Friday, September 1, 2017

Parashat Ki Teitzei: Religion Shouldn't Hurt

Shabbat Shalom!

My mother taught me: Religion shouldn't hurt.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei, doles out many, many mitzvot, some of which don't make a lot of sense at first glance. One of these commandments is cited as the source for Elisha ben Abuyah's apostasy. It is said that he saw a young boy shoo away a mother bird before collecting the eggs to feed his family, as is specifically commanded in this Torah portion. But the Torah concludes these directions with the promise, "that you shall have long life," and yet the boy shooing the mother bird from her nest fell from the tree branch and died. The idea that following Torah would still lead to the boy's death broke Rav Elisha's brain and he left Judaism, becoming haAcher, the Stranger. Because Rav Elisha knew, Religion shouldn't hurt.

This Torah portion also includes some outdated and uncomfortably misogynistic laws regarding marriage and divorce, including that a raped virgin must marry her rapist, a man but not a woman can initiate divorce, laws of adultery that only apply to women, the high importance of a woman's virginity, etc. It's full of hurtful laws for women. Religion shouldn't hurt.

A lot of the misogyny is addressed in the Rabbinic literature that follows the Tanach in the building of contemporary Jewish law. It's not all "fixed" by the Codes of Law widely accepted by the spectrum of halakhic Jews, but it's certainly improved. Women can issue divorces, men can only marry one person at a time (thus becoming accountable to adultery laws), raped virgins/their fathers can deny the marriage of the rapist but still collect the bride price, virginity remains important but becomes more accepted without invasive proof. But many of the Rabbinic rulings still hurt. Religion shouldn't hurt.

In The  Five Books of Miriam: a Woman's Commentary on the Torah, it offers this:
 Our Daughters ask: Are the Rabbis' rulings better or worse for women? 
Lilith the Rebel answers: They never asked us - but now that we're pulling up a chair at their table, we can make up our own minds. 

Religious shouldn't hurt. The Torah is meant to give us guidelines to live better lives, not be taken so literally for thousands of years that it ends up ruining lives. The Rabbinic commentaries are meant to help us understand the Torah so that it can be a useful guidebook for our lives, not be taken so literally for hundreds of years that we let dead old men ruin our lives. We must keep interpreting it, each person is invited to pull up a chair to the Rabbinic table and chew on this Torah with us, so that we can continue to find meaning and lessons and spiritual fulfillment in it. If you think about the world in which the Torah was written in, even some of the misogynist laws were progressive for their time and place. The rabbis, still living patriarchally, at least sought to better the situation further, and even sometimes included the voices of their wives and daughters. Now it's our turn to keep making it better, more progressive, more accepting, more enriching. May we create a Judaism that never hurts.

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