Choices of honor
Emor — Leviticus 21:1-24:23
May 4, 2011
Every year, thousands of women and girls are murdered by members of their families because they have tarnished the family’s honor. Their crimes range from adultery to refusing to enter an arranged marriage, from seeking a divorce from an abusive husband to flirting, from dressing immodestly to being raped. Often, the authorities look the other way.
The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 “honor killings” take place annually. Women’s and human rights groups believe the number is much higher. Most take place in the Middle East and southwest Asia, but there are also documented cases in Europe, North America, and elsewhere.
With this in mind, it’s disturbing to read this verse in our parsha: “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire.” It certainly seems to sanction, even require, “honor killing.” However, it is not only incorrect, but also dangerous, to define Judaism simply by reading the Torah text. We Jews read the Torah through the eyes of the rabbis, and we understand that what the text means, and particularly how it is to be applied in matters of Halacha, is what the rabbis say it means.
The rabbis of the Talmud have quite a bit to say about this verse, the first thing that it doesn’t apply to every daughter of a priest, but only to one who is married. How do we know? It’s obvious; while the Torah disapproves of sex outside of marriage, it doesn’t become criminal unless the parties were ineligible to marry each other — that is, when the woman is already married or betrothed (the Torah permits polygamy) or when they are related in a way the Torah defines as incestuous.
Moreover, the Torah says (Deuteronomy 22:22), “If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them — the man and the woman with whom he lay — shall die.” In other words, adultery by anyone — not just the daughter of a priest — is a capital offense, and the punishment is meted out by the court, not by the woman’s family.
And finally, the rabbis surround capital punishment with so many requirements that it is hard to imagine that it could ever be employed. Among the requirements that would have to be met for the court to judge anyone guilty of adultery are these:
- Before the couple did anything, they would have to be seen by two kosher witnesses who would issue a warning that what they were planning to do was prohibited and punishable by death and naming the specific method of execution that applied;
- Those who were warned would have to verbally acknowledge that they understood the warning and were aware of the method of execution that would be imposed; and
- The couple would have to go ahead and have sex anyway — in the sight of the two witnesses.
While I don’t speak from experience, I’m pretty sure that’s not how most cases of adultery takes place.
So if all adultery is a capital offense, what’s the force of this verse? It’s about the form of execution that would be imposed if a daughter of a priest were convicted of adultery. The Talmud prescribes four methods of execution — strangulation, decapitation, burning, and stoning, in increasing degrees of severity (and none of them is what you imagine). Normally the form of execution for adultery is strangulation, but the daughter of a priest is executed by burning — a more severe form — because “it is her father whom she defiles.”
As Rashi explains, “She profanes and shames his honor, for people say about him, ‘Cursed be the one who begot her, cursed be the one who brought her up.’” Because the kohanim (priests) are set apart by God to be role models of holiness and to serve in the sanctuary, the misbehavior of the daughter of the priest reflects not only on her family, but on the special role of the kohanim.
Clearly, the Torah forbids “honor killing” — only the court can impose the death penalty, and only in the most extreme circumstances. Still, the concern for honor is real. Like it or not, an individual’s behavior reflects on his or her parents, teachers, and community. It’s true that sometimes perfectly good parents raise a rotten kid, and good people sometimes come from terrible families, but as a working assumption it’s reasonable to think that a person’s behavior reflects the values he or she learned from parents, teachers, religious authorities, and other significant institutions in his or her life.
At the end of our parsha, the Torah records the case of the blasphemer, the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian father. We never learn his name, but we are told his mother’s name was Shelomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan. Rashi explains, “This teaches that a wicked person brings disgrace upon himself, disgrace upon his father [or parents], disgrace upon his tribe, and similarly, a righteous person brings praise for himself, praise for his father, praise for his tribe.”
Never forget — the choices you make are not made for yourself alone.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.