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Jewish Journal

Ethics and Warfare

Parshat KiTetze (Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19)


by Rabbi Steven Weil

August 15, 2002 | 8:00 pm

This week's Torah portion opens with a fascinating topic: the psyche of a soldier at war, and the ethical boundaries that even a soldier must observe.

KiTetze la'milchama: "When you go out to war ... and you take captives and see among the captives a beautiful woman...."

The Torah is so keenly aware of the soldier's necessary aggression. It recognizes that the soldier is fighting for his life, that any moment could be his last and that he is naturally experiencing many powerful emotions and desires. The results of what soldiers do to captive women is evident in all kinds of military conflicts -- from the pervasive and horrific reports of rape during the conflict in Yugoslavia, to all of the fatherless children left behind by American soldiers in war zones like Korea and Vietnam.

The Torah not only acknowledges, but confronts this difficult reality of war. It allows the soldier to take this eishet yefat toar (captive, desired woman) as a wife, but only after a month's time. She is to spend that month in his home, removing the trappings of beauty that initially enticed him, mourning her separation from her own family. If, at the end of that time, he still desires her and she is willing to convert, he is allowed to marry her. If his passion abated during that time, he is strictly forbidden to sell her or keep her as a servant and must set her free.

In other words, the Torah allows the warrior his aggressions, but denies him the right to act without keeping his morals, his very humanity, in check.

"Ethics of warfare" sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact it has been a relevant and significant issue since the creation of the State of Israel. It is not only a recurring subject discussed in military forums, but tohar haneshek (purity of arms) is studied by young men and women as part of their high school curriculum. Israel's bravest and finest are prepared at the outset for the moral challenges they will inevitably face as soldiers actively engaged in mortal combat.

Countless stories are told, and documented, that show how this "antiquated" rule of war is very much alive and well in our generation. During the summer months of the war in Lebanon, when Israeli troops were putting their lives on the line protecting Northern Israel from Katyusha rocket attacks, they came across fertile fields blooming with cherries. One battalion unit in particular refrained from eating any of the enticing fruit. Never mind that they were hungry, exhausted and fearful. Never mind that the produce belonged to a nameless, faceless enemy. They simply felt that they had no legal or moral right to take what wasn't theirs. They acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural emotions of a soldier at war.

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the Palestinian Authority-controlled towns in the West Bank after suicide attacks in April, their mission was to root out terrorists and destroy terror factories. This could have been accomplished with air strikes, and the soldiers involved would have been safe from snipers and booby traps. But the army chose instead to send in ground troops, despite the greater risks and inevitable loss of soldiers. Never mind that the terrorists hid among the civilians. Never mind that even the children on the other side could carry out deadly attacks. They made the moral calculation that it was better to put themselves in greater danger if it meant that they could minimize the danger to the civilian population on the other side. The IDF acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts of soldiers at war.

An unbelievable report surfaced a short time ago telling of the Palestinians' refusal to accept donations of blood -- Jewish blood -- that the army had provided for their wounded. Instead of leaving the "enemy" to suffer the consequences of their refusal, the army used their own money and manpower to acquire blood from Jordan. Never mind that an army is going above and beyond its obligations to provide any blood at all, let alone an alternate source. Never mind that the enemy was stubbornly and stupidly risking the lives of its own people. IDF soldiers value life, no matter whose life it is. The army acted according to its moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts and emotions of soldiers at war.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect our integrity, even in the midst of a brutal war. These and countless other examples of the high moral standards that are standard for the IDF give me one more important reason to take pride in the work of our young men and women who bravely defend our homeland and act as "a light unto the nations." If soldiers can maintain their values and ethics in the heat of the battle, then I am hopeful that peace has a chance, and that the battle can be won.

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