“When you take the field against your enemies and the Eternal One your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive; and you see among them a beautiful woman and you desire her and wish to take her as a wife; you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair and pare her nails and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house mourning her father and mother, after that you may come to her and possess her and she shall be your wife. Then, should you no longer desire her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money: since you had your will with her, you must not enslave her.”
In the heat of battle, an Israelite soldier is permitted to marry a female captive but has to curb any instincts he might have to act immediately upon taking someone whom he desires sexually. The necessity for this law assumes that men at the time of this law being conceived, would naturally take female captives and use them – in ancient terms as ‘concubines’ and in modern terms as ‘sex slaves.’
Israelite society seemed to have progressed to the point that it recognized the male impulse –when one is compelled to kill or be killed one’s basest instincts are probably effected – yet sought to protect the rights of the woman who was captured during the battle.
The soldier is not immediately permitted to let his urge to have sex / rape her consume him (although some commentators seem incredulous that this would be obeyed, assuming that the yetzer ha’ra – evil impulse, the language of Rashi, Isaiah Horowitz and the Baal Shem Tov – or his diminished mental capacities – Sefer ha-Hinnukh) would overwhelm him.
Either way, provision is made to protect the woman that also in the way of the Torah, suggests delay – a list of actions (cf. Abraham during the Akedah Gen 22:3, 6 & 9):
• She must be brought to his house.
• She must trim her hair and pare her nails, not to enhance her beauty but to make her unattractive to the soldier.
• She must be granted a full period of mourning – a real or nominal month – the latter interpretation because it is the same length as for Aaron and Moses (Num 20:29 and Deut 34:8). Assuming the correspondence is intentional as does the Jewish Study Bible commentary, it “implies legal respect for the female captive as a person.”
• This period is qualified as mourning for her parents – whether actually killed in the warfare or symbolically dead to her having been transferred to the house of a different people. This once more suggests compassion.
Only after fulfilling these obligations, is the soldier permitted to “come to her” and therefore provide her with the legal status of being his wife with all the protections associated with that position.
Still further, should he tire of her then she should be protected in law not as a slave but as a wife, her dignity and welfare maintained as in the following verses of this chapter (v.15-17 dealing with a less-favoured wife).
Thankfully, civilized society has moved to ban completely the right to a female (or male) captive as a personal trophy, or indeed the taking of any trophies from battle. Yet it is still pertinent to talk of such matters when we know the horrendous plight of women and girls in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, not mention the perilous everyday position of women and girls even outside of conflict zones, recently highlighted so horrifically in India.
One could continue in the aftermath of the summer’s conflict in Gaza, the rise of a murderous Islamic State in Iraq/Syria, the cynical but deadly serious game that Putin is playing with Ukraine and the response to it…yet that would be to do us a disservice in this month of Elul. It was assumed by the Torah to be impossible for the soldier to refrain from his basest urges and hence the need to legislate his behaviour. For in the words attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, “The Torah’s language (21:11) is in the singular, for it directs itself to the fact that a person has no greater enemy than the evil impulse.”
It is impossible to flick a switch in ourselves to move from our focus on the world around us to the inner contemplation demanded of us by the Yamim Noraim – the High Holydays – and particularly of our basest instincts. This summer has been really challenging for us as Progressive Jews. When we reacted to the conflict in Gaza, did we on occasion allow our own basest instincts to rule the values that at all other times we hold so dear? Perhaps this and others are the kind of questions we might begin to ask ourselves, better placing us to respond to external events?
We require a series of reminders to start this process, not perhaps set down in legislation as with the opening verses of the parashah but set for all time in our Jewish calendar – a series of nudges to prepare day-by-day for the coming season.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.