A story with two endings

This week’s parasha, Chukat, is an important one for the nation as it finally moves toward entry into the Land of Israel.

‘JEPHTE AND his daugher,’ tapestry by Jan Aerts, 1630. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JEPHTE AND his daugher,’ tapestry by Jan Aerts, 1630.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s parasha, Chukat, is an important one for the nation as it finally moves toward entry into the Land of Israel: Miriam dies, there is a crisis over water which leads to the people complaining and Moses hits the rock. The rest, as they say, is history. Moses and Aaron are banned from entry into the land.
There is one narrative that often gets overlooked: Israel asks permission from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, to cross through their land to enter the Land of Israel. When they are denied permission, the fledgling nation goes to war and with God’s help, they win the land from the Arnon to the Yabbok.
The haftarah, Chapter 11 in the Book of Judges, brings us Jephthah, who is forced to go to war with Ammon over the land won from Sihon. Jephthah is a complicated character. He is both a mighty warrior and the son of a prostitute, who was ejected from his father’s home by his brothers. He is called back only in order to save his tribe from the Ammonite nation. The king of Ammon is planning to go to war to win back the land from the Arnon to the Yabok, which they lost to Sihon, who then lost it to Israel.
Jephthah is not thirsting for war. He first practices diplomacy, reminding the king of Ammon of the land’s history and how their god had already capitulated to Israel and granted them victory over the Amorites to take possession of the land. When the king refuses to relent, Jephthah goes to war, but not before he vows to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God if he emerges victorious. Immediately, he is blessed with a resounding victory. He utterly routs the Ammonites and comes home to celebrate. This is where the haftarah ends.
However, I would like to fill in the rest of the chapter, for the story that emerges is an important one and serves as reminder of how far misplaced religious ideology can go. As Jephthah approaches his home, his daughter runs out to greet him with timbrels and dancing – reminiscent of Miriam’s dancing on the Red Sea. We are told that he has no other child save this one, which heightens the tragedy, since we the readers know at this point what he has vowed, although his innocent daughter does not.
In a particularly brutal turn of phrase, he blames his daughter for bringing him low and forcing him to fulfil his vow. The pious unnamed daughter bravely faces the consequence of the vow, but asks for two months to go with her friends down on to the mountains. After two months, she returns and he does to her what he vowed. Forever after, four days a year, the daughters of Israel go to wail over the daughter of Jephthah.
The tragic story challenges the rabbinic Midrash written over 1,000 years after the events took place in unexpected ways when it uncovers a daring theology aimed at proving God’s complicity in the event. In Genesis Rabbah 60:3, the Midrash notes that in three other cases, men take unreasonable vows that challenge God’s ability to provide a happy end: 1) Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, who is taxed with finding a bride for Isaac; 2) Caleb, who promises his daughter to whoever captures the town of Kiryat Sefer; and 3) Saul, who promises his daughter to whoever brings down Goliath. In all three cases, a heroine or hero emerges: Rebecca, Otniel ben Kenaz and the future King David.
In this story, however, the Midrash has God incensed and insulted over the idea that Jephthah would dare to consider sacrificing a camel or a donkey or a dog if it happened to exit the house first, and thus, God sends the daughter of Jephthah to teach him a lesson. It is certainly a lesson, but for whom? The Midrash goes on to suggest that while God was complicit in the tragedy, the true accountability lay with Jephthah and Pinchas, the high priest at the time. Neither would lay down their ego to try and salvage the situation by going to beg help one from the other.
It is a sobering story – one of gender, power and tragedy. A virginal girl is sacrificed on the altar of her father’s ignorance and ego and no one cares. There is no outcry from society.
Several hundred years later, a different ending to the story emerges. The medievalists, among them Ibn Ezra, Radak, Gersonides and Abarbanel, use a model known to them in Christendom of the anchorite. The anchorite was a woman who pledged herself to the monastic life, but unlike a nun who lived in a community, she was shut into the house, usually by her father, who provided for her until the end of her days and who spent her life in thanksgiving and prayers to God, acting as a holy vessel on behalf of the community.
So committed are the medievalist to this innovative interpretation, that they use classic exegetical tools to interpret the text accordingly. When Jephthah takes his vow he says, “and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” with the Hebrew letter vav standing in for the word “and.” The commentators note that a “vav” can mean “or,” as well as “and,” and thus, it makes possible the reading that Jephthah will sacrifice something that is worthy of sacrifice or consecrate to God something that is not. In addition, the medievalists notice that the text tells us three times in different ways that she was a virgin when the vow took place as opposed to emphasizing the shortness of her life. Lastly, her friends actually go every year to visit with her for four days – to give her comfort and cry with her over her isolation, which makes more sense, they argue, then going to cry over a grave for four days a year.
Whether her fate was better off with sudden and instant death or with her father building her a house and putting her inside never to come out, is debatable. What is commendable and worth noting, is the interest of interpreters from the midrash onward, to delve into the text by using both traditional methods of interpretation through a careful and close reading of the text with contemporary milieus to read and reread a story in a way that best fits the message they feel is hidden within. It encourages us to see the Torah as open to infinite possible interpretations as we continue, in the words of Ben Bag Bag in Pirkei Avot, to “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.

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