"When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bring her into your house and she shall cut her hair and her nails, and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in your house mourning her father and mother...and then you may come to her, and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you must release her."
Why would anyone think this the most important section of the Torah?
In my study, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It's easy to be a Tzadik in theory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a good person. But to moralize in the abstract is the height of superficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And the challenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules, but to look deeply at the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drives and desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate our infinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moral failures.
What is real morality? The Torah offers us a study of the moral worst-case scenario: The most amoral of settings. The most unrestrained of moral actors; the most vulnerable of victims. He sees her on the field of battle, and desires her with all the lusts and passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts of violence all around him. If he takes her, no one would know, no one would care. After all what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wants her. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral of all circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war, the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. And you must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fair in love and war!
The genius of the Torah's ethic, argued my professor, is found in this unique combination of realism and idealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does not condemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neither will Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion. "Who is a hero?" asks Pirke Avot, "one who conquers his yetzer, his drives." One does not uproot the yetzer. It is part of us. But neither is it given raw expression.
Torah permits the expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationship of human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed allowing the captive woman to mourn and heal, while allowing our soldier's ardor to cool and his judgement to return. She is actually made ugly -- her head shaved, her nails pared -- and she lives untouched in his household for 30 days. If after that, he still wants her, he may marry her and afford her all the protection of his household...otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave, the normal fate of captives.
On all the battlefields we find ourselves -- in corporate offices, community politics, in the marketplace, in personal conflicts -- when passions are high and indiscretions overlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for the humanity and dignity of the other. What's at stake, after all, is not just the other, but your humanity as well. Ki Tzetze L'milchama, when you go out to war, don't win the battle and lose your soul.