Seth Krosner, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from San Diego, is a trauma surgeon. He is active in Jewish Education, synagogue leadership and is serving as Chair of “JPride,” an outreach committee to the Jewish LGBT community of San Diego. He can be reached at DocSMK@aol.com.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.
If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife.
The collection of mitzvot in this parasha varies widely—laws of lending, laws of marriage and divorce, laws for dealing with lost property, instructions on how to keep a military camp pure. There seems little to tie them together. They also seem to run the gamut from Torah at its most humane to Torah at its most seemingly unfair.
The charitable laws, cited above, of leaving the excess of our fields and vineyards for the needy are also discussed in Kedoshim (Leviticus 19). They are central to our cultural identity. We teach them to our children, quote them in fundraising literature, and proudly cite them for non-Jews in comparative religion classes and forums. They are among our traditions most humane values. When we are blessed with abundance, we must share with the hungry. Even in years of bad harvest, some of our produce must be set aside for the poor and hungry. These Mitzvot stand at the center of Judaism’s emphasis on, even obsession with charity.
Tzedakah is one of Judaism’s best ideals—it is part of our identity, even among those with no particular religious leaning. These laws are taught to us based on personal empathy—provide for those in want, because we know what it is like to be a stranger, a slave in Egypt. A great deal of Talmudic interpretation and scholarship has gone into developing the charitable impulse—how much to give, in what form, the hierarchy of charitable gifts. This has allowed us to emphasize providing for the hungry in a world where most of us do not have vineyards and fields to open to gleaners at harvest time.
On the other hand, the laws concerning rape (one such is cited above) seem blatantly unfair to a modern reader. A betrothed woman raped in a town is considered an adulteress, since in town there would have been help had she cried out. (A woman raped in the countryside incurs no such guilt). The penalty for raping a virgin is to pay a fine (to her father) and to marry her — hardly the justice any victim would seek. In fact, it seems more like condemning the woman to a lifetime of serial rape. This is not a Mitzvah most of us would be eager to point out to strangers as one of Judaism’s “ideals”.
Arguments that this law would once have served to protect the woman’s future, however valid, strike me as apologist. The simple fact is that our tradition was once more kind to men than women. Women, especially rape victims, did not have the rights we would now take for granted. Fortunately, we have a strong tradition of rabbinic scholarship to help us interpret difficult text. The law for having a disobedient son stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21), for example, has had so many rabbinic requirements attached to it that one Midrash claims that it was never applied. Unfortunately, the rabbinic tradition has done little to moderate the commandment that a rapist must marry his victim. Some scholarship claims that the woman (or her father) may refuse the match, but this is not a universal opinion as presented in the Talmud.
These disparate commandments underscore the need for ongoing engagement with the text. We have built the beautiful tradition of Tzedakah, in all its manifestations, out of (among others) the commandments to leave the gleanings of the field and the final pickings of the vineyard for the destitute. It is one of our finest cultural achievements.
The text for marrying off a woman to her rapist needs more attention. Rather than jettisoning sections of the Torah as “outmoded,” we would do better to study and wrestle with these mitzvoth, and with our own history. Our tradition tells us that we are allowed, even encouraged, to argue and disagree—we’re good at it. It’s what Jews have done for at least the last 2 millennia. What is the law trying to accomplish? If it is protecting of the woman’s future, is this the best means towards that end?
Scholarship and interpretation have allowed our tradition to account for changes in our world while still using the Torah as our guide. They have kept Torah a living force, not a dusty, fossilized heirloom locked in some cosmic china cabinet.