For the past few weeks, billboards in NY and LA portray the disturbing image of a young woman’s face, fenced in; smeared mascara, a black tear running down her cheek. ‘CAPTIVITY’ is the only word on the poster, promoting some new movie. Whatever this motion picture is about, the picture alone is a stark and painful reminder of how many women, worldwide, are held captive by greed, abuse, power and cruelty. In Jerusalem, this past week, the fifth annual conference held by Kolech – An Orthodox Women’s Forum, called for the formation of alternative and more liberal ‘batei din’ –courts of Jewish law. Under Israeli law, marriage and divorce are handled by the rabbinate’s religious courts, where Orthodox and nowadays – Ultra Orthodox – is the Law. In the cases of divorces and marital financial settlements, those laws represent an archaic and problematic system that rarely favors the woman. Backed by an impressive array of moderate Israeli rabbis, this feminist organization is part of a growing movement to free women – and men – from the captivity of notions and norms that belong to the past and prevent us from a freer and just future. Whatever the result of this campaign – the call alone is an important reminder of how the problems must be clearly addressed and the dirty laundry aired in order to clean the slate and implement change.
Similarly, in this week’s Torah Episode, Matot-Massey, the last of the Book of Wilderness, a terrible tale of captivity and violence demands attention – a big pile of very bloody, dirty, laundry. We examine this tale, cautiously, through the various translations of one loaded Hebrew term, describing ‘carnal relations with a male.’
The context: 12,000 Hebrew soldiers launch war on the Midianties – another dark chapter in the long saga of desert politics. They kill all the men, returning triumphant to camp, carrying their booty of property and captive women and children. Moses, himself married to a woman of Midyan, is furious, and demands retribution for the seduction by the women of Midyan several chapters ago. Seemingly of his own mind (God doesn’t intervene), he orders the following:
Chapter 31 verses 17- 18: “Slay every male among the children, and also slay every woman who has known a man carnally. But spare every young woman who has not had carnal relationships with a man.” (JPS translation) Richard Friedman translates as ‘known a male for male intercourse’. The Artscroll Stone translation is even worse – expanding the list of executed women to include ‘every woman fit to know a man by lying with a male’. Is it virgins or potential virgins who are guilty of ‘intercourse’ and worthy of death?
The Hebrew term here is MISHKAV ZACHAR – usually discussed in a homosexual context but clearly here separating girls from women, making virginity the critical selection marker. The fulfillment of this terrible decree is not described, but when the booty is tallied up several verses later, 32,000 virgins are accounted for (as well as, among others, 675,000 sheep)
In many of the contemporary editions of the Bible, translators and commentators pause here, sharing shock, insight and indignation. Robert Alter writes: ‘It is painfully evident that this is an instance in which biblical outlook sadly failed to transcend its historical contexts.’
But historical interpreters of Torah, such as Rashi and the Pseudo Jonathan translation don’t express any moral dilemma. They expand the story by quoting a Talmudic narrative from tractate Yevamot that explains how Moses knew which of the Midyanite girls was or wasn’t a virgin: ‘but every female child you shall present before the High Priest, who will be wearing his Crown of Holiness, and he and look upon her: she who is not a virgin will be pallid in the face, but she who is a virgin child will blush in the face, like fire; them you shall spare. ‘
Sometimes dirty laundry is more like many, many skeletons in the ark. This lesser known and somewhat repressed and terrible moment in the career of Moses and the annals of the wanderings of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai is perhaps just another reminder of how much of our present is carried over from our past. How much of the Jewish collective consciousness is still formed and informed by these narratives in which a woman is but seduction, danger, property? Where sex is a threat and ethnic cleansing, human traffic and murder of children is condoned? How many billboards and hostile rabbinic courts still hold us captive to this hostile past?
Perhaps by opening these stories up for new and critical interpretations we expose the wounds and begin a process of healing. As the Orthodox Women’s Forum demonstrated this week – airing dirty laundry is a crucial step towards having clean sheets. We leave this fourth book of Moses behind this week, and with it, hopefully, the continued journey towards the utopian vision of promised lands and new beginnings, wrestling with our mixed bag of memories.
But tell us, how, from now on, do we look Moses in the eyes?