Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
Rabbi David Stav
In Parshat Ki Tetze, we encounter a commandment that speaks of a reality with which we are completely unfamiliar, the “eshet yefat to’ar” (taking a beautiful woman as a war bride). Here, the Torah describes a scenario in which a Jewish soldier wishes to marry a woman captured from the enemy side. The Torah allows the soldiers to do so, even if it is against the woman’s will. The Torah states, “When 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.”
This is undoubtedly a thorny issue, and I am not sure if I would feature it as a preface to a discussion of the basic principles of Judaism, especially considering how much the Torah warns us against marrying non-Jewish women, who could exert a pagan cultural influence on us.
Furthermore, later in the parsha, the Torah cautions us against sexual promiscuity on army bases: “… your camp shall be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly among you and would turn away from you.” God is in our midst, in our army bases, and this is why we need to take special care.
If so, we would expect the Torah to forbid us from taking non-Jewish wives altogether, and it goes without saying that we should not marry non-Jews against their will. Yet some of our Sages interpreted the fact that the expression used, “eshet yefat to’ar”, instead of the proper Hebrew expression, “isha yefat to’ar”, indicates that the Torah allows us to marry the non-Jewish woman, against her will, even if she was already married to someone else!
You need not possess a particularly gentle soul to find such behavior revolting. It violates our most basic religious and human values, and it begs an obvious and justified question: why did the Torah allow and accept this type of behavior, instead of waging all-out war against it?
Our midrashic Sages never concealed their reservations and criticism of people who behave like this. They state that anyone who marries such a woman will end up hating her later, and that this is why the next subject discussed in the parsha concerns people with hated wives, followed by the laws of sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son that such a marriage would inevitably result in. According to this interpretation, our Sages made a poignant statement against anyone who feels this is the proper thing to do.
Still, this does not answer the question of why the Torah does not explicitly forbid it, just as the Geneva Convention banned harming civilians many centuries later. Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, wrote, “The Torah [in permitting this marriage] is speaking only against the evil inclination. For if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly.”
Otherwise put, the Torah is not about to require people to do something at which they could not possibly succeed, simply for it to appear on paper. To do so would be to set people up for failure. Rather, the Torah is trying to foster an understanding of how indecent this behavior is, and how much a person could lose by acting in this way. It will also try to stop this from happening by creating a set of rules that make it hard to follow through with such an idea. Sure enough, the verses describe a list of things the man must do, designed to cause him to restore the woman’s freedom. For example, “… she shall let her nails grow”. Our Sages remark that “she should grow them out so that she should appear unattractive to him”.
The verse continues, “And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself…” Our Sages comment that “[this is] because they are pretty; they decorate themselves during battle in order to cause others to have illicit relations with them.”
The verse then says, “and [she shall] stay in your house”, which our Sages explained that a person would “see her when he comes in, and when he goes out, when she cries, and when she is repulsive, so that she would become undesirable to him.” In other words, short of prohibiting this practice altogether, the Torah will go to every length to nip it at bud, because there is always the chance that a person will not heed the words of the Torah.
Why, though, would a person not heed the Torah’s instructions, if the Torah had forbade this behavior? Rav Kook explained that a person cannot base every action on whether it is legal. Humanity needs morality and benevolence to elevate it beyond just doing what is allowed, or not doing what is forbidden. For instance, if a particular law obligates every citizen to give charity to poor people they pass by on the street, the poor would obviously benefit from the law, but as human beings, we would become less benevolent, since we are only giving charity because the law requires it.
As parents, we know that our children understand what we want from them, not just because they hear us explicitly allowing or forbidding certain behaviors, but also because of the gestures we make, and especially when they notice our faces shining with pride, or green with disgust.
No one studying the Torah would have any doubts about what the Torah wants from him or her. This type of educational guidance is right for us, as families and as a society. It would be wrong to assume that if a certain behavior is legal, it is automatically the right thing to do. Our sense of morality and humanity demand a lot more from us than just doing what is allowed and refraining from what is forbidden.