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Arik Ascherman

Going To War Against Our Unbridled Animal Instincts and an Unbridled Free Market

This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Teitzei, is a long list of seemingly disconnected mitzvot, beginning with the commandment that, rather than take women and rape them in the heat of war, we must take her home, wait a month, allow her to mourn, and treat her as a wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-15). Although it is not the point I wish to get to, I can’t go on without saying something about just how far this is from my sense of morality, and hopefully from the values of everybody reading this dvar Torah. What many commentators have said is that, after a month and not in the heat of battle, the man will realize that he isn’t really interested in this woman, and certainly not in the obligations that come with her. Furthermore, the various requirements during this cooling down and reflecting period time are  designed to make her less attractive. Rashi cites the midrash:

AND SHE SHALL DWELL IN “THY” HOUSE – [not in the women’s apartments, but] in the house which he constantly uses: when he goes in he stumbles upon her, when he leaves he stumbles upon her; he sees her crying, sees her neglected appearance — and all this in order that she should become repulsive to him (Sifrei Devarim 213:2).

Rashi and many others say that it is the “yetzer ha-ra” that causes a man to want to possess a woman this way. I usually translate yetzer ha-ra as one’s animal inclinations, as opposed to the literal translation – “evil inclination.” More like Freud’s id. However, in this case, it is truly an evil inclination. Many commentators even say that the captive woman is raped once, and only after that are steps taken to combat the man’s passions. Ramban, and Rabbi Yohanan in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makot 2:6) make it clear that “even once” is wrong. Others incredibly believe that the Torah permits one time rape. Neither in the Torah nor in any classical commentator I have found is there recognition of any independent agency of the woman. Nobody indicates that the woman should have the right to refuse. While there are Jewish sources criticizing the idea of war, they are not found here.

The Torah doesn’t demand a total change of reality, but does attempt a rechanneling. In the Talmud we read, “Beautiful”—The Torah spoke only in response to the evil inclination.[14] Better that Israelites eat the meat of sickly animals that have been properly slaughtered and not the meat of sickly animals that have died of their own accord. (Kiddushin 21b-22a).

The Torah does acknowledge that the captive woman has feelings, and is mourning for her family. But, that does not grant her agency. Again, it is Ramban, who goes one step further, and at least acknowledges that a woman is being forced to do something against her will. However, he doesn’t go the next step to say that the woman should have the right of refusal:

“And the reason for this section [i.e. of all these regulations] is that she is converted against her will, and no one asks her whether she is willing to abandon her religion and become Jewish as is [customarily] done with proselytes. Instead, the [future] husband tells her that she must observe the law of Israel against her will and abandon her gods. This is the reason for the verse, and she shall bewail her father and her mother a full month, because she abandons her people and her gods. This is the interpretation of Rabbi Akiba who says that her father means only the idols, similar to what is said, They say to a stock, ‘thou art my father,’ and to a stone, ‘thou hast brought us forth.’ In general, then, she is mourning because she is leaving her religion and joining another people. It is possible that the court imposes upon her to undergo immersion [in a ritual pool for the purpose of conversion] against her will just as is done with [Canaanite] bondmen, and because she does not convert to Judaism through the normal procedure, Scripture removed her [from her master] all this time.
Now, the reason for [her] mourning and bewailing [which Scripture commanded] according to the opinion of our Rabbis is in order that she should become repulsive, so that his desire for her may wane. And Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra wrote that the Torah assigned her a period [of mourning] in accordance with the custom of those who weep for the dead in honor of her father and her mother who died in the battle. And the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] wrote in the Moreh Nebuchim that this regulation was out of compassion for her, that she find comfort for herself, for those in misery find comfort and calm in their weeping and mourning, and during that time he must not force her to leave her religion, nor may he cohabit with her.
In my opinion this respite is not primarily intended to show compassion for her, but to eliminate the names of idols from her mouth and her heart…”

So, having expressed my extreme discomfort at how our tradition approaches this subject, let me go to the point I wanted to arrive at.

