Parshat Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
An Exploration of Conversion through the Experience of Special Women
This study is dedicated to all the other people who work hard and struggle daily in the pursuit of being part of the Jewish people. All you Jews by choice, this one is for you!
As we come into the weeks parsha, we walk in after the discussion of the establishment of the centralized government, and the local judiciary discussed in Parshat Shoftim. This is an active system established throughout all levels of the citizenry. This citizenship, to be a member of Kahel Hashem – the Congregation of Hashem – is something that we are going to discuss in this parsha. In this section we are going to read about central commands relating to Torah true living, and their symbols such at tzitzit.
But even more importantly this parsha is going to deal with the issues of what identifies a citizen and how they are to be dealt with in a society of order. Though of course if we are going to talk about citizenship we at some point have to talk about what makes a person a citizen, and how to deal with non-citizens in this society.
We must understand that at this point in history religion and nationality are synonymous. This is not unique, this is generally the case among the peoples and nations-states; each of them following after their own religion. When one joined the society, they also joined the religion as it was central to their way of living.
In this parsha we begin to deal with the topic of people joining this Kahel Hashem – this Congregation of the L-rd. This is not because people have not joined in the nation of Israel up until now, most certainly we know that others joined in with the Israelites. This goes all the way back to exodus, where we read “gam erev rav alah itam / and a mixed multitude went out with them.” Note, this may seem controversial but this can also mean they went up with a crowd of Arabs, yes as this term also is used of the merchant “mixed people” of Arabian origins sometimes known as the Mereb (see 1 Kings 10:15). Some of these people were convicted in their hearts to repent and join with the nation of Israel. However, they still appear to me to have remained independent and did not assimilate right away because in Numbers 11:4 during the complaining over food during the desert journey they were identified distinctively for their role in the chaos.
However, here in Parshat Ki Teitzei we begin to see how this is going to work once people go into the land. Obviously one would expect that many of the people who went up with the children of Israel were themselves escaping from bondage and persecution. I believe it is for this reason in this section we are also going to read about the mitzvot relating to the runaway slave. Unlike the charters of the nations that we know of from that age and region that ensure return of such fugitives, our Torah commands that no one is to wrong him and he can live where ever he likes among the settlements of Israel as a free man. (Deut. 23:16-17)
Though first, here in this parsha we see the doors being made wide open for people to become full Israelites. But what were the restrictions upon joining? It should be no surprise to us those in close relation to the nation such at the Edomites would be extended this welcome, even though they were not friendly they were relatives. But it surprises many to find that the Egyptians were also given this welcoming hand, the reason given is because they were once strangers in their land. (Deut. 23:8:). Then we read that them and their children, and children’s children were also welcomed into the tribes. (v.9)
But before we get there, the Torah first tells us who is not welcome. We are told, that the Ammonites and Moabites are not allowed unto the tenth generation. And not even allowed to enter or draw close (lo yavo) to the Congregation of Hashem. We read it is because they did not meet the people with bread and water (v.4), but instead sought out a curse against them. (v.5) Actually, when we studied this in Parshat Balak and Parshat Chukat we learned that the people were not asking for anything for free, they actually asked to pay for goods, water and passage but were instead turned upon with hostility. We then read that because G-d loved Israel the curse was turned around for a blessing. (v.6) Then we also read a very striking and definite command:
“Do not seek their peace
or their well-being
all your days, forever.”
| Lo tiderosh shelomam
| kol yameicha, l’olam.
The children of Israel are commanded to not seek to make a treaty with them, to not even given them audience to hear them in their time of need. Not just in the immediate generation, but forever.
Now this is going to be an interesting issue pointed out by the rabbis. We can all look at the situation, especially when everything is juxtaposed together as it is, and be confused at how there is such a harsh sentence laid out for the Ammonites and Moabites and yet they are commanded to show empathy for the Egyptians that oppressed them brutally for hundreds of years. But when discussed by the greats such as Rashi, it is explained that even though there were tribal hostilities with Edom and there was physical persecution by the Egyptians, these oppressors only went so far as to seek to harm their bodies. However, when it came to the Moabites and Ammonites they sought to harm the people spiritually in seeking a curse upon Israel and to degrade them with idolatry in order to bring harm upon them. Its like this; Egyptians tried to destroy the body, the Moabites tried to destroy the soul!
