This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, opens with the words: Ki-teizei La-milchamah al-oy’vekhah – ‘When you go out for war against your enemies’ (Deuteronomy 21:10). The last wars fought by Jews in the land of our ancestors – long before those engaged in by the State of Israel since 1948 – were against the Roman occupiers: the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Bar Kochba revolt of 133-135 CE, finally crushed with the slaughter of many of the leading rabbis of the day, including Rabbi Akiva.
Since time immemorial wars have been fought over territory. And today, apart from the on-going conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and a host of other perennial antagonisms the world over: the march of the ‘Islamic State’ through Syria and Iraq and the deadly skirmishes between the Ukraine government and the Russian separatists. The second verse of John Lennon’s famous idealistic anthem, ‘Imagine’, says it all for those who would rid our planet of war and its causes: ‘Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…’
And so: going out to war; a timeworn experience – even for Jews. And yet: not exactly for Jews. For almost 2000 years, our people has gone out again and again, but not in the sense that is meant by the phrase: Ki-teizei La-milchamah al-oy’vekhah – ‘When you go out for war against your enemies.’ We have been driven out by tyrants and expelled from many lands; we have fled persecution. We speak of ‘the Exodus from Egypt’; the Hebrew formulation is y’tzi’at mitzrayim – literally: ‘the going out of Egypt’. The Hebrew root is identical to that used in the phrase, ki teitzei: Yud Tzadi Aleph. But in the case of ‘the Exodus’, our ancestors did not ‘go out’ of their own accord. The parashah that tells the story, B’shallach, begins: ‘Now it came to pass: when Pharaoh sent the people away: Va-y’hi: b’shallach Paroh et-ha-am (Exodus 14:17). The root, Shin Lamed Cheit, to ‘send’ – here in an intensive active form: to ‘send away’. So, the Israelites did not ‘go out’; they were expelled. In the previous parashah, Bo, the narrative relates that after the final plague, the death of the firstborn: ‘Egypt prevailed upon the people to hasten in order to send them away [l’shall’cham] from the land’ (Exodus 12:35). A few verses further on, the origins of matzah are explained in a similar vein: ‘And they baked unleavened bread of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt [ki go’rshu mi-mitzrayim] and could not delay… (12:39).
The slaves ‘brought out’ [hotzi’u] the dough – but they did not ‘go out’ themselves, they were thrust out. The same might be said of the progenitor of the people Israel, Jacob. The narrative relates at the beginning of parashat Va-yeitzei : ‘Jacob went out from B’eir Sheva’ – Va-yeitzei Ya’akov mi-b’eir shava (Genesis 28:10). However, as it happened, Jacob was in flight from his brother, Esau, after stealing the paternal blessing due to Esau as the firstborn son (27:41).
We learn from these tales of our ancestors that ‘going out’ has often been a case of being on the run – in stark contrast to the assured and belligerent ‘going out’ we find in this week’s parashah. Significantly, there is one oft-forgotten story amidst the tales of the patriarchs, where, uniquely, someone did ‘go out’ of their own accord. Even more remarkably, the individual concerned was a young woman. And so we read in parashat Va-yishlach, which focuses primarily on the reunion of Jacob and Esau after 20 years, the tale of Dinah, the sole daughter in Jacob’s family: ‘Now Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out [va-teitzei] to see the daughters of the land’ (Genesis 34:1). Arguably, this is the most extraordinary verse in the whole of the Torah. Nowhere else does a daughter ‘go out’ purposefully – not least, to see other ‘daughters’. Dinah acted independently, revealing by her action, both, her need, as a lone daughter, to meet other ‘daughters’, and her fearless eagerness to approach those whom she did not know. But Dinah got her comeuppance: on an excursion to see other daughters, she was seen by Shechem the son of Chamor, the Hivite: ‘He saw her…. and took her and lay with her and humbled her’ (34:3); the rapid succession of verbs, mirroring the speed of the conquest.
Daughters and wives belong at home. That message is underlined in this week’s portion, where the rules of military engagement begin with conquest, and the process for transforming a beautiful woman taken as ‘captive’ into a ‘wife’ (Deuteronomy 21:11ff.). The gender binary is inescapable. Indeed, another verse in the parashah makes it absolutely clear that it cannot be breached: ‘A woman must not put on man’s apparel [ch’li gever], nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing [simlat ishah]’ (22:5). The expression for ‘man’s apparel’ – kh’li gever – connects the two themes: the noun, k’li, means, ‘article’, ‘utensil’, ‘vessel’, and immediately evokes the image of a man dressed for battle. As remains the case to this day, gendered clothing reflects gendered roles. That is why it is so unsettling – now, as then – when individuals blur the boundary. Binary gender tyranny exposes the dilemma at the heart of Jewish existence: are we a macho people of action, going out and asserting ourselves against other peoples, or are we, like the subjected female stereotype, the passive victims of the actions taken by others against us?
Fortunately, Liberal Judaism offers ways out of these binary options. We learn from our inheritance, but are not bound by its assumptions and rules. We prioritise ethical teachings and conduct, and ‘go out’ to forge connections with others and repair the world.
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