The Torah parshah Ki Teitzei, Deutornomy 21:10 to 25:19, contains 74 of the 613 commandments/mitzvot found in the Torah. These mitzvot cover a wide range of topics and concerns. For example, there are mitzvot about how to sow and harvest your fields and others about aiding those in need, including animals. Some of the mitzvot describe how and why divorces can be decreed, to whom can one charge interest, and the punishments for various crimes. There is a mitzvah concerning the requirement to erect a fence on one’s roof to prevent people from falling off, one about not wearing clothes of the opposite gender, one about returning and/or caring for lost property and another detailing from what type of material one’s clothes can be made.
The parshah is literally one mitzvah/commandment/rule after another. Some of the mitzvot seem logical and good for the community. For example, help an animal whose been given a load too heavy for it to carry. Hold onto someone’s property if you find it, so you can give it to them the next time you see them. Build a fence on your roof so that no one falls off.
However, there are also rules that are more willy-nilly. For instance, don’t plow your fields with two different animals. Sow your vineyards and field with only one type of plant. Wear only your gender’s clothing. Worry about a woman’s virginity or to whom she was once married.
Finally, there are rules such as those I discussed in my last blog. Stone someone to death if they commit a certain crime. Give lashes for other crimes. Murder those who break the rules.
Given its listing structure, it is no wonder that for some people this parshah really is just a set of rules. Do this and not that. Do that and not this. From such texts, it would also be no wonder that some people conclude that religion is primarily concerned with rules. Judaism isn’t the only religion accused of embellishing the importance of rules.
Yet, if you think about it, every institution, organization, workplace and society in which we live out our lives has rules. Rules in and of themselves aren’t the problem. It is when rules become both the ends and the means by which we live our lives that rules no longer serve their purpose. Why religion often leans this way is beyond me.
From a feminist perspective, rules should be contextualized and discussed. Specifically, they should be evaluated in light of patriarchy, their historical context and modern society. Two good examples of such evaluations of this parshah’s rules are Rachel Adler’s discussion of virginity and Keshet’s discussion of cross-dressing.
While rules, such as those found in this parshah, rules may be part of religion, they are not and should not be the goal. Rather, religion should offer people a lens through which to understand the world and their place in it. Religions should foster communities where one can find like-minded people and meaningful traditions which should connect people to their past. Finally, religions should foster genuine values, principles, and ideals that should uplift rather than stiffle.
The Jewish tradition adheres to these basic principles. In fact, despite the laundry list of rules, this parshah gets to the heart of how religion functions in Judaism. What is important for the divine is that the Isrealites (and later us, Jews,) live well in community. After all, this parshah’s rules aren’t about how the Isrealites treat the divine; they are about how the Israelites behave in each other’s company. Treat each other well. Care for animals. Keep safety in mind. Be mindful when planting and harvesting food. Do what you can to promote good, flourishing and care and not evil, pain or suffering. That is the heart of the Jewish religion to me: we need to live in such a way that we, and everyone around us, flourishes.
Religion isn’t important because it lays out a set of rules. Religion is important because it illustrates what life is about. It offers a path to walk along, values to cherish, and companions along the way. Religion is important because it promotes love, choice, mindfulness, care and purpose. Any religion that is worth its grain of salt doesn’t give one the answers, but helps one to explore life’s profound questions perhaps offering some suggestions or approaches along the way.
At the same time, one doesn’t need a specific religion or any religion at all to have community, to promote goodness, flourishing, mindfulness, caring and purpose or to probe life’s unanswerable questions. To dismiss non-religious people as amoral, unspiritual or not caring seems senseless. After all, it may well be that some religious people are only in it so to speak for the rules and could care less about developing their spiritual side.
Ki teitzei illustrates that life has rules, but rules aren’t all there is to life. Rules aren’t all there is to religion either. One would be missing the point if the rule was just the rule and didn’t have a larger life lesson to teach. Likewise, religion would be missing the point if it was just a set of rules and never went any deeper. The challenge is finding the balance between practicing the rules and living out the faith. Only then do we truly understanding the meaning religion could give to our lives.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.