The Status of Women

Ki Tetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 17, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Gender

At JTS’s opening barbecue for faculty and their families last week, my son and daughter-in-law told us sheepishly that their fourteenth wedding anniversary had caught them unawares. To my mind, I quipped, such oversight is the mark of a good marriage. To be sure, they had reason to be distracted. That same week they had returned with their five children from two months on an Israeli kibbutz and were still in the midst of moving into a new home. However, in a household where Eshet Hayil (“A Woman of Valor”) is sung every Friday evening at the Shabbat dinner table, the year is punctuated with weekly moments of mutual appreciation. Surely once a year is not enough.

I grew up in a household where my father sang with gusto the well-known tribute from Proverbs 31:10-31 to my mother each week. The ritual afforded him a sacred respite to reaffirm his affection and esteem for his soul mate in front of his children. Like him, I have intoned that ancient love song to my own beloved for forty-five years. Not only does the ritual encourage one to express what the pace of the week inhibits, but the declaration assures children that the love of their parents is undiminished. And I am grateful beyond words that Eshet Hayil resounds in the homes of our three children. Of such legacies bonds are built.

Eshet Hayil has made it back unabridged in the new edition of the Conservative siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (310). The first edition of that siddur from 1985 excerpted only a few verses (724). What magnified the editor’s discomfort with the paean was the fact that the half-empty page on which the excerpt appeared had ample room to print it all. Far be it for Sim Shalom to give offense to the feminists who had railed at the domestic portrait of Proverbs’ ideal wife as a straightjacket. But in their literalism, they threw out the baby with the bathwater.

Words carry more than their surface meanings. To fixate on their literal meanings turns a deep channel into a shallow trough. While I find many lines of the portrait still strong and graceful, this poem as a whole is a vehicle for me to voice deep feelings hard to put into words. My sentiments reshape the frozen words to accord with the intensity of the moment. A fixed liturgy requires of its worshippers the ability to soar, a task greatly facilitated by song. That is why Eshet Hayil must be sung. As the years take their toll, I find its words allow me to aver that “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

In short, marriage, as everyone knows, is a labor-intensive partnership. One directive in this week’s parashah gives unexpected expression to this truism. Deuteronomy goes out of its way to protect newlyweds from intrusion by the state. “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married” (24:5). This, I submit, is one of the most tender laws in the entire Torah, evincing a remarkable degree of sensitivity for the welfare of the bride. Earlier, Deuteronomy had exempted from military service a betrothed man, mainly out of concern that he not be denied the satisfaction to reap what he had sown, “lest he die in battle and another marry her” (20:7). But in our instance, it is the joy and fulfillment of the bride that is sought. In a society without courtship, love follows marriage. Isaac came to love Rebecca only after he had married her (Genesis 24:67). Deferred from military service for a full year, a newly married husband is granted this time to grow comfortable with his wife and to develop the ease of communication and rapport that are the building blocks of an enduring relationship. In the time allotted, they may even start a family.

Deuteronomy generally displays a high regard for the dignity of women. They are neither property nor domestics to be abused and discarded, but persons entitled to rights and respect. At the beginning of our parashah, a woman taken captive in war is not to be married immediately. Rather the Israelite who desires her is to allow her to “trim her hair, pare her nails and discard her captive’s garb” (21:12). In that state she is to sit in his house for a month mourning the loss of her parents, whom she will never see again. Only then after she has had time to adjust to the radical change in her life is the Israelite permitted to marry her. And should he ever wish to end the relationship, he may not sell her as a slave but only release her outright.

Deuteronomy generally exhibits a distaste for polygamy. It frowns on an Israelite king with a large harem (17:17) or even on the taking of two wives by an individual Israelite. If one of them ends up out of favor, her son who happens to be the husband’s firstborn is not to be denied the right of primogeniture (21:15-17).

Elsewhere, husbands are admonished not to defame their wives. Should a man find his new spouse not to his liking and accuse her of not being a virgin, if the father disproves the charge the husband is flogged, fined, and forced to retain his wife for life (22:13-19).

Finally, Deuteronomy introduces a formal procedure for divorce initiated by the husband if “he find[s] something obnoxious about” his wife (24:1). Particularly noteworthy is that Deuteronomy makes no mention of the public ordeal prescribed by numbers 5:11-31 for a woman suspected by her husband of adultery. Divorce was far more civilized and as Deuteronomy 24:2 implies, did not doom the woman to remain single.

Laws embody values. The legal advances of Deuteronomy endeavor to bring the status of women into closer accord with the high regard in which they are held by Proverbs. The concurrence derives from a common origin: both books draw heavily from the universalistic and humanistic wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. Second Kings had good reason to portray Josiah, in whose court an early draft of Deuteronomy was authored, as the most righteous king ever to sit on the throne of David (23:25).

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.