinian native under Jewish rule, or a Tasmanian native under British Protestant rule, or even a Patagonian native under Spanish Catholic rule? Alas, there are no Tasmanians or Patagonians left to ask.
This is not said in order to encourage the Jews to emulate the Tasmanian example, or to make them feel complacent. God knows, Jews are complacent enough. But the reader is entitled to understand and learn things; not only to be fed propaganda.
Hoffman’s intentions are good, but his knowledge is limited. He attempts to refute R. Shmuley Boteach’s apologetic article in Jerusalem Post (he quotes it in full -- all three pages of the newspaper text) about whether a Jew should rescue a gentile on the Sabbath. Israel Shahak wrote in his book that there is a rabbinic prohibition of such rescue if Sabbath observance will be broken in the process. Shahak wrote of an observant Jew who would not allow him to use his phone to call for an ambulance for a sick non-Jew. Boteach, a slick and tricky media-rabbi, denied it on many occasions and called Shahak a liar. Hoffman says that Christians (and not only “a pagan defiler of faith”, not only “Romans with their vicious persecutions” , as argued by the Talmidic apologist) are not considered equal to Jews. This is true; but it does not answer the question.
This is not to say that Hoffman’s research is completely valueless. He neatly unravels the question of the death penalty for a gentile who studies the Law according to R. Johanan, contradicted with praise of the gentile who studies the Law according to R. Meir and correctly quotes the harmonizing rule: a gentile is praiseworthy if he studies the Noahide laws and he is liable if he crosses the line. But this small and entertaining observation is diluted by so many abusive epithets: “intellectually dishonest nonsense”, “decoy”, “apologists”.
Hoffman correctly argues against “hate laws”, against submission of the Church to Jewish wishes. He is right when he preaches against the anti-gentile propaganda of eternal gentile hatred towards Jews. Indeed, I agree with Hoffman that this notorious hatred, so-called “antisemitism” is but an invention created by Jewish leaders in order to keep their subjects obedient. “The Rabbis repeat to generations of Judaic children that the world hates them and that true Christians seek to silence and murder them. This brilliant rabbinic ploy” should be countered, Hoffman says. He objects to persecution of Jews, as such violent persecution like that by Hitler reinforces this ploy.
His treatment of mention of Christ in the Talmud is quite reasonable, though not new. Indeed, Talmud – and other Judaic books – contain anti-Christian passages, and this is universally known. Hoffman’s polemics with certain Catholic and Anglican churchmen who apologize for the Talmud is expectedly robust and justified.
Hoffman’s book is not a pleasant or easy read, but it is not without its rewards. Today, in the aftermath of financial collapse, it is interesting to learn that the architect of the collapse Alan Greenspan swore his oath of Federal office on a Talmud in front of Ayn Rand, the Satanist. There is the interesting story of the late William F. Buckley, his creation of a “kosher conservative movement” and his rejection of Zionist-critic Joe Sobran, taken from the Wanderer newspaper of St Paul , Minnesota . Hoffman tells of book-burning by the Jewish authorities, including the Mendelssohn translation of the Bible into German, and the satiric books by Jewish heretic writers as late as 19th century, and of other Jewish ‘disrespectful’ books in 2002.
It's a pity Hoffman can’t write politely. Mark Twain in his " Tennessee Journalism" provided an example of the style of writing Hoffman seems to have chosen to follow: "While he was writing the first word, the middle, dotting his i's, crossing his t's, and punching his period, he knew he was concocting a sentence that was saturated with infamy and reeking with falsehood."
For instance, it is well known that Renaissance scholars believed in the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus with its alleged Old Egyptian sources. Giordano Bruno belonged to this category. Hoffman writes that “Bruno parrots the tale… while this lie was twisted” etc. Mark Twain’s characters admittedly were even ruder, but they rarely were rude to a man who was burned at stake 500 years ago.
P.S. After this review was published, Hoffman published a hysterical and voluminous response (available on his website), and Shamir wrote the following rejoinder:
There are a few ways to deal with new books. One of them is to ask a knowledgeable person to review it. Such a review is not supposed to be the last judgment, but a part of the discourse. I offered the Culture Wars’ readers my view of Mr Hoffman's book. I am not a judge, not even a publisher. Everyone may write his own review of the book, favourable or not. I do object to what appears to me an attempt of intimidation, transparent in Hoffman's, and Hoffman’s fans’ letters.
I was in a difficult position while writing the review. I have had much sympathy to Hoffman's endeavour, vis. to delve into the Talmud and show it to the reader. I liked the idea of the job being done by a non-Jew. Hoffman is a staunch supporter of Palestinians, so I was biased in his favour. But I also felt responsible towards the Culture Wars’ readers. One is warned against misleading, and that is why I told readers what I actually think about Hoffman's book, warts and all.
Moreover, the commandment "Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt" (Lev 19:17), stands next to "Love your neighbour". Sages love criticism for as long as there is criticism in the world, pleasantness comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil is removed from the world (Tamid 28A).
I was as soft and as polite as I could. I hoped he would be able to learn from my critique. But Hoffman is not a wise man for it is said: Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee. (Proverbs 9:8) Mr Hoffman is an ignoramus. He does not know what he writes about. I'll provide you with one example. Hoffman writes, in his polite way (p.8):
"But Mr. Shamir is lying. This account of Nebuchadnezzar is not found in Judaic folklore…This account of Nebuchadnezzar is not from the Aggadah, the book of rabbinic folklore, but rather from the Talmud itself, the source of rabbinic law."
This sentence implies that there is "the Aggadah, the book of rabbinic folklore", on one hand, and "the Talmud itself, the source of rabbinic law", on the other hand. Now, it is rubbish. The Aggadah is not a separate book but a layer of Talmud, a part and parcel of Talmudic text. The man who does not know that should not write books about the Talmud. He should go and study first.
He does not know what "the Hebrew Law" is - he thinks it means the law written in Hebrew. Actually it is a standard subject name, Mishpat Ivri, see any encyclopaedia.
He has no Hebrew or Aramaic. He can "photographically reproduce", but he can't read, otherwise he would know there is no "unwittingly" in Sanhedrin 54b. (In the text he reproduces it is a translator’s gloss).
He claims he provided "original information on the rabbinic root of anti-Black racism, the bigotry, dissimulation, homicide and anti-Christian and anti-Islamic hatred of Judaism’s intellectual giant Rabbi Moses Maimonides", but it was well provided by Dr Shahak years ago in his slim book.
Moreover, an Israeli site www.daatemet. co.il contains practically everything Hoffman gathered minus his vituperation.
One can continue this list ad infinitum, but I hope it will suffice.
However, we live in relatively free countries, and one may have different views even about Hoffman.
P.P.S. In his following foaming-at-the- mouth letters, Hoffman insisted that "This is simply not true. It's a lie and an obtuse one at that. The Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud) are never published together with the Aggadah. They are separate books."
It makes no sense to argue with the man who claims that. He does not know what he speaks about. Worse, he does not know logic, as he thinks that “being synonymous” is the same as being "part and parcel". No more letters from Hoffman will be accepted, now or ever.
Independent History and Research, 2008
1102 pages, ISBN 978-0-9703784- 5-3, no price stated
Review by Israel Shamir