Deuteronomy 25:17-19.Dignity versus Humiliation.22.02.13

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 Dignity versus Humiliation 22.02.13

Parashah Ki Teitzei


Howard Adelman

This week Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote a blog on two meta-narratives of Jews. One is remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of Jews and the epitome of enemies of Jews in all ages. For Netenyahu, Iran is a contemporary Amalek. In the second meta-narrative, Jews are commanded not to forget they were strangers in the land of Israel. Jews are obligated to treat strangers in their midst – Palestinian Israelis — with respect and dignity. Rabbi Marmur was hopeful that the new government of Israel, whenever it is formed, will both remember Amalek when dealing with Iran and not forget we were once strangers in Israel in fulfilling our obligations to Arab Israelis. (The blog is included at the end of my blog.)

Leaving aside the implications for the Israeli government, I accept Rabbi Marmur’s interpretation and want to go on and show how the two processes are interconnected.

The relevant passages are as follows:

17 Remember what Amelek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt —

18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

19 Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19)

Before the paradoxical command both to remember Amalek and to blot out his memory, before these verses 17-19 in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we read instructions about how to remember Amalek and blot out his memory. The lessons are taught in the way we should respond to four different iconic types of situations.

If we go backwards from the verses referring to Amalek, the fourth instruction is not to cheat when using weights and measures (25: 13-15). If one employs perfect and just weights, then your days in Israel will be long. This is a section Rabbi Marmur could also have cited with respect to the obligations to treat Palestinian Israelis fairly.

13 Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. 14 Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. 15 You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

What has this to do with Amalek? As I read the four ways to respond, we have to begin with ourselves. If we remember that it is we who make Amalek possible, then we must start with our own behaviour and ensure that we are honest, transparent and fair. This will mean that in the external world, under the heavens, Amalek’s memory will be blotted out and we will not have to deal with him.

The third section is a tale about two men engaged in combat. A wife of one of the combatants, to help her husband in battle, seizes his opponent `by the secrets`.

11 If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

As a consequence, the community is instructed to have no pity and cut off her hand. Why cut off her hand? She was just helping her husband out. There are three reasons. She upset the fairness of the battle. Second, she did so by grabbing the opponent and presumably temporarily disabling him. Third, and most important, she did so in a way that brought shame on him and humiliated him in public by grabbing his genitals.

The second and longest section deals with the obligation of one brother to marry his brother`s wife if his brother dies and leaves his wife without a child in what is called a “levirate marriage”; the brother is obligated to co-habit with her so that she can bear a child and so that his brother`s name can be preserved in Israel. If the surviving brother refuses, the sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, removes his shoe, spits in his face and humiliates him so that his house is thereafter remembered as “the house of him that had his shoe loosed” (v. 10). The loss of shoes denotes a loss of dignity, hence ‘The House of Loose Shoes.’

While in the fourth and third cases discussed above (examples 1 & 2), one is to guard against being humiliated and to be punished if you unfairly humiliate another, in this case, you are instructed to humiliate another in public because that other failed in his sacred duties to his brother. If you use unfair weights, the future of your family will be marked by humiliation. If you do not fulfill the duties owed to your barren widowed sister-in-law, your family also will bear the mark of shame when they are known as the "House of Loose Shoes".

The first section deals with the punishment to be meted out to the wicked in proportion to the degree of wickedness by beating him on the back, but no more than 40 stripes “lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (v. 2).

1.When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. 2 If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, 3 but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Then verse four follows which seems to have nothing to do with the verses that precede or follow. Verse 4 reads: "For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope." He who reaps is entitled to the rewards of his work, including a salary, rest days and vacation pay. And that includes those who witness to the faith.

That seems to have nothing to do with dignity and humiliation. What could an instruction about not muzzling an ox while it is threshing have to do with a brother avoiding his duty to his barren widowed sister-in-law and suffering the humiliation for that failure? What does it have to do with avoiding humiliating a person being punished by ensuring that the punishment is proportionate to the crime and not excessive? All the other example cases are about rights, duties and distributive justice.

I think the explanation is the following. The instruction can be about treating oxen fairly or about respecting the owner of the ox which you have borrowed or not working the ox to death, but it is unlikely to be about the duty to pay your church or synagogue ministers or missionaries. The plain reading of the text essentially says that you should not put a muzzle on a hardworking animal pulling the thresher. The ox is doing the work and should be entitled to eat. This may certainly be a humane gesture and/or a contractual one. But it is mainly a message that even a yoked animal needs to be respected and, as such, is a postscript to the first section.

The four examples offered can be summarized as follows:

Crime or Duty Punishment Rationale 1. -ve Wickedness Up to 39 lashes Proportionality Limits 2. +ve Impregnate brother`s widow If failure, loosen shoe, spit in face & diachronic penalty = House of Loose Shoes Humiliation in perpetuity No limit 3. -ve Wife humiliating her husband’s opponent Cut off the hand No pity Limit 4. +ve Fair weights and measure Long life in the land of promise Rewards No Limit

All four examples have to do with “brothers”, sometimes fraternal at other times "brother used in a metaphorical sense to express loyalty. There are limits to punishing the wicked lest you forget to treat him as your brother, i.e. lest you humiliate him and treat him as even less than an animal for even an animal needs to be treated with respect. The second tale has to do with two brothers who live together and are very close and, therefore, a surviving brother assumes obligations to the other brother`s widow if the latter dies without progeny. In the third case, two men are fighting; they may be the iconic Cain and Abel. However, under no circumstances is the wife entitled to interfere to try to disable the opponent of her husband and certainly not by grabbing her husband’s opponents by his balls. That would not just be an improper practice but a humiliating one as well. The fourth is a commandment of fairness and to regard all others as brothers.

The four cases can be represented as follows:

Brothers vs Enemies 1. Wicked are brothers – limits to punishment 3. Sworn enemies cannot be treated as brothers by the wife of one. Particular and Universal Brotherhood 2. Blood Brothers 4. All men brothers

The respective punishment and reward with respect to humiliation can be represented as follows:

1. Physical punishment of wicked (lashes) but no humiliation.

2. Obligation not to humiliate widowed sister-in-law, and if you do, she can humiliate you and your progeny and brand your family as The House of Loose Shoes.

3. Obligation not to humiliate oneself (and one`s family name) by interfering in a battle between your husband and an opponent by humiliating the opponent.

4. Obligation to maintain honour for one`s family name in perpetuity.

We have two positive duties: impregnating your childless widowed sister-in-law and using fair weights and measures. We have two prohibitions: not engaging in wickedness and, directed at women, not humiliating your husband’s opponent.

What is the relationship between this quadratic structured first part of the chapter and the duty not to forget Amalek? Recollect the three verses 17-19. You are first obligated to remember Amalek`s deeds. He killed three groups of fleeing Israelites who were in the rear: those who were slow; those who were enfeebled or handicapped, and those who were weary and faint. He killed the straggler, the frightened, and the weak and weary. You cannot allow Amalek to humiliate the weakest of your tribe and attack Israel at its soft spot. The message is clear; face your enemies with pride and strength and don`t forget Amalek so that Amalek will not earn favour with heaven.

The text is ambiguous whether Amalek was not God-fearing or whether the Israelites were lo yarei elohim, not God-fearing but I believe the whole text suggests the latter. First, if Amalek was not God-fearing, why would he attack Israel at its weakest point and in so cowardly a way. Second, the whole chapter is primarily about the Israelites disciplining themselves without engaging in disreputable practices and thereby incorporating Amalek within themselves. The latter is the real danger.

The injunction not to humiliate the other is not done just for the respect one must show the other. It is necessary for the respect one owes oneself. Douglas Cubbison in an abridged version of his book, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776: The Ruin and Reconstruction of the Continental Force, described how General Gates transformed a demoralized and undisciplined force, by applying the rule of 39 stripes to laggards, disobedient and undisciplined soldiers, literally whipping them into shape as a fighting force. The lesson to remember Amalek is to remember to engage in certain practices so one would not have to face Amalek and fear defeat. A healthy society does not humiliate its own by leaving the weak behind. A healthy and strong society is disciplined and respectful.

