This week’s Torah reading in Deuteronomy 21-25 starts with the words Kee Tey-tzey — “When you go out.”

 In the course of the Sedrah we find many different laws, dealing with situations as different as family discipline, punishment of crime, and treatment of animals. Truly a summary of standards for human behavior. Any and all of them are worth discussing.

But this time around, let’s just consider the rest of the first sentence quoted above: “When you go out to war against your enemies…” Notice that nowhere does the Torah say that you must make war, nor does it forbid war. It does not even say “IF you go out to war.” Just “when.” War happens. It is a grim fact of human life. What the Torah does tell us is how we should conduct ourselves in war.

Jewish history and tradition include three categories of warfare: KHovah, Mitzvah, R’shut — Obligatory war, Required war, and Voluntary war. 

The first category occurred just once. It was Joshua’s war to conquer the Land of Israel. The second category consists of wars of self-defense against an attacking enemy, and can be fought against an immediate danger or a distant danger — as in preemptive strikes. As to the third category, the Talmud confines it to the wars David and Solomon waged to expand their kingdoms. In all such military action, the Torah sets up definite rules for who serves and how, including deferments and exemptions. It also sets standards, in this very Sedrah, for the army camp. “Keep a spade with your weapons… cover up your waste.” That’s right, they dug latrines. The camp had to be clean ritually as well as physically, because the Divine spirit accompanied the Jewish fighters.

Here we also learn about treatment of prisoners. A conquering army of Israelites was not released to rape and plunder. In fact, this very section sets up specific rules for how a victorious soldier is to treat a female POW. “If you see among the prisoners a beautiful woman, and you desire her, you can take her for a wife.” Not a concubine. Not a “one-night stand.” A wife. But first you have to give her a month to mourn her parents. That includes shaving off her hair, pairing her fingernails, putting away the fancy clothes in which she was captured, and presumably wearing sackcloth. All of which cannot increase her sex appeal, of course. Then, at the end of the month, the soldier can take possession of her. But after that if he no longer wants her, he must release her. He may not sell her as a slave. “You may not exploit her, because you have humbled her.”

Hardly Attila’s rules of warfare. Or Assad’s.

Our world still does not know how to prevent war. Perhaps we never will. But we can learn some great lessons about wartime conduct from the Torah.




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