Ki Tetzei

“When you go into battle against your enemies... and you carry away a captive” Deuteronomy 21:10


This verse is one of the few in the Torah which deals with the ethics of war in general and the status of enemy civilians in particular. It creates the unique category of the beautiful captive. We see in this instance that our behaviour during war varies from that of peace time.

The Torah concedes that human behaviour during war requires different rules and allows for a process wherein such a captive can be converted and married in unusually short time. This principle, that the laws of war are very different from the rest of the Torah, has several crucial implications.

One example of how the laws of war differ from peace time concerns the protection of enemy civilians. Are they protected by the familiar category of pikuach nefesh — the injunction to save life at nearly all costs. Following the approach of the verse above that at wartime many rules are suspended, Rav Yosef Babad of Tarnopol (1800-74) argues in his iconic work, Minchat Chinuch, that there can be no sense in applying pikuach nefesh during a war. On the contrary wars are won by minimising the value of life.

Similarly, Rav Yosef argued, the principal of pidyon shvuyim, the ransoming of captives from the enemy, does not apply during war. In wartime, any payment for captives will inevitable go towards fortifying the enemy and will diminish the chances of victory.

The application of Jewish values to military ethics in Israel today has attracted comment from a broad spectrum of thinkers from Yeshayahu Leibovitz to Rav Shlomo Goren. Whatever you view, the starting point is the beautiful captive of this week’s parashah.

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