War is bad.
Apart from the carnage between opposing forces, one of the awful consequences is that nearby civilians are typically subject to collateral damage at best and direct atrocities at worst. The Jewish people know this fact better than most, and history students will know of countless others.
For the vast majority of the history of warfare, women were raped and enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has deemed wartime sexual violence a war crime in the last century, it was a common practice in antiquity for millennia and still occurs frequently in less civilized parts of the world.
There’s a law about it in the Torah, permitting soldiers at war to capture women:
כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives; if you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)
This mitzvah flies in the face of what we consider ethical and moral today. Why does the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?
Rashi quotes our sages’ explanation that the Torah does not command anyone to practice sexual violence proactively; instead, it gives a license to human inclination in the heat of the moment and provides discretionary permission for people in a moment of weakness.
That doesn’t seem substantially better, but it makes a difference, minimizing its occurrence and brutality.
R’ Daniel Rowe notes that the Torah places heavy restrictions on people who practice this law; she must be shaved bald and grieve for thirty days in rags in the soldier’s home. It’s supposed to be distressing, not attractive. If the soldier comes to his senses over thirty days, he will probably regret abducting this poor stranger and forcing her to live under his roof, and will send her home.
Our sages note the juxtaposition of the two laws that follow, the law of a hated wife and the rebellious son, which our sages took to mean that this is a slippery slope. A person who exploits this permission to take an unsuitable wife will come to hate her, and their abusive relationship will produce dysfunctional children.
With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to a convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood be acknowledged and respected by giving her certain minimum rights. She preserves an element of dignity and status despite the fact she has been captured and her autonomy destroyed.
This radical polemic represents a total paradigm shift, and perhaps that’s the real message to take from the law of the captive womeweains lofty ideals; it also has words for the moments we are not at our best, even in our basest, most primal moments, in the moments of anger, passion, or lust.
The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.
The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.
The Torah talks about rape and slavery, but that’s not the final word. The fact they are in the Torah does not mean they are ideals we aspire to practice again.
Because if we look a little closer, the Torah is steering us away from a world that tolerates rampant immoral practices and toward the more civilized world we are familiar with today.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.