Friday, May 6, 2011

Shame and Honor Killing?, Cohen Man’s daughter burning

Jews do not practice honor killing. I think it is an unjust, cruel and sexist practice.  How do I respond to the verse “and the daughter of a Cohen man becomes desecrated through adultery she desecrates her father; she shall be burned in fire[1]”.

Traditional commentaries explain it as follows “If he had been treated as holy (before), he will now be treated as mundane, (if he had been treated with) honor, now he will be treated with disgrace, as they will say cursed be the one who gave birth to this one, who raised this one[2]. She has desecrated and shamed his honor[3]. Or even more explicit “because she embarrassed her father she should be burned in fire[4]”.

This penalty only applies to a married woman She would not be burned if she is unmarried[5]. It is important to note that although the Torah states that she is being punished because she disgraced her father, this is only to explain the particular method of death[6] not the death penalty itself which is the penalty for adultery.

It should be said that the death penalty has not be part of Jewish religious law for 2000 years. A Torah court, called a Beth Din does not have the authority to impose capital punishment. Even when Torah courts did have the Authority to impose capital punishment, it was only a special court of 23 and traditions vary about rare an event this was, with one opinion that a Court that killed once every 70 years was a “murderous court”, with another view putting it as once every 7 years. There were strict requirements, for a sin to warrant the death penalty, there needed to be two witnesses, who also warn the offender prior to the act that this act is liable to lead to a death penalty, it is highly unlikely that a person who carry out a sin like this one in front of two witnesses and certainly not after being warned. This suggests that the death penalty is more a hypothetical signal about the severity of the deed than a actual practical punishment.  

In terms of this particular penalty, we might have one instance where it was nearly imposed. Tamar, the daughter in-law of Judah had been married to two of Judah’s sons, first Er, and after Er died she married Onan who also died. She was then promised Judah’s third son, Shela “when he grows up”. When she saw that Shela had grown up but the marriage did not proceed, she covered her face and stood at the road, where Judah saw her, took her for a harlot and slept with her, without realising that it was Tamar. Around three months tater, Judah is told “your daughter in-law Tamar has committed harlotry, she is also pregnant to harlotry, Judah states “take her out and she should be burned[7]”. This is explained on the basis that Tamar was the daughter of a Cohen[8], that she was the daughter of Shem[9].

There is an alternative view that Tamar was never going to be burned but rather would be branded with a mark “between her face as a sign that she was a prostitute[10]” While another view as that Judah was following common law of his time rather than Torah law[11].

With the knowledge I have been able to gather, the Torah’s capital punishment for the straying daughter of a Cohen is different to honor killing in that
1) In practice it probably never happened at all, perhaps only extremely rarely, and has certainly not happened for the last two thousand years.  
2) If this punishment was to be imposed, it could only happen through due process.
3) The Torah is only talking about a married woman who commits adultery.

These distinctions don’t make it all ok for the modern reader, especially one who sees sexual issues as being a private matter as long at is between consenting adults, Torah obviously has a different view of this. The one factor I find particularly hard to understand is the emphasis on the father’s honor in what I would have thought was primarily a sin toward God. Of course there is some impact on her father, and mother for that matter. Shame is a very real painful experience. Perhaps there is a suggestion here about the responsibility to consider the impact of the behaviour of family members of those in a position of public and especially religious leadership.  

[1] Leviticus 21:9
[2] Talmud Sanhedrin 52a
[3] Rashi on the Torah
[4] R. Saadia Gaon, cited in commentary on Leviticus 21:9, in Otzar Mefarshei Hapshat At Hatorah, Vayikra, compiled by Naftali Greenbaum, published by Machon Hapshat, Chevrat, Tif’eret Bachrim Hatzalat Hanoar, Israel,
[5] Talmud Sanhedrin 50b
[6] Burning is not being put in a fire, but rather having hot lead poured down the throat
[7] Genesis 38:24
[8] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, and Rashi
[9] Rashi
[10] Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid cited in Baal Haturim on Genesis 38:24
[11] Bchor Shor


  1. Similar evidential rules apply in Islam and then punishment cannot be administered by way of "honor" killing by family members. The death penalty must be pronounced by a judge.

    There is a tradition of a woman being brought before the caliph Umar and accused of that offense. A conviction required the evidence of 4 witnesses. The first three claimed they witnessed the act of adultery. Umar warned the fourth witness to think carefully before he answered if he saw actual intercourse occurring. The man replied the he did not. The woman was set free and the first three witnesses were sentenced to 80 lashes for defaming the woman's honor and were barred for life from giving evidence.

    Unfortunately today culture overrules religion in these matters. What is forgotten is that these rules were put in place to severely limit the scope for applying the death penalty and to stop it being used for political and personal motives.

  2. thanks Gary. Very useful contribution. A little information is a dangerous thing.

  3. (From Facebook discussion)
    The difference is that no daughter of a Kohen has been killed for over 2000 years. I suppose that counts for something.

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