Naomi Graetz

The trafficked ‘Pretty Woman’ of Ki Teitzei

What possible connections can there be between the captive and trafficked “Pretty Woman” (Deut. 21: 10-14) at the beginning of this week’s parshat Ki Teitzei and the end of the parsha about Amalek (Deut. 25: 17-19) whose memory we are commanded to wipe out, twice a year: once at Purim and once this week in our portion? Except for the fact that they both come from an enemy nation and are both mentioned in our portion, they only serve as foils for each another. The pretty woman was captured during a “war of discretion” (milhemet reshut) whereas we are required to wipe out the Amalekites in a justified “war of obligation” (milhemet mitzvah). Although both are “others”, the woman is an “other” in Israelite control while Amalek is the “other” who controlled the Israelites. The discussions around the woman are how we should behave in the future when we go into the land and are in power, whereas the discussions around Amalek are past oriented, about what happened to us as we were leaving Egypt, weak and in disarray. In the former case, we are victorious conquerors with the power to rape and in the latter, we are the victims with our tails between our legs. God is clearly with us in the war when he gives the enemy people (and pretty woman) into our hands, whereas when we were demoralized, we questioned God’s existence and were not God fearing in our tired condition.

I woke up this morning, sickened to read that “Ben Gvir says his right to move safely in West Bank outweighs those of Arabs” (here). Could it be, that he is quoting from the Torah? Much as I hate to admit, his point of view is grounded in our sources.  We are actually commanded to treat the other differently from the Israelites, who are our kinspersons.

If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave….You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God. Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other (Leviticus 25:39-46).

Over the years, people have been dismayed when I bring to their attention this quotation from Leviticus. They would prefer to be oblivious of this particular approach. Obviously such a point of view is repellent to many of us, but not to the followers of Ben Gvir.


Anyone who knows me personally, knows that I read a lot; mostly fiction, but sometimes autobiographies. All my reading is done on Kindle. I do not purchase books, but read what is available either with the Cloud Library app or the Libby app, both of which are available from the NYC Public Library. I am an eclectic reader, but when I find a detective series that I like, I usually read all of those that are available in the library—usually in sequence, if possible, but if not, out of order. At the moment I am in the midst of reading all of the available DCI Banks series by Peter Robinson. Since he wrote about 27 books about Inspector Banks, there is no way that I will read them all, since with my reading “habit” I cannot afford to buy fiction. (Perhaps my punishment is that no one buys the mystery I wrote many years ago here). For those of you who don’t read books, you can watch the television series. I noticed that Robinson’s books are obsessed with trafficked women. He has a heroine Zelda who was abducted on the street by sex traffickers the day she left the orphanage where she was raised (here). He wrote: “I first dealt with the world of sex-trafficking way back in Strange Affair (2005), before it was as much of a news story as it has been ever since. It is certainly a scourge that hasn’t gone away, and the idea of having a victim of that world finding ways of exacting some revenge was too appealing to resist.” I starting writing about sex-trafficking before Robinson, when a colleague at Ben Gurion University roped me into the topic. I even contemplated writing a book about it.

Which brings us to this week’s parsha of ki teitzei. Last year when I wrote my blog, I was in NYC and wrote about how much material there is in this parsha. Then I chose to reflect on my mother and printed a poem she wrote (here). This week I want to focus on the trafficked woman in Jewish sources by referring to the story of the beautiful captive woman which starts the parsha:


When you go out (ki teitzei) to war against your enemies… 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 be your wife. 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 21:10-14).

On the one hand, the law surrounding the beautiful captive woman forces the warrior to be mindfully aware of his responsibility for his action. The soldier, who returns home with an enemy woman as booty, cannot do with her as he would. On the other hand, the sages routinely refer to the women of the nations as impure which allows them to regard the gentile woman not as victim but as evil temptress. Thus, in the commentary on “she removed her captive’s garb,” the rabbis teach us that “she transfers her beautiful clothing and puts on widow’s garb, for the nations are cursed and their daughters decorate themselves during wartime in order to tempt others into whoring after them” (Midrash Tanaim on Deuteronomy 21). Clearly there is ambivalence in the attitude toward the law of the captive beautiful woman. There are many sources that link the verses that follow, about the loved and the less loved wife, whose son is the first born, and who inherits even though his wife is not the loved one.

