by Marilyn Morrison
Parashat Ki Teitzei ("When you go out") contains a significant portion of the Torah's laws: no less than 74 mitzvot (out of 613) have been counted as deriving from this parashah.
Building the ideal Israelite society is an overriding concern of this passage. The civil, criminal, and family laws in Deuteronomy address relationships within households, among neighbors, and between the vulnerable in society and those more fortunate. While the laws in Shof’tim, the preceding parashah, address public officials, the laws in this parashah focus on what could be seen as private family matters. The prominence of laws concerning the lesser-loved wife, the punishment of wayward children, and the regulation of sexual behavior indicate that such seemingly private matters concern society as a whole. Public legislation governing these matters demonstrates the concern with building a balanced society in which all individuals are governed by the community and its laws.
Laws concerning women are prominent in this parashah, including the proper treatment of captive women, rape, divorce, and accusations of non-virginity. This reflects the belief that because the family unit is the basis of society, a woman’s position and status in the family unit are critical. It is striking that even in these ancient societies, women’s health and welfare were considered.
Marriage and family law in biblical times favored men over women. For example, a husband could divorce a wife if he chose to, but a wife could not divorce a husband without his consent. The practice of levirate marriage applied to widows of childless deceased husbands, but not to widowers of childless deceased wives. Laws concerning the loss of female virginity have no male equivalent.
Some have suggested that these and other gender differences found in the Torah suggest that women were subordinate to men during biblical times, however, they also suggest that biblical society viewed continuity, property, and family unity as paramount. Some have argued that it is the exact opposite, that women were held in reverence and that they needed protection. Either way, women were still treated as second class citizens, property, or a possession.
However, men had specific obligations they were required to perform for their wives. These included the provision of clothing, food, and sexual relations to their wives. Women had no choice but to depend on men economically. Women generally did not own property except in the rare case of inheriting land from a father who didn't bear sons. Even in such cases, women could be required to remarry within the tribe so as not to reduce its land holdings.
Sadly, in today’s society we as women are still largely dependent on men economically. In the United States today, women on average earn 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. The disparity is even greater for women of color and for Latina women. In Canada, there is a similar problem: on average, women earn about 81% of what their male counterparts make.
The Jewish call for pay equity brings into mind that Jewish tradition has long recognized the importance of paying fair wages. Leviticus 19:13 commands that, “You shall not defraud your fellow Israelite. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” Judaism also teaches that all human beings should be treated equally because they are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them” (Genesis 1:27). In both the U.S. and Canada there is legislation that aims to close the wage gap.
Pay equity is a real concern for our members throughout North America, in Israel, and around the world. Please take a moment in the coming New Year to commit to provide programming highlighting this pressing issue. Take this opportunity to begin a conversation about women’s equality in the workplace, in society, and in our personal lives to ensure that the next generation of women will not face the same injustices women face today.
Marilyn Morrison is a WRJ Board member and WRJ Mid-Atlantic District Vice President of Marketing and Communications. She is also a member of Temple B'nai Shalom Sisterhood in Fairfax Station, VA.