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Learning from the uncomfortable commandments of Ki Teitzei

Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch confronts three very unusual commandments that appear in the beginning of Parashat Ki Teitzei: Capturing a woman during war time, what to do with a rebellious son and how a husband of two wives can deal with a wife he does not like.

He uses these passages as opportunities to, not necessarily follow these commandments, but to learn from them and to have a discourse with them. This is a helpful reminder that the Torah provides us ways to help strengthen our consciousness.

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This week’s parasaha, Parashat Ki Teitzei, starts with three different commandments. The first deals with what to do after capturing a woman in a war and what to do if one wants to bring her home and marry her. 

The second is what happens in a family when a husband has two wives and he likes one of them and doesn’t like the other. What does he do with his money and how does he give it to his children? 

The third is about the rebellious son. If he behaves in a certain manner, you must bring him to the gates of the city and stone him to death. 

Imagine yourself teaching this beginning to your Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl. Personally, I felt pretty embarrassed and awkward, and I was asking myself, what exactly am I doing? 

When the rabbis dealt with the rebellious son, one of their suggestions was to learn it in order to gain a reward. This is not a mitzvah you need to fulfill and it hasn’t ever happened, but you still need to learn it. 

The easy reading of this text from a theological level is that there is a ‘Torah Lishma’ concept: We learn Torah for the sake of learning Torah. Therefore, we have verses just for learning.

I want to suggest a slightly more radical version of this concept: We learn these things in order to be embarrassed. In order to feel inconvenienced. It is an opportunity to read our morals and values into Torah. An opportunity to have a conversation between our values and our manners and Torah in order to create a better life and for us to behave better. Not just by fulfilling this commandment but by actually being in a discourse with it. 

The rebellious son is there to remind us every day of how much effort we need to put in educating our children and ensuring we are happy are with them. He reminds us that we need to provide a sustainable home that is balanced and that we are happy with our children in this household.

The relationship with one man and two women, brings up the question that our tradition actually took, which is that two wives to one husband is not a very workable model. 

The third is the taking of a woman captive in war and then asking to marry her should be a shameful reminder that this is not the right way to ‘do war’ and this is not acceptable behavior.

The Torah provides a track for mindfulness and awareness. It is not necessarily for dictating right from wrong but actually to enable our right and wrong senses to develop.

Avi Novis-Deutsch is the former Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also holds an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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