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Written by Tamar Fox. Tamar is Jewrotica’s Double Mitzvah columnist. Would you like to be regularly featured on Jewrotica? We are currently accepting applications for next year’s Double Mitzvah columnist. Contact email@example.com for more information.
For a commentary on last week’s parsha, check out Double Mitzvah – Shoftim.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses delivers specific rules about proper family relationships. He continues with laws involving many aspects of daily living, justice, family responsibility, work, and sexuality. It includes several explicitly sexual laws, including:
and many more.
But perhaps the most famous and perhaps upsetting law in this week’s parashah is the law of the bride in Deuteronomy 22. Here is the problematic text (13-21):
A man marries a woman and cohabits with her. Then he takes an aversion to her and makes up charges against her and defames her, saying, “I married this woman; but when I approached her, I found that she was not a virgin.” In such a case, the girl’s father and mother shall produce the evidence of the girl’s virginity before the elders of the town at the gate. And the girl’s father shall say to the elders, “I gave this man my daughter to wife, but he has taken an aversion to her; so he has made up charges, saying, ‘I did not find your daughter a virgin.’ But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” And they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. The elders of that town shall then take the man and flog him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father; for the man has defamed a virgin in Israel. Moreover, she shall remain his wife; he shall never have the right to divorce her.
But if the charge proves true, the girl was found not to have been a virgin, then the girl shall be brought out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death; for she did a shameful thing in Israel, committing fornication while under her father’s authority. Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.
There’s a lot here to digest, and I can’t possibly break down all of the interesting and upsetting things going on here (for that, see Sex or Power? by Aaron Koller and Reading the Women of the Bible by Tikva Frymer-Kensky). But one thing that jumps out at me every time I read this text is that the first assumption of the text is that the man is lying. It’s setting up a legal precedent for dealing with a man who is lying in order to get his wife killed. The content is still rather horrifying, but it’s important to remember that the frame here is that there’s an assumption of innocence on the part of the wife.
The other fascinating thing about this law is that the legal precedent seems designed to incentivize tampering with evidence. If a dirty bloody sheet needs to be produced by the parents, not the husband, it is presumably quite easy for the parents, at this later date, to present a bloody sheet of some kind and say it was from their daughter’s marriage bed. If they don’t want their daughter to be stoned, there is a way out, regardless of whether or not she was a virgin.
I bring these up not because I think they fully solve the complex problems we’re seeing in this text, but because they remind us how many ways there are to think about sex in the Torah, and how the stories, when read closely, often break down differently than we first think.Shabbat shalom!