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Parashat Hashavua Ki Teitzei 2003 / 5763 - The Pretty Woman: Object or Subject?

03.09.2003 by

This week's portion, Ki Tetse, begins with a section known as the parsha of the yefat toar - the good looking woman. It is one of the more morally challenging of all the laws of the Torah. This is what the Bible says:"When you go out to war against your enemy and the Lord your God gives him into your hand and you capture his captives. And you see in captivity a good looking woman and you desire her and you will take her to be your wife. And you shall take her into your home, and she shall shave her head and do her fingernails. And she will remove the dress of her captivity from herself and sit in your home and weep for her father and her mother for a month of days, and afterwards you shall come to her and have intercourse with her and she shall be to you a wife. And it shall be that if you do not desire her you shall send her free and not sell her for money, do not abuse her, since you have humbled her."

There are a number of points here which have been discussed and debated by the Rabbis. A good summary of some of the positions can be found in the commentary of the Ramban (Nachamanides). I would like us to take a look at some of these issues. First of all, there seems to be general agreement that, for this law to apply, the prisoner doesn't really have to be good looking; as the Ibn Ezra says "you see...a good looking woman" means that she is good looking in your eyes, and not necessarily objectively so. In other words, she is an object of your desire. The subsequent shaving of the head and the "doing" of the fingernails (which either means to let them grow or to cut them) as well as the removal of the ostensibly alluring 'dress of her captivity' and replacing it with something more appropriate, like sackcloth, are acts of mourning, for her dead or missing parents, and/or her lost religion, people, and culture (according to Rabbi Akiva in the Midrash). The commentators point out that these acts are to be done "in your home", in the presence of her captor. Traditionally, the purpose of these acts of mourning is understood in essentially two ways. Rashi and others quote the Midrash which maintains that the purpose of the head-shaving, nail growing (or trimming, whichever turns you off) and other acts of mourning is to make her look ugly to her captor, which will, hopefully, convince him to forget the whole thing and set her free since, after all, he originally took her only because she seemed attractive to him, and all of this in-your-face mourning is decidedly unattractive.

Others (Maimonides and the Ibn Ezra, building on the opinion of Rabbi Akiva in the Midrash) see this law as being a decent, humanitarian attempt to give her a chance to mourn the loss of her parents, her home, and her people. This approach is not only humanitarian, it is also utilitarian; if, ultimately, her Israelite captor does marry her, the least he can do is give her this decent interval to mourn her old life and begin to get used to her new one. After all, it makes sense to give the marriage a chance by having him begin their relationship by treating her (relatively) decently. According to the first approach, which posits that the Torah is orchestrating this thirty day mourning period in order to convince the captor NOT to go through with the forced marriage, we have an interesting problem: if the Torah doesn't like the idea of this forced marriage, why not simply forbid it? Why go through the charade of seeming to allow him to go ahead with his plans while at the same time trying to make her unattractive to him and thereby prevent this union from ever taking place?

Rashi answers this question with a quote from the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin - "the Torah spoke here only because of the evil inclination, for if the Holy One Blessed Be He did not permit it [the marriage], he would marry her anyway, illegally." This is a fascinating notion. We seem to have here an ambivalence on the part of the Torah. On the one hand, the Torah takes it as a given that a soldier in a war feels strongly that he has the basic right to take a woman from among the vanquished foe and make her his. This, as far as I can tell, is par for the course for the ancient (and not so ancient) world; a defeated enemy was yours to enslave, and attractive women were always an especially desirable commodity. On the other hand, the Torah goes to great lengths to subvert this brutal custom, and tries, by allowing the captive time to actively mourn her parents, and thereby cool the ardor of her would-be husband/rapist. This is, I think, a fascinating approach, in which the Torah recognizes the limitations of its preferred mode of discourse (do this, don't do that, thou shalt, thou shalt not, etc.) and bows to what seems to be a greater force; the confluence of violence and sexual desire. It is as if the Torah is admitting that the entire halachic system is ultimately not strong enough to withstand certain elemental human drives. Interestingly, however, the halachic system, while seeming to give in to these desires, actually adopts a strategy which attempts to humanize them, to calm them down, and, ultimately, to defeat them.

There is much here to think about in terms of parenting, educating, and, in general, interacting with people with whom we disagree. The Torah's strategy of seeming to bend to the basest of man's desires, while actually trying to give him the chance to work his way past them, is a challenging one for us. But what of the second approach, which sees this mourning period not as a clever attempt to cool the ardor of the woman's captor, but rather as a humane, decent desire to grant her, in her reduced situation, a measure of autonomy and humanity? Is not this understanding of the Torah's purpose here actually less humane than the first, in that it assumes, and acquiesces to, the fact that the marriage/rape will take place, and that the Torah is not trying to undermine his lust and prevent him from taking her by making her ugly - hairless, wearing sackcloth, un-manicured, and crying - but, rather, is simply giving her a chance to decently and properly mourn her people and family before she is forced to marry her captor? In fact, by giving her this chance to 'get over it', doesn't the Torah actually smooth the way to the wedding? Just as the first pshat [reading, understanding] manipulated the captor in the hope of humanizing him and preventing this outrage, does not this other pshat only superficially humanize the captive, only in order to manipulate her into acquiescing to her fate?

I would answer in the negative. I think that, rather than seeing the mourning rituals, as the first pshat does, as simply a way to make the captive less physically attractive, this second approach sees these rituals as humanizing her, as turning her from an object of desire into a person. A person with a past, a history, parents, a family, and an emotional life. These rituals of mourning turn her into an autonomous being, and grant her a status which she did not, beforehand, have. Once her captor sees her in this light, he, hopefully, will find it impossible to continue with his plan to treat her as a sexual object - something that simply looks good to him - and will be forced to treat her as a human being, and, as such, free her. Both understandings of the laws of the yefat toar [the good looking woman] agree that the Torah's goal is to prevent the Israelite soldier from committing this ugly deed. The first pshat tries to accomplish this with a somewhat simplistic attempt to make the victim ugly, unattractive, and therefore undesirable to her captor. The second tries to stop the soldier from raping and enslaving his captive with a somewhat more sophisticated approach; it allows her an emotional and personal autonomy which, inexorably, will make her more human, more of a person and less of an object, in the hopes that, as such, her captor will treat her accordingly, and set her free.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The Torah allows the yefat toar an emotional and personal autonomy which, inevitably, will make her more humanRabbi Shimon

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