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“Whim and Whip” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

Friday, August 20, 2021

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection from Rabbi Elaine Zecher as we draw near to Shabbat.

We cannot look away.

As our portion opens this week, we find permission in the ancient world of the ill treatment of women.

When you take the field against your enemies, and the Eternal 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, 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 possess her, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Through the ages, the commentators contorted themselves in their interpretations to justify these actions. Some make the excuse of the reality of war. After all, says one particular modern commentator: “Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, captive women of vanquished peoples were assumed to be the due sexual prerogative of the victors.” (Alter) Others focus on her physical description while others (Alter) see some hint at protection in an inescapable circumstance.   Regardless of the machinations of the comments, this was sanctioned rape with a thirty-day waiting period.

We might try to soften the inexcusable behavior toward women by looking elsewhere in the portion for humane examples of behavior.  For example, one is not to take the mother bird with the fledglings but should allow the mother bird to fly free. (22:6) Or make sure you build a parapet on a roof so no one falls off. (22:8)

But, further in the portion, there are examples of when it is permissible to stone a woman if, for example, she falsely claimed she was a virgin at marriage (22:20). And there is more.

We cannot look away from our own tradition. We do not live by these Biblical laws. They are immoral and inexcusable. We must condemn it, name it, and use it to ensure that the behaviors and attitudes are no longer reflected anywhere. Our law codes from the Mishnah to the more modern Responsa literature attempted to address some of it, and most often imperfectly.  Our vigilance is crucial, and our awareness of our textual misdeeds should lead us to turn toward what is right and just. From then to now.

When we see what is happening in Afghanistan and the real threat to women and girls at the hands of the Taliban, we pay close attention. They are in real danger and at great risk.  As some escape out of the country, too many have been left behind to the whim and whip of their potential captors who have taken over their country.  No one is the “sexual prerogative of another”. These women need the US and the international community to bear witness to protest their atrocities and to apply pressure to a Taliban regime. The world must speak up for the women, to condemn brutality, and to promote the protection of their dignity and human rights. My prayer this Shabbat is for our Afghani sisters though I know it will not be enough to save them.

Shabbat Shalom!

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