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Parashat Ki Tetze: The Beautiful Woman in Captivity and other stories where the men forget to ask the women about our experiences


 Dvar Torah by Elana Sztokman, 25-8-2018, Minyan Renana, Modi'in

Parashat Ki Tetze is the Torah portion (parasha) that is most packed with no less than 74 commandments between men – or to be more precise, commandments between men and other men, or between men and the women who didn't do anything to them. You might call this parasha, "When you are being awful, try to be a little less awful".

I'm exaggerating a bit. After all, that is only one aspect of this parasha. The parasha also has a very clear and powerful message of social justice and compassion.

  • The prohibition against taking interest, or the prohibition against exploiting workers – that are essentially calls for compassion towards workers and vulnerable populations
  • The prohibition against being mean to Edomites and Egyptians, "because you were once a stranger in his land" – this is a call for compassion towards the immigrant, or the convert, or the non-Jew
  • The prohibition against excluding lepers – this is a call for compassion towards the sick, or perhaps towards people with disabilities or special needs
  • Sending away the mother from the nest – this is a call for compassion towards animals, especially towards animals who are mothers

There are many scholars who see these commandments as radical within their cultural contexts. The idea, for example, that we have to consider the needs of day workers, or of the landless, or of lepers, or even animals – this would have been totally new for societies in biblical times. This parasha, then, is an effort to bring into the world a general view of compassion towards all creatures, especially towards those who were considered "outsiders". And the truth is, today, in many places in our world, societies are still fighting against practices of exclusion based on these same ideas.

However, the one group that does not quite merit an attitude of compassion in our parasha in our parasha is women – in particular wives. And that says something. Because in our parasha, of the 74 commandments listed, a full 15 relate to issues of marriage, sexuality, and the gender hierarchy in the family.

  • 1.The soldier who takes a beautiful woman from captivity
  • 2.A man with two wives – one loved and one hated
  • 3.The prohibition against a woman wearing clothes of a man
  • 4.A man who ruins his wife's reputation
  • 5.A man who sleeps with a married woman
  • 6.A man who sleeps with an engaged woman – or more precisely, a man who rapes her and then dies
  • 7.A man who sleeps with a virgin who is not engaged – or, more precisely, rapes her and then is forced to marry her
  • 8.The prohibition against a man to sleep with his father's wife
  • 9.The issue of mamzer – bastards – who are the children of the married woman who that man slept with
  • 10.Prohibitions against women being "escorts" (kedesha, loosely translated)
  • 11.Prohibitions against women being prostitutes (zona, loosely translated – it is not entirely clear what the difference between kedesha and zona are, but they are listed separately in the parasha)
  • 12.The divorce process – four verses that became an entire tractate, on which is based everything we know about divorce in Judaism
  • 13.A newly married man called to war
  • 14.Yebum – the levirate marriage (a man marrying the widow of his childless, dead brother)
  • 15.Halitza – the humiliation of the man who refuses to do what he is supposed to do and perform yubum

This is a lot. It's enough for us to get some ideas about what the text thinks about women, sex, and marriage. At the risk of stating the obvious, here are a few observations:

  • According to the text, women don't talk. The parasha is full of stories in which women play key roles, and yet in not one of them do we actually hear from the woman involved. Not what she thinks, not what she feels, and not what she experiences. Not when the grab her, not when they rape her, not when they marry her, not when they divorce her, not when they humiliate her, not when she is working as a prostitute, not when she dresses like a man, not when she is kicked out of the community and her children labeled "mamzer". Not one peep. Not one word do we hear from her.
  • Similarly, only men act. The entire Torah speaks by and to men. "When a man does X…." or "When you [male] do X…." Every once in a while, it is "When a man or a woman does X…." which indicates that when they say "Man" they mean "man" and not "person". The word "man" is NOT a generic in the Torah. It means man, not woman.
  • A woman does not have a say in who she marries. Obviously. Men take women, and women do what the men around them tell them to do.
  • There is no such thing as "rape". Although the act of rape appears several times in this parasha, the word "rape" does not appear, nor does the concept. When she is raped, the act is considered theft – that is, the man stole the property of the rape-victim's father.

According to Rabbi Professor Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud and author of the vital book, Rereading the Rabbis, one of the most important works on the topic of gender in Talmud and halakha, during the biblical period, women were considered chattel, not people.

