De-Calf-Annated: Shoftim 2019

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever suffered as a result of someone else’s misdeeds, even if you were not the target of said wrongdoing? How did it make you feel?

In one of the more curious laws of the Torah, we learn that the discovery of a homicide victim necessitates the Israelites to injure … a cow?

The Pitch: “If, in the land that your God Adonai is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known … The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. … Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Adonai.” – Deuteronomy 21:1, 3-4, 9

Swing #1: “[The Mishnah implies] that if only one witness, male or female, testifies that the woman was defiled or who the murderer of the unidentified corpse is, this one witness cancels the ordeal of the bitter waters or the ritual of breaking the calf’s neck. Considered with other statements the rabbis made on these subjects, which indicate that they were interested in avoiding implementation of both of these rituals, these relaxed standards of testimony are not surprising.” – Judith Haupmtan, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Swing #2: “There is a great deal of wisdom in the notion that we need a way to cleanse our communities of wrongdoing, even when there is no one obvious to blame. As Jewish women, we see historic exclusion from significant roles and rituals; we encounter sexist rabbinic blind spots; we are troubled by painful narratives. We sense that the ancient rabbis were no worse on ‘women’s issues’ than other men of their time, and that in many cases they were ahead of their time – for example, in providing certain kinds of economic protection to women. But still, we feel hurt and anger when we encounter aspects of our beloved tradition that seem to undermine, limit, or even oppress women.” – Rabbi Susan Fendrick, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, editor

Swing #3: “‘They shall break the heifer’s neck’: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let a one-year heifer that has never borne fruit come and have its neck broken in a place that has never had produce in order to atone for the killing of one whom they did not allow to bear fruit.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: How can we make sense of inflicting harm on a cow upon the discovery of a person’s murder? Is there a slight bit of comfort to know that an animal is harmed rather than another human being? Or is this ritual repugnant in all ways? How do we reconcile our modern views on animal rights with the laws of the Torah?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are grateful that Hurricane Dorian, while harrowing and damaging, did not inflict as much wreckage on the Charleston area as initially feared. If you’ve made it back to town, please join us for Shabbat services tonight at 6PM and tomorrow at 9:30AM. We won’t be able to provide a full Kiddush on Saturday, but we can be grateful to be together, among other blessings.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of taking the blame for another’s misdeeds, I find it curious how often managers are ejected from games not because of their anger, but rather to prevent one of his players from losing his temper with an umpire. I guess this is one of the ultimate examples of “taking one for the team”.

Shabbat Shalom!