Humanity in Wartime

War and peace--and the difficulties with both--are the subjects of Parashat Shoftim.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Shoftim is one of our most neatly packaged Torah portions, beginning with commandments about the necessity for appointing "magistrates and officials" (16:18) and concluding with a procedure aimed to ensure that people do "what is right in the sight of God" (21:9). From its opening words to its
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concluding phrases, this parashah is about righteousness and justice. Yet these concepts are meaningless unless rooted in concrete particulars so they can permeate the lives of those who wish to find meaning in the Torah. These are clearly universal values, but where do we find out about the ways women approach such values and concerns?

Among the commandments recounted in this portion are those about warfare. Can we retain humanity in a time of war? The parashah asks us to attempt every other possible measure before war is undertaken, literally to "call her [that is, the city] to peace" (20:10), which indicates that war should be considered a last resort in resolving a conflict. All world leaders should familiarize themselves with this ethical teaching: negotiate before fighting by actively calling out in peace to one's opponent. This recalls the active language about Aaron the priest and his sons in Pirkei Avot 1:12, "Be like the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue it."

Real peace needs strong verbs of "calling" and "pursuing"--and real attempts to forge fighting has permeated the ways in which the society approaches war. In discussing 20:10, Sefir HaChinuch, a medieval compilation of mitzvot, states, "The quality of mercy (rahmaniut) is a good quality; and it is fitting for us, the holy seed, to behave thus in all matters even with our enemies, worshippers of idols." This notion that we should always behave with rahamim (mercy)-even to an enemy-is one that continues to apply to daily life, as well as to national crises. This would mean that we first would call to that person in peace, prior to arguing or becoming angry, difficult as it may be.

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Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, "Questioning Return," and is currently working on a second novel at Yaddo. She has taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.