It is also well known that, many commentators, particularly khassidic commentators such as Kli Yakar, view “war” here as metaphorically referring to our ongoing internal spiritual wars between our conflicting impulses. What could be more appropriate for this month of Elul leading to the High Holy Days? The explosive passions released in actual warfare are but one example of the struggles we all have to channel our animal instincts to positive ends (Without the animal inclination we would not build a house, take a wife or beget children -Bereshit Rabbah9:7), or defeat them when they are irredeemable. What makes us human is our ability to do so.

So, now let’s get back to the long laundry list of mitzvot in this week’s Torah portion. Could it be that the portion opens with our struggle against our animal instincts because this applies to many of the commandments as the portion continues? Ki Titze contains several guiding principles, and this is one of them. The others are better known, and are repeated more often throughout the Torah:

“You shall not defile the Land that Adonai your God is giving you to possess.” (Deuteronomy 21:23)

“You must not remain indifferent” (22:3)

“You will sweep away evil from your midst” (22:21, 24)

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (24:18, 22)

“The non-Jew living among you, the fatherless and the widow” (24:19-21)

The message that we must subdue or channel our animal instinct is contradictory to the idea that it is somehow wrong or unhealthy not to fulfill all of our desires. I am not an advocate for delegitimizing all of our human desires. However, they must be checked when they harm others.

One of the commandments in this week’s Torah portion is not to enter somebody’s home to collect a pledge. We are also told that if the pledge is a person’s only garment to sleep in, we must return it at night. (24:10-13). We cannot take the garment of a widow to begin with. (24:17) While our sages created a way around this in order to permit commerce, we are forbidden from charging interest on loans to our fellow Jews.

I am singling out these commandments because they represent a way of life contradictory to an op-ed I recently read arguing that it is wrong to try to combat Israel’s housing prices. The author was apparently affiliated with the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank that states on their website “The Kohelet Policy Forum strives to secure Israel’s future as the nation-state of the Jewish people, to strengthen representative democracy, and to broaden individual liberty and free-market principles in Israel.” The unbridled free market and libertarian approach is based on an approach very different than the idea that we must sometimes channel and limit our desires. If not exactly “greed is good,” it is at least Adam Smith’s idea that society benefits when we all pursue the increasing of our own wealth.

I don’t want to get into an economic debate regarding government intervention in the market, as much as I disagree with the unbridled free marked approach.  However, I do have a question. In the  op-ed I referred to, the author advocated for allowing housing prices to go unchecked. In another policy paper, Kohelet advocates for bringing down housing prices by ending regulation and allowing building to go unchecked, apparently with little concern for green space. Let’s say that we abandon all efforts to keep housing prices in check. We minimalize the role of government in the marketplace.

What happens to the ger, the fatherless and the widow, symbolic of those who find themselves unable to afford housing? Whether it is the Palestinian or Israeli Arabs suffering from intentionally discriminatory zoning regulations making it difficult or impossible for them to build legally, or the Israeli Jew or non-Jew who can’t afford housing, the command not to enter somebody’s home to collect a pledge is not just about the pledge. It is about the home we all need as a secure anchor in our lives.  We cannot remain indifferent to those who cannot provide for themselves in an unbridled free market/libertarian society.

Even if one believes that society benefits when we unleash our egoistic desires, the question remains what we do for those who fall behind. If we take the Torah’s approach that, even if it is the yetzer ha-ra, we cannot outright prevent a soldier from taking a beautiful woman captive and must somehow find another way to lessen the damage he does, what is our parallel in the socioeconomic sphere? I believe that the message of the Elul and the High Holy Days is that we can be true to the Divine Image within us, and live according to our yetzer ha-tov, our noblest impulses. I believe that our yetzer ha-ra can also be channelled to positive ends.  One way or another, will we in some way go to war so that our unbridled desires don’t harm others?

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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