The Girl in the Field

A survivor’s reflection on Ki Teitzei and Halacha at large

Delivered by Fay Hughes, August 25, 2018

Content Warning: Rape, discussion of victim blaming and removal of female personhood

Because I spend the bulk of my day in a windowless office or hassling teachers about their lesson plans, one of my favorite lunch break activities is sitting alone in the park down the street from my school.

It was on one such day that an ardent Baptist approached me looking to spread the Good News of his vacation bible school.

Needless to say, he was very eager to use all he knew to argue with a real, live Jew. I could actually see him making his way through his mental chick tract flow chart for witnessing to a Jew while I lazily gave him my well-practiced, standard answers to his questions. That is, until he asked: “But isn’t the law perfect?”

I know enough about Christian theology to know what he was getting at, but the question still gave me pause.

This Parashah–like many in Deuteronomy and Leviticus–presents modern, liberal, and leftist Jews with what amounts to an ancient problem: what happens when we disagree with the Mitzvot?

There is a movement in progressive, Jewish circles to connect our political and moral beliefs to the mitzvot. It is with pride that we denounce mass incarceration and other forms of present day slavery by pointing out that Torah says “You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master.” (Deut. 23:15)

“Look!” We say “We have always known this moral truth! This protest/phone bank/canvass/vote is what Moishe himself intended for me, a righteous Jew, to do!”

Clearly most of us are not so self centered, but it is what many of us want, for our ancient tradition to speak to our modern values. Whether or not you believe in a supernatural Gd who literally gave Moses the Mitzvot on Mount Sinai, we yearn for support from our texts for our modern works.

The fact of the matter is that it frequently does not. What am I, a survivor of sexual assault, supposed to draw from this Parashah? Was it my fault I did not yell when assaulted? Should I have been forced to marry the man who forced himself upon me?

It sounds horrifying to us, of course. Few would suggest that I be forced to marry my assaulter but what does that mean for the parts of the Parashah we like? Or Torah, for that matter? Why even bother with the flawed reality of our long passed ancestors?

I reject this idea that Halacha has outlived its usefulness. I also reject the notion that we can, and should, excuse or explain away the less than rosy interpretations of the text.

Let’s take the mitzvah I’ve isolated: if a betrothed woman is raped in the city, she is held equally at fault as her rapist because she did not cry out. I already have been a bit unfair to the text for shock value, so let’s zoom out a bit.

With a thank you to Chabad for their easily accessible, online translations, the whole text is:

Deuteronomy 22:23-26

  1. If there is a virgin girl betrothed to a man, and [another] man finds her in the city, and lies with her,
  1. you shall take them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall pelt them with stones, and they shall die: the girl, because she did not cry out [even though she was] in the city, and the man, because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So shall you clear away the evil from among you.
  1. But if a man finds the betrothed girl in the field, and the man overpowers her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.
  1. Whereas to the girl, you shall do nothing the girl did not commit a sin deserving of death, for just as a man rises up against his fellow and murders him, so is this case.

Ok, this is clearly still deeply unfair to women, so we have a few choices at this juncture and what we do says a lot about how we view Torah, Halacha, and the Jewish People.

Let’s start easy, how deeply unjust this Mitzvah is. First of all, the wronged party isn’t the raped woman, it is her husband to be. The woman being little more than property in this case. As a modern, independent woman, that does not speak to me.

There is also the issue of what we now call “victim blaming.” This hypothetical woman is to die because she did not shout loud enough? This is clearly terrible.

I am going to be honest, though, I find this line of thought dull. Given that we still get this wrong time and and again today, the fact that this document, passed down through the generations, doesn’t pass social justice muster isn’t surprising or interesting.

You know what is interesting to me, though? That woman in the field.

I am changing gears here, so bear with me.

I love to travel, and I bristle at the idea that my solo jaunts put me in some sort of danger. I feel like if I want to spend the night in a church converted to a hostel in the Virginia mountains, or fly solo to Beijing, that’s my business.

