This has been a dismal summer, filled with terrible news of war in many locations around the globe, from Africa to Lithuania to the Middle East. War is brutal, but is it always barbaric? Last week we read Parshat Shoftim, which includes the laws pertaining to warfare. Not surprisingly, when I sat down to study Parshat Ki Teitzei, the opening verses jumped out at me:
When you [an Israelite warrior] take the field against your enemies, and Adonai your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her [into your household] as your wife, you shall bring her into your household, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captives’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and thus become her husband, and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
Where to begin? Let’s begin with Phyllis Trible, who wrote about “texts of terror,” the stories of Hagar, Tamar, the daughters of Jephthah, and the unnamed concubine, women who are enslaved, abused, rejected, raped, discarded and even dismembered in narratives that seem to regard such treatment of women as business-as-usual. Trible’s feminist approach examines “the status quo, pronouncing judgment, and calling for repentance.”
The opening passage from Parshat Ki Teitzei might belong on the list of “texts of terror.” That women are viewed as chattel is just the tip of the iceberg. The Etz Hayyim commentary explains: “Most female captives in the ancient world became slaves but in some cases a soldier found one whom he desired to take as a wife or concubine, a practice well known from Homeric Greece and early Arabia.” True enough, but the claim in Etz Hayyim that, “Several laws in this section reflect Deuteronomy’s consideration for the welfare of women,” is a challenging thesis to prove on the surface. While we might be inclined to claim that Torah demands compassion for the captive woman—after all, she is given a month to mourn for her lost family—we cannot ignore that it seems more the case that she is given a month to “get it out of her system” and prepare herself to please the man who now controls her body and her life. To those who point out that her captor may not sleep with her, reaping the harvest of his booty, and then sell her to another, we might respond that once he has slept with her and thereby married her, if he turns her out, where will she go? She cannot return to her family (even if they are still alive); she is an alien in a strange community, and no one will want to marry her.
It’s difficult to find redeeming meaning in this passage, but perhaps not impossible. The inherent cruelty and injustice of claiming women as the spoils of war is more subtly communicated by the ordering of the material in this section of the Torah. Considering this passage in its broader context reveals a larger meaning. The passage cited above follows Torah’s discussion of the rules of warfare (Deuteronomy 20:1-20). Captive women were a common phenomenon in warfare then, as we have seen this summer, they are today among some barbarians; the passage is followed by two topics that seem to flow directly from the horrible situation of a woman captured in war forced to marry her captor: The first (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) concerns the situation in which a man has two wives—one whom he loves and the other who has fallen out of favor. The second (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), following on its tail, is the famous (or infamous) law of the ben sorer u’moreh (the rebellious son). In the case of the former, a man may not disinherit the son of the wife he no longer loves; perhaps the biblical editor had in mind the captured woman, who was alluring when first he acquired her, but then lost her luster? In the case of the latter, a son who is wild and rebellious and out of control is taken before the elders of the city and stoned to death. There are volumes to say about both these passages, but for our purposes here, it is the juxtaposition of these passages to the initial “text of terror” that interests me.
Could it be that Torah is warning us that a man who treats a woman captured in war as mere booty—which was common practice in the ancient world, and certainly “legal” by the standards of ancient societies—is being warned: (1) Stop and think about this; give it a month. Don’t sleep with her and thereby marry her until you have witnessed her pain. And know that you cannot simply sell her off if she doesn’t please you. (2) If you nonetheless marry her, and then down the road become bored with her and no longer love her, you are still obligated to her and her children. You cannot disinherit them in favor of the children of a preferred wife. (3) If you marry a captive woman, this arrangement may well produce angry, rebellious, defiant children who absorb the pain of their mother and act upon it. What a mess!
Taken in context, the law of the captive woman may well be Torah’s way, if not condemning the practice, at least warning that no good comes of it. In the heat of the battle (so to speak) people do things they come to regret.
Torah then seems to head off in another direction, but perhaps it’s not a different direction at all. Perhaps it is meant to teach a different perspective which, if one absorbs, will obviate the situation of the captive woman and the cascade of problems that may arise from this horrendous practice. The very next verses tell us:
If someone is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale the body on a stake, you must not let the corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury it the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that Adonai your God is giving you to possess. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
Even a corpse must be treated with respect. Presumably, the body is that of someone who has committed murder, someone that we might think is the least person due respect. Yet even that person is the image of God, as the Rabbis explained with a parable: There were once twin brothers identical in their appearance. One was appointed king, while the other became a brigand and was hanged. Now when people passed by and saw the brigand hanging, they exclaimed, “The king is hanged.” (Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 21:23) This is the new starting point: Every human being reflects the image of God. Who could fail to understand that if a convicted murderer is of concern to God, then certainly the innocent woman must be of concern to God?
The second step is to respect people’s property, which sounds simple, but is far from easy. If you see a stray animal, why not just claim it as your own? Torah requires us to go out of our way to return it to the owner, even care for it until the owner arrives to claim the animal:
If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you and you do not know who [the owner is], you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s donkey; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
The last verse is the key. Do not remain indifferent. Care about the welfare of others. Respect their property; even take care of their property until they arrive to claim it.
And then we find this unusual commandment:
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
What is Torah concerned about here? There are as many explanations are their are commentators for this verse. Some say that Torah’s concern is that we not deplete the population of animals on which we depend for food by killing off two generations at once. But others say that this is a mitzvah that inculcates compassion: Torah instructs us to consider the pain of the mother bird when her eggs or fledglings are taken. Send the mother bird away so she will not see her eggs or fledglings taken; spare her the pain. There is something unique about this mitzvah: it is the only one for which Torah promises the reward of long life. Compassion is unique among mitzvot. The Rabbis bolstered this priority, teaching, “Just as God shows compassion for humans, so does God [show compassion] for beasts and birds.” But it’s not God’s compassion that Torah speaks of. It is ours, the compassion God encourage in us and requires of us as human beings. When the psalmist says, “God’s mercies are upon all God’s works” that is not a description of a world where only mercy reigns, but a prescription for us to do our best to live godly lives.
Perhaps this is Torah’s way of training us to compassion so when war breaks out, with all its horrors and tragedies, we can continue to see people as humans and not as chattel, and we can treat them with the respect they deserve as reflections of the image of God. Many events of this past summer make this goal seem idealistic and unrealistic, but we have also seen the extent to which Israel has suffered years of assault by thousands of Hamas rockets aimed at her civilian population without responding, and when entering Gaza became necessary to dismantle rocket launchers and blow up attack tunnels to prevent a massacre of Israelis, Israel attempted to warn people to leave ammunitions, rocket-launching, and planning targets in order to civilian casualties despite Hamas’ efforts to promote civilian casualties for the purpose of good PR. Torah teaches us, and we have seen this summer, that while war is brutal, but it doesn’t have to be barbaric.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman