Portion Challenges Us to Rethink What Is Just


On Sunday, Aug. 19, Jews around the world welcomed the month of Elul with a single blast of the shofar. At the kotel, women who gathered in honor of Rosh Hodesh Elul were arrested for wearing modest ritual garb. They were removed from this holy place before they could hear the shofar. Their arrest signified the state's denial of their right to practice their Judaism by welcoming the new month with prayer and song.

This week, Jews around the world read Parshah Ki Tetze. This compendium of civil, criminal and family laws complements the establishment of the judicial system outlined in the preceding portion, Shoftim. The opening verses of Ki Tetze introduce the case of a warrior who has taken captives, including "a beautiful woman … you desire … and would take … to wife."

The text directs the victor to give the captive time to mourn her family, and, should he "no longer want her," he must "release her outright." Although we may initially read these words as fair, our Torah assumes this captive as an "other," an object, first of desire and subsequently as potential inconvenience. The captive is subjugated to a system in which she has neither voice nor will.

The portion continues with regulations that, if followed, can create and sustain "a balanced society in which the poor and weak are legally protected from the rich and strong, in which both property and human lives are respected, and — most importantly — in which individuals are subject to the community and its laws," writes scholar Adele Berlin. This portion includes many injunctions that establish protection for the weak: "You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless … when you reap the harvest in your field … it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow."

Yet these attempts to create balance and fairness are built on a foundation of patriarchy, where men inherit the rights to subjugate and legislate the desires and freedoms of women. These laws underscore the discrepancies between the rights of women and men; women's sexuality is transgressive and punishable when beyond the confines of marriage, and, if a woman is raped, she can be killed for her failure to "cry out for help," or she can be forced to marry her rapist.

As we read, we are struck that the assumptions of privilege that depend upon an individual's gender continue to inform what is today considered "legal" at the Western Wall.

Before the portion comes to a close, there is a short paragraph on weights and measures: "You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller … you must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that your God is giving you." Did our ancestors somehow sense the limitations of their vision, sensing that every society in history has suffered from "blind spots"?

Ki Tetze challenges us to re-examine our understanding of fairness. The framers of Israel's Declaration of Independence understood that a modern state had to be built on a foundation of full equality of all citizens. Ki Tetze reminds us of the immorality of using different measures to judge. We blow the shofar every morning during the month of Elul to remind us that we all are created in God's image. Women are not second-class people. If we want to continue to endure, we must create paths to holiness that honor the rights of every human being. This is the challenge of this new month and this new year.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.


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