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Parashat Ki Tetze
August 29, 2015 – 14 Elul 5775 

Annual (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19): Etz Hayim p. 1112; Hertz p. 840
Triennial (Deuteronomy 23:8-24:13): Etz Hayim p. 1123; Hertz p. 847
Haftarah (Isaiah 54:1-10): Etz Hayim p. 1138; Hertz p. 857

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


Dozens of rules are explained in this portion. Many of them involve rules of family, including the accumulation of new wives, rewarding deserving children and punishing disobedient children, Levirate marriage, and basic guidelines of divorce and remarriage. Some involve personal intimacy, including adultery, prostitution, and premarital relations. Some involve ritual purity, such as limits on who enters the Divine sanctuary, wearing appropriate clothes, and not using mixed seeds and textiles. Others involve limits on punishment, including administering lashes to people and pain to animals. Still others speak of economic matters, from paying wages in a timely fashion to caring for the poor to dealing honestly in business. All of this culminates in the national imperative to remember Amalek and to completely wipe its memory out from the earth.


Theme #1: Irreconcilable Differences?

A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house; she leaves his household and becomes the wife of another man; then this latter man rejects her, writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house; or the man who married her last dies. Then the first husband who divorced her shall not take her to wife again, since she has been defiled -- for that would be abhorrent to the Lord. You must not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

The foundation of the Jewish practice of divorce has its roots in these four verses, but the allowance for divorce is described as a matter of fact; the text focuses more on what happens after the divorce.

The biblical fixation on female purity always puzzles me, and this is a particularly baffling instance of it. If female chastity is what matters, doesn’t the “defilement” occur when the woman marries her second husband? If you’re going to condemn her looseness, wouldn’t the second marriage be the event that troubles you? Why should the remarriage to the first husband be so offensive? -- David Plotz, Good Book

If a man sends away his wife, and she goes away from him and becomes someone else’s wife, can he return to her again? Will not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the harlot with many friends, and shall you return to Me? -- Jeremiah 3:1

We do not know whether Israelite husbands made much use of this right [to divorce], which seems to have been very far-reaching. The Wisdom books praise conjugal fidelity, and Malachi teaches that marriage makes the two partners one person, and that the husband must keep the oath sworn to his partner: “I hate divorce, says Yahweh, the God of Israel.” -- Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel


Questions for Discussion:

Plotz points out the inescapable conclusion that the Torah text sometimes is very much biased against women of the Israelite society. With that said, numerous other Ancient Near Eastern documents and law codes have the same level of gender bias, if not more. Should that reduce our discomfort with the Torah text? To what extent must we feel the need to "apologize" for our Torah text, and to what extent should we not dwell on it and focus instead on creating more inclusive communities today?

The book of Jeremiah takes a similar tone to the women in our verses in Deuteronomy, and compares such women to an Israel that is unfaithful to its God. Does reading these passages in a book of the prophets somehow feel different than reading them in the Torah? Should the books of the prophets be held in similar esteem to the Torah, as they are all books in the Tanakh, or do the Five Books of Moses deserve more of our attention?

De Vaux senses that the Torah's laws for divorce are acted upon fairly infrequently due to the negative view our ancestors have toward the practice. With the divorce rate in the United States higher than 50 percent, must we have such a negative view of the practice in our communities today? While lasting marriages remain an ideal, are our communities sensitive enough to those who have divorced and who are happier being single or in new relationships?


Theme #2: The Newlywed Game

When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married. (Deuteronomy 24:5)

The so-called "honeymoon period" for ancient Israelite households offers generous exemptions for the grooms.

Some of us have even argued that a woman’s sexual desire exceeds a man’s. And so when God curses Eve, telling her that “your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16), the real curse is in the second half of the verse -- that is, women will be forced to wait upon men’s sexual initiative to satisfy their desire. -- Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

The truth is that “and he shall cause his wife to be happy” is nothing more than permission to stay at home and make his wife happy even though all of Israel are engaged in the hardships of war. … The reason for this is that since they have only recently married and they have not yet strengthened the bond between them, if he goes off on a long trip and she is out of mind, the connection between them may break entirely. There is no prohibition on him to leave her at home, but he should not leave if he is uncertain that he will continue to love her. -- Eric Zimmer, “The Exemption of Newly Wed Husbands from Military Service,” from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume I

[This means] that she is new to him, even if she is a widow. To the exclusion of one who takes back a woman he has divorced. -- Rashi on 24:5 

Questions for Discussion:

Frankel reflects on the tone of the verse that allows a newlywed husband to forgo military service for one year so that he can "give happiness" to his new wife, noting that as considerate as this verse may appear, the husband is still in control of the couple's conjugal relationship. Would this verse appear as biased if it had been worded differently (i.e. "so that the couple may bring each other happiness"), or does the wording underline a misogynistic approach to sexuality?

Zimmer states that the groom may still serve in the army during this first year of his marriage if he is confident that his bride will still love him -- in other words, it is not necessarily imperative for the man to change his plans. Is this law incomplete because it doesn't apply to other stages of a marriage (if, for example, the couple might need to work on their relationship sometime after their first year together)? Or is this law lenient enough?

Rashi notes that this rule for a new husband can even apply when his wife has been married before (just not to him). One aspect not included in this law is the common experience of contemporary relationships, many of which include pre-marital intimacy and cohabitation in the same residence. Are our Jewish communities inclusive of such relationships? To what extent should they be? Can we celebrate the beginning of marriage the same way now that so many people approach their intimate relationships differently?

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