Friday, February 13, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- defenses against adultery

We’re working on the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-29.  These laws allow a groom to charge his bride with adultery if he thinks she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night, a charge subject to all the same due process rules as murder. 
The charge falls to the ground if they can’t find the necessary witnesses, or the examination of witnesses doesn’t allow enough of the judges to vote to convict.
But the girl has three defenses to the charge; they are described in Mishnah and Gemara.
One is called migo.  If she says, “You’re right, my parents don’t have the tokens of my virginity, but it was an accident,” the court believes her.  She could have denied the charge of non-virginity, but she admits it.  American law has a similar admission against penal interest, and in Jewish law the explanation serves to clear the girl.
Another is called “the man has to drink from his own pot.”  The girl can say “You’re right, my parents don’t have the tokens of my virginity, but my betrothed is the man I had sex with.”  A man can’t complain about a situation he was responsible for.
This situation particularly existed in Jerusalem where, according to Mishnah, it was the custom to seclude the bride and groom after they signed the contract but before the wedding ceremony.  There’s a sad kind of logic to that which reflects the verses in Deuteronomy.
Some of the verses say “if he caught her in the city and lay with her,” then she can be accused of adultery if she didn’t scream.
If she screamed for help, she can’t be accused of adultery.
But there’s a twist.  Remember, whether she screamed or not, people have to intervene and try to stop the adultery or they can’t testify against her in court.
The point is that in a big city, a girl sent out on errands ran a certain amount of risk, and a man who contracted a marriage with her accepted the risk that she wasn’t a virgin.  The custom of secluding the bride and groom together saved face for her, because she could use the “your fault” argument instead of having to undergo an adultery trial.
The issue resolved here, that western societies rejected until about a century ago, is this.  The girl is married at the point that the virginity issue came up.  In western culture, a married girl became a non-person.  Her “person” was absorbed into that of her husband.  She could not sign contracts; she could not own property. 
In Jewish law, women were always persons once they became adults.  They signed their own wedding contracts.  They could own land and other property.  They could bequeath property independent of their husbands.  On which more later.  But first, another legal excuse for the woman.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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