Parashat Ki Teitzei presents a collection of intense and morally complex texts that at first glance might appear disconnected. However, delving deeper into these sections reveals an intricate tapestry of narratives that explore the interplay between war, family dynamics, and ethical responsibility.
The Parasha commences with a discussion on the conduct of victorious Israelite soldiers in the aftermath of war. It addresses the scenario where a male soldier encounters a beautiful woman on the battlefield and desires to take her as a wife.
“When you go out to battle against your enemies and Adonai your God gives him into your hand, and you take-captive his captives, and you see among the captives a woman beautiful of form, and you desire her, and would take her for yourself as a wife… (Deut. 21:10–11, tr. Fox)
This verse is a stark reminder of the ancient norms surrounding warfare, gender, and power dynamics. While acknowledging the troubling aspects of this narrative, it is also crucial to recognize that the Torah introduces an element of restraint and transformation within the context of an ancient society.
“…you are to bring her into the midst of your house; she is to shave her head and to do her nails, she is to put off her garments of captivity from herself and is to sit in your house and weep for her father and her mother, for a month of days; after that you may come in to her and espouse her, and she may become your wife. Now it shall be: if you are not pleased with her, you must send-her-free, in her person, but sell, you may not sell her, for silver; you are not to deal-treacherously with her, since you have hurt her! (Deut. 21:12–14, tr. Fox, adapted)
The woman is to mourn her past life, altering her external appearance, before any union is considered. And, after the month of grief — caused by the soldier’s hands — her presence is no longer desirous to him, she is protected as a sovereign self. This moderating influence challenges the raw impulses of the battlefield, emphasizing the importance of tempering power with empathy, control with dignity.
Clearly, even with this contextual understanding, a modern ethical sensibility should remain offended. The objectification of the woman as a trophy of the battlefield is only somewhat addressed by the Torah’s commands. But the fact that it is addressed at all should be understood by contemporary eyes as the radical statement in its ancient context it truly was. It was a deeply progressive move for an early patriarchal society to curb its own iteration of toxic masculinity on the battlefield. It isn’t enough — but we should be mindful that, one day, our descendants might feel the same ways about the steps we, their ancestors, took toward justice.
The subsequent biblical segment deals with a man having two wives, one loved and the other hated.
“When a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and they bear him sons, the loved one and the hated one, and the firstborn son is the hated one’s — it shall be, at the time of giving-as-inheritance to his sons what he has, he must not treat-as-firstborn the son of the loved one, in the living-presence of the son of the hated one, the firstborn. Rather, the [actual] firstborn, the son of the hated one, he is to recognize, by giving him two-thirds of all that is found with him, for he is the firstfruit of his vigor — ; for him is the regulation of the firstborn-right. (Deut. 21:15–17, tr. Fox, adapted)
This framework highlights the dynamics between affection and animosity within a family unit. Despite the archaic concept of “hated” and “loved” wives, the Torah introduces an element of justice by ensuring that the firstborn’s inheritance isn’t swayed by personal feelings. Again, the text’s notion of fairness in situations where contemporaneous norms would have granted the father in this situation ultimate authority over his children’s inheritances, suggests an evolution of thought within ancient Israelite society. Again, inadequate by modern standards. Again, radical by ancient ones.
The third part revolves around the “rebellious child,” addressing the extreme consequences of disobedience.
“When a man has a son, a stubborn one and a rebel — he does not hearken to the voice of his father or to the voice of his mother — and they discipline him, but he [still] does not hearken to them, his father and his mother are to seize him and are to bring him out to the elders of his town, to the gate of his place; then they are to say to the elders of his town: Our son, this one, is a stubborn one and a rebel — he does not hearken to our voice — a glutton and a drunkard! Then all the men of the town are to pelt him with stones, so that he dies. (Deut. 21:18–20, tr. Fox, adapted)
Rabbinic commentary reacted to the horrors of these verses, reading every word in each verse as a limiting factor, so as to eliminate the possibility that such a judgment would ever be meted out by a Jewish community. For a sampling of this interpretive process, see the following:
“When a man has a son” — this means a son and not a daughter. “When a man has a son” — “a son” means a specific age, excluding one who has children of his own. A minor is also exempt, for he is not obligated in the observance of the commandments. (Sifrei Devarim 218)
…If one of the parents was without hands, or lame, or mute, or blind, or deaf, their son does not become a stubborn and rebellious son, as it is stated: “Then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him” excludes people without hands, who cannot do this. “And bring him out” excludes people who cannot walk. “And they shall say” excludes those who cannot speak. “This son of ours” excludes blind people, who cannot point to their son and say “this one.” “He will not obey our voices” excludes deaf people, who cannot hear whether or not he declined to obey them. (mSanhedrin 8:4)
This is but a small sample of the extended discussions the rabbis have about these verses. Only a male child of a very specific age, with two living parents whose bodies work in certain ways (and whose marriage is recognized as ‘suitable’ as part of their child’s trial, according to another source) can be deemed a “Rebellious Child.” The rabbinic qualifications for the biblical case to be operative are nearly endless. In other words, Jewish tradition works very hard to eliminate the Torah’s rule without directly rejecting it. It is a circuitous kind of response, but the intent is clear, as are the connections between the three seemingly disparate cases with which Ki Teitzei begins.
By reading this Parasha closely, a thematic thread emerges, beginning with war, leading to family dysfunction, and culminating in the most extreme familial breakdown. Very real circumstances in the Torah’s time demand response. Torah is a sacred response.
By studying the rabbinic commentaries, another pattern emerges: The Torah’s effort to temper primal instincts — even amidst the backdrop of war and power — encourages the practice of restraint, empathy, and fairness. These values, channeled and furthered by rabbinic interpretation, challenged accepted norms and strive to mitigate the destructive impact of unchecked impulses.
In other words, the rabbis are only as radical as the Torah itself! An authentic Jewish tradition remains open eyed to the world as it is and functions as a sacred response.
Contemplating this Parasha requires us to confront its unsettling aspects while recognizing the potential for growth and change inherent within it. Just as the Torah and the rabbis sought to bring moderation and empathy to difficult circumstances, we, too, are challenged to bring those same qualities into our own lives and the world we inhabit. We must examine the complexities of family relationships, to navigate the fine line between power and restraint, and to actively work towards a world that values empathy and fairness over unchecked desires.
May we shape our values and actions in meaningful ways, as we strive to build a more just and compassionate world — as did our ancestors.