Keeping the Progress Going
If there is a God, wouldn’t this Being desire to communicate with us? Parents want a relationship with their children; why would God not want a relationship with God’s creations? This is the question I pondered in my youth. Not having received any religious education as a child, I sought to learn what our traditions say. I transferred from the University of Michigan to Yeshiva University and then continued my studies in other yeshivot to learn Torah and ascertain God’s will.
I was told that the Torah was the exact word of God as transcribed by Moses, eternal and unchangeable. While there’s a surety and beauty to this, that in performing the mitzvot one connects directly with the Divine Will, there’s also a problem: some of these 3000-year-old laws are outdated. Indeed, loving one’s neighbor, not stealing, and refraining from work one day a week continues to speak to us, but some others bewilder our modern mind.
One that used to confound me is the law on rape and seduction found in our Parsha, Mishpatim, and Deuteronomy as well:
“If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price. If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out the silver in accordance with the bride price for virgins.” (NJPS Exodus 22:15–16)
“If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.” (Deuteronomy 22:28–29)
Having learned these laws in the 20th Century, I could not understand them. What’s a bride-price? Why must a girl marry her seducer, or worse, her rapist? Furthermore, considering that the girl was abused, why then do the reparations go to her father and not to her?
Over the years, I have come to learn that women’s rights in the ancient world were minimal. Before marriage, a girl’s life was controlled by her father, once married, then by her husband. Fathers decided who their daughters would marry. The bride-price would be given to the father, who would then hand over his young daughter in marriage. If someone raped or took advantage of this girl, her marketability dropped tremendously. Therefore, the offender paid the financial loss that the father sustained. Furthermore, since her chances of receiving suitors now are minimal, the offender is forced to marry her.
In the ancient world, I can see the reasoning behind this law; we could say the Torah is actually acting with compassion towards the victim. However, to say this rule is binding nowadays challenges our sensibility. Becoming a Conservative rabbi introduced me to Conservative theology: our take on ancient prophecy is enlightening.
The Jewish Theological Seminary sees revelation as a synergy between God and the people. The word of God is related in a way the recipient (the prophet) can comprehend. Therefore, the message is made acceptable, amenable to the society of that time. For example, three thousand years ago, no one could have accepted a teaching from God equating women to men. Yet, since societal norms impacted that message, we don’t view it as immutable. As times change and the human mindset progresses, so does the Divine will. If the Jewish people, the heirs to the prophets, embrace an egalitarian lifestyle, we would then declare the Torah does as well.
Nonetheless, the Torah was progressive for its time. If we compare Jewish law to Assyrian law, I think you will agree.
The Middle Assyrian Laws were composed around 1076 BCE, probably earlier than either of the biblical collections. MAL tablet A contains two laws on sex with an unbetrothed virgin, one dealing with rape and another with consensual sex, and, unlike in the Torah, the two laws appear side by side.
MAL A ¶55 deals with rape. “The rapist must take the girl into his protection, and if he is unmarried, he must marry the girl for triple the bride-price, although her father retains the right to reject the match. If the rapist is married, however, his own wife is raped.”
MAL A ¶56 deals with an ostensibly consensual relationship. In this case, the man simply pays the monetary penalty, and the girl’s father “shall treat his daughter in whatever manner he chooses.”
Our Torah mercifully spares the rapist’s wife and does not condone “doing with his daughter whatever he chooses.”
I have a friend who is a Catholic deacon. He once told me an “Eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) was progressive for its time. For back then, it used to be if you blinded someone’s eye, his family would take revenge on everyone in the assailant’s family. So, the Torah limited it to just to the attacker’s eye. The rabbis then progressed this decree further by interpreting it to mean the attacker makes monetary restitution for the damage of one eye.
Judaism is a religion of evolution and progress. Many of the teachings of the Torah are perfect the way they are, and others are evolving as we do. The Torah itself was a breakthrough in its time, the Talmudic rabbis evolved it further, and it’s up to us to keep the progress going.