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Parashat Hashavua Ki Teitzei 2010 / 5770 - Utopia?

19.08.2010 by

I would like to look at some things in Parshat Ki Teitzei which relate to  the notion of creating a Utopia - a perfect society. This dream, to create as perfect world, was especially popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is still, even after the failure of Marxism, seen by many as a goal. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm apparently once said, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff, that 20 million deaths (more or less what Stalin was guilty of) would have been worth it had it led to the creation of a Utopian society. Sadly, he is not alone in his thinking.

Parshat Ki Teitzei begins with a somewhat strange commandment, called the law of the pretty woman. It goes like this: If, in the course of a war, the Jews win, and a Jewish soldier wants to take one of the enemy women (a "pretty woman", in his eyes at least) as a captive , the Torah demands that he first let her have a month to mourn her family, and only then can he take her as a wife. The traditional understanding is that the Torah would actually have preferred to simply prohibit the taking of women as spoils of war, but, realizing the futility of that - given men's propensity to think that they have a right to take the women of a defeated enemy - instead tries to prevent it: maybe our soldier will be put off by a month of her mourning (which includes her shaving her head and other unattractive behavior) and forget the whole thing. Failing that, the Torah hopes to at least humanize her ordeal - she is given the time to make a transition to what is, after all, a marriage, rather than the rape which usually takes place in these circumstances (not when the conquering army belongs to the modern State of Israel, but that's another story, which you can ask me about).

The question is, why didn't the Torah do what it really thinks is right, and simply prohibit the soldier from taking the pretty woman? Why does it compromise, by trying to make this union difficult to consummate, rather than just forbidding it? Rashi (France, 11th century) has an answer: The Torah allows the soldier to take the captive woman because of the evil inclination, for if God had not permitted him to marry her in this way, he would have simply taken her illegally. This is a remarkable admission of weakness by the Torah! Here we have God, in the Torah, constantly telling us how to live, what to eat and what to refrain from eating, who to marry and who to not, what is right and what is wrong, on just about every imaginable topic, and yet, according to this Rabbinic understanding, in this case, He feels unable to really demand what He knows to be absolutely right. In a perfect world, God would simply tell people to leave the women of the defeated enemy nation alone. However, He understands that people have an "evil inclination", and even if it's God Himself telling them how to behave, they sometimes will not listen. So he compromises, and comes up with this roundabout way to hopefully prevent, or at least humanize, this undesirable marriage. Not perfect, but better than nothing, and a step in the right direction.

This humility on the Torah's part, this profound understanding of and respect for the autonomy of each human being, and of the need to recognize and respect that autonomy, and the acknowledgement of the concomitant impossibility - actually, the undesirability - of trying to legislate a perfect world, is remarkable. The Torah is not trying - here or anywhere else - to create a perfect society. The Torah recognizes the fallibility and individuality of all of us - our "evil inclination", and knows that a social or legal system, even a divinely given one, must take these weaknesses into account, and leave room for our humanity, our needs, drives, and desires. The Torah knows that it can not simply prohibit all bad behavior, or demand that we be absolutely good - people will not listen, and it is people we are talking to. Rather, the Torah tries to make the world a better place within the limitations of an imperfect human nature; to do otherwise, and to try to legislate perfection, would be to deny, and ultimately destroy, the humanity of the people for whom we are ostensibly trying to create this perfect world.

That is precisely what happened in the Marxist states created in the 20th century, with the ridiculous, and ultimately destructive and inhuman goal of engineering a perfectly planned, perfectly just, perfectly fair, society. There are many other examples of the Torah's humility, its respect for the humanity, autonomy, and will of the individual. Just last week, in Parshat Shoftim (Judges), the Torah told us, three times, that, as years and generations go by, and we want justice, we will have to "go to the judges who will be serving in those days". This phrase, "the judges who will be serving in those days", is understood to mean that the Torah knows that, in the future, we will not be going to Moses for judgement, but, rather, to some guy who lives around the corner, who went to school with us, and who, perhaps, we know is not so clever. And yet, the Torah emphasizes: those will be the only judges you have, they are the ones you will have to go to, and their judgement must be respected as you would respect that of Moses, because the Torah was given to human beings, to keep as well as they can, as fallible, full of lust, desire, and just plain silliness as they may be.These judges of the future (as well as the people they will be judging), may not be the material you want if you are building a Utopia, but that's the only material we have, and, anyway, a Utopia is not what we are looking for.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Judaism's cynicism about Utopias, and its profound understanding and acceptance of how imperfect - and immutable - human nature is, is this: In his Laws of Kings, Maimonides (Spain, North Africa, 1135-1204), basing himself on material from the Talmud, says the following: "Do not think for a moment that in the days of the Messiah any of the ways of the world will be undone, or that there will be some new thing in the nature of Creation. Rather, the world will go on in its usual way." Maimonides then goes on to explain that this world will be peaceful, and just, and bountiful, and better than it is today, but he tells us all that only after he has insisted that it will retain its essential humanity. This, a better world - not a perfect one, but a human one - is what the Torah attempts to legislate and teach towards, and what Judaism understands as its goal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The Torah is not trying - here or anywhere else - to create a perfect society. The Torah recognizes the fallibility and individuality of all of us Rabbi Shimon

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