Parashat Ki Teitzei includes a rich and varied collection of directives that serve as a partial blueprint for behaviors and norms to create the emerging covenantal culture. As Professor Adele Berlin notes, “Issues pertaining to women are prominent in this parashah. . . . Much in the ideal society that Deuteronomy envisions revolves around the status of women . . .” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 1,165). The text presents Moses’s interpretation of God’s words concerning women’s position in the family and community, their sexuality, the treatment of their children, and their marital status. As we moderns read these texts, we are struck by the differences between contemporary and biblical assumptions and expectations about appropriate roles for men and women.
Let us examine some of those assumptions. The portion begins, “When you [an Israelite warrior] [go out to] take the field against your enemies. . . .” The editors of The Torah: A Modern Commentary clarify that “you” means “an Israelite warrior.” The masculine singular form of the verb indicates that warriors are assumed to be male.
The text continues, underscoring this assumption: “and your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife . . .” (Deuteronomy 21:10–11). If we take a moment, we realize that the editor’s direction helps us to uncover additional assumptions as well: the enemies, like our Israelite warriors, are also male. The captives, while they may include some male warrior enemies, also include female enemies, probably noncombatants. A third assumption is that beauty is not culturally bound: a non-Israelite woman can be experienced as beautiful. And what does appreciation of beauty “lead to”? The assumption is that the perception of beauty leads to sexual desire, which in this case may also imply an assumption of control and power over the “beautiful woman.” There is an additional assumption here: Israelite warriors desire women. The text continues and the point of this section becomes clear: “You shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, 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 thus become her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deuteronomy 21:12–13, as translated in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary). We now discover the primary reason for this directive: to humanize this unnamed woman. It is as if the text says, “You may take a woman captive, but you must realize that she is, in some essential ways, a person. She, like you, has parents, and you must give her an opportunity to mourn—literally, to cry over—her separation from her parents.” Instructing her to trim her hair and nails and to change her clothing may be signs of mourning or, as Professor Berlin suggests, may be signals to mark the conclusion of a period of mourning. Alternatively, this process of grooming may make the captive more—or less—appealing to her captor (see Etz Hayim, ed. David L. Lieber [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001], p. 1,112; Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York: Norton, 2004], pp. 981–82; and Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003], p. 629). And here we discover yet another assumption: this is a young and unbetrothed woman. She is given time to mourn her parents, from whom she has been taken, not a husband. It is, of course, possible that a woman, through the process of her abduction, becomes available to the victor in a way that erases her personal history altogether, including an intended or actual husband or children.
The text continues to direct that after the woman is taken as a wife, should she not find favor in the eyes of her husband, he must release her and not perpetuate her captivity (Deuteronomy 21:14). Professor Richard Elliott Friedman teaches, “The words for degrading her and for letting her go are the same words that are used to describe the Egyptian degrading of Israel and then letting Israel go (Exodus 1:11–12; 5:1). Again Israel learns from its experience of enslavement. Israel not only celebrates its own release, but it learns to have compassion for others as well” (ibid., p. 629).
Throughout the ages, teachers of Torah share consensus, articulated here by W. Gunther Plaut: “These verses present ideal and theoretical, rather than practical, legislation. Actual warfare, then and always, gave vent to humanity’s basest impulses; killing, rape, and looting were, and remain, its ambience. The Torah must be seen to have here a meliorating purpose, a statement of how God’s people, if war became their lot, should behave” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,322). If we extrapolate from the ideal behavior outlined here, Ki Teitzei provides a powerful mandate for a contemporary response to the violence against women that is rampant in our world. While war continues to be a primary source of women’s suffering, violence against women extends beyond the boundaries of armed conflict. Too often, women are assaulted, raped, brutalized, and murdered by those who should be their partners and protectors. The World Health Organization cites a report stating that violence against women touches an alarming number of individuals across the world: “Between 10% and 50% of women report they have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime . . . between 12% and 25% of women have experienced attempted or completed forced sex by an intimate partner or ex-partner at some time in their lives” (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en). The Torah’s mandate is clear: our responsibility to other human beings trumps national identity and gender. Even in the extreme situation of war, one who seems to be an “enemy” must be accorded consideration and dignity. Proverbs 25:21 can be read, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. If she is thirsty, give her water to drink.” The Psalmist reminds us of our obligation to remember the humanity of the enemy and the captive. However, bread and water barely sustain life. Likewise, a month of mourning does not change the fact that Israelite warriors are forcing female captives into unwanted sexual relationships. Let us return to the opening challenge of this portion, “When you [an Israeli warrior] [go out]. . . .” When we go out, we must reconsider what it means to be warriors. Men and women alike, we must name our enemies as those who target and exploit other human beings simply because they are women. Because we live in a world that continues to wage war on millions of women, we must become advocates for and warriors on behalf of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Ki Teitzei challenges us to stand against the escalating international trafficking of women and children. Ki Teitzei reminds us of the urgency of our work toward security and freedom from fear for all who are created in God’s image. Like our biblical ancestors, we too are challenged to build—and realize—an ideal society. May we go out to this holy work.
Thanks to Rabbis Hara Person and Lisa Gelber for their insights and guidance. See also Rabbi Laura Geller’s contemporary reflection on Parashat Vayishlach in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 204–5.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as Rabbinic Director, Congregational Networks – East at the Union for Reform Judaism.
This d'var Torah was distributed previously by the URJ.