Selling your daughter as a maidservant

21 Feb

There are times in my life when I wonder how it is that I have been blessed with so much…and why it is that I am not more grateful.

Many of u4c9lr9bbis live very privileged lives…and yet, despite the abundance of material blessing, we are not really happy. We know we should be, but we are not…there is always something to kvetch about.

There are times when I find myself learning Torah, studying halakhah detached from the saga behind the laws, absorbed in the details of halakhic application, indifferent to the layers of anguish that may have been experienced by my assumed imaginary halakhic lab-rats who are being so good about standing there before me: impoverished, consumed in anguish, victimized, bereft of a loved one, handicapped, barren – standing there and allowing me to spin halachic algorithms around their plight in an effort to redeem the law, making sure that the sacred time-tested codes remain relevant in even the most dire of circumstances.

I forget that these were/are/could be real people – and that no matter how we spin the law, their plight is paved with indescribable sorrow.

If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not be freed as male servants are released. Her master should take her as his bride, and if she is not pleasing to him, he must let her be redeemed….If the master designates her as a bride for his son, she must be treated exactly the same as any other girl. (Exodus 20:16,18)

Normally my questions would revolve around the details of her provisions, of the Torah’s concern for her future security. I would applaud the revolutionary teachings that seek to look out for her personal well-being as she regains her freedom, a now tainted woman.

But somehow, this year as I read the passage, my heart is in a different place.

THIS YEAR I find myself unable to stop dwelling on the image of the father, so desperate that he is forced to indenture his daughter to servitude, to pay off debts, to secure her survival.

THIS YEAR my heart goes out to this poor young maiden, deprived of ever knowing true-love, of ever drifting into the arms of the man of her dreams – destined instead to make due with her lot and hope that perhaps the man she does end up with will give her some small measure of happiness.

There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand:   

The way of an eagle in the sky,
            The way of a serpent on a rock,
            The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
            And the way of a man with a maid. (Proverbs 30:18-19)

The wonders of life, many of them ever so basic –  we fail to celebrate them in all of their simple wonder: the blessings are the curse, making us indifferent to the suffering that surrounds us, making us forget to be grateful.

I am thankful this year that for some blessed reason, my eyes are glued to the maiden – hoping that paying her a little attention will make her smile – even just a little bit – as Torah scholars once again step right over her – indifferent to her plight – focused only on their holy quest for greater erudition, elevating the Torah at her tragic expense.

Perhaps you know such a maiden?


2 Responses to “Selling your daughter as a maidservant”

  1. Leah Richman Friday, February 24, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

    Rabbi Schwartz,

    As a woman rabbi, I have to say that my first and every reading of the passage in our parasha about the amah has focused on the experience of the girl/ woman. This reminds me how important it is that we have both men’s and women’s voices contributing to Torah scholarship. While people usually focus on the way men overlook women’s issues in the Torah, I’ve rarely reflected on how my own gender bias narrows my own reading as well. Thank you for writing this post and helping me reflect on my own limited viewpoint. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to round out your own reading of the passage about the amah.

    It never occurred to me, as it did to you, that her forced marriage (and likely rape) would ever possibly bring her “some small measure of happiness.” It never occurred to me to think about the passage from the perspective of the father, or of the slave owner. Nor have I ever felt the need to engage in apologetics, as you have in the past, as when you write that you “would applaud the revolutionary teachings that seek to look out for her personal well-being…”

    I agree that the Torah is revolutionary in its concern for the woman in this passage; nonetheless, it’s not something I’ve ever focused on as a particularly celebratory teaching. When you close your post by saying “I am … hoping that paying her a little attention will make her smile – even just a little bit – as Torah scholars once again step right over her – indifferent to her plight” I want to be sure you know that not all Torah scholars step right over her. The Torah scholars I have learned from and learned with have mourned together with the young woman.

    So to start, you and I are coming from very different backgrounds and approaches to text study as well as different gender biases. But ultimately were are looking at the same text, wondering how to make sense of it; and I will speak for myself here- wondering if it has any relevancy for us today. Your last sentence is cryptic: “Perhaps you know such a maiden?” I believe you are referring to any person suffering to whom we turn a blind eye. any person male or female, who we step over or ignore in the pursuit of another agenda, without even noticing.

    Let me suggest that we do not need to look far to find your “maiden.” I am reminded of two recent news stories, one in which an Uber driver saves a 16 year old girl from sex-trafficking in Sacramento, CA, and another, in which a young married mother out jogging in Northern CA was branded and abused by abductors before being thrown out of a car onto the road after three-weeks in captivity. Having never heard of “branding” before the story of the CA mom, I did some research and was horrified to read about how branding is an old mark of slavery being used on sex-trafficking victims.

    If you are like me, you want the gory details, so I will save you the trouble of reading the articles. Pimps tattoo the girls and women they control, showing their “ownership” over them. Sometimes the name of the pimp is tattooed across the girl’s/woman’s chest; sometimes dollar signs or money bags are tattooed on their neck, or even a bar code on their arm, all symbolizing that men need to pay the pimp for access to the girl’s body. Once again, as back in the time when slavery was commonplace, one man is selling the rights to a woman’s body to another man for financial reasons.

