Deuteronomy The Torah needs a Trigger Warning

By Rabbi Avi Killip `14
Rabbi Avi Killip

Parashat Ki Tetzei  (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

My summer began at a panel conversation about “What Feminist Torah Needs to Look Like.” Professor Judith Plaskow, a gadol (one of the greats!) in the field, challenged the 300 people in the room to not skip over the difficult parts of Torah in our teaching and sermons: “There is so much richness in the Torah that it is easy in any specific instance to look away from the parts that are most awful in favor of passages that are more inviting.” She cautioned that “when we pass over toxic texts in silence, we normalize what they have to say…it is essential to confront these painful texts in order to shift the habits of mind that they foster and sustain.”

Her words echoed in my ear as the summer wore on, and I found myself reading one of these “toxic texts,” in the first verses of Parshat Ki Tetzei. These are incredibly painful verses to read in 2018, as we struggle to confront the destructive use of sex to assert power over women.

Deut. 21:10-14

10 כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ׃

When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive,

11 וְרָאִיתָ֙ בַּשִּׁבְיָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ֣ בָ֔הּ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife,

12וַהֲבֵאתָ֖הּ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֑ךָ וְגִלְּחָה֙ אֶת־רֹאשָׁ֔הּ וְעָשְׂתָ֖ה אֶת־צִפָּרְנֶֽיהָ׃

you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails,

13וְהֵסִ֩ירָה֩ אֶת־שִׂמְלַ֨ת שִׁבְיָ֜הּ מֵעָלֶ֗יהָ וְיָֽשְׁבָה֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבָֽכְתָ֛ה אֶת־אָבִ֥יהָ וְאֶת־אִמָּ֖הּ יֶ֣רַח יָמִ֑ים וְאַ֨חַר כֵּ֜ן תָּב֤וֹא אֵלֶ֙יהָ֙ וּבְעַלְתָּ֔הּ וְהָיְתָ֥ה לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife.

14וְהָיָ֞ה אִם־לֹ֧א חָפַ֣צְתָּ בָּ֗הּ וְשִׁלַּחְתָּהּ֙ לְנַפְשָׁ֔הּ וּמָכֹ֥ר לֹא־תִמְכְּרֶ֖נָּה בַּכָּ֑סֶף לֹא־תִתְעַמֵּ֣ר בָּ֔הּ תַּ֖חַת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עִנִּיתָֽהּ׃ (ס)

Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her.

The text speaks directly to a man in a position of power, and asserts that this power is literally God-given “נְתָנ֞וֹ ה”.  The Torah offers instructions for the appropriate way for this man to take sexual ownership over the women of a defeated enemy society.

Some claim that the Torah means well. They point out that this law, which requires the captor to allow the woman a full month to mourn her family before “possessing” her sexually, actually adds humanity to a woman who would otherwise be seen only as chattel won in a war. Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman writes about these verses, “what pervades the elements of the law is an extraordinary sensitivity to the humanity of a captured woman.” I disagree. For Friedman this is an anti-rape text. He stresses that “the Israelite soldier is not permitted to rape her.” Friedman doesn’t see the rape in this text.  In his effort to find wisdom in the text, Friedman makes a mistake that many of us, including myself, make. We blind ourselves to parts of the text that should be called out and publicly condemned. When we are too quick to “read against-the-grain” and immediately try to make the struggle productive, we run the risk of normalizing truly hurtful realities. In this case, Friedman normalizes rape. Sex within a forced marriage to one’s captor cannot and should not ever be considered outside the realm of rape. Institutionalized rape is rape. This is too low a bar for a text that we consider the word of God, and continue to teach to our daughters, and more importantly to our sons, year after year.

These five verses tell the story of the most vulnerable women in society. It is a horrifying story. It is the story of countless vulnerable women in our world today. If we listen closely, we can hear their weeping.

Verse 14 is especially painful. It guides the man in the proper way to dispose of this woman, if and when he loses interest. What do you do if “you no longer want her– אִם־לֹ֧א חָפַ֣צְתָּ בָּ֗הּ.” I read this line in stereo with a quote from the painter and known misogynist, Pablo Picasso: “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them…You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.” The quote is featured and problematized by Hannah Gadsby in her remarkable recent Netflix stand-up comedy feature “Nanatte.” Gadsby cites this quote as exemplifying the essence of rape culture in our society. She refuses to let Picasso off the hook based on the merits of his paintings. We should refuse to let the Torah off the hook too.

What makes Gadsby’s show so chilling is that she leaves the viewers in the place of pain, calling attention to difficult realities and refusing to let the air out of the room. It is time, she asserts, for us to confront the destructive forces of misogyny head on without apologetics and without jokes.

This summer Plaskow taught me to address the toxicity in Torah and Gadsby taught me not to smooth it over, apologize, or find a way to make it ok. It is not okay. As a rabbi and lover of Torah, it is hard to resist the urge to soften this text, maybe even redeem it through an insightful midrash, a creative interpretive move or even a pastoral emotional reading. Before we get there, we must sit with the pain. We should learn to feel hurt and even anger.

Judith Plaskow posits: “a feminist approach to Torah begins with a particular critical moment, a moment of personal affront or even a sense of assault.” These five lines of parshat Ki Tetzei are an assault. If we want to know why generations of men have considered it their God-given right to rape vulnerable women, we cannot overlook our Torah.

Rabbi Avi Killip serves as Vice President of Strategy and Programs and Director of Project Zug at Hadar. She was ordained from Hebrew College’s pluralistic Rabbinical School in Boston. She was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and holds a Bachelors and Masters from Brandeis University in Jewish Studies and Women & Gender Studies. She serves on the advisory board of ShmaNOW and the Jewish Studio Project.

Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs on November 12 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.

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