The common theme is humiliation as well as discipline and maintaining your physical strength and fighting capability. You must always respect the dignity of the other and maintain respect for your own dignity. In the Mishna (Avot 3:11) we are told that if you embarrass another person publicly, you lose your share in the world-to-come.The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b) notes: “Whoever shames his fellow-man in public is considered as if he shed blood.” At another point, the Babylonian Talmud advises, “It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass a fellow human being in public.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kethubot 67b). (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 3:1) (Cf. Hershey Friedman `Human Dignity in Jewish Law`…/HumanDignityJewish.htm) This entails not torturing your captives though they must be punished in proportion to each crime with a maximum penalty. Do not appease your enemy either. Treat the strangers who are not your co-nationals with respect and fairness.

Remembering Amalek is not obsessing with the evil other but preparing yourself through these general precepts so that Amalek can be forgotten. In Plato`s Laws, the Athenian stranger says that enemy combatants are not protected by the law. If that enemy insults your god and robs your temples, engrave his deeds on his face and hands so that he can bear these as a permanent mark of shame. And beat the enemy without limits. The treatment is the very opposite of the injunction against torture in the Torah or ensuring that punishments are proportionate to the crime committed. Always remember he is a brother. The punishment must not only be proportionate to the crime but proportionate to the person. The person must know always that you do own him and that your respect him as another human being. Never punish in anger. And never humiliate him.

Rabbi Dow Marmur`s blog follows.


In addition to the weekly portion, a second text will be read in synagogues this Shabbat. It’s about remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of our Israelite ancestors and the epitome of all our enemies through the ages. The implication is that though the Biblical Amalekites lived a long time ago, their heirs are still here to harm us.

The message is particularly poignant in Israel today. It’s often articulated by the prime minister when he insists that the Iranian regime is today’s Amalek and that unless Israel deals with it resolutely, it and its Jewish citizens will be in mortal danger. The Holocaust is often invoked in this context, more for effect than accuracy.

But several potential coalition partners in the government Netanyahu is now trying to form don’t seem to want to deal only with the Iranian threat. They also pay attention to the social issues and seem to suggest that right values are as essential for Israel’s survival as military prowess. These include the reduction of the growing inequality in Israeli society and peace with the Palestinians. Their primary proof text wouldn’t be “Remember Amalek” but, rather, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” which obligates us to treat all human beings as God’s creatures.

The Amalek reference sees Israel as being in a state of crisis; the reference to remembering the stranger points to what theologians call covenant, the eternal bond between God and God’s people with the obligations this entails and a life style to match.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the gifted journalist and speaker, drew attention to these opposing texts and their implications at a conference last Tuesday at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem of which he’s a Fellow. The conference was aptly called, “From Crisis to Covenant: Rethinking a Narrative for Israel.” Whereas the political Right is prone to cite the Amalek passage of crisis and the Left the covenantal references to having been strangers, Halevi believes that both are equally essential for Israel’s future.

Those who live by one text instead of both are under suspicion. Thus though nobody is in a position to challenge the analysis that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel, the almost exclusive stress on it may also be a convenient way of ignoring the many serious internal problems the country is facing. Similarly, to speak primarily about the price of cottage cheese and the non-payment of taxes by the rich, important though it is, may be a way of closing one’s eyes to even more urgent issues.

There’re indications that, despite his own apparent fixation with Iran, Netanyahu would like to form a government that reflects both texts. That’s probably why the first coalition agreement to be signed is with Tzipi Livni, who has put the so-called two-state solution in the centre of her platform. Netanyahu’s apparent wish to include Sheli Yachimovitch and her Labour Party’s social agenda may be of the same ilk.

That’s a positive development. It’s tempting to be cynical and say that as it’s much easier to point to a crisis than to seek to work out what it means to live up to our covenant with God by heeding Jewish teachings about the dignity of all humans and the primacy of peace and coexistence. However, cynicism, though often unavoidable, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence the need for balance and proportion.

It makes for hope that, even at times of crisis, those elected to govern the Jewish state won’t abandon Jewish values by making Amalek the only defining text.

Jerusalem 20.2.13 Dow Marmur

[Tag Deuteronomy 25, torture, humiliation, Amalek, dignity]

Parashat T`tzavveh.Deuteronomy.Torture.Humiliation 25.17.19 (RA’s comments).doc