Haftarah Parshat Hukkat , (Judges 11:1-33)*
July 1, 2017 / 7 Tammuz 5777
There are lots of difficult biblical stories; stories which transmit societal rules and then go about breaking them as part of the storyline. We are familiar with this phenomenon already from the earliest stories in the Torah. Early biblical society practiced a principle known as primogeniture, namely, the firstborn son was intended to carry on the familial legacy. Yet, time after time, in the patriarchal stories, it was not the firstborn who heads up the next generation but the younger son. In our haftarah, Jephthah is a character, who for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a societal outcast. He was born of an illicit relationship: “And Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, and he was the son of a whore-woman, and Gilead had begotten Jephthah.” (11:1) This did sit well with his step brothers sired by his father once he married: “And Gilead’s wife bore him son, and the wife’s sons grew up and they drove Jephthah out and said to him: ‘You shall not inherit your father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’” (11:2) Jephthah was forced to flee and to live on the fringe of society. The story obviously does not end here for Jephthah becomes a “strongman” who is called upon to save the nation from its enemies and to serve both as its leader and savior.
The medieval commentators expend a great deal of energy trying to temper Jephthah’s strangeness by somehow elevating his social status. Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, turns “zonah – harlot” into “pundekita -innkeeper”. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) asserts that Jephthah’s mother was a “pilegesh” (concubine), a relational status established in rabbinic law. He further states that the reason she had this status was because it was thought improper to marry someone outside of your own tribe so that the tribe’s property would remain in house. The common thread in these comments is the search to give Jephthah a sense of legitimacy.
Still, it seems that the story is intent in capitalizing on Jephthah’s status as an outsider, a common theme among the heroes of the book of Judges. Perhaps there is a lesson to be had here in both the biblical story and the attempt of the commentators to legitimate Jephthah’s status. The storyline seemingly chastises the community for making Jephthah an outcast. It makes its leaders “eat their words”. On the other hand, the commentators teach us how important it is for a society to have rules which govern conduct in order to establish legitimacy. The wisdom is in knowing how to combine these two disparate truths.
*In memory of my beloved mother-in-law, Rivka Goldberg ztz”l.