> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

War and Peace

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

From a moral perspective, one of the most difficult laws in the Torah is the law of the captive wife. Matrimony by force with any woman, and even more so with a member of an enemy nation who is plucked from the battlefield, shocks our sensibilities on so many levels. And lest we consider this an instance of modern sensibilities taking offense with the mores of ancient society, we should note that the Talmud deemed this law "a concession to the evil inclination."[1] For thousands of years, Jewish ethicists and religious leaders have been troubled by the fact that the Torah allows this seemingly-antinomian "concession." The consensus among rabbinic comments on this law is that its purpose is to forestall the type of behavior that is an all-too-common aspect of warfare, even today: "Taking" women in battle proffers upon them all the rights and privileges of a wife. Women captives may not be abused; there can be no "heat of the battle" excuses for soldiers' bad behavior.

Even if this is so, we might ask an additional question: How can a vanquished enemy become a spouse? How can a member of a foreign nation suddenly appear to be "marriage material?" War has an ideological component; how does romance spring up between a person who is willing to risk their life to protect the ideals for which the nation has gone to war, and a member of the enemy camp?

A law that is taught in the preceding parashah, Shoftim, may have far reaching ramifications for our present inquiry: Before engaging in battle, the Israelite army must first attempt to achieve peace: "When you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement."[2] If possible, war is to be avoided; yesterday's enemy may be tomorrow's partner.

Perhaps these overtures of peace impact the mindset of the men who go into battle: Rather than suffering from the tunnel vision that often besets people in wartime, they no longer see the enemy in absolute terms. When a non-violent resolution is the first option, absolute annihilation is not the only end-game in town. The Torah seems to be encouraging us - even in times of conflict - not to think in absolutes, in black and white categories.

On the other hand, the Torah does not place pacifism as a virtue above all else. In order to achieve a non-military resolution, an understanding must be achieved: The enemy must accept the right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, must accept Jewish sovereignty over their land, in addition to accepting the basic morality encapsulated in the Seven Noachide laws. If these conditions are not met, we must fight - secure in the knowledge that we have done everything possible to avoid bloodshed without compromising the moral integrity of our homeland.

With this in mind, we gain new insight into another law that appears at the end of this week's parashah - a law that has been the cause of much debate and soul searching: The commandment to destroy Amalek.[3]

There is some debate as to whether this law is absolute, whether the commandment to annihilate Amalek[4] regards each and every member of the nation, or, alternatively, if the commandment pertains only to the king and other leaders of the Amalekite nation.[5] In either case, though, the commandment to expunge Amalek should be reconsidered in light of the requirement to extend a hand in peace before going to war.

According to some rabbinic authorities, the commandment to invite our enemies to make peace pertains only to "permissible wars," those waged for purposes of territorial or economic expansion; no such requirement exists regarding "obligatory" or existential wars.[6] Other authorities, though, regard the obligation to invite the enemy to engage in peaceful, non-violent conflict resolution as an obligation in respect to all wars.[7] Rambam[8] goes even further, and qualifies the battle against Amalek as one that is waged only when a peaceful solution cannot be achieved. In the Jewish tradition, Amalek represents the epitome of evil - and even in this case, Rambam's understanding is that the Torah legislates eradication of the evil but not the eradication of evil-doers. A fascinating dialectic emerges: We are commanded to eradicate evil from the world by stamping out evil ideologies and practices, but at the same time we must do our utmost to save the people who are currently engaged in these behaviors and beliefs. We are to hate evil, but we must not see it as absolute, or as an all-consuming and defining trait of individuals or peoples - even our enemies.

This underlying approach helps us understand the complexities with which the Jewish warrior must contend as he prepares for battle: The emotional and spiritual dialectic created by Torah law informs our approach to other nations and religions, be they friend or foe. And if today's enemy can undergo the requisite ideological metamorphosis that allows him or her to become tomorrow's ally, the leap to becoming "marriage material" may be far shorter than it first seemed. A battle that began with the possibility of peace, may give rise to emotions based on the potential for camaraderie, friendship, and even possibly love.

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1. Talmud Bavli Kedushin 21b.
2. Devarim 20:10.
3. Devarim 25:19.
4. See, for example, the comments of Rav Chaim Paltiel, a member of the Tosafot school, on this verse.
5. See Ibn Ezra's, Sh'mot 17:14; Ha'amek Davar, Devarim 25:19.
6. Rashi, Devarim 20:10.
7. Ramban, Devarim 20:10.
8. Laws of Kings, Chapter 6:1,4.


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