Friday, August 28, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ki Tetzei 5775--Re-Honoring Inconsistency

It’s one of the more flippant musings I’ve written over the years, and I’m in a flippant mood, what with school starting Monday, religious school starting soon thereafter, and HHD choir rehearsals and other preparations in full swing. I revel in inconsistencies. So I thought I’d give this musing from 8 years ago a fresh coat of paint. Enjoy.

Honoring Inconsistency

Boy, when we are taught that the Torah is not in heaven, and that we (either independently, or through the lens of the rabbis, who so boldly usurped interpretive authority for themselves) are capable of understanding it, are we given a serious challenge. Despite the Torah’s claim that it is not too baffling for us, there are large portions of the Torah that are truly baffling and difficult to understand (so much so, that the rabbis went to great lengths to insure that no one might inadvertently transgress.) Our parasha this week, Ki Tetzei, is no exception. It's a wonderful parasha, full of laws and concepts, many of which are models used in our own times as the basis for ethical and fair systems. It's also full of a lot of misogynist ideas, along with not a few head-scratchers.

Let's take a look, shall we? A flippant look, perhaps, but a look nonetheless.

You can have your pick of beautiful female captives, and have your way with her, but you must allow her time to grieve, and you cannot enslave her. (21:10-14)

So we accept that captives are an end product of battles, and that includes women who have lost their husbands. It's alright to take them to your bed. Still, there’s a hint of social consciousness and compassion here. Guess it sort of mitigates the realities an already undesirable situation. Sort of.

You can love your second-born son more than your first-born, but you must not deny the first-born his birthright. (21:15-17)

And the Torah holds up such great examples of this, in the stories of our forefathers and fore-mothers, doesn't it? (ha ha.)

You can take your defiant child to the elders of your town and they will stone him to death (21:18-21)

Oh, you can dance around it by saying "well, no one ever really did that, or would do that." Can we be really sure of that?

You can publicly impale someone who has been put to death, but you can't leave the body up overnight, as that would be degrading. (21:22-23)

So we have approval of the death penalty, and even public display of the criminal...we just can't overdo the exposure.

You gotta care for and return lost property (22:1-4)

Ah, one of which we can be proud. See my oft recycled musing for this parasha on this theme.

No cross-dressing! (22:5)

Taken in context or out of context, it's still the same. So to whom and just when does this apply, exactly, in our time?

Don't take the mother bird with her young. Just take the young from the nest and leave the mother. (22:6)

I won't rehash the endless debates on this one. Every time I think I've figured it out, someone else points out another understanding or interpretation.I still don’t get it.

If you have a roof,  terrace, or balcony, put up a safety railing! (22:8)

Duh! Yet how often we ignore this simple requirement, and all the righteous ideas that can be extrapolated from it. I’ve devoted an entire musing to this one: Metaphorical Parapets.

Do not plant a second kind of crop in your vineyard. Don't plow using an ox and an ass together. Don't mix wool and linen. (22:9-11)

OK, whatever you say G"d. Part 1 makes a little sense. Shall I even mention that Gan Eden was full of a variety of trees? Part 2 also makes a little sense. It’s not fair to either the ox or the ass, and it won’t do wonders for your own productivity. I just don't get part 3. Do you? Shatnez, for me, just falls under the WTF? category. What, that the components of mixed fabrics shrink at different rates was a concern back then?  I’ll overlook the priestly vestments and the coverings of the mishkan entirely. (One of the least convincing arguments about shatnez for me is that it was prohibited to the people precisely because it was what the priests wore. Feh.)

Put tassels on the four corners of your garments. (22:12)

Tassels? Sure, why not? And maybe I'll go do a striptease later... (When I think of tassels, I’m thinking of corn. Ever gone corn detasseling?  You wanna talk about a hard, minimum-wage job? Ask any teen from the rural midwest.)  And, of course, the tzitzit were shatnez. That’s OK, because that was how the Jewish people could show they believed they were a kingdom of priests. Right. See the previous thought.

If you're going to accuse your wife of not having been a virgin when you married, you'd better be right, or you'll be flogged, have to pay a fine, and be stuck with your wife forever. If, however, it turns out the wife really wasn't a virgin, she gets stoned to death. (22:13-21)

Once again, the man gets off lighter. Sheesh!

Get caught sleeping with someone else's wife, and both of you die. (22:22)

Now that's pretty straightforward. However, if it were truly enforced, I suspect our population might be quite a bit lower.

Engaged virgins beware when you're in town: make sure you shout and resist when someone tries to rape you, or you will be stoned to death along with your attacker. If you get raped in the countryside or the boondocks, you get the benefit of the doubt, and only your attacker will be put to death. (22:23-27)

Blame the victim? This one just doesn't fly for me. Still, one can hold it up as a brief example of trying to give women some rights and protection. I also wonder--more of that anti-urban bias here?

Men: get caught raping a virgin and you have to marry her for life (and pay the bride-price to her father.) (22:28)

My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime. That is, of course, if you think a rape victim would want to be married to her rapist for the rest of her life. Maybe Donald Trump thinks this way.

Don't marry your father's ex-wife. (23:1)

That's just yucky. I agree with this one. But we know it’s happened.

Soldiers: No wet dreams inside the camp! Stay away from camp for a day and cleanse yourself. Put the latrines outside the camp, and be sure to cover up your own sh*t.(23:10-15)

Once again,war is a given. So is taking a sh*t. So why couldn't nocturnal emissions also be thought of as normal rather than unclean?