    Today, teenage girls who have run away from home or very young women living a destitute life due to situations such as illegal immigration, drug addiction, or simply having grown up in the wrong neighborhood, are lured into the promise of glamour and money. They may initially think they know what they are choosing, but they soon realize that they have been manipulated into a life of violence and crime, and are no longer free agents. These girls and young women, I believe, are today’s “maidens,” not really having a small measure of happiness from their “owners” and not having the ability to be free.

    In the Torah, we are imagining a distraught Israelite father, bereft and mournful in having to sell his daughter into slavery, hoping to find a way she can at least eat and live, and be supported. I feel blasphemous imagining the Israelite father of yesterday as the pimp of today. But we do not know, truly, how the deals used to go down. We don’t know if fathers saw their daughters as a source of potential income, if they looked at them more favorably if they thought they would attract a better market price, if they waited anxiously for the day their daughter was blooming just enough to attract a man and they could unburden themselves of the responsibility of feeding her. Maybe they were forced into selling their daughters; maybe they chose to. One thing we know for sure–we will never know how the daughters felt about the situation.

    Ultimately, the Torah is here to provide moral guidance for us, to be relevant to us today, and to inspire us to be the best we can be. Had I not read your blog, I never would have chosen to write about this passage. I have conveniently ignored it, because I despise the approach that I have just taken in these previous paragraphs- the approach of many of my colleagues, and now myself, that promises moral relevancy only inasmuch as we work to right the wrongs we see used to be perpetrated in Biblical society.

    This approach does not celebrate the Torah; it does not look to the Torah for guidance. I am not particularly proud of this now exceedingly long and ranting response. But I also could not simply read and remain silent as you ponder your “poor young maiden, deprived of ever knowing true-love, of ever drifting into the arms of the man of her dreams – destined instead to make due with her lot.” This passage, as I read it, is not about a young woman who ever imagined a life of romantic love or ever expected to find the man of her dreams (assuming she wished to to have relations with a man at all). It is not, despite the lovely Cinderella profile clip-art you chose, about a girl who lived in a world with lovely ballroom dancing. She probably knew her whole life that her destiny would be a “plight paved with indescribable sorrow,” as you put it. But sorrow is simply not a strong enough word.

    Rabbi Schwartz, you spend the first half of your blog post making us, the reader, see you as a newly awakened man who has come out of a rabbinic ivory tower, endearingly admitting your prior sins of ignoring the underlying suffering in the Biblical text while addressing the halachic implications. I applaud you for your awakening. But I would like to see you go further; you do not get off that easy. Help me- Rabbi Schwartz– show me how the “sacred time-tested codes remain relevant in even the most dire of circumstances.” I truly want to know. I truly do. Because I do not have any answers, and my response, which I despise, only helps keep the Torah relevant, but does not in anyway emphasize “sacred time-tested codes.”

    And perhaps, while you are at it, explain what you mean by “Perhaps you know such a maiden too?” I do know such a maiden, and she is every girl and woman in the past until this very day who has been forced and coerced into having relations with men. Men who more likely than not are physically unclean, virus ridden, degrading, violent, objectifying and are twice or more their age, and who if they return to her for more, are returning to further satiate their own ta’avah with no concern for the well being of the girl/ woman.

    I have posted this on my blog as well, if you wish to check it out, on

    I await your response.
    Yours in emunah and Torah,
    Rabbi Leah Richman

  2. ravmorey Sunday, February 26, 2017 at 4:46 pm #

    Rabbi Richman,

    I am genuinely impressed and moved my the extent of your comments and the depth of your thought on the subject at hand here. I feel like I have definitely touched a nerve, and hope that you will forgive me here if my reply is not as thorough as your questioning.

    My question about the maiden is exactly as you have surmised: who are the people about whom we conjecture solutions without really feeling their anguish; who are those who are patiently, or impatiently, awaiting our attention? As an example, when we think about the poverty in our societies, to what extent do we allow ourselves to think about the poor themselves, to put a face on the underprivileged. I am reminded of a trip to Capetown, South Africa. I asked for a tour of the townships, to meet some of the blacks living their in their hopeless squalor. One of the locals, my age, asked to join the visit, as she had NEVER been in the townships – she had never put a face on the suffering. I am not sure if it makes a difference, if it makes us do more in the long run…but one thing it sure does – it impresses upon us the real suffering, and creates for us an image that we have no choice but to carry around with us for the rest of our lives.

    Those images have changed me.

    Now, as to the larger question you ask, to show you how the “sacred time-tested codes remain relevant in even the most dire of circumstances,” I would by necessity utter a disclaimer before I answer – and that is this: I do not think the same way as many of my colleagues. That said, my answer is simple: Torah’s teachings are sacred not only because they were given by God, but because they were given to be interpreted and applied wisely by God’s partners in this world – us, the Jewish People. When we apply them objectively, without concern for their contemporary ramifications, we do INJUSTICE to them, and rob them of their sacredness. ONLY when we are willing to take our contemporary circumstances into consideration and interpret the law accordingly are we maintaining the “sacred time-tested relevancy” of our holy Torah.

    As we are fond of saying (and singing) “It’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17) – Only when that is true does Torah shine in all of its sacredness…and it was always meant to be that her scholars would safeguard that sacredness through proper interpretation and application.

    There is, in my opinion, no excuse for suffering caused in the name of “authentic” Torah observance – that is inexcusable, that is not authentic, and only serves to tarnish the Torah and denigrate it’s Holy author.

    Thanks again for your insights and comments.

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