Nationalism & Honourable Men: Ki Teitzei Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

There is more moralizing in this segment of the Torah, I believe, than any other, and more about the treatment of women than any other topic. We are well acquainted with the connection between a growth of a certain kind of nationalism and a very paternalistic attitude to women. Does this section emulate that pattern and throw light on the issue since these rules were formulated at a time when Israel was developing a sense of national identity in the context of a myriad of interactions with other peoples?

Look at the variety of situations with respect to the treatment of women. I list them below into groupings to make the analysis more manageable:

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
  2. The women and wives of others: a) The treatment of captive women (21:10-14) b) Relations with the wife of a man killed in a duel (25:11-12)
  3. Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)
  4. Forbidden sexual relations: a)Adultery with a married woman (22:22); b) Adultery with an engaged woman, urban vs rural (22:23-27); c) Sex with a virgin (22:28-29); d) Sex with your father’s wife (23:1); e) Sex with Ammonite or Moabite women (23:4)
  5.  Obligations towards a deceased brother’s wife (25:6-10)
  6. Other Restrictions: a) Harlotry (23:18-19); b) Divorces (24:1-4)

Let me discuss each category in turn.

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
ה  לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.  {פ} 5 A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}

Women now wear slacks. They even wear soldier’s uniforms and carry guns. When my male colleague in the philosophy department at York University periodically appeared and taught in a matronly dress, there were some raised eyebrows, but otherwise the costuming was ignored. Do we still buy pink items for baby girls and blue for baby boys?

Women should not wear items related to male functions is one interpretation of the first edict. These include either religious, military or sexual functions, or perhaps all of them. Does this mean tallit (a prayer shawl), tefillin (the leather phylacteries wrapped on an arm and forehead during prayer) and tsitsit (the stringed undergarment), all worn by religious Jewish males, should be forbidden to women? Does it apply to guns and the issue of women in fighting units of an army? And why is cross-dressing permitted on Purim?

Some have interpreted the passage to be simply a prohibition against misrepresentation. But then why does the text not say that? And what about the effects on gays, transvestites and transgender persons and the assault on their rights? Why is crossdressing abominable? I believe the issue of differentiating the sexes is fundamental to a regime that has different laws for men and women. The premises of those other laws are: a) there are basically (but not exclusively) two genders, male and female, and b) a judge, including God as my judge, must be able to distinguish the two sexes in practice since, in spite of appearances, the injunctions mainly pertain to men.

B. The women and wives of others

  • The treatment of captive women (21:10-14)
  • The treatment of a wife who intervenes in her husband’s conflict (25:11-12)

The text says that if you capture a woman in war, fall in love with her and want to get married, then the woman – it is not clear whether she has a choice – shall mourn for a month for the loss of her parents and only after that can the captor and captive have sex. If, subsequently, the man wants to divorce her, then he cannot treat her as if she were still a slave; she is free to go and do whatever she chooses.

The second case is very different. Two men are fighting. The wife of one of them intercedes and grabs her husband’s opponent by his private parts. For this intervention, she is to have her hand amputated. Abigail may not have grabbed David “by the secrets,” but she did intervene on behalf of her husband, Nabal. Was this an unseemly intervention and, if so, why was Abigail’s hand not cut off?  

Nabal is described as a hard, surly man and an “evildoer.” Abigail, his wife, is a prominent socialite. David, with his own militia, is on the run from King Saul and he sends ten of his men to get “protectzia” from Nabal in the usual gangster habit of extortion. Nabal tells them to go to hell and David prepares his men for attack. Abigail, fretful over the imminent conflict, intervenes, confronts David before he attacks and insists that her husband was a boor who did not hear or understand David’s needs. Notably, there is no mention that she grabbed David by his private parts (as the wife of the Syrian general and future president does with Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Netflix series, The Spy). Abigail, like a prophet, blesses David and professes that he will win the throne. Nabal learns about what happened after waking up from a drunken stupor. Ten days later, he suddenly dies. Did Abigail poison him or did he die of shame or did Abigail let his vile nature and bitterness at the affront of being saved by his wife eat him up from within?

