What Frightens You? The Lord of the Rings and A Woman of Goodly Form

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King).

The Lord of the Rings book series is far from being feminist. The books focuse on homosocial relationships, placing men and relationships between men in the forefront. Lady Éowyn stands out as one of the female characters who has presence and an independent will. In her conversation with Aragorn, Éowyn describes deep rooted and, unfortunately, realistic fear for women.

A Woman of Goodly Form

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teze, discusses the case of a woman of goodly form who is taken captive in battle:

When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive,  and seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her to thee to wife;  then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;  and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.  And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.  

In ancient times rape and pillage were part of the soldiers’ privileges. The law referring to a woman of goodly form tries to mitigate sexual lust and violence by decreeing that the soldier must take the woman into his house, and she must shave her hair and cut her nails. This decree could be interpreted as bereavement customs, allowing the woman to mourn the loss of her home and her family, or it could be interpreted as a way to wean the soldier of his lust.

The Sages focus their discussion on the man and his sexual urges. The man is the subject of the discussion, while the woman figures in as the object. Nobody discusses the woman’s loss or fear, and she is regarded as chattel.

Rashi interprets:

“That you would take her for your wife” – Scripture is speaking only in view of man’s evil inclination. For if the Holy One, blessed be He, would not permit her to him as a wife, he would nevertheless marry her, though she would then be forbidden to him.

The Sages are concerned that evil inclination will lead the man to take the gentile woman regardless of the law. Therefore, they permit her rape as the lesser evil:

… a woman— even married; ‘of beautiful countenance’ — the Torah only provided for human passions: [the first intercourse is permitted for] it is better for Israel to eat flesh of [animals] about to die, yet [ritually] slaughtered, than flesh of dying animals which have perished (Kidushin 21b-22a).

The law that discusses a woman of beautiful countenance prefers to allow a lesser evil (the first rape, that is done in the heat of desire), in the attempt of preventing a larger evil (I shall leave this to your imagination). This is not done as justification of the evil act, but out of recognition that the lesser evil is inevitable.

When read in the 21st century, this perspective is appalling because it perceives man as helpless when faced with desire, and defines the woman as the subject that is doomed to suffer the consequence of the evil inclination of the man.

Interestingly Rambam suggests that “the righteous should exercise restraint” and goes on to discuss a measure of humane approach towards the woman who has just lost her world: she should be allowed to mourn and grieve.

Considering the fickleness of desire, one moment we lust, the other moment we lose interest, the law forbids selling the woman into slavery if the man tires of her after a month: And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.  

Here we find a measure of acknowledgement of the woman’s grief and suffering. The man is forbidden of continuing her torment, he should set her free.

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Chained Women: Ki Teze and Agunot

According to data publish by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel there are 400 women who are agunot, that is chained to a marriage bond they are no longer interested in. Various NGO’s in Israel who treat agunot cases suggest the real numbers are much higher. Pnina Omer, director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha  says there are 2,000 agunot in Israel. Due to the absolute authority given to the Rabbinical Courts in Israel in cases of divorce, and due to the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to coerce a divorce on a man who refuses to release his wife, women who ask for a divorce find themselves subjected to financial extortion, cruelty and abuse.

Let’s read again the verses regarding the woman of goodly form law: … let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.

Why won’t we do just that?

Feature Photo by Jimmy Chan

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