Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power, and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:10- 13 ).

If you are a rabbi intending to write a concise D’var Torah, it is certainly an exploratory journey to sort through through the myriad of Judaic laws and ethical considerations that make up Ki Tetsei (meaning “when you take”). Then, when you take the centuries of rabbinic and midrashic commentary into account as well, there is enough legal content, sensitivity, and human understanding – not to mention rationality — in this powerful parasha for a lifetime of study.

Finally, I settled on the opening verses of the parasha. What I had in mind was the relative kindness – in that time and place – with which Jewish law mandates a captive woman must be treated by soldiers in time of war. Especially if she is beautiful and evokes a soldier’s sexual desire. Rape is not condoned in the Torah, not on the battlefield, not anywhere (as long as the woman cries out for help).

Richard Elliott Friedman explains this important dictum in the notes to his vibrant, plain-spoken Commentary on the Torah [1] “Contrary to one of the most common practices of war, the Israelite soldier is not permitted to rape her [the captured woman]. He may take her as a wife. But even then he must give her time to mourn the loss of her family.” The month allowed for grieving is is also intended as a period of reflection, a time to reject the gods of her culture and to accept the God of Israel, something she must do in order to marry a Jewish man. It is additionally a time of purification – in accordance with Jewish mourning rites, she must cut her hair and pare her nails — that is sensitive both to Jewish law and to the emotional needs of the woman concerned. Given the tenor of the times, it bespeaks a human generosity on the part of the man.

I agree with Friedman’s interpretation of this passage. In our modern, technological society, many people would, I believe. Yet in this same century, 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, and women have been gang-raped in India, Mexico, and too many other countries, including our own. Smugglers entice women from poor, “undeveloped” countries to the U.S.A. with false promises of employment, only to force them into prostitution. That is why this Torah portion remains very relevant today.  

Surprisingly, however, the time-honored medieval rabbis [2]– a whole bunch of them (Rashi, Nahmanides, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, Gersonides, Hizkuni), almost uniformly look at this granting of a mourning period with a patriarchal, even misogynistic, perspective quite different from Friedman’s. Or mine. While the mourning period allowed the woman is undeniably humane, they point out that the soldiers likely would not have killed her mother (thus she would have at least some family left!), and maybe her father fled the battlefield. Furthermore, this 30-day period is intended to give the desire-stricken soldier a cooling-off period.

The medieval rabbis do a real hatchet job on the captured woman! They point out that the surrounding pagan cultures deliberately sent their women out in revealing dress in order to entice the Israelite soldiers. So taking off her captive’s garb meant that this woman would be changing into more modest dress. In addition, they question whether she “does” her nails (“yields her crop”) for mourning purposes. They claim that the Hebrew verb used suggests that she “grows” them long so that her claw-like nails and shorn head look distasteful in the soldier’s eyes. It is a very different perspective, indeed. At any rate, only after this 30-day period can this soldier have sexual relations with the captured woman and make her his wife.  

At the same time, the Torah portion itself realistically recognizes that sexual desire can be fickle: “Then, should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money; since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her” (Deut. 21: -14). In other words, if, having now found the once beautiful captive distasteful, the soldier rejects the captured woman as his wife, Ki Tetze warns that, since he has degraded her, he cannot treat her as a slave or sell her to someone else. He must let her go free. Friedman notes that here “[t]he Torah text uses the same verb as in the law of divorce” (Deut: 24:1). [3]

As a Jewish people once enslaved by the Egyptians – and who celebrate our release every year – we are taught what slavery does to the human spirit. We are expected to understand the harm done to the psyche by such degradation and humiliation.  “The [Hebrew] words for degrading her and for letting her go are the same words that are used to describe the Egyptians’ degrading of Israel and then letting Israel go (Exod. 1:11-12; 5:1),” Friedman points out [4].

As a people, we have also learned in every generation to have compassion for others, that compassion is the counterpart to justice. As Jews, we are expected to act when injustice is done – not just to sit around tut-tutting about how terrible it is when bad things happen.  There are still slaves, and still beautiful women forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive, in other parts of the world. Certainly it is something to think about – enslavement, justice, compassion, action — during the High Holy Days.

[1] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 629.

[2] All those listed above are quoted at length in “Deuteronomy,” The Commentators’ Bible: The Rubin JPS Miqura’ot Gedolot, ed., trans., and annotated by Michael Carasik (USA: Jewish  Publication Society, 2015), 142-143.

[3] Friedman, 629.

[4] Ibid.