From Collective Memory to National Identity

Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Elizabeth Sacks

A line of people holding handsA litany of laws. A multitude of mitzvot. According to Maimonides, Ki Teitzei contains at least 72 of the 613 commandments in the Torah — the most commandments in any one Torah portion. As the time for the Israelites’ transition into the Land draws ever nearer, God and Moses continue to prepare the people for sovereignty and self-government. In addition to laws that cover rules and regulations within the Israelite community, this portion also includes two passages that dictate the relationship between the people of Israel and neighboring entities. The first is:

No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal; no descendants of such, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.— But the Eternal your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, the Eternal your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Eternal your God loves you.— You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live. You shall not abhor an Edomite, for such is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal in the third generation. (Deut. 23:4-9)

Then, we read:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19)

The series of verses from these passages all contain similar content. The Torah introduces a past connection with a particular group and provides instruction on how to interact with that group moving forward.

These few short verses present a multitude of challenges — from ethical concerns, to textual consistency with rest of Torah. This is combined with the underlying continuity issue present in all of Deuteronomy — that the people being addressed and reminded of past experiences are not of the generation who actually experienced most of these events. So, what is the Torah doing?

Viewed against the backdrop of preparing for our transition to the Land of Israel and national sovereignty, these verses seem to focus on advancing the project of creating national memory, or collective history, and thus, constructing the basis of a national identity.

In his book, Dr. Zheng Wang, director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, and a professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, argues persuasively about the “important function of historical memory as a key element in the construction of national identity” (p.12). He illuminates that:

“Ethnic, national, or religious identities are built on historical myths that define who a group member is, what it means to be a group member, and typically who the group’s enemies are. These myths are usually based on truth but are selective or exaggerated in their presentation of history. Historical memory as an identity content can shape or influence … behavior in several ways. It could work as a constitutive norm, specifying rules or norms that define a group. Moreover, it constitutes references and comparisons to other groups, especially the ones with historical problems with the group. Third, it affects the way a group interprets and understands the world. Finally, it provides the group with the future roles and tasks to perform … identities encourage actors to act in accordance with and interpret the world through lenses relating to group purposes.” (Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict: Historical Memory as a Variable [NY: Palgrave,  Macmillan, 2017], pp.12,19)

In other words, these short constructions of collective memory are used to help fashion and refine our future national narrative — the very understanding of who we are and how we interact with the world. In examining these passages and their project of building collective history, what messages might we be embedding in our national memory?

After distilling the language surrounding each of these proscribed interactions, our text leaves us with three main directives.

1. Lo tidrosh, “Do not concern yourself” (Deut. 23:7):

Toward the Ammonite or Moabite, we are commanded to remain indifferent. While the opening of the passage establishes firm separation from these peoples, and while Rabbinic sources greatly amplify the devious and wicked nature of Ammonites and Moabites, the conclusion here in the Torah — “don’t concern yourself with their welfare or benefit” — can certainly be understood as establishing distance rather than animosity. Why? Because they neither greeted us with hospitality nor welcomed us peacefully. They do not share our values. Framed positively, this piece of our collective memory guides us to choose allies with whom we align in both morals and practice.

2. Lo t’ta-eiv, “Do not abhor” (Deut. 23:8):

Here, the Torah shifts its tone. To the Edomites and the Egyptians, we are commanded to remain open: to the Edomites because they are technically family (through Esau) despite some ancient coldness and to the Egyptians because of our long-standing joint history and, perhaps, original kindnesses (in providing shelter from famine in the time of Joseph). Although we must remain cautious regarding those with whom we have historical friction, we must also resist the urge to hate and cultivate the capacity to forgive.

