by R. Gidon Rothstein
Ki Tetzei starts with the yefat to’ar, a woman taken captive during war. It starts us off nicely on the topic of marriage and family, the small part of the parsha I am going to address here.
Yefat To’ar—Yielding to Intractable Inclination
When 21;11 says the soldier may marry her, Rashi thinks it a concession to soldiers’ irresistible urges, to the reality they were going to do it with or without permission. The next sections of the Torah, about having a first-born son with a “hated” wife, and then a ben sorer u-moreh, a rebellious son, were implied warnings of what would ensue from such a poorly chosen marriage.
By giving in short-term, Rashi thinks the Torah also held out hope it could wrangle the Jew away from his baser self. 21;12 says the woman refrains from doing her nails for a month, in 21;13 she is told to remove the special clothing women used to wear in times of war to attract the favorable attention of conquerors. More, she must sit at the entrance of the house where the man lives, for him to encounter her all the time, and realize she is no more special than his options among Jewish women.
By seeming to give in, Rashi thinks the Torah sought a way to distract the man from the mistake he was in the process of making. [Rashi had thought that was Aharon’s strategy with the Golden Calf, too, delay rather than refuse, expecting Moshe to arrive back before they sinned. It did not work for Aharon; I don’t think Rashi is saying it has a better chance of working, he is saying it is all we can do, because the soldier is dead set on taking her.]
To me, Rashi has broad implications about the reaction to stubborn refusal. He thinks the Torah sometimes prefers a workaround to butting heads with the stubborn recalcitrant.
Clothes Make the Woman
The idea of non-Jewish women getting dressed up for war seems to me to connect to Onkelos’ rendering of the Torah’s prohibition of cross-dressing. The verse, 22;5, says a woman shall not put on kelei gever, where a man may not wear simlat isha.
Sefaria minimizes the difference, takes kelei gever as a man’s apparel, simlat isha a woman’s clothing. Onkelos takes kelei as tikkun zayn, where the simlah is tikkunei itteta. He seems to have read the Torah to assume men had a broader range of items in their presentation as compared to a woman’s. For her, the simlah, clothing and what comes with it, is how she presents herself.
Time for Her As Well
Ramban puts another spin on this time of hers, sees it as time for her to separate from her old religion, ways, and family, adjust to her new reality. For him, the verse’s reference to her crying over her “father and mother” is a metaphor for worship of powers other than Gd (he bases the idea on R. Akiva, Semahot 7;13, who had cited Yirmiyahu 2;27, idolaters say to a tree, my Father art thou).
He assumes it is reasonable to think she will be able to do all this emotional work in the month the Torah gives. More, he reminds us Yevamot 47b ruled all these practices were for captive women who were not immediately ready to welcome a Jewish life. If she was ready right away, we would accept her right away [a problem for Rashi’s reading].
The parsha says much more about marriage, starting with divorce.
Divorce for Cause and Sham Divorce
The Torah introduces the idea of divorce as a matter of the husband finding ervat davar in her, 24;1. For Rashi, the phrase means she acted in some kind of ervah way, had given the husband reason to think she had been unfaithful. The husband is therefore obligated to divorce her, must not let her find favor in his eyes.
[It’s both more and less stringent than current standards. On the one hand, the Torah accepts only “ervat davar” as cause for divorce, but should the wife give cause, the husband cannot but divorce her.]
More, when the next verse imagines her remarrying, it refers to the second husband as ish aher, another man. Rashi says the Torah implies disapproval of this second man, who willingly married a woman with a serious character flaw [this assumes the first husband was correct in his assessment, and that she has not done any penitential work in between].
After the divorce, the woman may become available again (another divorce, or the passing of the second husband), and the couple may wish to reconcile. The Torah prohibits it, 24;4, saying the first husband cannot take her back aharei hutama’ah, after she has become impurified. It is a to’evah, a harsh word for what would not cause a moment’s pause in society today.
Nor would the couple getting back together ruffle any halachic feathers had the woman never remarried (I know such couples). What in her marriage to someone else, when it was allowed, creates this prohibition? Ramban suggests it carries the danger of turning her marriage into a sham.
Were a couple was interested in what people today call an “open” marriage, where the wife (as well as the husband, but it is halachically less complicated for him) can have relations with many men, they could get around the Torah’s focus on fidelity by having the husband divorce her any time she wishes to sleep with another man, then remarry when she is done.
To prevent such legal fictions for adulterous affairs, the Torah required the woman to know that any marriage after divorce ends the first marriage. If she has leftover business with the first husband, she should not remarry.
Marriage As the Way Into the Jewish People
The Torah 23;2-4, prohibits certain types of converts from marrying ordinary Jews for three generations, and others forever, with the phrase lo yavo bi-kehal Hashem, shall not enter the congregation of Gd. Instead of enter, Onkelos writes lo yedakei, shall not be purified, or declared pure.
He certainly means something along the lines of enter or join, but seems to be highlighting the element of ridding this person of the blemish that created the prohibition. Some, like a man who had suffered a wound to his genitalia, are clearly connected to marriage; others, such as descendants of Ammon and Moav, are less so. Onkelos seems to be telling us marriage is the way “in” to the Jewish people, and the Torah prohibits their marriage to ordinary Jews because they are not supposed to be fully absorbed.
Rashi surprises us with his explanation for why. He contrasts the Edomite and Egyptian, whom 23;8 allows to marry fully into the community after three generations, with the Ammonite or Moabite (man, the story of Rut taught us), who may never do so.
The Torah says we may never seek their welfare, forever, because they did not greet us with bread and water on our way out of Egypt, and hired Bil’am to curse us. Rashi instead says it is because of what happened after Bil’am left, Moabite women seducing Jews to sleep with them and to worship the powers they did. (Rashi had said Bil’am gave them the idea.)
To Rashi, the Torah shows the greater significance of causing someone spiritual damage even over trying to kill the person. The Edomites came with swords, ready to fight to the death; the Egyptians drowned our babies, yet converts from those nations are taken in fully after only a three-generation wait. Ammon and Moav, who caused us to sin, never get there.
Ingratitude Stains Forever
Ramban thinks Ammon and Moav had more of a reason to treat the Jews well than did the Edomites and Egyptians, because Avraham had gone to war to save their ancestor (Lot) from the captivity of the four kings, and only in Avraham’s merit was Lot extracted from Sodom before its destruction. The memory of those events should have become national lore, Ramban seems to think, meaning they experienced the Jews as descendants of their savior, and treated gratefully.
Their instead looking for ways to destroy the Jews mean the Jews must never seek their welfare, the verse says. While 2;19 prohibited going to war against them, Ramban thought the obligation here meant we would wage war against them anywhere else they lived, such as if they conquer some other region. In such a war, the Jews would not give their usual call for peace, because of the verse here.
The Egyptians and Edomites escaped that fate either because they also hosted us for generations (the Egyptians), or because of our original blood relationship (the Edomites). They, too, sought to wrong us, but it was not an act of ingratitude, nor was it our only national experience with them.
Something went terribly wrong with the Ammonites and Moabites, for Rashi their spiritual attack on us, for Ramban their forgetting the past. Either way, it left a stain forever.
Nipping Rebellion in the Bud
The first stage of reacting to a ben sorer u-moreh, a rebellious son, is to discipline him. The verse, 21;18, phrases it ve-yiseru oto. While elsewhere (22;18, where a man claims his new wife had been unfaithful), Onkelos translated the verb to mean a court will administer lashes. For this young man, he writes malfan yatei, they will teach him. With such a young person, teaching might be the best form of discipline.
Except in this case (hypothetical, since tradition was sure no boy ever bore the punishment of the ben sorer u-moreh), the teaching does not work. Were he to continue his ways, he would be put to death, an example of u-vi’arta ha-ra mi-kirbecha, Gd telling the Jewish people to extirpate the evil from their midst. This is a phrase we have seen before, and each time, Onkelos writes u-tefalei aveid de-vish, you shall get rid of the one who does evil. The Torah spoke of the evil, Onkelos focused on the person, reminding us evil doesn’t happen on its own.
Ramban finds a more distressing message in the Torah’s laying out this procedure. The ben sorer u-moreh would be put to death at a point where he clearly had not violated any capital crime. He had disobeyed his parents, and eaten and drank foods that showed him to be a glutton and a drunkard. It may not be good, but it’s not death penalty worthy.
Sanhedrin 71b says he is nidon al shem sofo, these actions reveal his future course well enough, make clear he will do worse as time goes on, to justify a protective death penalty now. The rest of the nation needs to learn from this boy, Ramban infers from the Torah saying they should all hear and see: what seems insignificant now can harbinger worse to come.
War is dangerous to our moral character, sometimes with long term effects, especially in our marriages, families, and the Jewish communities we create.