Friday, 26 Aug 2011

Written by Dr Laliv Clenman

We regularly study the talmudic discussions of the motsi shem ra (literally, one who puts forth an evil name, see Deuteronomy 22:13-21) in my MA module on narrative in the Talmuds (offered through King’s College London in conjunction with Leo Baeck College).  I joke that we explore these sugyot about a husband’s slander against his new bride, because of their modern day relevance for virginity claims – surely a particularly frequent problem faced by today’s rabbinate in their day-to-day work in our congregations, and without a doubt a burning issue for modern day scholars to tackle.  All chuckling aside, the suggestion, of course, is that there is no real practical reason for studying such sections, unless purely lishma, for the sake of it, and while such study is a beautiful thing, it would certainly not prove useful.  This joking, mind you, is purely jest.  While the material concern regarding physical virginity may no longer be a cultural issue, the development of rabbinic discourse on the problem of virginity claims is an inheritance from which we may learn something very real about the depth, breadth and richness of our legal traditions as well as the nature of our ongoing struggle to do them justice.

The Deuteronomic law begins with a case where a man marries a young woman and the following morning finds that he despises her.  His solution to his predicament is to spread rumours that she had not in fact been a virgin on their wedding night.  This man, known as the motsi shem ra, is a liar who seeks to abandon his new bride on a whim without any regard for her welfare.  Physical evidence of the loss of her virginity confirms the assumption that his claims are false, and he is punished with a monetary fine and the permanent loss of his right to divorce her.

This straightforward section is followed by a case that seems to be an afterthought, which scholars argue is a later addition (Deut. 22:20-21): What if this man was not a liar after all?  What if he was telling the truth? The central concern for these two verses is the case of a sexually active and deceitful young woman, attempting to deny her true physical state.  The man now becomes a legitimate claimant, telling the truth in the face of a lying bride.  We therefore find two strands in the biblical tradition, one in which the primary concern is the protection of vulnerable young women against lying fickle husbands seeking to move on after their wedding night, and the other in which the man is honest and speaks the truth, and the fear is that he might fall victim of a young woman who deliberately misrepresents her status.

These contrasting traditions form the heart of the suyga or question dealt with in both Bavli and Yerushalmi (bKetubot 10a-b and yKetubot 1:1 24d-25a). Are men or women more likely to lie about the nature of the act on the wedding night and the status of the new bride?  Why would someone lie, how would they benefit from their mendacity and whom might they harm?  Who is more vulnerable in society and under halakhah? For whom is the law’s protection most urgently needed?  On what basis do men and women make their claims?  How do they know?  Can we trust male or female knowledge of and statements about their own bodies and experiences? 

The Mishna takes the direction of the alternative situation in Deuteronomy, assuming that the man is telling the truth and the bride is lying, therefore encouraging him to bring his claim to court.  Much of the talmudic discussion on this problem also continues this tradition, arguing that a man would not lie about such a thing, and expressing anxiety about the control of female sexuality, the latter especially in Yerushalmi.  The reader of these talmudic pages, traditionally likely a young man himself, must become quite confident of his own ability, indeed of the great importance of making such a claim were he to have any doubts regarding his new bride.

It would seem that the law of the motsi shem ra might have been cast aside, but a serious misgiving grows in response to this unquestioning support of the new husband’s claim.  What protection remains for the young bride?  How can we believe every claim made by a man on this score?  It is as if the main Deuteronomic tradition persists, asking, What if a man takes a wife and comes upon her and hates her? (Deut. 22:13) What if? These underlying haunting questions could have been ignored, but instead both Talmuds deal with this difficult sugya through a series of stories about men coming before great sages to make just such a claim that their brides were not virgins.  The reader may be surprised to find that each man’s claim is dismissed.  His knowledge of and ability to determine the status of his bride is questioned, even ridiculed, and the bride’s claims about her own body and experience are accepted, to the point where we hear the rare response of a woman who states, “Rabbi, I am still a virgin,” as it would appear that her husband had been particularly clueless on the wedding night.

After reading these tales, any sensible new husband would avoid making a virginity claim against his bride, for fear of making a terrible fool of himself, insulting his bride and ruining his marriage.  The law that develops between the claimant-husband, the bride and the sage is of its own tradition, a living law, for living people, developing in a complicated and realistic context and offering an innovative solution for a range of social and personal problems, including those caused by halakhah itself.  By studying these stories in the context of all our surviving literature perhaps we can continue to take a similar, equally surprising approach, by finding meaning and substance and future in what might initially have seemed an irrelevant, even morally repugnant, ancient law.

Dr Laliv Clenman
September 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.