The Bible Says What? This week: The Torah’s views on child marriage

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The Bible Says What? This week: The Torah’s views on child marriage

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers reflects on scripture's problematic stance on a modern topical issue

Some weeks ago in Istanbul, the government was forced into a rethink after thousands of women protested the idea that child-rapists could avoid prison by marrying their victims.

This vile proposal would have enabled child marriages to go
unchallenged, while placing victims into a so-called ‘normalised’ life with their abusers.

Yet in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 this is precisely what Torah suggests: “If a man finds a virgin girl who was not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give 50 [shekels of] silver to the girl’s father, and she shall become his wife, because he violated her. He shall not be able to send her away all of his life.”

I used to try to understand this verse as having the woman’s interests at heart – in that society, the woman having been raped, her marriageability was now in doubt and so the rapist had to take responsibility for
his actions and look after her.

He couldn’t send her away without her consent (and, furthermore, the Talmud says he can’t marry her without her consent either, which helps a little, although the social pressures on the woman to choose him would have been significant).

Of course, we wouldn’t endorse this as a solution today, but perhaps would take the idea that we value the long-term needs of the victim and interpret the result differently.

Yet in light of events in Turkey, we can see just how dangerous such laws can be when not understood as having been made in a particular time, which need re-understanding through the ages (as the Talmud and responsa do for us to some extent).

In the past we might have hoped that such laws could have acted as deterrents. Today I fear they would do quite the opposite.

υ Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at Reform Judaism

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