Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kee Taytsay: What Can Archaic Laws Teach Us?

Kee Taytsay

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag teaches, "Turn it [the Torah] and turn it, for everything is in it."
--Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, 5:22

            What can we learn from Parshat/Torah Portion Kee Taytsay (lit., “When you go out [to war]”)? It begins with a dramatic, almost fairy-tale-like episode (Deut. 21:10-14), in which an Israelite soldier, in the midst of attacking an enemy camp, meets, and is smitten by, a beautiful, captive woman. The Torah tells him to take her home—presumably, to meet Mom and Pop—have her trim her hair, cut her nails, and spend a month lamenting her parents’ death (whom, we may assume, either the Israelite soldier himself, or his comrades, have speedily dispatched, thereby removing the problem of Disagreeable Pagan In-Laws). If, following the thirty-day trial period (sexless, of course), Soldier Boy continues to be infatuated with her now makeup-and-hairspray-deprived self, he may take her to wife; otherwise, he can send her packing, penniless and parentless, but doing her the Enormous Favor of not selling her as a slave. The entire episode does try the imagination, somewhat, but it does have a certain slight moral tone, especially in these bloody days of internecine warfare in places like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
            Next comes the infamous case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the “stubborn and defiant son,” whose gluttony and misbehavior so repulse and disgust his parents, that they have no recourse but to drag him before the Elders of the City, who prescribe his being stoned to death(!) as a disciplinary measure and a warning to other wayward youth (Deut. 21:18-21). In point of fact, this category of juvenile delinquency, and its legal “remedy” so horrified the Talmudic rabbis, that they added legal conditions to it until they literally legislated it out of existence. One example: the boy had to disobey both his father and mother, at all times and in all places. As we know, parents often switch the roles of “good cop, bad cop,” and it’s a rare child, indeed, who does not switch behaviors for one parent over another. It’s all part of the merry dance called parenting, which those of us blessed with children well know. Not for nothing is the famous parents’ curse: “May you only have children like yourself.” Uh-huh.
            Thereafter follow a cavalcade of sinners, from the executed prisoner (21:22-23) whose corpse must not be left hanging or impaled overnight (no gibbets in Judaism, unlike Elizabethan England); indeed, our mitzvah/commandment for speedy burial derives from this grisly memo. Thereafter follows a handy reminder to return a neighbor’s lost, wandering ox or donkey (22:1-3), even if you are not particularly friendly, or even acquainted.
            Still later, we encounter the “Mature” sections of this Torah reading, which might have inspired Mark Twain to utter his famous words, “I don’t care if they censor my work, as long as they leave Bibles out and around, where any child can get ahold of ‘em.” These include the “damaged goods” section, where a groom goes complaining to the long-suffering Elders of the City with a grievance relating to the proclaimed virginity of his new wife (22:13-21). Her affronted parents must present the court with incontrovertible proof of the girl’s purity (the famous wedding-night bedsheet), after which, should it be accepted, the accusing groom must be flogged. Should the court rule that the girl was not intact at her wedding, she is to be stoned.
            Isn’t that a bit harsh—dare we say, a double standard? Was this truly the ancient Israelite practice, and, if so, when did it pass into welcome legislative oblivion—the sooner, the better, in my opinion, since we rabbis are often called upon to justify the “advanced nature of ancient Israelite law” in comparison to the yahoos among whom they dwelt. I recall, for example, my professors at Yeshiva making a long, point-by-point connection between the Code of Hammurabi and the Exodus Law Code, with Hammurabi the loser, naturally.
            Let us assume that the practice of stoning impure brides, grooms, adulterers, or any other sexual malefactors disappeared around the same time that the First Holy Temple was destroyed, and our nation lost its legal sovereignty (586 BCE). Let us assume, as well, that the rabbis strove to link compassion with justice, to filter out the harsher aspects of Jewish law, although we do know that levirate marriage and halitzah (the Ceremony of the Cast-off Boot) are still practiced among the Ultra-Orthodox (25:5-10), and decried by Jewish feminists such as Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first Woman Reform Rabbi (ordained in 1972), as degrading to women, who, upon hearing that their brother-in-law refuses to marry them following the death of their husband, must participate in a ceremony in which they kneel before their brother-in-law and remove an elaborately-laced boot from his foot, afterward spitting on the floor at his feet, reciting, “Thus shall be done to the man who refuses to raise up the House of his Brother among the people of Israel.” [1]
            For, in the end, what do these quaint, archaic, and downright shocking verses leave us? We Jews are, today, we would like to believe, among the most compassionate, educated, scientifically advanced, and cultured of the world’s peoples. We strive to practice both love and justice in our dealings among the nations, so that we, in turn, may be loved and respected. We scrutinize the activities of our adored homeland, Israel, and always pray for its welfare, that it might be welcomed among the community of nations. We pride ourselves that we answer to a higher standard of behavior and morality, to the extent that, when we read about a political, financial, or religious scandal in the media, we immediately scrutinize the names of the participants, to assure ourselves that no Jews were involved.
            As we have changed from the quaint and simpler Israelites of the Bible to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Jews of today, so have our laws of conduct changed; no more do we follow archaic laws about marrying one’s brother-in-law or stoning a boy who is stubborn and gluttonous. Still, the essence remains the same: do we care about the destiny of our people, and its creative and ongoing survival (which was, after all, the hidden meaning behind the concept of levirate marriage—that of ensuring the continuation of the Tribe)? Do we conduct ourselves as Jews ought to do? As the Season of Judgment approaches, I believe that the majority of Jews I know are able to answer that query affirmatively. I am proud to be one of them.






[1] Priesand, Sally. "The Biblical Concept of Womanhood: Levirate Marriage." Judaism and the New Woman. NY: Behrman House, 1975. 10-13. Print.