The Torah’s take on self-defense

The Torah’s take on self-defense

Ki Tetze | Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Parashat Ki Tetze is a catalog of laws — depending on which system of enumeration you follow, it contains 72 or 74 of the 613 mitzvot. Our parasha deals with marriage and divorce, crime and punishment, commerce and charity, duties to people and to animals, even sanitation in military camps.

However, if you read divrei Torah, which I do, you’ll discover that only a fraction of these laws are the subject of most rabbis’ sermons. The rest of them, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect — or at least not much commentary from contemporary rabbis.

But there’s one law in Ki Tetze that has always fascinated me, even though I’ve never heard or read a d’var Torah on it. The Torah says:

“If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.”

It seems just a little bit extreme. Like most girls, I was taught that if you were ever threatened or attacked by a man who is almost always going to be bigger and stronger, the best way to save yourself was to “kick him where it hurts.” The woman in the Torah is attempting to save her husband — what other option does she have?

The good news is that the Rabbis of the Talmud also see the punishment prescribed as wildly out of proportion to the offense. Therefore, they read “cut off her hand” to mean a monetary fine (i.e., reducing what her hand earns) for humiliating her victim. 

The Sifre (an early rabbinic commentary on Devarim) explains that grabbing a man’s genitals can endanger his life and therefore cutting off the woman’s hand is not a punishment, but an option available to bystanders if there is no less drastic means to save the man’s life. “Show no pity” is added to teach that if there is no other option, one is permitted to kill the attacker to save the life of the victim.

The medieval commentator Abravanel suggests that this law applies only in the case where the men are not sworn enemies and there is no real danger to the woman’s husband. In a case where the woman’s husband is in danger, she is permitted to save him by any means necessary.

In the JPS commentary on Devarim, Professor Jeffrey Tigay cites an Assyrian law which prescribes cutting off a woman’s finger if she injures a man’s testicles, impairing his ability to have children. He concludes: The Assyrian law deals with a case in which the woman is a principal in the fight, not a bystander trying to assist one of the principals. In essence, it means that women may not use one of the few means they have for defending themselves against stronger men. The Bible imposes no such restriction, but penalizes women only for using this tactic when they are not attacked but are intervening in a fight between others. This distinguishes the Jewish penal code from that of other civilizations.

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