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by Hannah Adler-Levine
Shabbat Shalom! My Torah portion is Ki Taytze in Deuteronomy. It’s full of many laws, 72 according to Maimonides, more than any other portion in the Torah! Lots of these laws are about how to treat other people, like in my 2nd & 3rd aliyot, which discuss taking care of the widow, orphan & foreigner. In one aliyah it says you shouldn’t take a widow’s clothing as a pledge. My mandarin teacher at school has an interesting system. If you borrow something of hers, she takes something of yours in return. I had no pencil once, so in return for her pencil, I reluctantly gave up my shoe. Being the daydreamer I am, I walked out at the end with her pencil in one hand & a shoe-less foot! This is what my portion says not to do, although I’m not widowed, orphaned or a foreigner. If I were, & had to hand over my clothing, I’d be in serious trouble. Can you imagine? Even today, people who need loans pay interest rates that practically take the clothing off of them!
I always thought that the Torah was in a sense perfect; it never made any mistakes & was very fair. After all, it is our sacred text! Wouldn’t you expect that to be perfect? I did. Then I discovered, in my 1st & 2nd aliyot, that the Torah contradicts itself & doesn’t seem perfect at all! 1st it says you should punish children for their parents’ actions. Then it says you shouldn't be punished for the sins of your parents. Specifically it says to punish 10 generations of descendents! Even worse, these verses are interpreted to mean forever! Why punish those who live so far in the future that their lives would otherwise not be affected? This was not fair! How could I respect this text?!
I had been swimming on the surface for a while then, so I decided to go for some deep text diving. With the help of my tutor, Sue Harris, I put on my gear, & read lots of texts about mamzers, Moabites & Ammonites, the 3 types of people being punished. I wanted to know if later Judaism agreed with the biblical text.
The prophet Ezekiel, who lived in the 6th century B.C.E., did not agree with punishing children for their parent’s sins, as you’ll hear when I read my haftorah. He agreed with me!
Now let’s learn about the book of Ruth, which deals with Moabites:
According to some scholars, Ruth was written in the 5th century BCE. It says Ruth the Moabite married a Jewish man & the Messiah will be her descendent! But this was against the Torah law which said Moabites & Ammonites couldn't enter the congregation of G-d! The rabbis said the Book of Ruth shows the Torah law applied only to Moabite men. I think some Jews didn’t agree with the text, so they wrote this book to try to cut away at the law.
The next text we found in Talmud Brachot 28a also supports my view. It's about Moabite and Ammonite men! The story itself is from the late 1st or early 2nd century. In it, we learn about an Ammonite who converted & wanted to marry a Jewish woman. Rabbi Yehoshua found historical facts & texts to convince the other Rabbis that Ammonite & Moabite men should be allowed to marry Jewish women, doing away with the restriction in my parsha. Rabbi Yehoshua’s rulings were almost always accepted. He was known to be compassionate and humane. Because of this, he found a way to change the Torah law; he had an open heart & knew the Torah law was sometimes unfair and overly harsh.
We’ve looked at Ammonites & Moabites, now let’s look at mamzers, who are a more complicated issue. To begin with, the word mamzer only appears twice in the Tanach, once in my 1st aliyah & once in the prophets, which left me struggling with the meaning. Not until the 3rd century could the Rabbis define it. They said that a mamzer is a child born as a result of: 1-incest, 2-a married women committing adultery, or 3 – the child of a woman who thinks her 1st husband dies, gets remarried, has a child with her 2nd husband, then discovers her 1st husband is alive.
Over time, the laws about mamzerim were changed greatly, as people’s opinions changed. Early on, the Rabbis concluded that scholarly mamzers should get priority over high priests who weren’t scholars; all mamzers were given all of the rights & privileges of other Jews except regarding marriage, although they could marry other mamzers or converts. Since this still wasn’t fair, the rabbis also said you can’t investigate to see if someone’s a mamzer; if they chose to keep it a secret, then a secret it stayed. This almost eliminated the rule completely, because people couldn’t investigate to see if someone was a mamzer. Today, aside from some cases within the Orthodox community, the laws against mamzers are never applied. As a result, most mamzers can marry anyone they want and are no longer discriminated against in Judaism. But Orthodox women are the most negatively affected by the laws about mamzerim, because they have no say when it comes to getting a Jewish divorce. When an Orthodox woman wants a divorce, she needs to get a Jewish divorce paper, called a Get, from her husband. If he refuses to give it to her, and she gets re-married and has a child, her child is automatically considered a mamzer in the Orthodox community. L As a result, Orthodox women are faced with a very difficult decision that will effect the rest of their lives.
In the end I concluded the original rule was to protect mamzers. The penalty for adultery was death, so mamzerim who survived already had a tough life, having no parents. I can imagine mamzers were bullied by Jews picking on these people born by adultery or incest. Perhaps originally the Torah’s rule kept mamzers separated from Jews, so they’d hopefully never get bullied this way. In addition, this law protected other people as well, hopefully by preventing adultery & incest in the 1st place, since the cost of it was so large & hurt many people in the process. But even today, American society hasn’t figured out how to prevent adultery & incest or how to treat the children that result.
This brings me to how I feel about my readings. I very much appreciate that the rabbis did so much to change the rules, but it bothers me that it wasn't just done from the beginning. Why couldn’t the Torah’s authors have seen things the way the later rabbis did?
The Torah’s now less than perfect in my eyes. I realized the people writing it were humans that aren’t always right about issues in a way that we would want. I know they lived in a very different time & place. But knowing it had imperfections makes me respect the Torah even more, because it gives me more of a connection: I too am not perfect. This also makes God more realistic to me. God gave us the thoughts and ideas that went into the Torah, & must’ve known about its flaws, but chose to include them anyway. Why? Because God recognized people are imperfect, & that we aren’t able to follow laws perfectly. But God wanted us to work together to make the world & our Torah more perfect, which is what’s happening over time. This makes God closer to me, since God feels more human. But you might see it differently. After all, the Torah is like a mirror; the Torah never changes, but everyone that looks in it sees something different. What do you see in your mirror now?