How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

May 4, 2006

On Selective Reading of Our Texts

Filed under: Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 23:10

This d’var Torah was delivered September 17, 2005, on Parashat Ki Tetze:

The opening of this week’s parasha concerns the treatment of female prisoners of war. While this topic is ripe for all sorts of discussion, this is not what I chose to concentrate on today. I want instead to first point to the curious turn of phrase that opens the parasha: Ki tetze lemilchama – when you go to war. When, not if. What does this statement say about God’s (or the writer’s, if you prefer) opinion and expectations of humanity in general, and the Israelites in particular? The passage jumped out at me especially because I’m hyperaware of the efforts at diplomacy undertaken by my namesake, Yiftach the Gileadite, before he went to war with the Ammonites, as recounted in Judges, chapter 11.

This seemingly lowered expectation of the behavior of people, however, is misleading. It relates, too, to the other main point I want to make this morning: that we must take great care in reading our sacred texts, so that we don’t isolate certain ideas, take them literally and make them inviolable, while conveniently ignoring others simply because they are inconsistent with our beliefs.

To illustrate this point, I’ll refer to the rules regarding the ben sorer – the wayward and defiant son, as explained in verses 18-21 of chapter 21. First, the Torah itself, as in many other places, does not specifically elaborate on what it means exactly to be “wayward and defiant.” That is left to the rabbis of the Talmud and beyond – to us, as well – to determine. Well, what DOES it mean? How disobedient and unruly does a child have to be to warrant this diagnosis, which, if confirmed, carries no less than the DEATH PENALTY?!

And at what age do the parents decide they’ve had enough? It’s implied, on the one hand, that the parents have tried to discipline the child for some length of time; but on the other hand, the boy is still young enough that they’re able to “take hold of him and bring him to the elders of the town”. Wouldn’t the child resist if he were able? Especially considering how wayward and defiant he is to begin with?!

Through the generations, our sages interpreted the conditions for the ben sorer in such a way as to make them virtually impossible to meet. And we’ve obviously gotten away from following many of the mitzvot as they are written. So why is it that some people, who are fond of bringing up biblical commandments and prohibitions to back up their moral and legal beliefs, choose to ignore other biblical concepts that may not agree with their worldview?

Perhaps you’re aware that there’s been a lot of discussion in recent months and years about homosexuality, and the rights of gay people to marry or otherwise enjoy the same rights and privileges afforded to heterosexual couples who wish to affirm their relationships according to civil or religious laws and make them legally binding as well. People opposed to this concept often bring up Leviticus 18:22, which states that a man lying with another man as with a woman is an abomination (to’eva), as justification for their position.

The same people, however, don’t often (if ever) mention other interesting biblical regulations, like the ben sorer, or the rule about both parties in a case of rape in an urban setting being subject to the death penalty, or any of myriad other rules from the Torah that have been discarded as archaic or interpreted out of enforcement by generations of scholars. I should say that such people IN THIS COUNTRY don’t usually mention these other rules; there are a few places still where, for example, an unmarried woman’s sexual relationship with a man makes her liable to fall victim to what is euphemistically called an “honor killing,” as in “she dishonored her family,” and is then murdered by her brothers.

An open letter, originally addressed to Laura Schlesinger (radio’s Dr. Laura), made its way around the Internet almost a decade ago and has enjoyed several revivals. This letter pointed out some of these discrepancies and contradictions, the rules we DON’T follow due to their being inconsistent with our society. These include the laws of sacrifice, slavery, some rules of farming, animal husbandry, clothing, and more. Conveniently, of course, as I mentioned, many literalists ignore these regulations and only refer to the ones that agree with their world view. I urge us all not to fall into that trap, but to remember instead our rich tradition of discourse, disagreement, interpretation and insight. It is those values, not narrow-minded fundamentalism, which will continue to sustain us and help us thrive.

Shabbat shalom.

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