Are there contemporary apologetics for the Mishnah (Niddah 44b) that a girl of the age of 3 can be married by sexual relations? (It seems difficult to accept that such a thing is even allowed in principle, even if not in practice.)
It certainly is difficult. Good question.
I think the Mishnah is demonstrating a technicality; that if this were done (with intent and witnesses), various laws of marriage would be binding (and then he would have to take care of her for life); not at all that this was a recommended practice!
A few points that can help a bit here:
- The Torah said that marital relations alone, without a ring, can effect the first stage of marriage (kiddushin). Yet the Talmud states (Kiddushin 12b) that anyone doing such a crass thing (even two mature, discreet, stable, adults) should be flogged! So it's a technicality at best.
- The Torah allowed for a father to marry off his young daughter, yet the Talmud states that as a matter of recommended practice, "it is prohibited to marry off a young daughter until she is old enough and she says 'I like him'."
- It appears that thousands of years ago, it was such a dangerous world for a girl out on her own that marriage was a much better predicament for her.
- The whole thing about age 3 is a technicality's technicality. With regards to certain laws, activity below the age of 3 does not affect her halachic status (for instance, a woman still has the halachic full status of "virginity" no matter what happened to her before age 3). [Lawyers' note: any sort of child abuse is halachically, legally, and morally wrong, and will be punished by G-d and state.] Sexual relations can only change her halachic status starting with age 3; hence, if a father agreed to marry off his young daughter by relations (violating two Talmudic taboos, above), the minimum age at which such an act would take effect would be 3.
I hope that helps somewhat.
An expansion on Shalom's answer taken from a different angle.
There is no need for apologetics those where the facts on the ground in Ancient civilizations. There is a very basic problem with us Judging the Torah as the whole world had theses practices. Today it is Disgusting but the Torah is and was eternal and had to be relevant then too, it is a problem that anthropologist discuss called Ethnocentrism when people judge other cultures based on their own cultural Moral system. The action may be wrong universally now and should be that way, but you have to look at it through a wider historical and cultural lens. Also just because something is an Halacha does not mean it is practiced Ben Sorer uMorah for example.Just some food for thought sorry it sounds so much like a rant.