Do not return a slave seeking refuge to his master, and don't mistreat them. (23:16-17)

Take a look at some of the slavery supporting rhetoric spouted by American rabbis just before and during the Civil War. Guess they didn't get this simple and straightforward rule.

Don't be a cultic prostitute. And don't bring ill-gotten gains as donations/sacrifices (23:18-19)

And how many Jewish institutions receive money from those who accumulated it in part through illicit activities?

Don't charge interest on loans to your own people........but it's ok to charge interest to foreigners (23:20-21)

Whatever happened to the idea of one law for you and the strangers who dwell in your midst? This law has always troubled me. And I've seen far too many Jewish businessmen "stick it to the schwartzes." We ought to petition G"d for a change in this one.

If you make a vow to G"d, keep it! (23:22-24)

Another Duh! Especially since the Torah also takes great pains to show us how to make expiation when we fail to fulfill them.

You can eat an occasional grape or fig or whatever when you are passing through someone's fields, but you can't harvest for yourself from his crops. (23:25-26)

I've always wanted to use these two p'sukim when discussing issues of copyright and fair use. A musician's music, a writer's words, a designer's artwork, all are like the farmer's crop, are they not? So what, exactly, is fair use when you’re just "passing through?"

You can't remarry your ex-wife (24:1-4)

Another one that looks good in theory...but since t’shuva is a core concept in Judaism…why not approve of reconciliation between divorced spouses?

Newlyweds are exempt from military service for a year (24:5)

Well, it actually only applies to men, apparently. Otherwise, it makes sense.

Don't take as pledge or in pawn that which someone depends upon for their livelihood (24:6)

Another good one. Wonder how we could rework this to apply to "pay-day loans." Maybe we can even connect to student loans?

A Jew who kidnaps another Jew is put to death. (24:7)

So it's OK to kidnap a non-Jew? I suppose the Shin Bet (and the CIA) exploit that loophole to the fullest. Why is kidnapping a death-penalty offense? Seriously?

Do what the priest says about your skin infections (24:8-9)

Nowadays, I'm not sure always following a doctor's orders (or a priest's) is good advice. Did priests, like some doctors, have a G”d complex? I’ll bet priests got it wrong a lot of the time.

You can't enter someone's house to retrieve an item given in pledge, and if it is something they need to survive the night, you must return it to them by nightfall (24:10-13)

That's nice and fair and compassionate. Tell that to all the big mortgage companies and banks. Repo folks. Loan sharks.

Don't abuse or take advantage of a needy laborer, and pay him his wages when due - whether fellow Jew or stranger. (24:14-15)

Finally, one that applies to everyone! Wal-Mart, are you listening? BTW, tips are a normative part of a waiter’s income, so when you don’t tip fairly, you are depriving a needy laborer of his wages.

Parents are not executed for the sins of their children (and vice versa) but they are only executed for their own crimes. (24:16)

OK, that's nice, except people still get executed.

Do not deny a stranger, orphans, or widows their rights, and treat them fairly. (24:17-18)

'Nuff said! Now just do it!

Don't glean every last bit of crop from your fields, but leave some for the needy. (24:19-22)

Would that more of us followed this precept.

There's a limit to how much punishment you can mete out. Don't degrade those getting punished further. (25:1)

I guess this refers to "cruel and unusual punishment." Wouldn't torture fit under this as well? For that matter, 49 lashes doesn’t sound very compassionate and non-degrading. One lash in public is degrading.

Don't muzzle your ox while he's working in the field helping you thresh. (25:4)

Animals count, too! Don't be cruel. Go Humane Society! Go ASPCA! (Go PETA? What would the Torah say about some of their tactic?)

Levirate marriage.(25:5-10)

Just do the right thing, guys! (Of course, does the woman get to say no?)  Then again, levirate marriage may be a seemingly good idea in theory that sucks in practice. Plus, someone ends up with a missing shoe.

Don't fight dirty; no hitting below the belt (i.e. if you grab someone's cojones during a fight, your hand will get cut off!) (25:11-12)

Gee, we seem to revel in watching unfair fights these days.

Use honest weights (i.e., be honest in your business dealings.) (25:13-16)

Can’t argue with this one, however it seems to be practiced more in the breech than as the rule. One Standard

You shall remember what Amalek did to you..................blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Don't forget! (25: 17-19)

OK, remember to forget - don't forget that! A puzzle worthy of Will Shortz and the late Merl Reagle. And another topic for another musing The Choice of Memory.

It's G"d's word. It must be consistent. Yeah right. Since when has G"d been consistent? So it's no surprise that G"d's Torah is as well. It's my "b'tzelem anashim" theory again. If we reflect what is in G"d, then G"d reflects all the best and worst that is in us as well.

Yes, there are lots of explanations, work-arounds, smoothing-overs, apologetics, etc. for this mish-mash. Yet must it be coherent and consistent? Or can we learn something from the inconsistency (situational decision-making, perhaps? Oh, there’s a slippery ethical slope? Or is it?))

I'm going to spend my Shabbat being inconsistent, to honor G"d's inconsistency. Care to join me?

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian

©2015 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Teitzei 5774 - Microcosm
Ki Teitzei 5773 - Be True To Who You Are
Ki Teitzei 5772 - The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 -  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard