Joel Cohen's Question:

So the Taliban or the Mujahadein or the Khmer Rouge go to war against their respective enemy.

War is hell, despite their perception that G‑d is on their side. Still, the soldiers have lustful desires—they are men, after all. One soldier encounters a woman of the enemy, a civilian, but too tempting to resist (a "yifat toar"). He is smitten with love for her—not some cheap, tawdry, sexual thing. He would marry her. Although she despises him and his people, she doesn't get to vote. He takes her home to be his wife after combat. He has her head shaven, he lets her nails grow, he has her remove the garments of her captivity, and he gives her one month to mourn her parents' death at war or separation from her. If he still wants her, he marries her. If he doesn't, he simply ships her back home. Still no vote for her. Pretty raw, huh?

Nonetheless, we don't need to consider the examples of the Taliban, the Mudjahadein or the Khmer Rouge, assuming that is their way, to encounter this code of conduct (and accepting that their conduct may indeed be even worse). All we need to do is look to the Torah. Because, gentlemen, as you well know, this conduct is precisely what the Torah authorized for "When you go out to war against your enemies." For after G‑d delivers the enemy into the hands of the Children of Israel and "you capture its captivity," the soldiers of Israel were accorded the right to proceed precisely the way described.

How can this be?

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, it is interesting that you have focused on this point. The Torah here is concentrating on the realities of human nature, and attempting to counter the yetzer hara (evil inclination). For if there was no (halachic) legal process for the union between the soldier and the captive woman to be actualized, the soldier would probably take her illicitly, and not treat her with the respect that needs to be accorded to a fellow person, as is all too common in war throughout the generations to present day. Therefore the Torah allows that he take her as a wife.

It is for this reason that the Torah insists that she must shave her head and grow her nails. This is on order to allow her to make herself unattractive to this soldier, so that he should lose interest and send her free, or express his true love for her by committing to marry her. Unlike what was done in other all-too-recent societies, the Torah instructs that this women must be accorded all the honors of a wife. "And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her."

Nevertheless, as the Sages point out, the Torah does not view this positively, and if the soldier marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, "If a man has two wives—one beloved and the other despised..." (verse 15). Moreover, he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these three laws are juxtaposed.

To conclude though, there is a deep mystical insight in this law as well. The Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 17th-18th century) writes that sometimes a most holy soul is imprisoned in the depths of the kelipot (the "husks" which conceal G‑dliness in our world). Thus it comes to pass that the Jewish soldier is attracted to a captive woman, because his soul recognizes the "beauty" imprisoned within her. (This is why the Torah refers to her as a "beautiful woman," even though – as the Sifri derives from the verse – the same law applies if one is attracted to a physically ugly woman.) Hence the Torah provides the procedure by which she is to be cleansed of the impurity of the kelipot and "brought into your house"—included in the holy community of Israel...

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, your question this week was asked by the rabbis over two thousands years ago. They explain that the law of the captive woman was included in the Torah "as a response to the yetzer hara. This means, according to the rabbis, that if the Torah did not allow for the taking of the beautiful woman in battle, the Jewish soldiers would have done it anyway.

This idea that the Torah recognizes the frailty of people and responds to it is a profound notion in rabbinic Judaism and allows us to realize that the rabbis did not live in an ivory castle.

However, the rabbis do not conclude their comments on this episode with this comment. They continue to explain the juxtaposition of this law with the laws of two wives and the wayward son as follows, "However, if he marries her he will come to hate her and they will have a wayward son." Here the rabbis remind us that while the Torah recognizes the frailty of people, it nevertheless reminds us of the risks of succumbing to this frailty.

The Torah at the beginning of this week's reading offers an insight into the rabbinic view of the nature of people through its insights into this ancient law.