But what if I were assaulted in my travels? At what point was my behavior risky? At what point am I being naive about about where and how a woman can travel solo? Was it sleeping in a room with 30 other people in Montreal, or walking at 4 am through Huntington, WV, which has one of the highest opioid overdose rates per capita in the country and a severe lack of street lights?

Of course I have a right to do these things, and had I been assaulted, it would have been the fault of the assaulter, not myself. What, though, does Torah say about this? Interestingly, it does not seem to say that I should adjust my life to keep myself safe from those that would hurt me.

If I am in a field, or a dark stretch of road in West Virginia, Torah says I am not at fault.  It says to be where I want or need to be. It says to live my life without fear, but fight like hell if someone tries to hurt me.

To be technical, though, I am not betrothed nor, at this time, married, so there would be an entirely different result of this crime: marriage to my rapist.

I am now going to put on my historian hat. As noted before, women at the time of Torah were considered only in relation to men. A woman without a father or a husband would be unable to care for herself in that society. Being raped would make her otherwise unmarriageable and therefore, forced into eventual destitution. This would not be good for her, nor for society at large. In societies with similar structures today, these solutions are seen as a way to care for women.

Or, as one of our most important and enduring texts says:

I promise you’ll be happy

But even if you’re not

There’s more to life than that

Don’t ask me what!

Putting our hands in the air and saying times were different, and excusing every reprehensible word of Torah, isn’t very useful either. The inherent issue with both of these approaches is that they put us in the awkward position of deciding which Mitzvot are worthy of following in our present lives, or following laws we know are wrong.

If you don’t believe Torah came from HaShem, then there is no reason not the pick and choose from Halacha. We, as a living tradition, can decide what laws govern our behavior and anyway, at the end of the day, we are bound to follow the laws of the land we are in. But if we don’t see all of Halacha as binding, what is to stop us from eating pork, ignoring shabbat, abandoning Judaism all together?

Perhaps we should resist the influences of our modern exterior world and live my Halacha alone. Indeed, when we say “Elokeinu Melech Ha’Olam,” we are saying Gd and the Mitzvot are what guide us. Melech is the key word here that promises us to a higher authority than any Earthly king or government.

I believe that both of these approaches carry deep flaws. Dismissing Halacha as not binding has shown a great potential for a poor understanding of Halacha at best and complete abandonment of the Jewish people at worst. My family did this, providing me without a Jewish education and thereby without an anchor in the world.

But we also cannot pretend that Halacha as it stands provides all the answers. We end up with barely supported, extraordinarily narrow interpretations or a blind, thoughtless obsequiousness to very old and often vague laws.  

But, at the end of the day, we are Jews, and we thrive in the grey areas. We have a major movement which preaches stringency but sends their people out into the world to reach secular Jews; and another founded by a man who did not believe in Gd. We don’t need things to be just one way.

As a student of history, I hesitate to blame anything on “people these days” because people have always been “people these days,” but I can’t help but wonder if the increasing polarization of our politics in the 20th and 21st centuries haven’t infected our own approaches of how to best view Halacha.

Because here is the thing:

Halacha. Is. Important. Full Stop.

Whether you believe it to be divinely given or not, the Mitzvot are the things that have in one way or another defined us as a people since, well, basically as long as we have been a people.  We are a Bronze Age tribe with laws of that time that has, against incredible odds, managed to exist and survive into our current era. And despite no lack of pearl-clutching in our larger organizations, I believe we will survive as long as humanity manages to live on this rock, not because we are chosen, but because we are flexible.

When the Temple fell the second time, that should have been the end, but it wasn’t. And even though no Temple of ours stands on that spot, we read and study the Temple Mitzvot, or at least we should, because they are who we are.

We should know the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat, even if you walk out of shul on Saturday and buy a bacon cheeseburger; because whether you choose to follow it or not, Halacha is important. And when we don’t acknowledge that, and learn it, that is when this incredible thing that is a diasporic nation of people around the world crumbles.

So we must read, we must learn. We must know it is a fast day, even when we don’t fast. We must know the worst of our laws, even when we know better than to follow them, because just like ourselves, Halacha has its terrible moments and its shining moments, but the whole package is who we are.