Telling the Stories that Need Telling - Parshat Ki Teitze

Sep 10, 2022
by admin / LNCLN

by Rav Sarah Mulhern


This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Ki Teitzei, is one of the biggest emotional roller coasters in the entire year for me. This might seem a bit strange, as it contains exactly no narrative, and is made up of an apparently random collection of biblical laws. However, among those laws are, for me, some of the highest, most inspiring, highs and lowest, most painful, lows of the Torah.


On the one hand, this parsha contains some of the most beautiful laws of the Torah, laws that seem to me designed not only to have concretely good impacts on the society in which they are practiced, but which are also designed to shape and mold the person who practices them into a more empathetic, kinder human. So, for example, in this week’s parsha, we are told:


- That not only must we not steal from each other, but if we find an object or an animal lost by another member of our community, we must return it, even at significant trouble and expense. We are explicitly told that this is so lest we learn indifference to other’s plight.


- We are also given a series of laws which mandate humane treatment of animals, including that we must not harness two animals of different strengths / speeds together, or muzzle them so they cannot eat as they work in our fields, and that we must send away a mother bird before we harvest her eggs. These reasons behind these laws are a site of debate, but certainly one common rabbinic interpretation is that they are to teach us and allow us to practice kindness towards beings under our power.


Perhaps most interestingly we see a series of economic laws which, again, would not only have considerable concrete positive impact on the lives of people living in poverty, but seem designed to push the wealthy to see the full humanity of the poor and to preserve their humanity and dignity. So, for example, we are told that we may not forbid others from trespassing on our fields nor from eating their fill while they are there. We are told that we must leave behind a portion of our crops for the vulnerable to harvest for themselves. We are told that when we lend, we must not do so at interest, and we cannot seize any of the basic necessities of life as collateral. When we come to collect our debt, we must not hound the person who owes us money, and must wait for them outside their home and allow them to come out to us to pay with dignity.


On the other hand, this parsha contains a series of painful laws which cannot be described as anything but indifferent to the suffering of women, and in particular women who are the victims of sexual violence. So we learn:


- That if you - the male listener to whom the text is addressed and centers - capture a beautiful woman in battle, you must allow her to mourn her parents, who have presumably been killed or sold into slavery, for a month before you may sleep with her - with or without her consent - after which you must either keep her as a wife or set her free.


- That a woman who is married to a husband that takes a dislike to her and falsely accuses her of not being a virgin before the wedding must hope that her parents are able to prove his claims false, in which case her father receives a payment for her shame from her husband. If they can’t, she is executed.


- That if a single woman is raped, her rapist must marry her and is never allowed to divorce her. If a betrothed woman is raped in a field, her rapist must pay a fine to her father for the crime of decreasing her value to him. If in a city, she is executed along with her rapist, because we assume she didn’t protest - or not loudly enough.


It is possible to read these texts and understand that they were remarkable improvements from the ancient near eastern default and still recoil from their painful callousness, cruelty, and inability to imagine - their indifference to - the experience of the women and girls in question.


And while these laws would be difficult to read in any context, it is particularly painful to read them in the context of a parsha that has such remarkable moral imagination across class lines, such lofty goals for pushing us to build a more just and less brutal economy and to grow as empathetic people across class and even species lines - but which is unable to do so across lines of gender. It is confusing to read an ancient text that is, frankly, so far ahead of where our current economic culture is today and so painfully, destructively behind where we are and need to be on issues of gender and sexual and domestic violence.


So where does this leave us?


I won’t try to present a neat solution. But I want to offer one rabbinic text, in the interpretation of two contemporary women Torah teachers, which is helping me think about how to move forward.


In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 21a), the Rabbis retell and interpret another painful Biblical story - that of Tamar, one of King David’s daughters, and Amnon, her half brother, who rapes her. Rabbi Tali Adler pointed out to me that this Talmud passage, seemingly apropo of very little, connects this story to our parsha, claiming that Tamar’s mother, one of King David’s wives, was acquired as a beautiful captive of war, under the structure I previously mentioned. Rav Tali reads this, perhaps against the grain but beautifully and importantly, as a kind of “like father, like son” critique of Amnon and David. In other words, David participated in this kind of licit sexual violence, and it inevitably lead to the illicit sexual violence of the story. Rav Tali teaches us, crucially, that we like to think that dehumanization and rape culture - thinking of and using other people as means to our ends and not ends in and of themselves - can be contained to the margins or ignored in a dark corner. But once we start to think of and treat other humans as anything other than infinitely, independently valuable, it begins to poison our whole society and is not easily contained. To me, her reading is a clarion call. In our world, we like to imagine that the rampant sexual violence that happens to those who we like to imagine as the margins - to farm workers and domestic laborers, to women of color and transwomen - will stay there. We like to behave as if the domestic and sexual violence in our communities can be ignored in dark corners and behind closed doors. But poison seeps out, and it makes us all less safe.


I want to offer my own related reading of a slightly later section of the same Talmud passage. In the aftermath of the rape, the biblical text tells us that Tamar engaged in mourning rituals, dressing in sackcloth and ashes. The rabbis of the Talmud reread this as a form of public protest, a protest not dissimilar from the one many of us engaged in in 2017 when, as part of the #metoo movement, we shared some of our most painful and vulnerable stories of sexual and gender-based violence in the hopes of shifting our culture and making policy change. Tamar takes her mourning public in protest, and remarkably, in the rabbi’s retelling - it works. The surrounding people begin to think - “wow, we had thought being wealthy and well connected would protect against sexual violence. But if it can happen to her, I guess not.” and “wow, we had thought being virtuous and modest would prevent sexual violence, but if it can happen to her, I guess not.” And even more fascinatingly, the rabbis imagine that this culture shift leads to concrete policy change, the construction of new Torah laws, now designed to protect potential victims of sexual violence, the laws of yichud, which prohibit men and women from being secluded together.


Now we can certainly debate whether those laws actually work to prevent violence or in fact are counterproductive. But the idea I’m holding onto is this: that by telling her story, Tamar moved forward not only her culture, but Torah itself.


And so this is the challenge I want to offer all of us as we read this complicated Torah portion: how can we stay open hearted to allow the Torah to push us when its laws and aspirations can help us to become more empathetic, ethical people and build a more just and humane society, as they do this week around issues of class and economics? And how can we simultaneously stay brave and confident to tell our stories and raise our voices when our lived experiences and perspectives can push the Torah forward through its blind spots, including the ones it displays this week around the experiences of victims of sexual violence? And how can we support each other and other members of our communities to tell the stories that need telling, so that our Torah, our community, and the world become safer places for us all?