Progressive but religion-friendly New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently called out the hypocrisy of Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore, accused of flirting with, sexually touching, kissing, dating and illegally serving alcohol to girls aged 14 to 18 while Moore was in his 30’s. “Moore should have spent less time thundering about the Ten Commandments and more time reading them,” Kristof wrote.
That line left me scratching my head. The Ten Commandments say absolutely nothing about whether or not men in their 30’s should have sexual contact with 14-year-old girls or try to pick up 16-year-old girls in high school. While the fifth commandment directs children to honor their mothers and fathers, there is no commandment to honor other people’s parents by not hitting on their teenage children. As for the seventh commandment, which forbids adultery, it says nothing about premarital sex, or premarital sexual touching.
Kristof’s rosy, anachronistic view of traditional religious sexual morality is not uncommon. As an ex-Orthodox Jew, I have no doubt that the vast majority of fundamentalists of all Abrahamic faiths are disgusted by pedophilia and at least uncomfortable with large age differences in sexual/marital partners.
But their discomfort does not come from their religions. Many are unaware of just how deep the problem of religion and child brides, or even the problem of religion and pedophilia, runs.
Where, exactly, did anyone get the idea that the Abrahamic faiths were concerned with the effects of an age disparity between sexual or marital partners, at least in the case of an older man and younger woman?
Indeed, those who have used biblical sources to defend Moore would be much closer to the truth. There are apocryphal accounts that Mary was as young as 12 when she married (which would have been possible according to Jewish law), and that Joseph was as old as 90. Less disturbing versions of the story place Mary’s age around 20.
In line with these texts, Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler stated that he did not think Moore’s actions were immoral because “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter”, referring to Jesus’s mother and father. Critics responded, correctly, that the New Testament does not provide Mary’s age, and that Mary and Joseph were not alleged to have engaged in pre-marital sexual touching.
Still, the idea of a much older man marrying (or attempting to marry) a much younger virginal woman was not seen as problematic to Christians throughout history. I have yet to see citation to a traditional Christian source about inappropriate or problematic age differences in the attacks on Moore.
Regarding Islam, thanks to our current political climate, most of us are already familiar with the debate about whether Aisha was 6 years old or a teenager when she married the 50-something Mohammad, or when she consummated her marriage to him. In any event, it’s clear that according to either interpretation, the age gap dwarfed that of Moore and the objects of his alleged affections.
As for Judaism, there were also many situations where esteemed rabbis throughout history were known to have married much younger women. To the credit of the more progressive “Modern Orthodox” community I was part of, these stories were usually discussed in my circles because of the shock or even disgust they elicited. However, never once did I hear a Jewish source cited for the idea that an age difference was in and of itself problematic, or that a girl getting married as a teenager was problematic.
In fact, the Bible and the Abrahamic faiths possesses a disturbing lack of regard for the rights of children generally. While many who leave religion (or fundamentalist religion) cite sexism, elitism, or ethnocentrism, I’d argue that the Bible’s greatest moral failings lie in the area of children’s rights.
Yes, the Torah’s laws are sexist and the leaders it portrays are mostly male. But its laws provide some protections for women, and its texts even describe multiple strong female characters and a few female leaders. And though the Torah and the Talmud are unrelentingly nasty towards idol worshippers, the Torah does command the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, and later Jewish writings explicitly discuss righteous gentiles and their portion in the world to come.
But what about children? The Ten Commandments direct children to honor their parents but say absolutely nothing about parents honoring their children. And neither the Ten Commandments nor anything in the Torah (or New Testament or Koran) directly addresses, or prohibits, the physical or sexual abuse of children. Worse, the God of the Torah repeatedly commands the Israelites to murder the children (including babies) of their enemies, and Moses commands the Israelites to take the virgin girls of the conquered and slaughtered Midianites “for yourselves.”
Even the Israelites’ internal laws were a horror show from a children’s rights perspective, demonstrating that the Israelites adopted the general view of children as chattel in the ancient world. A father could sell his daughter into what appears to be sexual slavery, and a rebellious son is to be put to death.
The most positive example people usually come up with regarding the Biblical attitude towards children is God’s direction to Abraham to stop the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, which God himself had just commanded. However, the moral of that story clearly centers around Abraham’s obedience to God in his willingness to murder his own child. And the claim that this story showed that the God of Israel wished to put an end to child sacrifice is questionable in light of, among other things, the Hebrew Bible’s own description of the Judge Jephthah’s actual sacrifice of his daughter in fulfillment of a vow (Judges 11:29-11:39).
Later Jewish often writings make things worse. There is a dispute among rabbinic sources as to whether or not Rebekah was only 3 years old when she was married to 40-year-old Isaac, with the “less problematic” sources presenting her age as 10 or 14 years old at the time. The Talmudic discussion of homosexuality declares that a biblical, capital crime of male homosexuality has occurred only if both participants are over the age of 9 (Yevamot 51b). While this does not mean that intercourse with a boy under the age of 9 is permitted (as some anti-Semitic web sites claim), it does mean that, whatever the crime of pedophilia with young boys entails and merits (whipping, according to Maimonides), it is a less severe crime than the capital crime of two adult men engaging in consensual, joyous sex.
Worse, the rabbis describe sex with a girl under the age of 3 as so legally meaningless of an act that it is compared to sticking a finger in someone’s eye (Niddah 45a). The apologists correctly explain that the ruling preserves the girl’s status as a virgin, while ignoring the problem of leaving liability issues to later, less authoritative sources. Modern Orthodox sources call out pedophilia as a severe crime which must be reported to secular officials and receive a strong response from the community, but they cannot ever fully eviscerate the problems the ancient sources create.
In light of all this, I was not surprised to learn that Roy Moore now has at least a few Jewish apologists. On his radio show, Dennis Prager didn’t find anything odd about a District Attorney in his 30’s acting in such a way with multiple teenage girls in court and at a school. Regarding teenagers over the age of 16, Prager describes Moore’s behaviors as normal (though he does say that such acts involving a 14-year-old should be condemned).
The problem is that some Jewish conservatives really do hold some disturbing form of “Biblical” and “traditional” Judeo-Christian values — and those values haven’t left them terribly disturbed by extreme age differences in sexual/marital partners. Biblical and religious values are not enough in a modern world with complex problems that far transcend the knowledge and moral framework of ancient mythical texts and religious writings.
Jews, Americans and humans generally, are capable of far better.
Todd Kadish is an attorney and the founder of a group called Formerly Fundamentalist NYC that brings people who left various fundamentalist religions together for friendship and support.