Friday, August 28, 2009

Parsha Notes (Ki Setze)

(Parsha what?)

Credit where credit is due
- In the ancient world, soldiers raped captive women as a matter of course. This was considered to be one of perks of winning a battle. Though the Torah recognizes this unseemly practice and stops short of outlawing it, the human rights of the captive woman (to a degree, and only according to those Torah interpreters who say that she can't be raped until after 30 days have passed) are protected in the opening verses of this week's parsha. (I confess to wondering why the same God who thundered against idol worship and various other practices of the ancient world couldn't also thunder against this. It seems to me a simple "Thou Shalt Not Rape Captive Women" would have done the trick; still, the measures that the Torah does take to protect the captive women (at least according to the more liberal Torah interpreters) are quite extraordinary for that time and place))
- There are all sorts of other humanitarian laws in this week's sedra - too many to list - but in totality they help to defeat the notion that the Torah's philosophy is generally Republican in nature (In January 2007 I actually went through all the commandments, and tried to determine which party had the better claim on "biblical values." See the results: Positive Commendments; Negative Commandments)

Famous questions
- Why "shave [a captive woman's] head and do her nails"? The medieval commentators say this was to make her unattractive. Robert Alter, observing that short nails are hardly ugly, reasons that this was actually a rite of transition, or "the transformation from the daughter of an alien people to a fit mate for an Israelite man." The thirty day wait, he says, supports this view, as this is the set duration for all mourning.
- It seems strange that only Ammonites and Moabites are permanently excluded from joining the Jewish people, when the Edomites were equally unfriendly and the Egyptians treated us far worse. The scholarly answer is that this inconsistency reflects a changing attitude in Israel toward the neighboring people. I'm not aware of the Torah True explanation, and hope someone can provide it in the comments.

Other ANE law codes also call for a rebellious son to be punished, but the Torah is the only one that imposes upon him a death penalty. Shaming, disinheritance and imprisonment are the penalties for disobedience in the parallel codes.

The Talmud says the Law of the Wayward Son was never followed, suggesting that the Rabbis may have found it distasteful. In the same way, the death penalty for premarital sex was also "mitigated through exegesis" (the phrase is Alter's), with the Rabbis ruling that the perpetrators could only be executed if the actual act of intercourse was observed by two witnesses. Other reforms that can be recognized through the study of this sedra include: The heter ishka, which contra 23:21 permits Jews to charge each other interest, 25:5 which calls for Leverite marriage (no longer practiced) and 25:12 where a verse calling for the amputation of a woman's hand is given a less Draconian interpretation.

Accurate Depictions
- The verse says a found ox is to be "brought into the house." This isn't a euphemism: houses at the time had stable-like enclosures on the ground floor.
- Canaanite and Israelite towns were small and crowded, with no empty streets or neighborhoods. This is why the verse assumes (22:24) that someone certainly would hear a woman's cries if she were to be taken unwillingly.
- Mysteriously, 23:19 refers to a "dog's price." This may be a pejorative for prostitute (see the context) and seems to reflect the documented hatred of dogs in ancient Hebrew culture.
- 24:6 says taking a poor man's millstone is like taking his life, and indeed archaeologists have uncovered a great number of them, which seems to confirm that even the poorest man had one of his own (Alter)

As Alter points out there are a series of laws in the sedra which reflect "the general recoil of ancient Hebrew culture from the comingeling of distinct... categories" including, male and female (no cross-dressing), seeds of different plants, oxes and donkeys plowing together, wool (from animals) and linen (from plants), and in the case of Shluach Hakan, nurturing and killing.

-Shatnez appears to be a loan word, the meaning of which was not known to the original audience. This is why the text provides a gloss (i.e. an explanation of what the words means)
- The Torah refers to a bill of divorce as a "Sefer Kritut" rather than the more familiar "Get." The latter (according to R' Baruch Epstein aka the Torah Temimah) is a Latin loan word that originally meant document.

A promiscuous daughter is sad to have committed נְבָלָה...בְיִשְׂרָאֵל a scurrilous thing in Israel. The rape of Dina is described with the same phrase, though Israel, at that moment, consisted of just Jacob and his 12 sons.

- In the old south, supporters of slavery would often insist that the practice had biblical backing, yet for reasons unknown to me, these same supporters were able to ignore 23:16 which makes it clear that an escaped slave is not to be returned to his master.
- In 21st century America, certain Jews make all sorts of pious anti-homosexual noises on the grounds that the Bible calls gay sex an "abomination." No similar pious noises are made about business cheats who (25:16) are also committing what the Torah calls an "abomination."

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