What could be more noble than a United Nations peacekeeper, sent around the world to stop war and violence between and within nations? And yet once he arrives, that peacekeeper turns into a predator.
The U.S. State Department has reported that UN peacekeepers have been raping women and children, forcing them into prostitution and trading them with other sex traffickers. Between 2007 and 2019, the UN received 1,033 complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse. The method is simple: the hungry exchange their bodies for food and basic necessities. The weakest of the victims are usually in Africa.
In this week’s portion, the Torah addresses an issue that has been concealed or minimized throughout history: The exploitation of the strong by the weak. Here Moses addresses the Jewish soldier. “When you go out to war against your enemy and G-d, your G-d, will place him in your hands and you take captives. And you see in your captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her and take her as your wife.”
On the face of it, the Torah seems to permitting the forbidden. This captive woman is not Jewish and indeed comes from the enemy. Why is the Jewish soldier permitted to take her as a wife? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, agrees, but adds that the Torah is making an allowance for a man’s lust. The Jewish soldier must have her and will violate any commandment to achieve his goal.
And so, the Torah begins to place conditions on this Jew intent on sleeping with the enemy. First, the Torah rules out rape — whether on the battlefield or in the privacy of the bedroom. Instead, the soldier is allowed to bring the gentile captive home and leave her alone for one month. The captive woman must shave her head and grow her nails — in other words, do everything to remove the luster of beauty that first attracted the Jew in the first place.
During that month, we encourage the captive woman to cry for her lost parents and siblings. Only then, is she asked whether she wants to marry this Jewish soldier. The Jewish court tells her that for marriage she must convert to Judaism, with all of its commandments and restrictions. If she says no, then she leaves a free woman. She cannot be pressed into servitude or traded to another.
If she agrees to marriage, the Jewish court addresses the soldier. Does this man want the captive for marriage or as a play thing? If the Jewish soldier has sex with the captive for nonmarital reasons, the union is void and she remains a gentile.
There is simply nothing like this in any other faith. For thousands of years, including today, conquering armies have violated the women of enemy and neutral countries. For most of those who claim kinship with G-d, these women are nothing more than chattel, meant for the pleasure of the victors. In December 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria told its soldiers how to sexually abuse female slaves. ISIS engaged in a slave trade that included servitude and sexual violence. The captives were divided into virgins and others before taken to slave bazaars throughout Iraq, Syria and other countries.
But the Christian West ranks among the greatest abusers of the weak. The United States has been deemed one of the worst countries in the world in regard to human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has reported that California has the highest rate of trafficking in the country. Hawaii has acknowledged that the trade is the state’s second largest industry, right behind illegal drugs.
The goal of the Torah is to make this Jewish soldier think: Who is this gentile woman? Why am I attracted to her? Do I want her for keeps or just to use her and throw her away? Will she build a Jewish home? Will I love her even if she is no longer pretty?
The 30 days of her isolation and mourning provide both the Jewish man and gentile captive an opportunity to pause. If the captive wants to become Jewish and follow the commandments then she represents the greatest of the converts, including Ruth and Naama.
But if this is a marriage of convenience, then tragedy lies ahead. The Torah provides a scenario where the Jewish soldier takes this gentile as his second wife. They have children and soon the Jewish father finds he loves the children of one wife and hates those of the other. Then, the father sees how the progeny of this flawed and exploitative union turns into a profligate person and a danger to society.
Even more common than the exploitation of women by soldiers is penchant of the rich to buy their wives. The man is grey but can pay for the prettiest of women. There is nothing in common between this couple except one wants to buy and the other is ready to sell. The original moguls of Hollywood were all Jewish men from Eastern and Central Europe. As soon as they became successful in the movie business, most of them divorced their Jewish wives and married their gentile starlets. The men even agreed to send their children to Christian schools.
Many of these marriages ended in disaster. Groucho Marx married five times the pert dancers and actresses around Hollywood. He ended up hating almost all of them and the women turned into alcoholics. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia routinely pressured his women employees, particularly actresses, to have sex with him. When he suffered a massive heart attack, he moaned to his wife, “Oh, Jesus Christ!” His Christian wife Joan was thrilled. “Oh Harry,” she cooed as her husband was dying, “You’ve finally accepted him as your savior.”
Nearly 300 years ago, Rabbi Haim Ben Atar, known as the Or Hachayim, put the matter of the gentile woman in perspective. He writes that the challenge of this strange and vulnerable woman is meant to force us to examine ourselves and our priorities. This Jewish soldier is enraptured and convinced that the woman holds the key to his happiness.
“The construction of the world and its existence depends on the actions of the Jewish people. If they improve their ways, the world exists and the heavens and earth will be joyful. Also, G-d, our G-d, will be happy and bring us joy. The straight path of Israel depends on the victory over the evil inclination. And the Torah comes to tell man that in his departure from the world above to this world, he must be ready for war.”