DRESSED TO HEAL
A man hates his wife. It starts as a private domestic dispute, but quickly becomes a big problem and a public court case. In this week’s Torah Episode, “Ki Tetze” – a collection of laws and regulations in no particular order, this is but one of many sad scenarios that the biblical law makers described, proscribing the appropriate judicial steps to resolve the dispute. Quite often we are faced with a reading of Torah text that is deeply against our modern sensibilities and social values, though it may have represented the norms of our ancestors thousands of years ago. This particular case described a woman who is accused by her husband of not being a virgin at the time of their wedding. If found guilty by the court, she will be executed for this crime. This is one of those biblical passages that makes us clearly aware of the historical gap and moral difficulty that the Torah offers us today. But at the same time, it is important to note that in many cultures in the world, the sanctity of maidenhood is still a big deal and in some cases still punishable by death, or at least by ostracism.
This harsh torah text reads as dry legalistic data, but one word pops up at us, a word that can be translated differently and shed a painfully human light on this scenario.
The Book of Words describes the procedure in court, when, following the husband’s accusations, the father of the bride speaks up, and presents his evidence:
22: 17 This man has made false charges, saying: I did not find any signs of virginity in your daughter; and yet here are the signs of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.
What is this garment that is dramatically spread before the elders?
The Hebrew for ‘garment’ is ‘simla’ – translated elsewhere as ‘cloth’, ‘fabric’, ‘clothing’, or ‘material’. But the word is most often used to describe a very specific garment – a dress, and in this case, a wedding dress.
We have not found another English translation that uses the term ‘dress’ in this gruesome context, as most prefer to keep this image vague and perhaps not as disturbing. But it does appear to be a fairly accurate description of what the father of the bride is showing to the judge: bloodied evidence, kept for just an emergency.
As the book of words comes towards its end and the entry into the Promised Land (and the new year) seems closer, we take stock of all that our ancient law and lore has to offer, including this soiled wedding gown and all of its promises of a happy future gone wrong. What do we do with this information? Perhaps commit to making sure that such brutal behavior remains clearly the stuff of the past, and not the guidelines for modern policy making, as some in our society would like to see. And perhaps this dress shows up this week to remind us of how much we have yet to do for justice in the world – clearly marking our journeys of evolution thus far and the desired progress forwards, to a reality where sexual maturity and intimate domestic difficulties are dealt with more love than fear, and with more creativity, not just procreativity, in mind.