Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ki Tetzei (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, see below, and the archives for August 2006.

“The Torah Only Spoke In Light of the Evil Urge”

The opening, title paragraph of this parasha—which is richest of all the parshiyot in both number and variety of mitzvot—involves one of the most difficult and puzzling mitzvot in the Torah. It describes a law whereby a soldier, perhaps in the heat of battle, desires a captive woman whom he sees from afar; he is allowed to take her home and, after a series of acts (which many exegetes, including Rashi, say are intended to discourage him by making her ugly and repulsive), may marry her. Rambam states (Melakhim u-Milhamotehem 8.2) that all this occurs after he has in fact already had sex with her once (rape?).

We shall leave aside all the “modernist” questions we are bound to ask, such as: What about the woman’s own feelings? Mightn’t she have had a husband at home? Children? Parents? What about them? Rashi’s comment reflects the deep problematics he felt about this passage:

Deuteronomy 21:10-11. “When you go out to war against your enemies… And you see among the captives a woman comely of figure, and you desire her, then you may take her to you as a wife.”

Rashi: “And you may take her to you as a wife.” The Torah only spoke here in reference to the Evil Urge. If the Holy One blessed be He were not to allow this, he would marry her in a forbidden manner.

But if he does marry her, in the end he will hate her, as it says thereafter, “When a man has [two wives, one beloved and one hated]…” (ibid., 15-17); and in the end she will give birth to a wayward and defiant son (ibid., 18-21). Therefore these sections were placed in proximity to one another.

I shall not elaborate on the second half of Rashi, which indicates clear disapproval of this arrangement and, like several other Rabbinic homilies, infers a particular (negative) scenario from the order of laws in the Torah, implying a certain sequence of ongoing events (compare the homilies on the repeated use of the phrase “when your brother waxes poor” in Kiddushin 20a; cited in Torah Temimah at Lev 25:13).

Rashi’s first comment here is: “The Torah only spoke in reference to the Evil Urge.” In other words, the Torah’s legislation has an unsentimental grasp of human nature, and walks a narrow line between sublime idealism and frank realism. It recognizes that human beings (in this case, and particularly in sexual matters, the male of the species) have certain intense urges which easily get out of control. All the more so in times of war: the confrontation with death is known to produce a kind of crude, coarse affirmation of life through the most elemental sexual expressions. That is why, inter alia, there are proverbially always brothels near large army camps and at sailors’ ports of call. War, as an elemental, chaotic activity, brings to fore the most primitive, instinctual side in man. A direct line is drawn between seeing an attractive woman, to desiring her, to having her, without the civilized niceties of courtship or seduction.

The approach here is a shrewd, worldly-wise one—better to allow what’s going to happen anyway, to give it some sort of halakhic and social context, to offer some minimal protection and status to the alien woman, rather than to retreat behind a moralistic “verboten!.” The man cannot simply discard her, nor keep her as a mistress, nor sell her as a slave-woman. If he keeps her at all, she must have a proper marriage with all the rights that entails; if not, he must send her home. But I read the phrase here, “The Torah only spoke in reference to the Yetser Hara,” does not merely suggest the kind of sage, balanced, pragmatic acceptance of reality such as the halakhah invokes in other difficult cases. It is more like a kind of throwing up of its hands in despair. “There is nothing we can do about it!” And, as is made clear in various ways, the Torah considers it far better that the man soberly reconsider such a match once his initial passion is spent; therefore, it arranges for him to see her at her least attractive, day after day (“He goes out and she is there; he come in and she is there…”), in the hopes that he will send her back where she came from.

The phrase yefat toar, “comely of figure,” used by Hazal to describe this halakhah, is interesting. This is in fact the only place in the entire Tanakh where this phrase alone is used to describe a woman’s, or a man’s, physical beauty. It is more usual to use the double idiom, יפה תואר ויפה מראה, which I would translate as “comely of figure and comely of appearance”—thus with regard to Rachel (Gen 29:17), Esther (Est 2:7), and Joseph (Gen 39:6). Variants of this are found in describing Rebekka (Gen 24:16: טובת מראה מאד), the beloved in Shir Hashirim (passim), and David (1 Sam 16:12: אדמוני עם יפה עינים וטוב ראי). The closest approximation to the above appears in introducing Avigayil, wife of Naval the Carmelite, described in 1 Sam 25:3 as יפה תואר וטוב שכל, “comely of figure and sharp of mind.” But vive la différence! She is perhaps the only woman in the Bible praised for her intellect. Mareh means appearance—I would say, first and foremost, a beautiful face—while toar refers to shape, form, outline: that is, the woman’s figure. (The verbal form also refers to the “incline” of a hill—perhaps analogous to a woman’s curves?) All this suggest further that the appeal of the captive woman was of a very direct sexual nature.

