Friday, August 24, 2007

Ki Tetsei (Misc.)

A Multiplicity of Mitzvot

Ki Tetsei is the Torah portion with the widest variety and densest “cluster” of mitzvot in the entire Torah—its 110 verses contain, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh, no less than 74 positive and negative commandments. A well-known midrash, elaborating on the verse “they are a garland of grace on your head,” describes the Jew as surrounded by mitzvot wherever he goes and whatever he does: whether he builds a new house, puts on his clothes, trims his beard, plows his field, or simply takes an idle walk during which he encounters a bird’s nest.

But in trying to describe the atmosphere of this parasha, I noticed something else rather interesting. One way of approaching the mitzvot is in terms of an idealistic, almost utopian striving for holiness and purity, demanding the highest level of perfection of which human beings are capable (see, e.g., Parshat Kedoshim or the earlier chapters of Deuteronomy). Yet here we find something quite different: in the first few sections, there are situations involving intense human passions: a man goes to battle, sees an attractive woman among the enemy prisoners, and is filled with intense desire for her: he feels that he simply must have her. What is to be done? There is a bigamous family in which the man loves the second wife more than the first one and wants to favor her children financially. How is the fierce competition among the rival wives and their offspring to be resolved? A child grows up wild, uncontrollable, defying his parents, drinking and guzzling. What does one do with him? And one could go on and on.

The Torah accepts the reality of these primitive, amoral urges. It sets limits; it creates procedures, for example, in the case of the beautiful enemy woman, intended to cool the man’s ardor; it introduces certain measures to insure that the weak and powerless are treated in a minimally decent, humane, even dignified way—but nevertheless, the Torah clearly “speaks in light of the Evil Urge.” That is, it accepts as givens various things which are clearly not desirable or the way things should be, the way people should behave, in an ideal world, and deals with them in a realistic way. Rambam even rules that the soldier is allowed to sexually possess the yefat toar one time, in the heat of battle and the heat of his own need: in other words, even rape is accepted as a fact-of-life in wartime.

In brief: the Torah is a tree of life, not only in the usual sense of it being a source of guidance and enlightenment, of “sweetness and light,” but also in the sense that it does not only deal with the rarefied atmosphere of pious, disciplined, restrained, upright people, but with the nitty-gritty reality of life as it is lived. It addresses the intense passions and feelings, the clashes and conflicts of wills and desires, that is the stuff of life. It knows and on a certain level even accepts sexual lust, the desire for progeny and for preserving the family name. Jealousy, anger, hatred, spite, meanness, trickery all find their place here.

Much of the parasha deals with family law and sexual matters. One passage which caught my eye this year was that of ta’anat bitulim—a husband’s claim that his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night, complete with the scene of the girl’s relatives displaying the proverbial blood-stained bedsheets in her defense (Deut 22:13-21). I found myself asking the following question: the Torah, in its succinct way, describes how a man “marries a woman, goes to her (i.e., has intercourse), hates her, and says libelous words against her…” What is going on in the mind of such a man? How does his love, or at least interest in marrying this particular woman, turn so rapidly, not only into hate, but into a vicious, nay murderous, scheme? We have several such cases in the Bible: we can well imagine a scenario in which the yefat toar is hated after the man’s initial passion is spent; after David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, we are told that “the hatred [disgust? loathing?] with which he hated her was more intense than the love with which he loved her” (2 Sam 13:15). A friend of mine suggested (and this seems to match what we know from life) that a man may obsess about a woman, fantasize about how happy he will be to be with her a certain woman—and as soon as the fantasy is realized, the woman turns out to be simply a woman, and the anticipated erotic ecstasy is simply a certain physical pleasure within the limits of what exists in the real world, his disappointment and frustration may be turned against the object of the fantasy. (The same is true, for that matter, for any other fantasy or daydream, such as acquiring some possession—a house, a car, a precious object; getting a long-coveted job; visiting a certain “exotic” place).

Another subject treated here is divorce. I have dealt with this issue in the past, specifically with the three different tannaitic approaches to the reasons for divorce given in the final mishnah of Gittin (see the essay on my blog, which should be read in conjunction with what follows). Two or three additional insights on this: 1) the Shammaite approach says that adultery alone is the only ground for divorce. Suddenly, I remembered that this was the predominant approach in Western culture until less than half a century ago. I recall as a child, when I was first starting to read adult things, reading in the Times about proposed changes in this area, the introduction of so-called “no-fault divorce” in certain states, and the opposition of the Catholic Church and some stricter Protestants to these changes. In those days, there was much hypocrisy around these things, and couples who were miserable together were even known to fabricate false testimony of marital unfaithfulness. The question is whether society as a whole, which is closer today to the liberal view of R. Akiva, is better off and happier with these laissez faire divorce laws? 2) The approach of Rabbi Akiva—the romantic who sees Song of Songs as the holiest book of all—is to allow divorce more or less at will. His view, as I interpret it, is based on a view of marriage as based on the mutual will of both parties, and a worldly-wise perception that if either party no longer wishes to be with the other, nothing will really help. I remember late one night, a newly-divorced friend of my wife saw me in the street and delivered me an hour-long monologue bewailing the situation—“If only I had done this differently, if only I had been more submissive and compliant, if only I’d done that, or perhaps the other…” I told her to stop castigating herself, and that ultimately her husband’s leaving her boiled down to a matter of will, of what a person wants. And Will, as we know from the Kabbalah, is the most irreducible of all qualities, human and Divine alike; it is that which s desired, for no reason prior to itself. 3) A fourth approach to divorce, one not mentioned in the above mishnah, holds that divorce is not permitted under any circumstance—i.e., the position of the Catholic Church. The biblical basis for this is that man and woman become “one flesh,” interpreted as meaning that they cannot be separated. Interestingly, there is controversy among scholars as to whether or not the Dead Sea sect permitted divorce. Some, such as Aharon Shemesh, say that they did not—and that this, as well as many other of their views, came down into early Christianity. Similarly, there is one view in the midrash that the Noachide code leaves no room for divorce, but knows only immutable marriage. More on this subject another time.

Returning to our overview of the parshah: in all these things, the Torah is concerned with countering, at very least, the worst aspects of these unruly passions, and assuring that people are dealt with as fairy and decently as possible. It occurs to me that all this may be read with a certain irony. During Elul, we deal with teshuvah, with the attempt to refine and conquer our negative character traits—things like anger, jealousy, meanness towards others, gluttony, lust, sloth, etc. At times, latter day moralists make it sound as if such moral perfection is attainable, indeed, a simple matter. This portion seems to come along and remind us “where we’re really living”: that is, in a world swarming with chaotic, difficult, uncontrolled emotions and acts.

I also read this parasha during Elul as reminding us of the centrality of simple menshlichkeit, of human decency and consideration—which, to my mind, is at once the simplest, the most important, and the most difficult kind of teshuvah. Around this season, people seem to invest a lot of energy in so-called “religious” issues—in improving the level of punctiliousness of their observance of details, typically, of laws of kashrut, Shabbat, prayer, modesty in dress, learning more Torah, etc. These are the subjects that the movements dedicated to “teshuvah” seem to emphasize.


Post a Comment

<< Home