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Busting Myths In Parshas Ki-Setze

Parashas Ki Setzei, Sefer Devarim


Based on:

Yafas Toar http://www.lehavin.co.il/Index.asp?ArticleID=2792&CategoryID=269&Page=1

Mul Pnei HaOyev http://www.lehavin.co.il/Index.asp?ArticleID=730&CategoryID=269&Page=1


Busting Myths in Parashas Ki Setzei

Braha Bender


Seminary was great. I still remember one of my favorite teachers, a wonderful British rabbi who liked to cast his persona among the students as something of a cantankerous old codger, grumbling in his terrifically black-humored timbre about the misconceptions people have about Parashas Ki Setzei. This particular educator liked to bust myths, and bust myths he did.

Parashas Ki Setzei must be something of a perennial favorite in the anti-Torah camp. There is potentially a lot to hate. First G-d up and tells the Jewish people about how to go to war. There go the peaceniks.

Then He pulls out a few show-stoppers with the women:

“When you will go out to war…and you will see amongst its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife.” (Devarim-Deuteronumy 20:10-11)

There go the feminists.

Then, of course, just to place the cherry firmly on top, Torah moves on to what must be one of the spiciest little buttons ever to come up in any kiruv situation, the “p” word. You know, polygamy. Ehem. There goes modern western civilization.

Man, if this was a Shabbos table… “Coffee, anyone?”

Well, anyway, our British rabbi decided to teach all of us Shalhevet girls Parashas Ki Setzei over the course of several weeks just to make sure that we all had our heads on straight. Myth-busting indeed. Even a cursory glance at the commentaries makes it blatantly obvious that the text cannot be taken at face value. Beer-drinking rowdies up and starting a war in order to grab a few new wives from the foreign women?

Oy vey, what a farce. But if we don’t state the case for the opposing arguments, how are we ever going to rebut them? Here we go.


Jews and War

When were Jews ever permitted to war? War means killing people, no? There’s a great quote going something to the effect that Jews don’t kill people, we just nag them to death. Since when did Jews ever conquer anybody?

Well, it turns out that when the Jewish People were nationally situated in Israel in ancient times, a war or two couldn’t help being fought. For one thing, there were defensive wars. Self-defense is not called murder, it’s called common sense. But for another thing, there was a type of war Torah refers to as a milchemes reshus. Although the literal translation of these words are “an optional war”, I don’t know how optional it really was when the only way such a war could ever be permitted was by explicit prophetic consultation with G-d Himself.

In short, no Jew was ever permitted to simply up and initiate a war. The kohen gadol (high priest) was obligated to undergo a complex and lengthy process of consultation with the urim v’tumim before anyone could begin getting hot under the collar. When it came to something as serious as war, the Almighty was the only one who could make such a drastic decision.

Furthermore, even once a war was permitted and ready to go, the first step was an offer of peace: “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it for peace.” (ibid 20:10) Nations who accepted this offer lived under the sovereignty of the seven Noahide laws.

Did the Jews of ancient Israel live a bloodthirsty and lustful existence? Give me a break.


Jewish Soldiers

I mean, look at their soldiers. Here, I’ll show you. When the fresh, enthusiastic recruits who had grabbed a knapsack and caught the first camel up to base camp arrived, here is what they told them:

“The officers shall speak to the people saying, ‘Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house… And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed it?... And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her?...’”

This was not some wild ancient mob gathering. But the most telling line in the sand was drawn last:

“Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart.” (ibid 5-8)

Rashi explains that this “fear and faintheartedness” was not the simple fear of being killed at war. It was a very specific fear. This fear stemmed from an understanding that destructive behavior, in the vernacular, sinning, brings about certain spiritual consequences. People engaged in sinful, destructive behavior might not merit divine protection on the battle field.

As such, the officers of the volunteer army demanded that no one join the ranks unless they were completely sin-free. 100% pure tzaddik. Paragons of virtue. In other words, the kind of people we rarely meet in the twenty-first century.

These were the ancient Jewish soldiers. The ones who listened to the urim v’tumim. The ones who were so absolutely free of any spiritual flaw that they knew with complete certainty that they merited divine protection on the battle field. The picture changes a little with that information, doesn’t it? Now on to the captive women.


Captive Women

The joke goes that it doesn’t take much to rile up a feminist, but in this case you would have to be a real meathead not to appreciate the problem. Taking women captive? Because the soldiers desire them? From the outset, it all sounds pretty crass.

