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Parashat Hashavua Ki Teitzei 2005 / 5765 - The Law of the Pretty Woman: Pagan Sensibilities, Jewish Law

15.09.2005 by

This week's parsha - Ki Tetse - begins with a fascinating law, known as the Law of the Pretty Woman. The Torah says: "When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hands, and you will take captives. And you see among the captives a pretty woman, and you desire her, and take her for a wife. And you shall take her into your house, and she shall shave her head, and let her fingernails grow. And she shall remove the clothing of her captivity from herself and sit in your house and weep for her father and her mother a month of days, and afterwards you may have intercourse with her and she will be yours for a wife. And if it shall come to pass that you do not desire her, send her on her way; but sell, you shall surely not sell her for money, do not deal unfairly with her, since you have afflicted her." I'd like to focus on the weeping and mourning which the woman is allowed/instructed to do for her father and mother.

Traditionally, there are two basic, not necessarily contradictory, explanations for this. The first is simply that this is a humane gesture to the captive; she is given time to mourn her family and begin to come to terms with her new life with the Jewish people. Additionally, the Rabbis believe that, although the Torah does give in to the 'evil inclination' of the Jewish soldiers and permits them to take women captives as wives, it really prefers that this not happen. Therefore, the Torah mandates these mourning customs, which are actually designed to make the girl unattractive to her Jewish captor and convince him to forget the whole thing, not marry her, and let her go. Her sitting in his house, crying, with a shaven head, no manicure, dressed in mourning, for a month, is meant to present a not-so-pretty picture, and, hopefully, the soldier will no longer find her so desirable and will set her free.

There is an interesting argument in the Talmud (Yevamot, 48b) about this mourning period. Rabbi Eliezer understands the verse simply and literally: she is given this time to mourn her lost (or dead) parents. Rabbi Akiva, however, has a novel understanding of the verse. He believes that "her father and her mother" actually refers not to her parents, but to her lost gods, the pagan religion from which she has been forcibly taken. Rabbi Akiva gets this idea from a verse in Jeremiah which describes idol worshippers in a derogatory manner: "They say to a tree 'you are my father', and to a stone 'you have given birth to me'". Derogatory or not, Rabbi Akiva infers from this verse that the relationship this woman has with her idols is a close and deep one, like that between parents and children. The Torah, therefore, is telling us here that a person's faith, culture and community are as much his 'parents' as his biological mother and father are, and that relationship should be respected. When severed, it should be mourned.

Halachically, the difference between these two positions is this: if the woman has no parents (because she had been, for example, orphaned years earlier) then, according to Rabbi Eliezer, she would not need the thirty day mourning period, whereas, according to Rabbi Akiva, since she is mourning not her biological parents but, rather, her lost culture and religion, she would. The normative Halachic position is that the law goes according to Rabbi Akiva. Although the law that the pretty woman is given thirty days to mourn her parents is, in itself, very humane, Rabbi Akiva's position, that this time is given to her to mourn her lost religion, is almost unbelievable in its sensitivity, thoughtfulness and (dare I say it?) pluralism. The Torah is NOT condoning paganism, or excusing it, but the Torah IS recognizing the very real affection and connection that its adherents may feel for it, and therefore makes room for the idol worshipper to mourn those same religious practices which the Torah itself, again and again, so forcefully prohibits. The Torah may condemn idol worship, and, by extension, idol worshippers, but it recognizes their essential humanity, as well as the strength and honesty of the feelings they have for the religious culture into which they were born. Here, with this law, these feelings are encouraged, and given expression.

This alone is certainly a lot for us to think about. However, there is another remarkable aspect to the pretty woman's mourning period. Maimonides (1135-1204), in his Laws of Mourning, cites the law of the pretty woman as the source for the thirty-day period of mourning observed by Jews after the death of a close relative. According to this way of thinking, not only does the Torah grant this pagan woman thirty days to mourn her lost parents/religion, but the Rabbis see this as teaching us what our normative behavior should be when we mourn a loved one. The Rabbis, it would seem, not only understand and accept this gesture to the humanity and inner life of the pagan, they also have no compunction about using it as a model for our own behavior. Rather than looking askance at the thirty-day mourning period as something pertaining to the pagan experience and, therefore, outside of our own, they see it as something essentially human, neither Jewish nor gentile. If this is what the Torah thinks people should do when they have experienced a loss, we will not be too particular about borrowing this custom and using it ourselves, as the Jewish way of mourning, even though its initial context is both negative - a delaying tactic to make the pretty woman appear less attractive to her captor - and - according to Rabbi Akiva's position that she is actually mourning her gods - referring to pagan sensibilities. When it comes to open-mindedness, empathy, and humanity, we can certainly learn a good deal from the Rabbis!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The Torah may condemn idol worship, and, by extension, idol worshippers, but it recognizes their essential humanityRabbi Shimon

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