All Is Not Fair In Love And War

By linking the incident of the female prisoner of war to the hated wife and rebellious child, Rashi encourages us to consider the consequences of treating others as objects.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

Parashat Ki Teitzei contains a very wide assortment of laws and instructions for the Jewish people, covering rules for ethical warfare, family life, the prompt burial of the deceased, property laws, the humane treatment of animals, fair labor practices, and proper economic transactions. The parsha ends with the famous command to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt; this paragraph is traditionally read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim.

In Focus

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Adonai your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her” (Deuteronomy 21:10-15).


As my teacher Rabbi Eddie Feinstein wrote regarding this passage, all is not fair in love and war — the Torah recognizes the reality of war, but demands that even in the insanity of battle, a human being be recognized as a human being. That women were captured in war was non-controversial in the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world; the Torah, however, says that even this sexist cultural norm must be subject to some kind of moral regulation. Rape is condemned, and a ritual of bringing the woman into the soldier’s house slowly, and allowing her to mourn, is instituted in its place. Many commentators assume that the point of this ritual delay is so that the soldier will change his mind, and let her go.


The law of the woman captured at war is difficult for contemporary readers; it is an artifact from an ancient world, a world whose attitudes toward women, war, marriage, and family is far from our own. I can accept that this law represented an advance over the typical “rules of war” of its day, but it’s difficult to accept that the Torah gives permission for men to capture women and marry them forcibly.

Lucky for me, our good friend Rashi does something quite amazing with this entire passage, offering an interpretation which creatively illustrates my feeling that the Torah is saying something subtler than “capture women, but be more dignified about it.”

Rashi links this passage, concerning the captured woman, with the next two, in verses 15-20. These laws concern the “hated wife” (whose children must be treated fairly) and the “rebellious son” (who could be put to death–but don’t worry, the rabbis say this never actually happened.) Rashi says that taking a woman in war will lead to her becoming the “unloved wife,” and any children from this union will become “rebellious sons”:

‘You may take her as your wife…’ The Torah speaks here only to oppose the Selfish Inclination [Yetzer Hara], because if the Blessed Holy One did not permit [it], he would marry her against the law. But if he does marry her, she will in the end be ‘hated,’ as the verse says, and eventually they will beget a ‘rebellious son.’ That’s why all these sections are connected.”

By linking these three strange laws, Rashi seems to be saying that we are to learn the consequences of acting on our shallowest urges. Yes, it’s theoretically permissible to marry the woman captured in war, according to the letter of the ancient law, but look where it gets you: You end up hating that which reflects back to you your own worst side, and you end up with family difficulties across the generations. One who sees in another human being only a way to gratify personal desires–even in a more restrained, “permitted” way–ends up without even the respect of others, not even of his or her own children.

Because the law of the “rebellious son” is usually assumed to be only theoretical, never applied, I think Rashi is saying the same thing about the “captured woman.” Maybe it’s only a parable for the destructive consequences of seeing others as means, rather than as holy ends in themselves. Maybe the emphasis on the woman’s beauty is a way of warning us against focusing on external appearances, rather than spiritual qualities–even in wartime.

As the ancient rabbis like to say, if in war one should recognize the essential humanity of each person, and never use them or abuse them, how much more so in everyday life, when we have daily opportunities to affirm the best in ourselves and others.

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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