By Israel Drazin

The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that will be published in September 2013. We put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing subjects that people will not find elsewhere.

(Chapters 21:10–25:19)

                      A Law that shows an awareness of Human Nature

Deuteronomy 21 deals with the Israelite warrior who lusts after a captive enemy woman. It opens with the phrase, “When you go out to battle against your enemies” (Deuteronomy 21:10). Rashi, based on the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 12b, offers a homiletical reading: the war is a battle against our “evil inclination,” for the “beautiful woman” in Deuteronomy 21:11 is the evil inclination, the most hostile enemy.

We will examine the law of the captive woman as understood by Maimonides, and from his words, we will begin to understand how humane and benevolent Torah laws are. Maimonides contends that many biblical laws (including sacrifices) were instituted as a “concession to human weakness.” The law of the marriage of an Israelite soldier to a (non-Israelite) captive woman is such a law. He writes in his Guide for the Perplexed 3:41, in the translation by M. Friedlander:

This law contains, nevertheless, even for the nobler class of people, some moral lessons to which I will call your attention. For although the soldier may be overcome by his desire which he is unable to suppress or to restrain, he must take the object of his lust to a private place, “into the inner of his house” (Deuteronomy 21:12), and he is not permitted to force her in the camp. Similarly our sages say, that he may not cohabit with her a second time before she leaves off her mourning, and is at ease about her troubles. She must not be prevented from mourning and crying, and she must be permitted to abstain from bathing, in accordance with the words, “and she shall weep for her father and for her mother” (ibid.); for mourners find comfort in crying and in excitement until the body has not sufficient strength to bear the inner emotions, in the same manner as happy persons find rest in various kinds of play. Thus the Lord is merciful to her and gives her permission to continue her mourning and weeping until she is worn out. You know certainly that he married her as a heathen, and that during the thirty days she openly keeps her religion and even continues her idolatrous practices, no interference with her faith was allowed during that time; and after all that, she could not be sold, nor treated as a handmaid, (even) if she could not be induced to accept the statutes of the Law. Thus the Law does not ignore the cohabitation of the Israelite with the captive woman, although it involved disobedience to God to some extent, having taken place when she was still a heathen.

Maimonides is highlighting that although the soldier did wrong by forcefully taking the captive woman, the Torah allows it, with many constraints that hopefully will lead him to realize his mistake. These constraints also consider the feelings of the captive woman.

Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah builds upon this law by cautioning that one wrongful act leads to another. The Midrash explains:

It is written: “When you go out to battle … and see among the captives” (Deuteronomy 21:10); God said: ”Although I allowed you to take her (the captive woman), still I commanded you, ‘and she shall shave her head and cut her nails’ (21:12), that she may not find favor in your eyes so that you may send her away. But if you will not do so (the consequences will be that you will have a rebellious son, as we find later in the Bible), ‘If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son’ (21:18), and this is followed by, ‘and if a man commits a misdeed worthy of death’” (21:22). Thus, one transgression (taking a captive woman) follows another transgression in its wake.

Is it possible to subdue our evil inclination completely? Doesn’t it return, over and over again, like a fly buzzing around our ears that we can’t seem to drive away? How can we protect ourselves from the self-inflicted damage caused by our evil inclinations? Maimonides suggests that we develop good habits, so that when a situation arises we will react properly out of habit.