The Queen Mum of Coverts: Ruth, the former Moabite
For all the amount of commentary there is when it comes to the topic of who is permitted to convert and who is not, there is one thing that is told to us in certainty and that is the Moabites are not to be allowed to approach the Congregation of Hashem. This issue should be very problematic for the Torah student, because we do actually know of one women who was a Moabite who became an Israelite, in fact not just any Israelite but joined among the people of Yehudah (Judah)– thus becoming in every sense a Jew. The Book of Ruth in the Tanach is entirely about this amazingly unique and beautiful story. Yet for having a book dedicated to it, when reading through the Chumash we do not see the rabbis going out of their way to answer for what seems like a significant contradiction.
But I think if we look a bit at the story of Ruth and contrast it to the situation at hand we don’t need too much suggestions from the rabbis, nor need to rely on much Midrash to fill in the story for us. Let us touch on it for a few minutes.
We are told that a man by the name of Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons Machlon and Chilyon had gone to the country of Moav (Moab) during a famine. They were from Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) in the tribe of Yehudah, which quite close by. Elimelech ended up dying there, along with his two sons. We assume that the sons died of poor health, which is hinted at by their names. We are told that they stayed for about ten years, long enough for each of the sons to marry a Moabite wife.
Again, how can this be. First off we learn in the Torah that there is a general prohibition against marrying gentiles (goyim) understood. However when we actually read the prohibition in Deut. 7:1-3 we told that we are not to marry our sons or daughter to any of the seven Canaanite tribes that inhabit the land. Yes, it even counts them out “sheva goyim / seven nations.” In the strictest sense, they were not violating this prohibition.
And furthermore, unlike the prohibition of our parsha, Moabites did not approach the Congregation of Hashem, it was quite the other way around. These holy Jewish men came out of necessity to a strange land and they were welcomed in this time. Even though these men’s very names said they were ill men, or as we would say disabled, they were given wives which we should also remember in this day comes with a dowry. We do not even find that these Jews needed to convert to find such kindness among the people because when their wives are told by Naomi, the matriarch of the family and only survivor, to return home to their mothers house and their gods it was obviously because in their homes they only worshiped the G-d of Israel.
Naomi sought to return to her own people, being alone and no longer having anyone to care for nor anyone to provide for her after her sons died. She encouraged her daughters-in-law to return to their own kin and even remarry. Nonetheless we read that they did not want to leave Naomi and wept bitterly at the very thought. In the end Naomi persuaded one of the women to return to her own people, but the other named Ruth would not go. Naomi would spend a good part of a chapter trying to encourage these young women to return, especially Ruth after the other Orpha had already gone. But Ruth gives one of the most stirring commitments in all of the scriptures:
“And Ruth said:
‘Do not urge me to leave you,
to turn away from following after you.
For where you go, I will go
and your people will by my people
and you G-d, my G-d.
Where you die I will die
and be buried there.
Thus may Hashem do to me,
this and more
if death doesn’t causes us to part.’
When she saw that she was determined
to follow her
she departing, speaking to her.”
| V’omeret Rut:
| l’azve’ach lashuv may’achar’aich.
| ki el-asher tailechi ailaich
| uva’asher talini amaich ami,
| v’ailohaich elohai.
| Ba’asher tamuti amuti,
| vsham ekaveir;
| koh yaaseh Hashem li,
| v’koch yosif,
| ki ha-mavet yafrid baini uvainaich.
| Vateiret ki mitameiteit hi
| laleicheit itah,
| vateichdal, l’dabeir eileiha.
From this Judaism gets its tradition to turn away potential convert at least three times. And thereafter if they still want to join with us, it is then permissible. We are given this example of welcoming par excellence from this young lady that choose to join another people and show steadfast dedication to the G-d of Israel.
It was not for reason of being well off, in fact Noami was now poor and destitute. We clearly see that they went up in need of bread, and even then gleaned from the fields as impoverished people. But her commitment was to stay, even to death. This is what I believe it is to be a true Jew, to be a one that is willing go through hard times with the Jewish people, that decided that their lot be the same of ours, that if death comes to the Jewish people it also comes to them.
