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!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • 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.