Our portion opens with a terrible story that seems unredeemable.
It prescribes that when a Jewish soldier in wartime, sees a beautiful enemy woman and wants her, he should capture her and bring her to his home, for a month let her cry for missing her parents during which time she should not bath or cut her hair or nails, then convert her to Judaism and marry her as a second wife. How revolting!
A woman is not a thing. How can a G^dly Moral Code prescribe such a horrendous cascade of actions to people (Jews) who should be an example to all of Mankind? Isn’t this a clearly ugly thing that we should, no: must, protest and reject. No matter how beautiful or worthy Judaism – how could we stand by injustice and accept this?
Bear with me and we’ll redeem it. And not by giving this Commandment an apologetic nice makeover but just by placing it in context.
Now first, we need to discuss human nature.
Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher in roots but his philosophy put him squarely outside of the Jewish Tradition. (Fear for annoying the Christian authorities must have helped the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam to actual ban him.) He is, though, one of the greatest philosophers ever as counted by the non-Jewish world. Spinoza expert Philosopher Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo of Jerusalem says that his philosophies are sublime, so beautiful. Yet, he explains, Spinoza had no wife or kids. His analyses are stunning but detached from reality.
Classical Christianity preached the “turning the other cheek.” A beautiful concept that – history teaches us – did not work. Ask the Jews. We were mass murdered without even having given an initial slap.
Why did the US Constitution give stability and the Weimar Constitution so much tumult that within the turmoil, a Hitler could rise to the top? Because the former was written for humans, describing what works best while the latter described how theoretically it should have worked.
Moral codes that prescribe shoulds that are too ambitious, backfire.
The armies for Jewish Holy Wars, describes the Torah clearly, should comprise of the holiest soldiers there could be. If one talked between putting on one’s arm and one’s head tefilin (not such a terrible thing to do really), one should go home and not participate in battle because the fear of repercussion for that not-even-sin would impair your spirit and also make fellow soldiers nervous. So who should go out to war? The holiest of the holiest only.
Now, wars are messy bloody affairs, very hard on the Soul. In the craze of war, having been forced to kill, losing loved comrades, or to soothe one’s hurting heart from all the killing (make love, not war), one could too easily lose track of what is holy and good. One could feel so powerless that one is driven to disempower others (rape). And scholars, the only ones who should go to war, could so easily be overwhelmed by the gory business of battle.
Comes the Torah and says: If you want her, do such and such first. It’s not the best way in life but it’s allowed. But if you do (or even think of) doing all of that, would you still want her? Would you still not have come to your senses, not even in a month’s time? And not after seeing your wife and children raise their eyebrows and roll their eyes? No instance is known of any Jew ever, even some simple soldier, who acted out this procedure. Say, you could eat pork but you first have to put it in urine and feces, inspect it every day for a month yourself, then dry it, and then roast it. Would you still?
Look at the present IDF. The world over, it is normal that winning (and sometimes losing) armies rape and plunder. In our latest war, there were some accusations of theft by a few soldiers and the suspects are put on trial. But rape? Never. It’s done so well that Arab leaders have accused Jewish soldiers of being racists that they don’t touch their women and girls “because they don’t like them.” As if rape is done from liking someone! No, the high standards the Torah teaches and that we have kept for thousands of years, for more than a hundred generations, are so ingrained in us that even our secular soldier at war scenes don’t take advantage of powerless women and girls.
Our section comes to teach us manners. It doesn’t say: be cruel and drag her off. It says nowhere that he can mistreat her or be insensitive to her. Only, if you think you can’t control yourself – this is the kosher way. The result: it’s not worth it. There is no mention anywhere that such a case of a captive woman was ever actually done. But if the Torah would have simply forbidden it, the temptation could have been sky-high – possibly almost impossible to resist.
The Torah is like a booklet of factory issued operation instructions. The One Who wrote the Torah text also fashioned Man. So we see a wisdom in the text that’s unusual. It fits humans like a glove. It knows how far to challenge humans and when to allow for a compromise to human weakness. Together with the Oral Law (Mishna, Talmud, Halacha), it knows how high to set the bar. To challenge us with high expectations without making it contra-productive by expecting too much.
There are similar seemingly ugly passages, also in the beginning of our Weekly Portion. How could we be obligated that if we have a son who is rebellious, eats meat and drinks wine without limit and doesn’t listen to his parents, we should bring him to court and if found guilty, he should be executed? A child! The Talmud deals with this question.
It explains that this commandment was never executed. There are so many conditions that need to be exactly the case as written in the Torah that the Court must check, that in practice in every case it can (and must) exonerate the youth.
So why is there such a Commandment? To teach us that there must be limits to parental love and permissiveness. And that if we bring home a non-Jewish girl to be our second wife, how would you expect your son to be able to contain his impulses?
One Sage remarks that he actually sat on the grave of a rebellious son. The warning must stay realistic enough to deter. (He didn’t mention if the son was executed or died of natural causes, possibly of old age.)
Another case. The Torah blesses us with strength not to eat blood. For Jews, the idea of consuming blood is revolting. Why would we need extra strength for abiding by this Injunction? No other Commandment in the Torah says this. But the Author knows us. Stolen waters taste the sweetest. As revolting as drinking blood may be, as soon as it becomes forbidden, it becomes attractive.
Another case. G-d tells us, if you would ask, what shall we eat for three years when you don’t sow in a Sabbatical Year and not for the ensuing Jubilee Year, then I promise you a threefold harvest before. Not preparing a harvest for years is a real challenge. If you can take it, I will make you satisfied with a third of the normal diet. That means less food stuff to buy or bring home, less to store, less to cook and less to clean. A blessing. But if you can’t take it, I promise to enlarge your crop. No punishment for a lack of trust but rather a blessing. How much faith can be expected of normal people?!
Another case, now from our modern times. The State of Israel or the rabbis don’t stress that circumcision should be done. The backslash would be enormous. Who should tell us what to do?! But now it’s not stressed, most Jewish parents do this from their own free will.
Yes, having your new son been cut is hard but not cruel. It’s not the unkindest cut if you let them cry. Crying heals. There are standard medical procedures that hurt babies much more. And ever compared Jewish men with similar Gentiles? Fine people, no? Also here, the outcome shows that it’s fine if not excellent. It discourages masturbation. In a rights frame of mind, less “sex” is a “sin” but in a duty mindset, there are two reasons why this is good. To forbid masturbation but have the possibility dangling just in front of you all the time is cruel. And this Injunction is protective. Masturbation isolates, hinders deep connection to a soul mate. Isolation is the last thing Jewish men need. What is so wholesome in a privilege to easily get isolated? Circumcision at a later age is more painful, more dangerous and sexologically damaging and defeats the whole purpose of trying to protect. Offer a random teenager: now you can choose pain over pleasure. Not fair.
The Torah was not given to the heavenly Angels. It was given to humans. It may be hard at times to keep but it must be doable and work out well. The regular outcome of a Commandment must be taken into account to judge the Prescript. We’ve been given a good Law.