But then think back to the type of men who were being elected to go and fight this war. Now honestly, could you tell me that the type of person who has spent the last five years working on patience is the same man who would pick up a captive woman on a battle field like so much truck at a bar? Remember, not sinning doesn’t just mean not wearing wool with linen. Being religious doesn’t end with a kosher black hat.

It also includes things like never, ever getting angry at anyone; dropping everything to care for the needy; eating consciously and healthily; putting other people’s feelings first. These are just a few of the Torah’s legal demands on your everyday (Jewish) Joe. Don’t even get me started on the laws about being considerate of your spouse, the G-d consciousness of Shabbos, or avoiding destructive speech. It just doesn’t end. The type of men to be fighting Jewish wars in ancient times were the good guys, not the pathetic ones.

These facts bring the verses about desirable captive women into serious question; a question the Ohr HaChaim addresses in spades:

“The foundation of the idea, and its mystical secret, is as follows: Our Sages have taught us, that by virtue of the sin of Adam, some precious souls were captured by the ‘other side’ and these are the souls of converts. Go and see how many great people have come from other nations: Ruth ... Sh'maya and Avtalyon, Onkolus and many others.” (Ohr HaChaim 21:11)

The Ohr HaChaim’s explanation of the concept of the eishes yafas to’ar, the gorgeous captive, is that she is not physically gorgeous, but spiritually extraordinary. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, sure, spiritually.” But if you begin to consider the conditions under which biblical Jewish war took place and the type of people who were sent to battle, the explanation of the Ohr HaChaim suddenly seems to make a lot of sense.

The die-hards will toss out a Rashi, whom, in an unusual moment of both simplicity and Jewish anomalism, quotes the Talmud in commenting here, “The Torah only provided a concession to the evil inclination.” However, even this perspective, though very different from that of the Ohr HaChaim, is not as simple as it seems.

The technical details behind the eishes yafas toar process involve bringing her home to Israel, running what amounts to an Arachim seminar for her over the course of a month on the basics of Judaism, giving her the space and time needed to undergo a full mourning process for her idolatrous heritage (including shaving her head and wearing torn clothing), and helping her gain complete independence and closure from her past.

She is changed from a foreign temptress sent out to distract weary soldiers in the heat of battle into a regular young woman missing her mom and dad and grappling with the big questions in life. This is a much more reasonable platform from which to make a decision about whether to marry her, yes?

Then, and only then, if the woman has decided that she wishes to convert to Judaism and still wants to marry this fellow, is the former soldier allowed to marry her as regular, full-fledged Jewish wife with all the privileges and obligations included therein. Does this strike you as a little different than the typical rape-and-pillage scenarios you might have had in mind before? Me, too.



Now, I’m sorry, but western civilization has a lot to learn from Judaism about healthy marriages, polygamy notwithstanding. I’m not personally in favor of multiple spouses, but apparently well over 50% of the American population is, both men and women. Affairs are rampant. Almost 20% take place with brothers- or sisters-in-law. I mean, come on, people. How much more trailer park can it get?

Judaism has an entire corpus of laws directing spouses, both husbands and wives, to look straight into the eyes of the person they married and say, with every move they make, “I am here to make your dreams come true.” From the little things to the big things to the little-things-that-are-really-big-things, Torah choreographs a dance of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy so graceful and sweet that it truly puts all other cultures and systems to shame.

The epicenter of the Beis HaMikdash, the kodesh hakodashim (holy of holies), was called the bedroom. Our holiest book is Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs), a metaphor for the love story between the Almighty and His chosen people couched in the heated romance between ardent paramours. “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaacov, mishkenosecha Yisrael, how wonderful are your homes, Israel.” Marriage and family are what Judaism is all about.

Marriage with more than one wife? I don’t get it, but I am not supposed to. That kind of multiple commitment does not apply to our generation and has not applied for the past several hundred years. How and why did it work during biblical times? Beats me. What I do know, however, was that it did work. Because Torah Judaism was never a society of slavering monkeys. It was always, and continues to be, about working on one’s character and behavior in order to become the most loving, refined, terrific person one can be.

That’s really what Parashas Ki Setzei is all about. It deals with hot topics, but it does deal with them. It doesn’t delineate the practices of a backwater ancient cult. It delineates how to remain refined and God-conscious even under the most compromised of circumstances. After all, war isn’t exactly the way you want to live your life.

But if you have to fight, at least make sure that you are fighting for the winning team. I’ll bet on Team HaKadosh Baruch Hu every time.


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