Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jewish Honor Killings?

This also appears in the Jewish Star

Parshat Ki Tetze
By Rabbi Avi Billet

The “controversial” cover photo on the Aug. 9 issue of Time featured the face of a young Afghani woman whose nose has been cut off. Though we can’t see it, apparently her husband, the man who cut off her nose, also removed her ears in the Taliban-commissioned attack on the 18-year-old.

The magazine editor defended using the photo, for which the young woman posed, saying the world needs to know what returning power to the Taliban in Afghanistan will mean. This and “honor killings” will be run-of-the-mill in a society governed by Sharia law.

Perhaps Muslim fanatics who have no respect for life are irrelevant to us – they are free to do to their own people what they want.

We don’t really believe that, of course, but let’s leave the “what can we do?” question to the politicians to fight over for now.

The issue is relevant, however, when we look at Devarim 22:21. If a “na’arah” wife is accused of infidelity during her betrothal period, her husband and her family may each present their case. The Torah tells us what the husband’s punishment is for fabricating the tale, and then the Torah explains what happens if the accusation is proven true: “They will take the young lady to the doorway of her father’s home, and the people of the city will stone her until she dies. She has brought sexual immorality to her father’s house, doing a shameful thing in Israel. You must therefore rid yourself of the evil in your midst.”

Though a modern society might somewhat justify her behavior – she was experimenting, she was young and innocent, she didn’t know what she was doing – let us agree that her faithlessness is deplorable behavior; after all, a betrothal is a commitment.

But the death penalty? And in such a fashion? Could the Torah be serious?

By our standards the text alone is insufficient. The Oral Tradition (Torah She’baal Peh) and Rabbinic explanation help us understand the text more clearly.

“An eye for an eye,” for example, is rabbinically interpreted as a monetary punishment.

While that is not the case here – if guilty, the girl will die – the circumstances to bring about capital punishment are so difficult to achieve that the punishment as written is virtually impossible to carry out.

Valid witnesses (who cannot be related to either of the perpetuators or biased in any way) need to warn would-be perpetrators that the act they are about to commit is a Torah prohibition, for which the punishment is “x.” The act needs to be witnessed and then presented to the court without contradiction. The court must have the power to carry out capital punishment, which is not the case in our society where rabbinic courts are primarily limited to monetary arbitration, conversions and divorce cases.

In our case, the girl has to be the age of a “na’arah” – between twelve and twelve-and-a-half – a very small window of time. Much as the Rebellious Son (Ben Sorer u’Moreh) (21:18-21) was never killed (Sanhedrin 71a) – it stands to reason our case was also meant to be taught as a lesson in morality, without ever coming to practice.

Besides, the last mishnah in Makkot chapter 1 indicates, in essence, that Jewish courts did not carry out capital punishment.

In our day, therefore, no one can ever interpret these verses literally. Other than saving someone’s life from a direct danger, no individual may take the law into his own hands.

The guilty girl committed a horrible act. “Her offense is to all of Israel for not upholding the moral standards for which we are most proud.” (Sifrei) Whether it is her fault depends on how much we accept that a “na’arah” has understanding of the repercussions of her deeds. Some will say she has disgraced her family; others will argue in her defense. Surely her family taught her to conduct herself otherwise. Or did they?

The punishment takes place on her family’s doorstep – not to protect their honor, but to shame them. And it is carried out by the entire nation, not by her husband or family. The Talmud in Ketubot (45a) says the crowd exclaims “Look at the offspring you have raised!” In other words, you parents failed in the education of your daughter. Does the family want their daughter dead? Of course not. The lesson is not that Judaism believes in honor killings. We abhor the thought and distance the idea.

But we do believe in a strong education, in living by a set of values that are immutable. And, most importantly, in passing our values to the next generation.

Had the girls’ parents educated her properly, this never would have come about.

There is no room for hypocrisy. If we are to sustain Judaism as we know it, we can no longer afford to hear stories of infidelity of any kind. Children learn to do the things they see, and are very well aware of when we contradict ourselves – preaching one way as we practice another. We must live the lives we know the Torah depicts as ideal because through these guidelines our lives will not only be filled with meaning but will stand as a blessing to ourselves and everyone around us.

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