3. Lo tishkach, “Do not forget” (Deut. 25:19):

This short section about Amalek is perhaps one of the most famously confusing commandments in the Torah: we must remember to erase the memory of an entity representing a great and purposeful evil. The idea of Amalek and the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” expressed in this short section has been used historically, and in certain contemporary cases, to sanction abhorrent violent actions and dangerous rhetoric by our own people toward others — all of which is inexcusable and unjustifiable. But the text in this section, without the gloss of some of the additional texts in the Bible or Rabbinic literature, focuses much more on the power and purpose of memory — a memory to strive blot out the heinous conduct demonstrated by Amalek in our collective past and perhaps to work to ensure that no one behaves this way again in the future. In order to blot out the concept of the memory of Amalek from the world, we must act with intentionality to eradicate baseless hatred.

The Israelites in this portion are slowly transitioning and transforming; from a newly formed people to a community aligned in and defined by national identity based on collective history. As is often the case, the values and tenets that we glean from our collective history can also provide powerful personal instruction. May each of us have the courage and strength to align ourselves with those who share our values, to forgive long-standing tensions, and to intentionally eradicate evil and bring light into this world.

Cantor Elizabeth Sacks is the senior cantor at Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO.


Biblical Laws About the Treatment of Women

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Suzanne Singer

Women praying at the Western Wall

Parashat Ki Teitzei contains more mitzvot (commandments) than any other portion, and their emphasis is on justice and human dignity, especially for the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger — and women. At first glance, it may not seem that protecting women is the Torah’s agenda. Rather, the text reveals how women are clearly treated as objects, as men’s possessions:

  • A soldier may possess a captive woman and forcibly marry her (Deut. 21:10-14)
  • A bride accused of not being a virgin sullies her father’s honor, so proof of her virginity must be brought forth (Deut. 22:13-21)
  • A woman who is raped in a town is presumed to have given her consent if she did not scream (Deut 22:23-27)
  • A rapist must marry his victim; adultery involves a married woman with a man other than her husband, whether he is married or not, as the crime involved is messing with a husband’s property (Deut. 22:28-19)
  • A widow who has not produced a male heir must marry her dead husband’s brother to produce a son who can carry on the name of the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10)

However, it is important to look at when these laws were written. In the Ancient Near East, it was very difficult for a woman to survive economically without a father, a brother, or a husband. Finding a husband was particularly difficult if a woman was not a virgin. So, in the case of marrying her rapist, the law protects the woman against being thrust aside as damaged goods without any viable recourse. In the case of the woman captured in war, we know from sources such as the Song of Deborah that men are expected to enjoy the spoils of war, including the raping women on the losing side (Judges 5:30). Ki Teitzei recognizes this impulse, but puts the brakes on it to allow the soldier to cool down, as it were. According to the Sages of the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 107a), the Torah provides a further deterrent by juxtaposing the rebellious son story (Deut. 21:18-21). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, this suggests, “that someone who takes a captive woman will suffer from strife at home, and the result will be a delinquent son” (“The Limits of Love,” Covenant & Conversation).  

When a woman is raped in open country, the assumption is that no one is able to hear her scream, so she is presumed to have had sex involuntarily. In this case, only the man is liable to be punished by death. This is a departure from practice in the Ancient Near East. As Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler points out, the text insists several times that the woman is not to be put to death. She writes:

In the Near East, ancient and modern … a custom called honor killing has not been eradicated to this day. A girl whose kin believe she has been sexually polluted is killed to preserve the family honor. Whether she resisted or consented is irrelevant. They dispose of her like a toothbrush. … The unusual wordiness of our Deuteronomy text makes sense if it is prohibiting honor killing to people who were accustomed to practice it. … Deuteronomy must recast rape as a violent crime akin to violence against males.
(“The Beginnings of Gender Justice,” Parashat Ki Teitzei, T’ruah)

We can certainly bemoan the less-than-ideal position occupied by women in our Torah while also recognizing the incremental ways in which progress was made.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer has served Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA since 2008. She is also a member of the Reform Movement’s Commission on Social Action and on the leadership team of California Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Reference Materials

Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,483–1,508; Revised Edition, pp. 1,320–1,344
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,165–1,190
Fifth Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 54:1–10
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,612–1,613; Revised Edition, pp. 1,345–1,346

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