“When he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is first-born. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the first fruit of his vigor, the birthright (bechora) is his due (Deut 21:15-17).

Further on is the punishment of stoning for the disobedient son, whose parents have no control over him. One can even argue that this son is the son of the unloved or hated one (seniyah) and/or possibly the offspring of the captive woman. And he is screwed up because of the way his mother was maltreated.


What is the situation in Israel? Are we complicit, or are we fighting trafficking. This is an important question, keeping in mind the influx of refugees into our country–who are at the moment unwelcome and being denied entry (here). The official report goes as follows:

The Government of Israel does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.  The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Israel remained on Tier 2. These efforts included approving the 2022-2026 anti-trafficking implementation plan, recognizing more trafficking victims, and revising victim recognition procedures. The government also modestly increased investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government’s efforts to hold labor traffickers criminally accountable remained inadequate, and the government did not consistently investigate labor trafficking cases referred by NGOs. The government relied on NGOs to initially identify victims, rather than proactively identifying victims.  NGOs continued to report that the government’s high evidentiary standard to recognize victims discouraged victims from seeking government assistance.  The government’s oversight of foreign labor recruitment outside of bilateral work agreements (BWAs), including through foreign contracting companies (“Hevrot Bitzua”), was inconsistent and inadequate to prevent forced labor. In addition, the government’s “non-enforcement” policy for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s war against Ukraine and working on tourist visas in Israel increased their vulnerability to trafficking. (here).


Trafficking in humans is inherently immoral. Trafficking violates the basic moral mandate of viewing human beings as an end and never as a means. The primary moral transgression of trafficking is that human freedom and respect for personhood are trampled on and abused. Sexual trafficking in women intersects with a wide range of activities including prostitution, slavery, women captured in war, almost all ending in the rape of women. One can argue that it evolves from normative cultural interactions such as arranged marriage, withholding of divorce, sexual harassment, and inequality in the workplace. It exists in any society in which there are undeserved and unearned privilege allotted to those (usually males) in power. These arrangements are possible because of the power invested in men by society to control women’s activities. It is in the interest of patriarchal societies to collude in controlling women’s movements. A society that facilitates the view that woman is other and has less personhood than man, is engaged in the activity of “pimping” and enslaving its women folk. The dynamic is so powerful that it can even leach out to poison women who in turn become traffickers themselves.


I would like to conclude by inserting a quote from the Talmud. Hopefully, the Ben Gvirs (the princes) of our country, and his ilk in the government (the elders), will take note of this and act accordingly to its spirit.

Rab and R. Hanina, R. Johanan and R. Habiba taught…  All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family. [All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city.[All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world. R. Papa observed, And the household members of the Head of the Diaspora are accountable for the whole world. As R. Hanina said it is written “The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people, and the princes thereof” (Isaiah 3).  How did the elders sin? Because the elders because do not protest against the princes (b Shabbat 54b-55a).

In last week’s portion, in the final verse which precedes our section about the pretty woman, we are told that if we do what is right in God’s eyes he will “give” the enemy into our hands (Deut 21:9). It is clear that we need to behave morally when God is on our side and show compassion for this foreign woman who is our prisoner. In her case we can distinguish between the battlefield and the home and she is brought into the house where she is treated compassionately like a person. In contrast we should show no compassion for Amalek. Ironically, we both need to wipe him and his memory out and not forget what he did to us: the demoralization of a tired depleted people. When we were on the run, there was no home and thus no distinction between home and battlefield. But when we are in our own lands and are the victors, we need to regulate lust and make sure it does not spread and become habitual.

These complicated verses, which on the surface seem to be totally unrelated, are both related to what our sages wrote: “the Torah spoke against the evil inclination.” We must address both aspects of the lust for the captive woman and the Amalekite within us, who is the incarnation of evil. We are complicated creatures in a constant battle between good and evil, between the permissible and the unconscionable, between the urge for life (libido) and the urge for death (thanatos). The lesson to be learned by linking these two episodes is that we must try and impose moral order in our world.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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