There is no evidence that Abigail seduced David, at least sexually, but she did dissuade him from attacking. The implication is that she was really a charmer and shared with David his diplomatic skills, prescience and wiliness. She did not get her hand cut off because there is no indication that she offered David her sexual favours as much as she might have flirted with him. But then, in light of the likely electricity between the two, did she kill her husband or was his death fortuitous so that she could then marry David, the future king? She could have just let David kill her husband. Instead, this vile, willful and self-destructive man was humiliated, saved, in fact, by a woman.

The answer, I believe, is that Abigail would have been put in a terrible position if she had not acted. She risked David seizing Nadal’s wealth to support his insurrectionary force. The lesson: if you are clever and play your cards right, you can end up with the wealth and the position, but do not give in to trading sex for favours. Use your brains. The lesson for the man – do not accept the offer lest you be diminished in everyone’s eyes and become, not a principled militant, but one who takes advantage of women in dire straits. Always be a gentleman in your treatment of captive women or the wives of those who get in the way of your ambitions.

Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)

These injunctions are more straightforward. The first instructs a man to give a double inheritance to the first-born son, even if the husband grew to hate the mother. Obey the rights of the first-born. In the second case, there are two different scenarios, one in which a man, who marries and finds that he dislikes his bride, accuses her, falsely, of not being a virgin. In the second scenario, he discovers that his new bride is not a virgin. In the first case, upon proof of the husband’s perfidy in falsely accusing his bride, he is chastised, fined and denied the right ever to divorce her. In the second scenario, if proof is not offered that she was a virgin, she shall be stoned for she brought dishonour on her father’s house. The final case is one when a man remarries, he should take a sabbatical year to ensure he has time to please his wife.

What should be clear by now is that these norms are not primarily about the conduct of women so much as about the honour of men in the context of a shame culture. Let’s examine the next batch dealing with:

  • Forbidden sexual relations

Do not commit adultery with a married woman or you both shall die. If you do harass and seduce an engaged woman in an urban setting when she could cry out and get help (the empirical foundation for this might be very faulty), both shall die, but in a rural setting when there is no one around to hear her cries for help, then the male only is the one who should die. But if you have sex with a virgin, then you have to pay the bride price and marry her. Don’t have sex with your father’s wife or, interestingly enough, Ammonite or Moabite women, but you are obligated to have sex with a deceased brother’s wife lest his line die out. These again are mainly about restrictions and obligations on men, not women, until we get to the condemnations of prostitution. Even the injunction about not having sex again with a woman you divorced, who remarried and divorced again, is about male behavior.

But why the severe restriction on Moabite and Ammonite women, that is women descended from Moab and his brother Ben-ammi (Genesis 19:30-38) who were products of the incest between Lot and his daughters? If you recall, the Moabite women in Numbers 25:1-5 were blamed for seducing the Israelite men and getting them to worship Baal-Peor. That was supposedly the reason for Solomon’s downfall. Ezra and Nehemiah adamantly condemned intermarriage between Israelite men and Moabite women.

But how can this be the case in light of the fact that David is descended from a Moabite woman, Ruth, who is perhaps the most noble female character portrayed in Torah. She and her Moabite sister-in-law, Orpah, married the two sons of Naomi. They did not seem to convert until after their husbands died, indicating a deep and sincere desire to be Jewish and not simply an opportunistic arrangement. Neither did they ever try to seduce their husbands into worshipping a foreign god.

Naomi was impoverished. Ruth supported her and Naomi reciprocated by helping her daughter-in-law get a second well-off husband, Boaz. I believe that, although at certain periods of national stress, prophets prohibited all intermarriage, even though Moses married a Midianite, the general injunction is against intermarriage, not to another ethnicity, but to women who not only would not practice the Jewish faith, but who would draw their men into worshipping other gods.

The gender rules are not primarily about women, but about making Jewish men live up to a code of honour, about bringing honour to themselves and their people. The norms are not about encouraging a reactionary nationalism reinforced by severe restrictions on women and a very paternalistic attitude towards them. The text is not simply about Jewish survival of a people, but about the character of that people that requires its male members to follow a code of honour. The text is about both preserving the people, but even more about ensuring the quality of those people. The men need to be menschlichkeit.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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