|A ‘Woman Captive’:
The Torah’s Attitude Towards Behavior in War
Parshat Ki-Tetze begins with a law that reflects the barbaric aspects of war. We are told of a case of a soldier who goes out to war and in the process of winning this war captures a beautiful woman and takes her home to be his wife. The Torah commands the soldier to shave this woman’s head, let her fingernails grow long, and let her remain in the house crying for an entire month. Only then can the soldier marry this woman.
This law is very much a product of ancient society where routinely people were taken as slaves during war. The Torah is speaking to such a society. Rather than outlaw the practice, which probably would have never been accepted, the Torah chooses instead to legislate it. The Torah wishes to control the manner in which the Jewish soldiers treated their prisoners.
What was the reason for these strange laws associated with the prisoner? Why does this woman captive grow her nails, shave her head, and sit there crying for an entire month?
I’d like to share three distinct approaches to this question. Rashi writes, “lo dibrah torah elah keneged ha-yetser,” the Torah is recognizing the evil inclinations of men. The Torah understands that the soldiers cannot be told not to take captives. Instead the Torah tries to control the desires and cause this captive woman to be repulsive to the soldier.
She shaves her head and grows her nails long, so that she will appear disgusting to her captor. It’s true the Torah allows the soldier to capture her. But before the soldier can marry her as a wife, the Torah wants to certify that this soldier is marrying her despite the fact that she appears ugly and repulsive to him.
Rashi is stating that the Torah recognizes the weak inclinations of man, and therefore adds laws to this common ancient practice to combat those weak desires.
On the other hand, Nachmanides offers an entirely different approach. In fact, Nahmanides’ approach is quite shocking. The reason why this woman captive grows her nails long, shaves her head and cries for a month is because she is in terrible mourning. She is in mourning because she is being forcibly converted to Judaism, forcibly taken from her homeland and thrust upon another people.
Nahmanides’ position troubles me on a moral level because he is stating that the Torah allows this soldier to forcibly convert this woman to Judaism. And that concept of forcing our religion upon someone else bothers me a great deal. Yet, within Nahmanides’ approach there is also great mercy. For Nahmanides is also saying that the Torah commands this soldier to allow this woman slave the time to grieve, the time to mourn her family. Moreover, not only is she allowed the time to grieve, the soldier must watch her for a month. He must watch her crying and realize what he did to her life. How because he desired to take her home with him, he destroyed her entire life. And only after watching all that, can he decide to marry her.
Nachmanides’ position has elements of both mercy and harshness. Harshness in that the woman might be forcibly converted, but mercy in the fact that Torah forces the soldier to directly confront what he is doing to this woman.
Maimonides raises a third approach. Maimonides argues that the period of thirty days granted to this woman is to allow her the time to decide if she wants to convert. For according to Maimonides, she is under no circumstances allowed to be forcibly converted, rather her captor can only attempt to convince her of the truth of the Jewish religion. But if at the end of the thirty days, the woman decides that she does not wish to accept Judaism, then not only can she not be forcibly converted, but she must not even be sold or treated as a slave. In fact, she must be set free.
From a liberal, modern perspective, Maimonides’ approach is certainly the most appealing. The Torah recognizes that a soldier wishes to conquer a foreign woman, and rather than letting him have free reign, the Torah allows him a thirty day cooling off period. The soldier has thirty days to convince her, or else she returns to her homeland.
So we have seen three positions: Rashi--who argues that Torah is trying to wrestle with the basest instincts of soldiers—Nachmanides—who contends that the woman can be forcibly converted, but the Torah wants the soldier to witness what he is doing to her—and Maimonides—who suggests that the Torah is acting in a completely merciful way out of respect for the independence of this captured woman.
While all of these positions have a lot of power, it is the position of Maimonides, which speaks most strongly to me today. And it’s also a position, which fits in best within the context of the entire parshah. While the parshah begins with this passage of the captured woman, it ends with the battle with Amalek, where the Jewish people are commanded to eternally wipe out the memory of Amalek.
What was the terrible sin of Amalek? So they attacked the Jews…. Perhaps they even had a right to attack the Jews. After all, Amalek was a tribe living in the desert, where resources are scarce and valuable. Suddenly, the Jews appeared from out of nowhere and were utilizing the same limited resources as the Amalekites. So Amalek maybe was justified in attacking them.
The eternal crime of Amalek was that they attacked, ha-nechashalim acharekhah, the weak ones who were lagging behind you. The great sin of Amalek was they attacked the weak and defenseless, they attacked people who posed no threat at all to them physically.
This sin of Amalek contrasts starkly with the Torah’s approach to the captive woman. The captive woman is treated in such a way as to force her captors to see her as a person, to realize what they are doing to her.
The history of commentary on the biblical teaching of the captive woman—whether it is Rashi’s, Nachmanides’, or Maimonides’ approach—all shows the great sensitivity that the Torah teaches we must have to those rendered defenseless by the horrors of war.
The Torah is teaching us that even within war, there is a moral way to conduct ourselves. War is obviously not an ideal situation, and we are always going to be in morally challenging situations. Still, the Torah is commanding us, within reason, to be sensitive to the defenseless and the weak, to be careful about not oppressing them, and to always be conscious of the moral aspect to the war we are waging.
We should be proud of our long tradition of conducting ourselves in a moral manner when faced with the horrors of war. And we as Jews should be equally proud of the way the Israeli army is conducting itself today.
The Israel policy of singling out individual terrorists for attack strikes me as a difficult policy, but a necessary policy. It is the moral approach to a terrible situation.
We regard every life as precious; we mourn before Passover for the Egyptians whose lives were lost while Jews were saved. But terrorists who have already committed horrible murders must be held accountable for the horrors that they are routinely inflicting.
Israel’s response to this from a moral perspective far outshines the normal response of the rest of the world. Even when Israel, after many provocative shootings upon Gilo finally went into Beit Jalla it was done with ground troops first. In a world where air attacks are routinely done to minimize risks, Israel takes the much more dangerous method of ground troops. The sole purpose of this is to minimize the risk of innocent lives.
As Jews living in America, despite the criticism of the State Department, we should be proud that our brothers and sisters in the Israeli Army are continuing the tradition taught by the Torah with respect to the captive woman, of waging our wars with great decency, and great morality. The tradition of the captive woman is also not an ideal approach. How can it be, for war is not ideal! But the tradition of the captive woman also teaches us in that in war the approach we should strive for is a moral approach, sensitive to the issues at hand. This was certainly the approach of Rashi, Nahmanides, and Maimonides to the captive woman. This is also the approach of our brothers and sisters in Israel today.