“Parsha to the Point” – Ki Tetze 5777

Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Rabbi David Stav 

The Torah contains many events and mitzvot, and this week’s portion, Ki Teitze, is among the most “mitzvah-packed” in the entire Torah. It lists mitzvot of all kinds, both private and public; those concerned with the relationship between Man and God, as well as those addressing relationships between people. Some of the mitzvot we encounter daily, while others exist in settings that are just about as foreign to us as can be, such as the case of the captive non-Jewish captive war bride, which we will discuss here.

The Torah discusses the case of an Israelite soldier who goes out to battle and wishes to marry a captive woman from the enemy camp. The Torah permits this, even allowing the soldier to marry the woman against her will: “If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives. And you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take (her) for yourself as a wife .

How could this be permitted? With the Divine Presence moving about within the Israelite camp, the Torah requires that Israelite soldiers take special precautions. Indeed, the Torah later warns us against licentiousness within the army camp: “…your camp shall be holy, so that (God) should not see anything unseemly among you and turn away from you” .

We thus would have expected the Torah to explicitly forbid taking enemy women as wives, even if done consensually, and it goes without saying that forced marriages would not be condoned. Therefore, the permission granted seems incongruous.

But it is indeed permitted. And not only that, but some of our Sages explained that the text explicitly used the unusual expression “eshet yefat to’ar”, as opposed to “isha yefat to’ar” – the phrase that would conform with Hebrew grammar rules – in order to specify that even if the women was married to another man (“eshet ish”), the Israelite soldier would be allowed to marry her against her will.

Not just those of us with gentle souls would find such behavior repulsive. These actions run contrary to our religious or humanitarian values, and regardless, they would surely have prompted the legitimate question of why the Torah condones or has come to terms with such a practice, instead of waging all-out war against it.

Our Sages made their reservations and criticism of such individuals quite clear, stating that anyone who marries an enemy woman will come to hate her. This is, according to the Sages, why the next section in the Torah portion discusses men whose wives they despise, stating that ultimately, the children born of such relationships will become disobedient and corrupt. This is also why the laws of “ben sorer umoreh”, the “wayward son”, appear immediately after that.

This explanation conveys a razor-sharp message to anyone who would consider this type of behavior proper and just. However, it does not answer the question of why the Torah did not explicitly forbid the practice, just as the Geneva conventions outlawed harming civilians many generations later.

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, wrote, “The Torah is making a concession to the evil inclination in man, for if the Holy One Blessed Be He, would not have condoned it, (the soldier) would have transgressed and married her anyway.”

In other words, the Torah is not demanding that people do things they could not be expected to do, just for the sake of checking it off the list, because it knows that people would end up transgressing this commandment. Rather, it seems to be saying, “we are not going to keep up this charade”.

Instead, the Torah is attempting to make this person understand how improper the conduct is, and how much he will have to sacrifice. But that is as far as it goes. It will also try to prevent him from doing so by setting strict rules that would discourage a person from going through with it, listing what that person must do, and actions designed to restore the woman’s liberty. The verse states, “… and she did her fingernails”; our Sages tell us that this means that she should “grow them out, making her ungainly”.

The verse continues, “… and she removed the dress of her captivity”, and the Sages expounded on this, saying, “because they are beautiful, and foreign women would decorate themselves in war in order to sway others to their faith”. The verse continues, “and she dwelled in your home”; the Sages explain that “(the soldier) would enter (his home) and encounter her, exit (his home) and encounter her, see her weep, and see her become ungainly, so that she becomes distasteful to him…”.

In other words, the Torah will go to any length to frustrate attempts at such marriages, but it will not prohibit the practice entirely, since if it were to do so, there is a chance that the words of the Torah would not be heeded.

Why wouldn’t someone listen to us if we prohibit it? Rav Kook explained that a person cannot live his or her life by only following laws. Humanity also needs generosity and morality to elevate itself above merely doing whatever is allowed, and refraining from doing whatever is prohibited. If, for instance, a law was to require everyone to give charity to any poor person that passes by on the street, the poor would surely make a fortune, but our spirit of generosity would be compromised, since we would be required by law to give charity.

As parents, we know that our children understand what we want from them, not just because of what we explicitly condone or forbid through speech, but also through our body language, particularly when our faces light up, or become red with rage. Similarly, no student of the Torah will have any doubts about what the Torah wants from them. It is wrong to think that anything that is legal is automatically proper. Our sense of humanity and morality demand far more from us than just following the letter of the law.


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