If war, then, is such a chaotic, elemental situation, leading to moral anarchy, the release of all moral and social codes and of the inner mechanisms of self-restraint and control (incidentally, the halakhah permits other ordinarily forbidden things during warfare as well, such as eating swine or nevelot and terefot), what does this teach us about the nature of war itself? Is it not clear that it is understood as an essentially barbaric act, outside the bounds of all that is considered civilized? And if so, is it not imperative that it be considered only as the absolutely last resort, after all other possible measures have truly been tried and exhausted? Meditate on the unbearable lightness of warfare: on how a bomb dropped over a neighborhood destroys, in an instant, both human lives and physical objects, whose creation and shaping represent hundreds, thousands, collectively perhaps million of hours of labor, of thought, of loving dedication and education. And, more likely than not, it accomplishes nothing—or it brings the sides to a solution identical in most major particulars to what they would have reached had they started by negotiation rather than shooting.

Can anyone honestly say that last summer’s war, so seemingly casually began, with barely a few hours of deliberation, accomplished anything at all? Is Hizballah any less of a threat than it was before? Is Israel’s position in any way more salutary or secure? It is frightening that the healthy reaction to Galut passivity that was part of the initial impulse to Zionism a century ago or more—the creation of a new, strong, self-confident Jew—has been perverted into a type of militarism, at times real jingoism, certainly an unwarranted worship of ex-generals. (Yitzhak Rabin outgrew that mentality, and he received a bullet in the head for his troubles.) What would ouir country, and our world, look like if only 5% of the emotional and intellectual energy that goes into preparing for war, thinking about it, etc., were to go into genuine “seeking and pursuing peace.” (Or, to invert the formula: ought those who devote 95% of their talents, intellects, planning, etc., to “defense” and “security,” building ever higher fences and walls, both physical and social, and only 5% to peace-making, be considered the desirable or proper leaders of that great project of renewing the national life of the Jewish people called Zionism? Or, for that matter, of the great, self-congratulatory American democracy?) Equally frightening in some ways is the so-called denial of warfare: the week before the present one, every single day’s paper carried a banner headline stating that Syria isn’t interested in war, that IDF experts think it’s not likely in the immediate future, etc. Methinks the lady doth protest too much….

SHOFTIM: Postscript

The final section of Parashat Shoftim (Deut 21:1-9) describes the ritual known as eglah arufah, the calf that is decapitated in connection with the discovery of an unknown murdered body in the wilderness. The elders of the adjacent town slaughter the calf and wash their hands, saying “our hands have not spilt this blood.” The Rabbis say this is both to draw attention to the case, as well as for atonement: the nearest town is responsible for providing safe passage to strangers. Perhaps they saw this person and not care for him?

The halakhah classifies this ritual under the rubric of shehutei hutz: that is, of animals slaughtered for some ritual purpose, but outside of the Temple. (Its propitiatory function is demonstrated, inter alia, by the halakhah cited by the Rambam in Rotziah ushemirat hanefesh 10.10; that the calf was to be killed even after Yom Kippur, and even after several years.) The other two are: sa’ir hamishtaleah, the “scapegoat” or goat of atonement sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur bearing the sins of all Israel; and parah adumah, the Red Heifer whose ashes were used for purification from contamination through contact with the dead. Someone recently asked me: what have the three in common?

The themes of the three are: murder, death and sin in general. Ramban associates the Yom Kippur goat with the attribute of gevurah, Harsh Judgment, and seems to allude to the idea that this is almost a kind of sacrifice to various demonic, negative forces that live in the wilderness and that need to be placated. What does this mean? In modern terminology, we would speak about things that we need to expel from our consciousness, destructive elements that interfere with an orderly, harmonious life in society (see above, re the Yefat toar). But we cannot simply ignore them: that way lies hypocrisy, double standards, sham and pretense, with all the deleterious psychological results that are sure to follow. (I’m reminded of the norm in Haredi society of hiding black sheep, of denying anything that may be wrong in life. If someone in a family is divorced, or became non-religious, or has a serious illness, this is hushed up, because it supposedly will affect one’s children’s chances of finding “a good shiddukh.” This society is unwilling to face the simple fact that everyone has one or another “skeleton” in his closet.) We somehow need to expel, purge, purify ourselves from these negative forces, while acknowledging their reality, their presence in our lives.

RE’EH: An Exchange

Long time reader Mark Kirschbaum wrote about my essays two weeks ago:

As far as the division of men and women in mystical cultures, that is very well described in Hinduism, Kali Yuga, etc. But it goes both ways: from Oedipus onward, the obvious connection is that children are generally punished more by their mother, who is more directly involved in moment-to-moment care. Overall, the Besht had it right when he pointed out that yir’ah is really the more profound love, it’s the love of the parent teaching the child to walk (stepping away, seemingly punishing, but really trying to make the child take the steps by him/herself). I wrote about the idea that the feminine Torah is really above all this, corresponding to the mahol, the circle dance, rather than to a right-left division (kav vs. igul, line vs. circle).

I’m also not sure about your anthropology. Hunter/gatherer is prior to farmer and community life. And despite the predominance of new age people in Katamon, there is certainly no similarity between any natural diet anywhere and macrobiotics (not even in Japan; macrobiotics is based on extreme Buddhist ideas, while the local diet is very hunter/gatherer—fish, meat, raw and baked, even the vegetables tend to be gathered, e.g., seaweed).

Of course, the long period of separating meat from milk is not Biblical, the Rambam’s advocating so-and-so many hours is based on how long he felt meat lasts in the teeth, so it’s hard to extrapolate from biblical anthropology to our current prohibitions.

My response: the point about men and women and harshness, etc., was actually the least important part of my fox & hedgehog essay, purely a speculation borrowed from someone else. But the point is not so much men and women in mystical cultures, but how a mystical world-view sees men and women in culture generally.

As for hunter/gatherer vs. agriculture-based diet. Maybe I exaggerated somewhat, but it’s clear, davka from Parshat Re’eh’s heter basar ta’avah, that eating meat is somewhat special and unusual. Maybe it’s more like the US govt.’s recommended “pyramid” of foods—grain, wine, and other vegetation on the bottom, with meat and fowl and even milk closer to the narrow apex. (Many Oriental Jews will tell you that in the “old country” they hardly even knew what dairy was) And your point on macrobiotics was well-taken; I liked the image of grain etc. in the center and milk and meat being two food types splitting off in opposite directions, like yin and yang.

I of course know that X hour separation is Rabbinic, but it’s experienced by many or even most Orthodox people as more important than it is in strictly halakhic terms, because it shapes life patterns (telling a child “no” when the Good Humor man comes around - itself an archaic image, no doubt).

And his postscript:

How a culture sees its men and women may not reflect their status in society. One scholar points out how Roman women flocked to Christianity, where women were denigrated in the “mythology” as compared to the mystery religions and official cults, where women were worshipped as gods.

Thematically, kav vs igul is at the core of Etz Hayyim and all the post-Lurianic speculative systems, including Rav Kook, etc. Where some New Age mystics go wrong is in refracting everything through a bizarre libidinal lens and turning a spiritual concept (where the imagery is a bit more free flowing and metaphoric) into some kind of binary, black and white physical law. What true mystics warn against as kotzetz ba-netiot

I do recall that Yehuda Liebes had an article on this in that blue volume from Hebrew U {Mehqerei Yerushalayim? -jc) and it’s in his book, though given the unmistakable import in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it has been around in religious phenomenology for a long long time.

As far as the hunter gatherer bit, that’s pretty well established. My wife witnessed a war with a fatality over a stolen pig in Papua New Guinea. And if you recall why we eat dairy on Shavuot, it conforms more to the standard. First basar nehirah, then a retreat to vegetarianism, then a gradual reacceptance of meat at a limited level. Anyway, the world is different now in many ways. One no longer gets to experience that bittersweet Jewish-American abjection of the ice cream man and the culture he represents as Good Humor has a big OU on it :)


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