This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei. It is filled with lots of rules, more mitzvot (commandments) than any other portion- about a tenth of the 613 listed in the Torah. Some of them are truly amazing, such as not gleaning your fields- designating part of your harvest “for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.” It’s a reminder that we can’t do everything on our own. When we farm, we benefit from soil, from rain, from other people’s labor and efforts- and a whole series of factors outside our control. So harvesting grapes or any other plant is an intensive process that relies on a mix of luck, God’s good Earth, and hard work. In acknowledgement that not all of this is in our control, we give back to the community and leave part of our fields for their benefit. It’s an incredibly progressive concept and one we should continue to keep in mind today as we consider ways to give back to the community and people in need.
There are a series of other commandments in this portion that fit into a category which I find personally meaningful and contribute to society. There are others, such as the need to wear tsitsit (the knotted fringes you might see some Jews wearing to this day) that seem either neutral or potentially positive depending on how you utilize the tradition.
And then there are those that are abhorrent and morally repulsive.
This portion includes a verse commanding men to wear men’s clothing and women to only wear women’s clothing – which some Jews to this day interpret as meaning women can’t wear pants and of course against the concept of men in any sort of “feminine” clothing or drag. It’s something I consider personally offensive, retrogressive, and repressive of individual freedom of expression and identity. If you consider the time it was written, we can perhaps dismiss it as a vestige of ancient ways of thinking about gender. Ways we’re glad are being reformulated today in a more open society.
Where does this portion get really rough for the liberal-minded reader? As Rabbi Suzanne Singer points out, there are some violently sexist portions of this text, including commandments that say:
A soldier may possess a captive woman and forcibly marry her (Deut. 21:10-14)
A bride accused of not being a virgin sullies her father’s honor, so proof of her virginity must be brought forth (Deut. 22:13-21)
A woman who is raped in a town is presumed to have given her consent if she did not scream (Deut 22:23-27)
A rapist must marry his victim; adultery involves a married woman with a man other than her husband, whether he is married or not, as the crime involved is messing with a husband’s property (Deut. 22:28-19)
A widow who has not produced a male heir must marry her dead husband’s brother to produce a son who can carry on the name of the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10)
These are verses so aggressive that I can barely read them and consider them a part of my tradition. And yet they are.
So what do we do when our sacred text not only doesn’t match our values, not only offends, but also intrinsically opposes our most basic human ethics?
There are a variety of possible responses. Some people prefer to interpret literally- which scares me. Some people prefer to reinterpret- a route I sometimes find valid and other times find to be too much of a stretch. And some people, like me in this case, prefer to say it’s just not right or relevant.
Some people would argue that I’m picking and choosing my Judaism. It’s a criticism you’ll hear of Reform Jews by both religious fundamentalists and some hardcore atheists. Aren’t I just molding Judaism into the value system I want, instead of reading the text for what it is?
The answer is yes. To a degree, I am taking the text and adapting it to my values system. Which simultaneously stems from the same text and the multigenerational tradition of which I am a part. Otherwise, we’d still be stoning people for adultery. In reality, every stream of Judaism (and every human being) picks and chooses the values that she or he finds meaningful and uses that wisdom to live wisely and happily. So while one can absolutely reinterpret this text (as almost all Jews do with or without acknowledging it), the reason I’m a Reform Jew is that I accept and embrace the fact that I’m discarding part of the text. With the insights of the modern world, sometimes there are verses that just don’t fit anymore- in fact, they never really were ethical.
None of this is to say Conservative or Orthodox or any other types of Jews are in favor of these punishments- that’s not true. Although perhaps some rare and extremely fanatical flavors of Judaism might be. The difference here is in approach to the text. I am making a choice to disregard part of our tradition in favor of what I feel is an evolving, modern Judaism- one in which I could dress in drag, a woman has full rights as a human and not property, and in which rape is (or should be) properly criminalized regardless of gender. A choice made with pride, not guilt or equivocation because a man-written text is sometimes erroneous.
Whatever branch of Judaism we come from, whatever our faith tradition, I think we can find common ground, perhaps ironically around the harshest parts of our heritage. However we come to the appropriate conclusion that these gender-based punishments are sexist and immoral, let us find ways as Jews and as human beings to work towards a world which is more egalitarian for all.
My cover photo is of a gay rights rally I went to in Tel Aviv. The sign says: “everyone deserves a family.” Because the biblical prohibition on gay sex is bogus too 🙂