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Friday, September 9, 2011

Ki Tetzeh: The Plight of the Captured Woman


In the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, boys were required to keep their hair short in youth, then, as they reached maturity, they were permitted to grow their hair long as a symbol of strength and virility. Indeed, Plutarch records that Spartan warriors would "curl and adorn their hair" in preparation for battle, "as a fine set of hair would make the handsome more beautiful and the ugly more terrible." (Lycurgus 22

In contrast, Spartan women, young and old, kept their hair long, the exception being a bride on her wedding day. In Spartan tradition, the bride was first "kidnapped" by her husband-to-be, who would leave her in the hands of a bridesmaid. The bridesmaid would then clip her hair short so she resembled a boy. Shorn of this symbol of masculinity and martial power - not to mention femininity - she awaited the groom in the bridal-chamber. (Lycurgus 15.3; cf. Mortals and ImmortalsOff with her head!If there was any good in this horrid ritual, it may have been to remind the groom that his bride was not an adversary on the field of battle to be conquered or defeated. Yet this lesson came at a terrible price. For a Spartan man to learn to eschew violence in the bedroom, a young woman had to be robbed of her locks of womanhood and humiliated on the day of her wedding. 

In this week's portion, Ki Tetzeh, we find a number of biblical laws that are quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Perhaps most disconcerting of all are the martial laws that relate to the captured woman. The Torah begins matter-of-factly: "When you go to war...and see among the captives a woman of beauty whom you desire and wish to take for a wife." (Deut. 21.10,11) It then prescribes a series of rituals that must be done before the Israelite man can marry her. "You shall bring her inside your home, where she shall shave her head, and let her nails grow..." She is then given “a month to weep and mourn for her mother and father.” If at this point, the man still desires to marry her, he may do so, and if not, he must set her free. (21.13-14)

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher notes that the purpose of these rituals is to make the captive woman less attractive; thus the shorn hair, unkept nails, and month of mourning. Moreover he adds that the enduring sight of the captive woman "weeping and pained" is intended to stir within the man a sense of compassion so that he is moved to give her freedom. (Commenting on vs. 21.13) To put it starkly, having suffered war, the loss of her family, capture, and possibly rape, the captive woman was made to undergo further humiliations just so that her captor could develop enough empathy to set her free. Such was the emotional obtuseness of men, even Israelite men, of that age. 

In a similar vein, we later find the Torah explaining why a victim of rape is innocent of blame. "But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death; for as when a man rises against his neighbor, and slays him, even so is this matter." (Deut. 22.26) Already in Talmudic times, the sages wondered what need was there to to say that a victim of rape is as blameless as a victim of murder. Surely, that was and should be obvious! (Cf. Sanhedrin 74a) However, if one considers the mores of 9th century BCE Sparta, the common practices of war three millenia ago, or even the "honor killings" that we hear of today, the concept of a "blameless rape victim" requires education, for it was not obvious to men of that time and the point is still too often missed by many a man today.


To return to the plight of the captive woman and her stiff-hearted captor.... Though repugnant to us, there is an enduring lesson in psychology that is contained in the process by which the captor is finally led to empathize with his captive. Anyone who has fought heatedly with a friend or a loved one knows how easy it is to forget the damage of hurtful words. Ill remarks and thoughtless insults are flung unabated until one sees in the eyes of the other the sting of hurt or tears of pain. 


It is an unfortunate flaw of human nature that we are often blind to the pain we cause until we see some outer sign of damage and humiliation. It should not be so. Better if long before the senseless quip is loosed on kin or fellow, we ask ourselves how it would feel if the arrow were shot in one's direction.

Shabbat Shalom

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