And thus we read that Ruth returns to Beit-Lechem with Noami, as part of her own family. This story stands as an amazing testament of the bonds of sisterhood, in a male oriented bible; and a stirring love affair. In the end Ruth married a distinguished man from Naomi’s clan and was redeemed as a widowed wife according to the custom of Israel known as the yibum – the levirate marriage (see Deut. 25). This was declared and certified at the courts at the gates of the city who adjudicated law as we learned in last weeks parsha (see Parshat Shoftim).
Now though I don’t want to get too much into the story or Ruth and Naomi, as it truly demands a study of its own, we must understand that Boaz was not the only possible redeemer. There was another clansmen first in line. However, it appears very clearly that because she was Maoviyah – or as the classical bibles say Moabitish (see Ruth 2:6, were the term is first used of her once in the Land) that she not considered in proceedings of the estate. If ill will didn’t have any sway in her being over looked, at the very least we learn the other man was married and could not remarry without causing harm to his estate. Apparently it was clear that Noami’s sons married wives according to the benevolence of Moav, but that did not mean here in Israel the wife was considered a complete convert up until now, shes was still a little bit Moabite. Boaz takes a gamble and recognizes her and uses a mitzvah, the symbols of yibum and chalitzah (with the sandal) to have her recognized as a true Jewess, and his wife.
So too today people use a mitzvah to show that they are truly a Jewish person once they have joined; as Jewish people do Jewish things. Most often this is by immersing in a mikveh – a ritual spring bath in order to symbolize purification and rebirth, and circumcision for men. For one that converted as a child it might be being called to the Torah for their bar mitzvah – they might have lived as Jews up until now but here they have to made the choice and perform a Jewish rite themselves. So too Ruth’s coming of age came in the mitzvot related to her unique marriage.
The reason that Moabites are not permitted to approach Israel in this case were invalid, her people were the exception to the rule in doing good to these sons of Israel both by helping their physical needs and respecting their spiritual identity. And Ruth, this Moabitish woman did not approach the congregation for her own well being; her case was heard for the well being of the entire clan of Elimelech, and redeeming honor to Noami her matriarch. By submitting to Torah law she was showing where her dedication was. She could no longer be considered anything else other than a true Jewess, this was now her true family.
This single conversion, through this single mitzvah of marriage resulted in not just bringing honor to Naomi. Ruth and Boaz had a child, whom they raised as heir to Naomi’s clan and also brought great honor to all of Israel. As we read this son was named Obed, who was the father of Yeshai (Jessie), who was the father of David, King of Israel. (see Ruth 4) The great king that would establish Yerushalayim as our eternal capital would come from this beautiful marriage to a former Moabite woman named Ruth. You can visit her near burial spot in the first capital of Israel, in Hevron buried near the resting place of Yeshai.
The simple answer folks, she was able to be married into the Jewish people because she was no longer a Moabite anymore. She was a new person! Though there were great barriers to converting such a woman this situation shows us that there are indeed exceptions to the rule. Situations and their uniqueness needs to be taken into account. Creative ways should be found in order to welcome those who cast their lot with the Jewish people to be properly recognized, as honoring them brings honor to all Israel! But I for one use this definition, that those whose choose their fate to be among the people of Israel are truly part of our people.
The War Wife
We have had a long study through the details of biblical conversion, but I think its really important that we take a look at another strange example of how one was converted in the Torah. This unique and archaic way of looking at things really needs to not be looked over. One, so that we see how much we have progressed in human development that war and slavery are atrocities in our world and not the norm. Two, so that we can see get some other hints at the thoughts in the mind of those engaging in conversion.
As we were taught the people were not to marry the Cananite women, this came as a general prohibition against marrying among the other nations. In fact it is true we read the Canaanites are to be annihilated mercilessly, male and female alike. (see Deut. 7) So as we begin this parsha we read a strange command:
“When you go out to war
against your enemies
and Hashem you G-d delivers them
into you hand
so that you have captives,
and you see among the slaves a woman
of beautiful form
and you desire for her
to take her and maker her your wife;
in that case you shall bring her to your house
and shave her head
and do her nails.”
| Ki-teitzei lamilchamah
| unetano Hashem Eloheicha
| veshavita shivyo.
| Vera’ita bashivyah eshet
| vechashakta vah
| velakachta lecha le’ishah.
| Vahavetah el-toch beitecha
| vegilechah et-roshah
| ve’asetah et-tsiporneyha.
