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Parashat Ki Tetze opens with a chilling portrait of the inevitability of man’s brutality. When–not if–you go to war against your enemies and take as captives those whom you do not slay: Then, you will see among the conquered “a woman of beautiful form” whom you will desire and take for your “wife” (Deut. 21:10-12). That is the premise: War, conquest, captivity, rape.
Now the intervention: After the victorious soldier has taken home his comely captive, the Torah instructs that her head is to be shaved and her nails made to grow long. She is to remove the fetching “garment of her captivity”–a particularly alluring dress donned in a calculus of sex and survival. And for one full month, she is to remain in this state; unmolested in her captor’s home and “weep[ing] for her father and her mother” (Deut. 21:12-14).
At the close of this period, the captor is permitted to “come to her and live with her” and make her his wife. If, however, the soldier’s desire has withered during this period of cultivated dishevelment and grief, he is to set her free “for her soul.” He may not sell or otherwise enslave the woman because he has already “afflicted her,” both by taking her captive and putting her through a singularly alienating process (Deut. 21:14-15).
The commentators interpret these paces as both an accommodation and containment of the sexual violence that is often war’s companion. The soldier may violate the captive woman–and continue to do so as her husband–but first he must forebear, disciplining his desire through a process meant to extinguish it. And the craft of this process–calibrated so well to the contours of his desire–conspicuously asks nothing after her own.
The unspoken concession here is that even God’s word cannot compel the taming of man’s lust in wartime. At best, with time and subterfuge, it can be cajoled or tricked out of existence. But even these outcomes–in contrast to the Torah’s myriad, non-negotiable commands–are not obligatory. The Torah, that is, never explicitly prohibits man’s rapacious wartime actions as it does so many other human behaviors. Its preferred course is instead implied through the text’s barely-concealed condemnation of the soldier.
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