By Dina Pinner
At first glance, this week’s parashah reads as a manifesto of the patriarchy holding tight to power while trying to be nice. It begins, “When you go out to war…” and you rape a woman and pillage land, don’t be utterly ghastly to the woman, don’t destroy nature and generally, remember your and others’ humanity.
As long as we accept that man is king and everything his potential property, this parashah is a highly ethical rule-book. The Torah never attempts to dismantle male rule, nor to suggest that man may have the capacity to resist war and baseless lust. Unlike today’s tyranny of positivity and decontextualisation of so much, where those who highlight the darkness of the human soul are often pathologised, medicated and labelled ‘oppositional’, this parashah not only doesn’t flinch from man’s very deepest flaws but lists them as givens. As the Talmud explains to us, in Kiddushin 21b-22a, God accounts for men’s ‘passions and impulses to throw off the constraints of decency’. Those basest desires are given strong parameters.
However, today we do question men’s kingship. The less powerful now possess the crazy notion that they are neither property nor chattel, but are full humans with independent needs and rights to self-determination. Suddenly these progressive Torah rules concerning the moral responsibility of a ruler read as regressive, oppressive commandments to barbarism. But until very recently this was a revolutionary creed, insisting that the rich and powerful always and constantly care for the vulnerable.
In this parashah solutions are given for the outcomes of man’s worst excesses. In Chapter 21 verses 15–18 we are told that if a man has two wives, one who he hates and one who he loves, he mustn’t deprive his children from either wife of their needs. The Torah doesn’t pretend that this never happens, but rather finds a solution for the reality.
In Chapter 21 verses 18–21 we meet the Ben Sorer U-Moreh, the rebellious child. The Torah tells us to stone him, as if violence is the only way that humanity can deal with rebellion. But the Rabbis of the Talmud, in direct contradiction, declare that we must give context and consideration to the young person’s behaviour. The Talmud makes it impossible to implement the death penalty – or any punishment that mutilates the human body, like cutting off body parts. And to do so, the Talmud directly, blatantly and unashamedly usurps the apparent word of God.
While this parashah is a blueprint for ethical behaviour, we must learn from the Rabbis of the Talmud to bravely confront verses that must surely be read differently from our instinctive understanding of the text itself.
Ultimately we are constantly reminded here that ‘I am the Lord your God’. All that we have we did not gain in a vacuum. We have help from community and beyond, and to this help we have responsibilities and duties. We must not be arrogant or possessive. We must leave things for the poor, help others and worry about the weakest because it is only by the grace of God that we are not one of them. The spirit of the parashah is clear, even if, at times, the words might be less so.
Dina Pinner is co-founding director of KayamaMoms, support and advocacy group for Jewish single mothers by choice. She lives in Jerusalem and is also a teacher and a poet.