If two men get into a fight with each other and the wife of one comes out to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes the other by the genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.
So records the Torah in this week’s portion, Parshat Kee Tatza. Shocking indeed! But what can we do? – the Torah says what it says. The language seems clear, and so does the rationale. A small number of us may embrace this value system wholeheartedly, others will reluctantly accept it, and still others – perhaps the majority of us – will throw up our hands in despair and wonder how the Torah can be so primitive and misogynous. But all of us would probably agree that the ancient Jewish Hellenistic writer of 2000 years ago, Philo of Alexandria, was properly reading the intention of the text and its worldview when he wrote that:
Market places and council chambers and courts of justice and large companies and assemblies of numerous crowds, and life in the open air full of arguments and actions relating to war and peace, are suited to men, but taking care of the house and remaining at home are the proper duties of women … and let her not be seen going about like a woman who walks the streets in the sight of other men … but when men are abusing one another or fighting, for women to venture to run out under pretense of assisting or defending them, is a blameworthy action and one of no slight shamefulness … It is a shocking thing if a women were to proceed to such a degree of boldness as to seize hold of the genitals one of the men quarrelling … And let her punishment be the cutting off of the hand which has touched what it ought not to have touched.
But believe it or not, Philo got it all wrong, at least according to our sages. They completely ignored his view. A number of the church fathers followed in his footsteps, but Jewish tradition would hear nothing of it. With absolutely no exceptions, the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash bent over backwards to give the verses from Deuteronomy a completely different interpretation. Philo might have been Jewish, but in this case as in many, many others, his readings of Torah were more Greek than Jewish, and while the echoes of his wisdom reverberate in the halls of Christendom, in the beit midrash of Jewish tradition they have just about never been heard.
So how do our rabbis interpret this law? They universally maintain that the verses are only talking about a case in which the woman wielded undue force and unnecessarily endangered the life of her victim! According to one opinion under such circumstances a good samaritan may do anything to loosen her grip, even going so far as to sever her hand as it is in the act of grasping the man’s genital. According to a second opinion, the verse is saying that if nothing was done to stop her while in the act, then after the fact the court may assess her a fine equal to the value of her hand. But the Talmud says explicitly – and all the sages agree – that if her act constitutes the only means available to save her husband, then she is totally within her rights and is beyond reproach. A woman – just like a man – can use whatever force and whatever means necessary to save herself and others from attack.
According to our tradition, the verses quoted speak about a woman, but only because it would usually be a woman whose only recourse to intervening on the side of one of the combatants would be to grab the genitals of the adversary. The law, however, is not specific to woman. If a man were to do the same thing, the same directive would apply. Despite Philo, this case has nothing to do with defining a woman’s place in society.
Is the rabbinic interpretation forced? Perhaps. But the rabbis were willing to go well out of their way to distance themselves from any thought that women have anything but equal rights to defend themselves and their families. Her status in the public domain vis-a-vis tort law is indistinguishable from that of a man.
Yes indeed, this whole matter is absolutely shocking. But it is not the putative discrimination against women that is so shocking. Rather what is so shocking is the insight of our sages. We are amazed, and we wonder how such an enlightened and egalitarian worldview of the sages managed to take root and flourish in the context of a Hellenistic world to whose conventional wisdom it was so diametrically opposed.