She Done Him Wrong

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

By Dimitri Milch

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In Deuteronomy 25:11-12 we read: “If men are struggling together, a man and his brother, and one’s wife has approached to rescue her husband from his attacker’s grasp, and has put out her hand and taken hold by his privates, then you shall cut off her hand: Your eye is not to look with compassion.”

The Torah’s imposition of so severe a punishment for a seemingly slight infraction is troubling. The boilerplate about showing no mercy is only used in instances that call for “an eye for an eye,” when God’s law seems less merciful than human law. Since the text does not specify that the party whose “privates” were violated had to be physically injured, the punishment seems disproportionate. The Talmud and Rashi reassure us that the Torah really means that the woman had to pay a fine.

Judaism has always had its fair share of dictates and decrees that are hard to like or to understand, but no Torah law seems so intuitively wrong: Two guys are going at it, the old lady of one gets into the act, and the top priority is not stopping them but cutting off her hand!? Maimonides suggested that this wasn’t a punishment after the fact but a timely intervention to restrain her. Although grammatically questionable, not to mention unrealistic, his comment has the merit of being irrelevant, since either way her hand is amputated. A stricture should not be ignored simply because it has passed into desuetude. A law so apparently unjust is a deal breaker that destabilizes any poise we find in the goodness of traditional religion.

The Hebrew for “a man and his brother” is usually taken to mean any two men, but a literal reading is eminently reasonable because the context of this passage, immediately following levirate marriage, suggests it might have been a not-so-subtle reminder to sister-in-law that brother-in-law may yet be your husband, and any damage you do him would not be a good thing.

Then again, suppose the passage does refer to two guys mixing it up and to the wife of one interfering. The end of the passage is bounded by an admonishment to employ fair weights and balances. This may offer a better understanding of the female assailant’s mutilation. Any man who has been frisked can tell you that a cop doing a pat-down controls the suspect’s groin with knee or nightstick in a way that makes resistance unlikely. Even the smallest policewoman holds in her hand, as it were, the key to docility. Thus, our aggressive wife has a unique means of stopping the battling brothers; however, unlike a sworn peace officer, doing so is none of her business.

Effectively, she is told not to stop the fight but to let it continue. The Torah is affirming both what everyone knows, that conflicts arise, and what everyone may well not know, that conflict is legitimate and should be allowed to unfold. Like the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, the Torah believes in the fair fight. The wife’s action is wholly unjust. She doesn’t care about fair play; she wants to give her husband an edge — a commendable motive, but one that defeats justice and challenges the principle of fairness.

This episode gives insight into the general character of justice. Many situations oblige us not to stand idly by. Many others compel us not to interfere — whatever would create a fair situation is what is demanded. Life is not fair, but we strive to make it so, recognizing that a fair fight needn’t end in a draw. Disinterest is as much a choice as intervention is.

Dimitri Milch lives in Stony Brook, N.Y.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.