The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ki Teitzei: If a bird's nest chance to be before thee

We're at that part of Deuteronomy where there are long lists of commandments, seemingly in no particular order. The rabbis are fascinated with this; what seems like random data often contains hidden messages. Moralists like to make lists of rules in order from most important to least important, but the list of rules in this week's Torah portion scatter across the moral compass from soulful and empathetic, to peculiar and enigmatic, to wicked and cruel (if actually carried out). It's hard to write a commentary about a list of rules in no particular order with no plot, but I'll do my best.

The first commandment in this Torah portion is an attempt to minimize the violent rapes of conquered women that comes with conquering a foreign city (a practice that did not end in Ancient times, but was more prevalent back then). The Torah's solution is to create rules for sexual plunder. To a modern conscience, allowing for sexual plunder at all seems reprehensible, but to the Ancients, it was pretty standard, and the common way to motivate soldiers in your army to fight for you, and impossible to control once it got started. The Torah suggests that if an Israelite soldier wants a particular captive woman, he must marry her. He must invite her into his household, shave off her hair (so that he is forced to deal with her based on her personality rather than her looks), change her clothes from foreign dress to Israelite dress, and live with the soldier for a whole month before he is allowed to consummate the marriage. If, during that time, he decides he does not want to marry her, she is to be a free woman, and not a slave.

OK, so yuck, but not as bad as raping and murdering her, which was pretty common in Ancient conquests. It is questionable whether the captive woman has any say in the arrangement (which makes it still rape) but she either gets treated as a wife or a free woman, which gives her more rights than she would as an alien or a slave.

Disobedient sons are to be flogged. If they remain disobedient, they are to be stoned to death in public. The rabbis later mitigated this, based on the way that the commandment is worded. If a youth (from age 12 to age 12½) who is both a glutton and a drunkard disobeys his parents, both his parents (if they decide to do so) will bring the son to the court to trial. If the court finds the son guilty, the son is to be stoned to death by all the men of the city. The Talmud tells us that courts never permitted the execution to occur.

If you see a beast of burden collapse under its load, you are required to help the animal to its feet.

Then we find this passage:
If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young: But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. [Deuteronomy 22: 6-7].
One of the great villains of the Talmud is former rabbi Elisha ben Abuya. He was a prominent rabbi who lost his faith and became an apostate. The Talmud tells the story of how he lost his faith. He was looking out his window, and he saw a boy climb a tree to steal some eggs from a bird's nest on one of the branches. The boy tried to shoo the mother away from the nest with his hand (to obey this commandment), and lost his balance and fell, snapping his neck and killing him instantly. Elisha ben Abuya could not understand why God  would claim that shooing away the bird would prolong the boy's life, and yet the boy died fulfilling the commandment. He lost his faith in that moment.

If a man rapes a virgin woman betrothed to another man, then the man must pay a dowry to the woman's father, and must marry her and is not permitted to divorce her. While this seems barbaric, it is better than killing her, and it is better, in a highly patriarchal society, to setting her loose after she is no longer a virgin (and therefore less marriageable). The rapist must financially support his victim for life.

Soldiers in an encampment should defecate outside the camp, and must bury their feces.

Do not charge interest when loaning money to another Israelite.

You are permitted to eat fruit while working in another person's orchard, as long as you don't carry food away from the work site.

Pay your laborers daily so that they have the money as soon as they stop working each day. This is where the particular idea in the Mark Master Mason degree comes from.

Do not be too thorough in harvesting your crops. Leave some for the orphan, the alien and the widow to glean. Gleaning is an interesting form of support for the poor. Rather than hand money or food to the poor, allow them to work your lands for their own subsistence.

40 lashes is too many. From this, the rabbis of the Talmud insisted that 39 lashes was the maximal corporal punishment.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading grain.

If a brother dies childless, and leaves his wife a widow, his brother is obliged to marry the widow and take care of her. If he refuses, he can take his case up with the courts. His sister-in-law will pluck off his shoe, and spit in his face as a testimony that he did not choose to marry her.

Finally, the Israelites are to remember that the Amelekites were very cruel to them, slaughtering the Israelites as they left Egypt. The Torah, paradoxically, commands that: "thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it." [Deuteronomy 25:19].

How does one simultaneously blot out the remembrance of someone and yet not forget them? The common interpretation is to destroy all traces of Amalek, and never forget their cruelties towards the Israelites. This is a dangerous combination. The Bible calls for a total extermination of the Amalekites. God (through Samuel) dethrones Saul, after a war of extermination of the Amalekites, for not killing Agag, the king of the Amalekites. Haman from the Book of Esther is considered to be a surviving Amalekite. Today, some of the religious Zionists regard the Palestinians as Amalekites, and use this to justify future genocides. It's all very ugly in how it can be interpreted.

There is a virtue in remembering that certain peoples have committed great atrocities. It does not seem that there is much virtue in firing up that remembrance to commit new ones.

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