Mishpatim: Adulthood means no more excuses


Exodus 21:1-24:18, 30:11-16

II Kings 12:1-17

Shortly before his bar mitzvah, my cousin received a letter from our Aunt Frances. This letter immediately assumed the status of family sacred document. Uncle Julius and Aunt Florence framed it and displayed it on their living room wall for years. My cousin still has it, 36 years later.

To the best of my memory, the letter said:

"At some point, a person realizes that he bears responsibility for his own actions. Until that point, he might say, `My parents made me do something,' or `my friends' or `my superiors.' `It is their fault.' But at some point, he takes responsibility. We call a person who takes responsibility for his own actions an adult. Some people reach this realization at age 13, some not until 20, or 30; many people never get there at all.

"The Jewish tradition hopes that a young man reaches responsibility at 13. We then give him leadership roles in synagogue ceremonies, in the hope that treating a person as an adult can help him make himself into an adult. To become bar mitzvah means to accept accountability for one's own deeds.

"Congratulations on reaching the age of bar mitzvah; now become bar mitzvah."

Thus ends the famous letter.

The tradition declares that a young man reaches maturity at age 13, while a young woman at 12. Why then? Because the classical texts assume that young persons thereafter may develop signs of sexual maturity.

This variance appears due to a young woman's earlier physical maturation. In another variance, perhaps for the same reason, the texts posit an in-between period for a young woman, who, during her first six months of adulthood has the status of not-quite adult, or naarah in Hebrew (see Rambam, Shvitat Asor 2:11, Ishut 2:1-2).

The oral Torah applies these concepts of adulthood and not-quite adulthood to explain a perplexing passage in the written Torah. "If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall provide a dowry to her as his wife. If her father refuses to give her to him, he should weigh out the silver as the dowry of a virgin" (Exodus 22:15-16).

It's a perplexing passage. Why does the father accept or refuse the offer of marriage? Why not the woman herself? Furthermore, how do we define seduction? Why should the seducer pay a fine for something that his partner did willingly? (Remember, this is seduction, not rape.)

The oral tradition gives a context to this law that obviates some of the questions. While the Bible apparently assigns the right of refusal to the father, the oral tradition insists that the woman and the seducer can also refuse to marry. For whatever reason, if the seducer does not marry the girl, he must pay a fine in the same amount as the dowry of a virgin.

The rabbis of the Talmud agree that this entire law applies to a naarah, a not-quite adult woman, in the first six months of sexual maturity. It makes sense to require the father's consent for the marriage of such a young woman. It also makes sense to fine the seducer for taking advantage of her youth, even if she gives her consent.

While the rabbis argue about what laws apply for a younger girl, they agree that the fine does not apply to a man who seduces a fully adult woman (Ketubot 40b). She bears responsibility for her own actions; as an adult, she cannot argue, "It is his fault; he talked me into it."

No excuses. Aunt Frances would say that "no excuses" defines adulthood.