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.