This attitude has some seriously cruel implications in our parasha. We see, for example, the section about "marrying your rapist". My dear friend Josie Glausiez-Kluger, who lives here in Modi'in, wrote a brilliant article about this last year. She writes about how this approach is still present in our world in certain places. Just a year ago, Lebanon and Jordan both repealed their "marry your rapist" laws, according to which a rapist could escape punishment by agreeing to marry the woman he raped. We need to appreciate that this concept exists in our heritage, too – right here in today's parasha. We need to understand where we come from as a culture, that norms that sound so harsh and outdated did not disappear suddenly, or at all. It is taking thousands of years.

In fact, the situation may even be worsening in perhaps unlikely places. In the United States, for example, rapists have been receiving more rights than ever before – with a series of rulings and laws that give rapists custody rights over the children whom they fathered via rape, a practice that ties a rape victim to her rapist forever. For example.

The story of the beautiful woman in captivity – in which a soldier sees an enemy woman being held in captivity, and he decides to take her home – this story also has not exactly disappeared from the world. A recent documentary on the issue of Japanese War Brides who were taken to American by American soldiers after World War II tells a very similar story, which took place not all that long ago. These women had very difficult circumstances, to say the least, but we are only now starting to recognize this struggle, following the film that was created by one of the women's daughters. This is story that comes straight out of our parasha.

Also in the story about the beautiful woman in captivity, the Torah tells the story predominantly from the man's perspective. The soldier saw her, he liked the way she looked, he grabbed her, he took her home. The Torah tells him to wait a month, to do something with her hair and nails, and then if he still wants her, he can marry her. But still, we are not hearing anything about what the woman may think, feel or want.

Nevertheless, Prof Hauptman claims that there has been a linear progression in Jewish halakhic history, and that between the time of the Bible and the time of the Talmud, women advanced from the status of Chattel to the status of Second Class Citizen. This may not sound like a difference, but Prof. Hauptman demonstrates that there are significant differences. Take the issue of rape, for example. In the bible, rape was a kind of transgression among men, of one man stealing the other man's property and therefore reimbursing the man financially. But in the Talmud, the rapist was required to pay the rape victim herself – a radical shift which acknowledges that a woman has real feelings and real rights, and that a rape hurts not just the father but also the rape victim herself.


However, I would like to say that, despite everything I have said until now, despite the awful reality that biblical women often found themselves in, I actually see that Torah as trying to be compassionate towards women, in our parasha, in a certain way.

For example, the story about the beautiful woman in captivity is essentially a reprimand on the soldier. The Torah forbids him from sleeping with her until after she has mourned the loss of her family for a month – something which says that the woman has feelings! That's already something. And that Torah says specifically that he is not allowed to sell her because he tortured her. Imagine, the Torah actually says to the man, "You tortured this poor woman!"

Now, we do not know which part of the story the Torah considers torture. After all, the Torah does not say, "You grabbed her against her will, you kidnapped her against her will, and you will be sleeping with her against her will." We're definitely not there yet. It seems that the torture that the Torah is referring to has to do with the fact that she is now far from her own home, and that's it. Because the text says, "And she shall sit in your house and cry over her father and mother for 30 days." It is not the sex against her will that bothers them but rather that he has broken the family code, according to which women want to be near their families. Nevertheless, under the Torah's assumption that she is feeling loneliness, the Torah says, have empathy for her in this loneliness. And as a kind of measure-for-measure, midah k'neged midah, you shall not abandon her because you have to protect her from that loneliness. You did that to her, you made her lonely, so you must take care of that.

The commandment on the man is to consider the woman's circumstances. There is an underlying concept of how a man should look after a woman – to protect her, to not her, to consider her feelings, to not cause her pain of loneliness. In the context of our parasha, this is empathy. Compassion. Of course the Torah forgot to actually ask the woman what she wants, but within that context, I see here a theme, a basic underlying premise that a man must be compassionate towards his wife, or to any woman who he decided to "take" for himself.

Similarly, in the case of "marry your rapist", here, too, I see the commandment on the man to marry the victim and the prohibition against divorcing her a type of empathy towards the women – that is, in the context of the culture. Again, obviously the Torah did not bother to actually ask her what she wants, the Torah does not acknowledge that this is rape, and the Torah does not exactly see her as a person with complex desires other than the desire not to be alone, the need to have a man, any man, no matter who he is or what he did to her – as the Talmud says, tav l'metav tan du m'l'metav armelu, a woman would rather be married to any man than to live alone, an assumption that men made about women without ever bothering to hear from us. Yes, all this is true. But within that context, the Torah is still saying to men, be kind to the woman. You did something bad to her, and now you have to look after her. Do not cause her more pain – which, in their minds means, do not leave her alone, because loneliness is a woman's greatest suffering, they believed.


