by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ramban to Parshat Ki Tetzei, Week One: Complications of War and Marriage
Parshat Ki Tetzei opens with the rules for how to treat a yefat to’ar, a woman taken captive in war, whom the soldier expects to marry. Before he can, the Torah tells him,
דברים פרק כא:יב וַהֲבֵאתָ֖הּ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ בֵּיתֶ֑ךָ וְגִלְּחָה֙ אֶת־רֹאשָׁ֔הּ וְעָשְׂתָ֖ה אֶת־צִפָּרְנֶֽיהָ: (יג) וְהֵסִ֩ירָה֩ אֶת־שִׂמְלַ֨ת שִׁבְיָ֜הּ מֵעָלֶ֗יהָ וְיָֽשְׁבָה֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבָֽכְתָ֛ה אֶת־אָבִ֥יהָ וְאֶת־אִמָּ֖הּ יֶ֣רַח יָמִ֑ים וְאַ֨חַר כֵּ֜ן תָּב֤וֹא אֵלֶ֙יהָ֙ וּבְעַלְתָּ֔הּ וְהָיְתָ֥ה לְךָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה:
Devarim 21;12: You shall bring her to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails; (13) She shall remove her dress of captivity, sit in your house and cry after her father and mother for a moon of days, after which you may come on to her as a husband, and she shall be for you a wife.
Ramban relates this period of mourning to the forced conversion she is about to undergo. We do not ask her if she wants to leave her former religion, as we do with regular converts, the soldier/ captor/ husband imposes his will and religion on her. The “father and mother” she mourns are metaphors for her idolatry and nationhood—Ramban cites R. Akiva from Semachot 7;13, who pointed to Yirmiyahu 2;27 (“they say to a tree, my Father art thou”) as evidence that “father” refers to idolatry.
Since she is going to be converted whether or not she agrees (as was true of slaves as well), she’s given time to accustom herself to the idea. That might sound like concern or understanding of the difficulty of her situation, but Ramban sees it differently. He mentions, although does not seem to prefer, the Rabbinic tradition that this was to give the man a chance to step away and reconsider this clearly less than desirable marriage.
For Ramban, the waiting period was to let her rid herself of her previous customary invocations of her religion, to give her a chance to put all of her past behind her (not emotionally, he means, but just so that it doesn’t come up anymore, so that it not be a factor in her life, since henceforth it will be a problem for her if she thinks in her old ways. Courts can punish people who invoke idols, for example).
It’s also to avoid problems for the husband. Nedarim 20b says that one of the negatives in a marriage (which will affect the character of their offspring) is if they live together after one partner has determined to get a divorce. All the more so if this woman is constantly protesting her situation, even internally, continuing to hope and plan to be freed.
The Propriety of Religious Coercion
Once we tell her she is never going back to her family, no matter what, that that life is over, that she will never see her parents or religion again, a month will be long enough for her to resign herself to it and to accept her new life (and marriage), Ramban seems to say.
Many today would be troubled by and disbelieving of these ideas. Troubled that we could condone doing this to defenseless people and disbelieving that the woman would or could give up her former life so easily.
As to the first, it seems to me an interesting question: I’m pretty sure Ramban (and sources before him) understood the Torah to be saying that taking this woman out of a life of idolatry is an unequivocal good for her, and therefore coercible without moral problems. That’s not an accepted sentiment today, and our reaction to it is colored by the fact that even the idolaters of today (and there are many) are more civilized than the ones of the times of the Torah or the Gemara. This would seem to be one area where Steven Pinker is correct, that humanity has been getting better over time.
Perhaps Ramban didn’t mean to go that far, that it’s fine to do this to her (there are certainly sources that see this whole set of laws as a concession to soldiers’ desires and undisciplined lusts), it’s at least true that once the Torah permitted this course of action, it cannot have been completely morally problematic. We may be correct in assuming that the Torah preferred a different course of action, here and in other places where it permitted something, but Ramban seems to me to imply to us that it would be incorrect of us to see it as completely wrong.
If that’s what he held, and it contradicts our contemporary intuition, that seems to me an invitation to think about why we see it so differently. Some of that may be situational, that we live in a world so different from the time of the Torah that that which was acceptable then would not be now even by the Torah’s standards (meaning: a Sanhedrin today would tell us not to do it even though the Torah allowed it, if they have that power); but some of it might be an indication that there’s a piece of the Torah’s thinking that we’ve lost.
The Flexibility of Attachments
Separately, it’s also remarkable that Ramban thinks the assurance of the inevitability of her position and a month’s wait would be enough to lead her to in fact discard her attachment to her old ways and embrace these new ones. Here, too, I don’t think his assumptions reflect contemporary experience.
