Ethics of War

Ki Tetzei By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 14, 2013 / 5773 | Philosophy

Parashat Ki Tetzei opens by teaching one of the biblical ordinances related to ethical conduct in war. Specifically,

[W]hen 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 will bring her into your house . . . She will spend a month’s time in your home lamenting her father and mother; after that you may possess her and she will be your wife. Then should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. (Deut. 21:10–14)

While acknowledging this specific case as disturbing to our modern ethics and sensibilities, one must also read these verses closely and sensitively within their historical context. Far from advocating the immediate “possession” of the woman by an Israelite victor, Torah legislates the woman’s need and right to mourn for her father and mother over a given period of time. Only after this month of reflection may the Israelite then take her as a wife. What does Torah teach us by acknowledging the very real and painful emotions of the captive?

Professor Ze’ev Falk explains,

It is your obligation to honor the emotions of the daughter vis-à-vis her parents. A parallel passage to this may be found in the biblical narrative addressing the nest of a bird: “You will not take the mother bird from her children. You will surely send the mother bird away and only then will you take the baby birds” (Deuteronomy 22:6–7). Here the obligation is to respect the emotions of the mother for her children. Injuring the mother along with the children is considered exceeding cruelty because it precisely undermines the elementary obligation to be fruitful and to multiply. Compare: with regard to Jacob fearing Esau, “Deliver me . . . else I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike” (Genesis 32:12); “on a day of battle when mothers and children were dashed to death together” (Hosea 10:14); and the prohibition cited numerous times that “one should not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19, etc.). Perhaps it is for this reason that destroying a whole city represents unique cruelty because it is done together with killing all of the children of the city: “I am one of those who seek the welfare of Israel! But you seek to bring death upon a city and mother of Israel!” (II Samuel 20:19). (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 441)

Even though war against a brutal enemy is justified, the chaos of war cannot lead to moral and ethical decay. Torah and Professor Ze’ev Falk’s commentary underscore the extent to which Scripture honors emotional and familial bonds. Such connections and emotional relationships increase our humanity. Those who pursue terrorism and senseless conflict do so without regard for family, religion, humanity, and God. Fundamentalist furor annihilates lives indiscriminately. And it is in the emotional bonds of family that we, as a sacred tradition, affirm life.

May Torah continually serve as our guidepost—making us keenly aware of the emotions and pain of our fellow human beings—and may Scripture lead us to a place of healing and peace among all the nations of the world.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.