GOING TO WAR by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Two sections in the Book of Deuteronomy begin with the words Kee teytzey lamilkhama – “When you go out to war.”
The first section, Chapter 20, details rules to be followed in warfare. Judaism never said that all was fair in love and war. Far from it. Just as Jewish tradition sets out rules and principles for interaction between the sexes, it sets very strict standards for how to conduct military operations. Those standards start with a special role for the cohen, the priest attached to the army unit. Much more than a chaplain, he is known in the Talmud as mashuakh milkhama – “anointed for battle.” And he is the one who urges the troops to courage, to have confidence that G-d is on their side. At his instruction the officers call out all those who qualify for deferments: one who built a house and did not yet move in, one who planted a vineyard and did not use its fruit, one who betrothed a woman and did not yet marry her. And one more: one who is “fearful and faint-hearted,” lest he infect his comrades with his fear. Some interpret this as referring to one who is afraid of the sins he might commit in warfare. Read “conscientious objector?”
Then we read about how to treat an enemy city. Offer terms for peace first. If they accept, take them all prisoner and put them to work. If they refuse, attack! Destroy the male population and take the women and children along with the livestock. More about this later.
Even trees rate special treatment. At a time when trees around an enemy city were routinely used for battering rams, the Torah requires that the army look at the tree first. Is it a fruit tree? Leave it alone. Do not raise an axe against it, “for is the tree of the field a man that it should join you in a siege?” Only if it is not a fruit tree may it be used in battle.
The second Kee teytzey section starts at Chapter 21 verse 10, and opens this week’s Torah reading. Unlike the first section, it is not about military rules at all. It concerns women’s rights. Those rights apply in a unique way to a female prisoner of war. “If you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her,” says the Torah, “you can take her for a wife.” Bearing in mind, of course, that polygamy was the custom, the Jewish soldier still had certain specifics to observe in this case: “Bring her home; she must shave her head and pare her nails, take off the clothes of her captivity, sit in your house and weep for her father and mother for a month.” What a remarkable law. First you have to house her. Then she has to make herself as unattractive as possible by losing that long hair and those beautiful clothes. And you have to stay away from her for a month while she is in mourning. “After that you may have intercourse with her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.” Right. Make her as unattractive as possible – bald, dressed plain, with tear-stained eyes – and then you can first take possession? No wonder the Torah continues: “It shall be, if you do not want her, send her away wherever she will go. You may not sell her as a slave, because you have humbled her.” This was Jewish law 3,000 years ago. Tell it to most armies today.
What is particularly interesting about both of these sections is the opening phrase: Kee teytzey lamilkhama – When you go out to war. Not if, but when. Note that the Torah does not say go to war, or don’t go to war. It does not say all war is good or all war is evil. War happens. That, the Torah takes for granted. What it teaches is standards of conduct that apply even in war. In fact, Jewish law provides for three different kinds of warfare: #1 was Khova – the obligatory war, which happened only once, and was Joshua’s war to conquer the Land of Israel; #2 was Mitzva – defending Israel from attack, which included operations like reclaiming captured Israelites as well as peremptory strikes; and #3 was calledR’shut – optional, as in the case of the wars of David and Solomon to expand Israel’s borders. The rabbis of the Talmud insisted that the deferments mentioned in the Torah applied only in optional wars. When the nation is threatened, universal service is required. Even, as the Talmud says, “the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her wedding canopy.”
Defining the need and purpose of warfare becomes more urgent as human beings reach higher on our scale of values. Although our enemies try to take advantage of that reach, Torah standards can provide a clear avenue to wisdom on the subject.
You can contact Rabbi Baruch Cohon for further discussion and/or comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org