The recent kerfuffle around Whoopi Goldberg has once again ignited the perennial debate about whether the Jewish people constitute a race. The problem is that such distinctions are modern social constructs, and were invented long after the Jewish people came into being. Jews are not so much a race or a religion, but a civilization—a culture. As a culture, Judaism has its own laws, folk tales, myths, songs, and several similar—but not necessarily identical—religions. We’re a people, and any attempt to fit us into the little boxes designed for and by Western societies is destined to fail.
It’s been suggested that the Torah sets out a direction for societal development, pointing the way toward desired reforms, and that in each generation, scholars and governments have worked to continue this line of evolution. One such “signpost” put up by the Torah to show us how our legal systems should evolve is the Eshet Yiffat Toar—the beautiful woman taken in war.
Imagine that the earth was going to be destroyed within five years, and that you were tasked with deciding what literary treasures to preserve? That is the background of the Tanakh that we have today. The Talmud records the bare bones of discussions where scholars fought for the inclusion of those writings that were dear to them, often against ferocious opposition from their colleagues. Amazingly, of all the possible things to include, the famous Rabbi Akiva chose a collection of bawdy wedding songs! What lay behind such an odd choice?