That said, although Prof Hauptman demonstrates a fascinating linear progression regarding the status of women between biblical and Talmudic times, I actually think that the medieval commentators took the Jewish attitude towards women a few steps backwards.

(Just as an aside, while I was working on this talk, I wrote to Prof. Hauptman in New York to ask her what she thought about my observation that in some cases the progression is backwards, and she responded with encouraging enthusiasm, and gave me the go ahead, so here I am… WOW!)

(Also, as an aside, the right to read the text with independent eyes was encouraged by Rabbanit Devora Evron, one of the first Orthodox women in Israel to be ordained as a rabbi, who wrote an excellent article called, "Feminist Interpretation" in which she writes, "In order to grapple with traditional interpretations, we have to expose it, in order to allow for a 'barefoot reading' of the text. That's what I'm doing here. I am offering a barefoot reading.)

So, I see in the biblical text – especially the "beautiful woman in captivity" and "marry your rapist" texts – I see an attempt to get men to express empathy towards the women whom they have harmed, even if he doesn't exactly see the woman as an actual human being. She doesn't have a voice, she doesn't have a will, she doesn't have ideas or knowledge – and yet, the man is implored to consider her feelings, and he is commanded to protect her from what they perceive as harm.

By contrast, among medieval commentators, I do not see a lot of compassion towards women. Take the story of the beautiful woman. The medieval commentators did not like this story. They believed that the man did something wrong, even sinned. But what exactly was the sin? Rashi, quoting the tractate of Kiddushin, says that the soldier gave in to his evil inclination and took "unkosher meat" – that is, a non-Jewish woman. "Because his evil inclination was seduced by her beauty, the Torah allowed him, just barely, to take her, because better that he should eat kosher meat that was not slaughtered properly than to eat mean that is not kosher at all." In other words, the man's sin is not that he tortured her but rather that he violated the rules of keeping the nation "pure" or "kosher", so to speak. (About women as "meat", we can have a whole talk just on that….) His sin was not against the woman or even against her father, but rather against his own people. He violated the rules of keeping the nation "clean". Which of course, is an issue that does not appear anywhere in the original biblical text.

Ramban (Nachmanides) says something similar: "The reason here is that she was converted against her will, and they didn't ask her if she wants to leave her religion and become Jewish, as is done with converts." For the Ramban, the man's sin is not that he took her against her will or that he separated her from her family, but rather that he performed an incorrect conversion. As if that's what this text is about. There was no issue of conversion anywhere in this text, not even a hint. Now, the Ramban, as opposed to Rashi, at least acknowledges that a woman has a will, which is something. But this is only relevant for him insofar as for him, halakhically, a conversion must not be coerced. He violated the Ramban's version of halakha, which he finds untenable. And lots of other commentators continue this thought. There is a whole halakhic thread around the permissibility of sleeping with a non-Jewish woman, as if that's what this story is about. The medieval commentators effectively ignore the main point – which is, you did something not nice to this poor woman and you need to find a way to make her life better – and instead obsess over whether the man violated the purity of the people by marrying a non-Jew. They missed the whole point. And, by the way, their reading of the story is even more male-centric than the original biblical text.

Our tradition, then, has two competing attitudes towards women. As Rabbanit Devora Evron wrote in the article I mentioned:

Regarding the traditional commentary about the beautiful woman in captivity, and especially the commandment on the woman not to do her hair and nails, these verses are interpreted by traditional commentators in different directions, even contradictory directions. And we should note that there is a connection between the commentator's view on the text and his view on women in society. There are those who see the issue of the nails and hair as an effort to make the Jewish man who captured her hate her and dismiss her, while there are others who see it as part of the 30-day period of mourning over her lost family, a transition that she needs before starting her new life. We can see that there are two different approaches to the woman. One sees her as an object that the man wants because of her beauty, so that if she's not beautiful he won't want her. Note also that this approach sees the man as being motivated purely by his own desires. By contrast, the interpretation that the woman needs to mourn her past in order to live in her new present views the woman as a person with real needs and feelings and emphasizes the Torah's responsiveness to that.

Rabbanit Evron is pointing out the tension among traditional commentaries between compassion towards women and hate towards women, or misogyny. I would like to take this argument one step further. I think that the tension has reversed over time. If, during the biblical period, women lived in a particularly awful circumstance in which they were considered chattel, and the Torah tried to get men to be compassionate towards women within that reality because even chattel has feelings and needs, by contrast, during the medieval period, when women advanced from chattel to second class citizens, the approach of compassion towards women got lost.