That could be because we today do not despair as quickly as when travel took longer, when the tides of war did not change so fast, and more. Yet even today, there is such a thing as Stockholm syndrome (although I don’t know if it happens within a month, and here we’re seeing the captors as the good guys, as it were). I have also seen some who argued that women often have more fluid senses of themselves and what they’ll belong to (that’s a description, not a prescription; it’s a claim that some or many women, more than men, are less rigid about how their personal definitions of themselves and their connections). If that were true, it would help make this Ramban more plausible even in our times.
If someone rejected both these ideas, the idea that today it would be acceptable to force a captive woman to leave her birth culture and accept an adherence to Torah and mitzvot by virtue of having been taken in war, and the idea that a month would be enough for some or many women to make that switch, I’d have no problem with that. I’m not saying Ramban is telling us what must be; but his understanding of what the Torah could have meant shows us assumptions that were true in his time (and which he was claiming were true in the Torah’s time).
To argue that the world has changed enough that we have to act differently is fine with me, as long as we don’t move from there to denying that this conduct could ever have made sense. Since clearly it could and did to Ramban.
Possibilities, Not Requirements
The final surprising point he makes on this verse is his reminder that Yevamot 47b limited these rules to captive women who were not immediately ready to welcome a Jewish life. Were the woman to already sincerely want to embrace her new world, we could accept her immediately.
These rules are in that sense for her. Whether it’s to respect her emotional need to separate, to give the man time to realize she’s not the best choice (which would be less true were she an enthusiastic convert) or to give her time to alter her vocabulary and ways of thought, it’s a chance for her and him to get ready for that which is not yet appealing to them. As soon as we know that it is appealing, that she is ready for it, we can move ahead right away.
Excusing Our Sexual Wrongs Too Quickly
דברים פרק כג:יט לֹא־תָבִיא֩ אֶתְנַ֨ן זוֹנָ֜ה וּמְחִ֣יר כֶּ֗לֶב בֵּ֛ית יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְכָל־נֶ֑דֶר כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ גַּם־שְׁנֵיהֶֽם:
Devarim 23;19: Do not bring a prostitute’s pay or dog’s sale proceeds to the House of Hashem your God for any vow for both of them are an abomination to Hashem your God.
There’s much to be said about the pairing of the money paid for a prostitute’s service and to own a dog, but I only have time here to discuss Ramban’s comment that prostitutes would be likely to use their etnan, the money given them for their services, for mitzvot. They think they can thus atone for their sins.
Later, on the second half of the verse, he comments that the prostitute-price is more obviously an abomination, since it foments fornication (his point is that the Torah says it’s true of both to teach us about the proceeds from selling a dog).
Putting the two together, Ramban is reminding us of what seems to me still true, that people engaged in distasteful and wrong activity (in this case, prostitutes, who encourage promiscuous sexuality, outside the bonds of marriage, adding to the sexualization of society) assume they can excuse that activity by directing some of the proceeds to sanctified purposes.
Making Our Marital Bonds Too Flexible
דברים פרק כד:ד לֹא־יוּכַ֣ל בַּעְלָ֣הּ הָרִאשׁ֣וֹן אֲשֶֽׁר־שִׁ֠לְּחָהּ לָשׁ֨וּב לְקַחְתָּ֜הּ לִהְי֧וֹת ל֣וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֗ה אַחֲרֵי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻטַּמָּ֔אָה כִּֽי־תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לִפְנֵ֣י יְקֹוָ֑ק…
Devarim 24;4: Her first husband, who divorced her, may not take her again as his wife after she had become defiled, for it is an abomination before Hashem…
The surprise here is that the Torah calls her defiled because she married another man. Legitimately, after having been divorced from this one. To explain why that is a problem where the original couple wants to remarry, Ramban suggests that her relations with another man “defile” her in terms of her first husband (almost as if she had an affair while they were married).
This rule is to prevent a situation where a woman lives with one man, takes a get from him in the afternoon, does whatever she wants that night, then remarries the husband in the morning. That’s why the end of the verse relates this to the debasement of the land, because without this rule, there could be all sorts of sharings of spouses, all within Torah law.
This comment remains plausible today, where the world at large in fact sees people who call themselves polyamorous, who are comfortable with designating a main mate while (both the man and the woman) carry on other relationships, of varying frequencies and levels of attachment. It’s that which the Torah is opposing.
While doing so, the Torah is also suggesting that divorce isn’t always the end of a marriage, nor need it be. Couples may divorce and reunite, other than when the husband is a kohen. But a woman still attached to her first husband, is not supposed to marry a second one, because it’s a sort of adultery. The moment she remarries, then, she has to leave that first husband fully behind, which the Torah legislates by making a reunion forever prohibited.
Hovering over all these discussions, as I’ve noted, is the question of which assumptions about people are timeless and universal, especially in their marital and sexual relationships, and which are more culturally specific. Tracking whether the Torah obligates or prohibits behavior or merely allows it is one good indicator as we build our understanding of human nature.