Now we are told by Rashi concerning this text that the reason this command was given was so that people who looked upon a beautiful women at the time of war desired her for a wife would have remedy, instead of them being left merely in error by following after their yetzer yara – their evil impulse, their base desires to desire for an illicit woman. This was a unique instance, and it should be dealt with uniquely.
Now what do we mean by a “eshet yafat toar – a woman of good form?” In the most common sense when we think of yafut – we think of beauty, being appealing to the eyes. But when it comes to the word toar, this does not necessarily mean her physical form, it means that she can be described as a certain way. Sure in the literary sense can mean her appearance, but it can also mean she’s well spoken of, she has a good name, classification, or status. But I must contest, that surely this does most likely refer to her physical appearance.
If he found an exceptional woman, and desired her we read that he is to take her to his house and he is to shave her head and fix her nails. The rabbis and the Talmud disagree on the exacting meaning of “doing ones nails” so we have both opinion presented to us, Rashi saying to let them grow, and interpreters like the Septuagint saying to cut them. Nonetheless this practice surely had something to do with purification as it is very similar to the purification of the Levites in Leviticus 14:8 and Numbers 8:7 who were required to shave their entire bodies, heads and even eyebrows. This was a symbol, of becoming new and growing anew.
She was allowed to grieve for a month, and an additional month for her father, and an additional month for her mother. After that time had passed, when she decided to stop mourning by changing into proper garments she would present herself and become the man’s wife. They would have intercourse and become a fully married couple officially.
However, if after that time he decided that he did not want her to be his wife, then she would be sent on her way as free woman. She could not be sold, she could not be kept as a servant. The reason given is because “tachat asher initah / because after you humbled her.” It’s not a pretty phrase, and its not explicitly clear what it means. To many it plainly means that he had his way with her, a true and valid interpretation. But it can also mean that he dealt harshly with her or even looked down upon her. Either way as a women being present in his house in a conservative society, they might as well have been in a relationship. In fact its very likely this is some time of betrothal period, in which they would be bound just as a married couple until it was officiated. Engagement in Israel was a very serious and contractual thing, which is something often missed in our modern age where it is merely symbolic. Her reputation would be damaged therefore he must deal with her properly and send her away as a proper lady.
Now for a moment I want us to step back to the symbols of the mitzvah, the acts of purification for the conversion process. We find that the women is made to shave her head, which our sages all agree is a symbol of humbleness. Her hair, especially for a woman is a symbol of her beauty, surely this detracts from her beauty. Why would such a thing be commanded?
The Ohr Ha Chaim – the 17th century Sephardic teacher – taught that the reason the solider was attracted to such a women was not purely because of her beauty, but because he saw beyond the klipah – the husk, the outside of the person – and saw a “beauty” of a soul imprisoned inside this women.
I am of the opinion that he was made to take away the symbol of her beauty, and see her in mourning garments in order truly see her for who she was. Could he still desire her if she didn’t look all made up, but was at her worst? He needed to know for sure it was not just for her appearance that he desired her, that he truly sought her for what could be found underneath it all; in her soul.
Rashi explains to us that this type or marriage was something to be frowned upon, as it was merely a way of taming the yetzer hara, because he was seeking out a wife that was normally not permitted of him. And it is also suggested of the women being lovely enticed by the man. Rashi then say these types of marriages lead to disaster. Because he sought the women in the end only out of desire eventually he would come to despise her. Surely he would get another wife and this one would be the jilted one, is what Rashi hints at. This would be the wife of impulse and vice. And this type of marriage caused the other ills written in this parsha such as the cases of laying down inheritance for sons from loved and unloved wives; and thus causing cases of a wayward and rebellious son. They are juxtaposed herein because they are very much related.
How can we as people today try to apply this mitzvah in a world were thankfully such war and slavery is illegal? We can do our best to look into be people and try to find those diamond in the rough, even among the most hostile of people there could be a beautiful soul looking to be liberated, a person in need of a home and a people!