We can see here that history is not always linear, that basic Torah principles get lost, and that the underlying message of compassion that threads this entire parasha is so often ignored. Instead of advancing our understandings about women's experiences, the rabbis often began to impose on women new demands and responsibilities – that we be the reproducers of the nation, that we be pure, that we be vehicles who perform our duties, our own experiences be damned. As soon as we read the stories about the beautiful woman and the woman marrying her rapist within the context of our parasha, we are able to see that compassion is at the core, and that it's not about the particulars of the culture. That there is a universal message here that is meant to transcend cultures. But that messages so often gets lost.


Another important issue that comes out of the medieval commentaries on these verses is about the tension between ideals and social realities. What Rashi and Ramban are basically saying is that the man has sinned, but the Torah wants him to sin a little less. That he should eat meat that is a little less unkosher. That there is a hierarchy of sins, and that we need to deal with the reality and let go of visions of perfection. IN the ideal, they say, the man would not take this woman, but if he already did, let's deal with it. I think that's a very common attitude in the Jewish tradition. Of flexibility and adaptability and dealing with the current reality. For example, according to the Torah, at first we were not allowed to eat meat, but because of our "desires", the Torah changed the rule and we eat meat. Similarly with the Torah's attitude towards sacrifices. According to Maimonides, that is not an ideal but just a practice that came along because of social-cultural pressures from surrounding peoples. You might say the same thing about slavery. Ideally, we should not be having slaves, but if that reality seems inevitable, let's at least try and treat slaves with compassion. (Is that reality inevitable? That's another question.)

Our entire parasha is effectively that way. Dealing with realities. If you're going to do something bad, let's deal with it. Raped a virgin? Wow, that's bad, but let's see how we can fix it. You have a wife whom you hate? Wow, you're not such a nice guy, so let's try and protect that poor wife of yours. You want to steal chicks from a nest? Wow, you're quite a terrible person, so let's show you how to at least protect the mother a little. Like that, all the time dealing with realities. Teaching empathy, despite everything. Forcing some seriously imperfect men how to be a little nicer. This, too, is our heritage.

An interesting example of this approach of flexible, empathetic reality I found in a question that was asked of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef some thirty years ago – about whether to allow girls in a religious high school to wear pants so that they won't wear miniskirts.

Question: About the girls who come to their religious high school in very short skirts (mini), and we have no way to fight this, because unfortunately all barriers of modesty have been broken, and they won't listen to the teachers, and I am asking if it is not better for the girls to wear long pants rather than skirts like these, especially during the winter, when there is a chance that they will take our advice and wear pants instead of skirts.

Answer: (after a long and involved discussion) It is absolutely forbidden for girls of Israel to wear short skirts or dresses….. but where the girls will not listen to us by wearing skirts that cover their knees, it is better for them to wear pants, until we can convince all the kosher girls in Israel to wear modest clothing.

Interesting, no? Rav Ovadia Yosef is saying, deal with reality.

(Of course, the rabbis are still comparing women's bodies to meat, and even here, none of these men have considered asking girls why they dress the way they do. We are all dealing with reality, aren't we, a very stubborn reality…)


In short, the fundamental Torah principle that we get from this parasha is compassion – the idea that we are all created in a Divine image. Thank God, women's reality has changed since then, for the better. We are no longer second class citizens but simply citizens, with the right to vote, the right to open our bank accounts and businesses, the right to choose who we want to marry, or not to marry, the right to go to the police when we are raped….But still, we continue to grapple with echoes of our past and old ideas about who we should be. Rabbis still talk about us and not with us. SO many places still do not count women in a minyan. Men still try to tell women what to where and how to act and what to do with our bodies. Our society still doesn't always understand what rape is. Men still forget to ask women what we think, even about our own lives and experiences. And still, a Jewish woman can not get divorced by her own will. And suspect women are still having their babies called "mamzerim". Women still do not have the power and resources and status and voice that we deserve.

But all this is happening not because we don't understand that women are people. Rather, it is happening because we are not following the most fundamental principles of the Torah that call for compassion but instead get hung up on the wrong things. The most vital Torah principle is compassion. The rest is interpretation. It is time for us to take responsibility for how we view women, to realize that women are full people just like men, with the same needs, rights and opportunities as men – at home, at synagogue, and in the world. The time has come. 

MY wishes for 5779
אשת יפת תואר ועד מקומות שבהם שכחו לשאול את הנשים מ...

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