Just Injustice

As we draw nearer to the High Holy Days and lists of classes, seminars and workshops pop up on synagogues’ bulletins and Web sites, a saying of a very wise man comes to mind. He said that it is easier to study Talmud for 70 consecutive years than to change one character trait. In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, this concept is taken to the extreme. Anyone who reads the opening chapter of the parsha with a 21st-century mentality is utterly shocked by the seemingly atavistic and even barbaric attitude the Torah shows.

One is the case of the captive woman, in which the Torah allows soldiers to bring home captive enemy women and marry them. The second example is that of the rebellious son, in which the Torah sanctions the death penalty for a teenager who does not obey his parents and engages in hedonistic activities.

How can the Torah, people ask, be so cruel toward the captive women or the rebellious son? Wouldn’t it be better to ban the practice of capturing women for marriage and to find a way to settle the differences of the rebellious son and his parents without using the electric chair?

The answer is that there is no other way, because human nature is not easily changed. In the captive woman’s case there is recognition of the tremendously detrimental effect going to war has on our morals and values. The absolute power of having the ability to determine who shall live and who shall die, can absolutely corrupt the soldier’s soul, be it the most innocent, pure and tender soul ever. Throughout the ages, conquering armies the world over raped, tortured and killed civilians, wreaking havoc in their path, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change in the future (remember Abu Ghraib, Haditha, etc.).

Instead of trying to uproot this tendency, the Torah goes around it. It allows the soldier to bring the captured woman back home and to marry her after she mourns her parents for a month. No longer in the heat of the battle, experiencing for a whole month the agony of his captive — and maybe also having to face his wife-to-be’s wrath — tying the knot doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Then the Torah tells the disappointed soldier to let the woman go free, not to sell her and not to cause her any more suffering. So what seemed to be a license to inhumane behavior turns out to be a genuine concern about morality and human dignity.

The case of the rebellious son plays out on a totally different level, where the Torah actually tricks the parents into revealing their personal lives to the court. Consider for a moment that these parents are willing to bring their child to justice for being a glutton, binging and maybe talking back to them (“Don’t you use that tone with me, young man!”), and demand for him the death penalty. What would have happened if they did not have that option? Their child would probably join the statistics of hundreds of thousands of kids who are reported annually as physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their parents. If the court would not execute him for them, the parents were probably capable of doing it themselves. And what child would want to live with parents like these?

The solution the Torah presents us with is brilliant in its simplicity. The parents are told that they can bring their defiant teenage son to court, where he will receive his punishment. The judges, meanwhile, find myriad reasons to reject the parents’ plea; a procedure the rabbis solidified by setting rules that require the parents to look alike, talk in sync and more. As a result, there was never an execution, God forbid, of a rebellious child. But the untold part of the verdict, which had to remain hidden from the public lest it lose its power, is that the court would take custody of the child and relieve him of his dreadful parents. Thus the Torah established the first family service system with an extremely sophisticated filter — the parents themselves. In that manner the Torah avoids the all-too-familiar problem of social workers, who forcefully separate families because of fraudulent reports or misjudging families of a lower socioeconomic level.

In both cases, what seemed a preposterous violation of human rights turns out to be an attempt to bypass our negative character traits in order to provide immediate remedy. The quest to actually change those traits is lifelong and one that it should never be too late to embark on.

Haim Ovadia is now the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills.