If [or when] you go to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife. You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you. And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a slave because you have afflicted her. -Deuteronomy 21:10-14
Kidnapping women in war and providing a loophole to force her into marriage violates any sense of modern sensibility on so many levels. How can a loving and just G-d permit something so heinous? Reading this Deuteronomic passage is a fine example of what it means to struggle with G-d and figuring out what He expects from us. Perhaps a more intimate look at the text can help us discern what He is really trying to teach us in this passage about the captive woman.
Before delving into the particulars, I should mention this noteworthy point, which is that the Torah is an eternal text. One of the beauties of Torah is that it speaks to us across generations and across time. It is possible for someone in a new generation to find a gem of Torah wisdom that previously was undiscovered. It is why we read the Torah in an annual cycle: we discover new insights both about the text and about ourselves. However, we do have to remember that the initial audience, for whom many of these laws were created, was the ancient Israelites. Since they were the ones that directly received the Torah, they were the ones most impacted by these laws. By necessity, we also need to be able to interpret these texts within the context of the given time period. Interpreting a text without context renders a text meaningless. This does not mean we cannot glean any eternal insights, but we have to remember to also look at the Torah through the lens of our ancestors, and not just through the lens of our 21st-century moral understand. With that being said, let's begin.
At the beginning of the text, there is one immediate reprieve, which is that this is limited to the context of wartime. Not only is this Rashi's interpretation (amongst other rabbis), but the text also points that out. The first word used in the Torah portion, as well as this passage, is the word כי. Although it can be interpreted as "when," it makes more sense to interpret the word כי as "if." However we would like to play with the semantics in English, the Hebrew points to a conditional statement here. This means that men do not have a carte blanche to subjugate women. Given modern-day standards of warfare, it should somewhat put our minds at ease that this verse does not specifically have any practical implications. Even so, the fact that G-d provided any context whatsoever to permit this is still perturbing. Good thing I'm not done with analyzing the passage.
Upon further examination of the text, we realize that G-d enacts further barriers and conditions to make sure this doesn't become a reality. For one, the man has to wait a month before marrying her and consummating the marriage, which as I explain later, is a big deal. When comparing this to other ancient societies, this was truly enlightening because in the ancient practice of warfare, no such quarter would have been given. Although a month might not seem like much, it really is. Wartime is a period in which it is all the more tempting to do away with any sense of decency or mercy. This month-long pause provides that decency. Why? War is one of those things that epitomizes the impulsiveness of testosterone-induced decisions. Choosing to marry and cohabit with a non-Jewish woman during wartime is hasty, especially when that decision is solely based on her physical appearance (hence the use of the word "beautiful" in Deuteronomy 21:11). Thirty days is provided as a period of time for the man's hormones to settle down and time to think it over. This could explain why the passage with the the rebellious son is juxtaposed with this passage: to give men in this scenario time to realize that an improper infatuation will result in one family tragedy after another (Rashi). This could explain why the end of Deuteronomy 21 can alternatively be interpreted as an example of foresight because such family disarray would unsurprisingly create a rebellious son with spiritual angst.
G-d created men to be just as hormonal as women, which is why R. Ibn ben Ezra thought this thirty-day period was ample time to think about this decision more rationally, cool down, and ultimately set her free. The idea was to theoretically make it possible while putting up so many obstacles that it would be de facto undesirable or impossible to go through with it.
The thirty-day period was not just for the solider. It was also for the captive woman to weep for her mother and father. If the parents were still alive, then she had to mourn the separation from her parents and everything she knew (Nachmanides). If the parents were slain in battle, she needed time to mourn their death (Nachmanides). In either case, the woman needs time to honor her parents (Ibn Ezra). It's not just the mourning period that is captivating about this practice. There is also the practice of trimming the captive's hair. Nachmanides thought it was a mourning practice, but that view comes with its difficulties. The captive is also supposed to pair her nails. It is possible that the paring is done to make her unattractive (Rashi), but there is also that possibility that it has the opposite effect (also see here). The same ambiguity can be said for the garments she wore: they may (Rashi) or may not (Ramchal) have been used to make her unattractive. Depending on the man's attraction, the female captive trimming her hails, cutting her nails, and wearing a different garment may or may have not been a turn-off for him. The only definitive factor that seems to curtail the man's desires is time, as is explained in the previous paragraph.
Even with these disputes of the rituals for a captive woman entail, this begs an even more essential question: why does the woman have to go through this in the first place? Why create the situation in the first place? Answer: we live in an imperfect world. G-d didn't create us as angels. He created us as human beings that have impulses, desires, and in short, imperfections. G-d gave us free will, which means we have the choice to act on our good impulse or our יצר הרע (evil inclination). [My alternative theory is that without suffering or some sort of dependency, people wouldn't need to develop relations with G-d or other human beings. The evil inclination is quite the necessary evil, don't you think?]
During wartime, a time during which "anything goes," men are at their most vulnerable when it comes to morals and values. I would posit that G-d created such a scenario to remind us that living in a human world means living in an imperfect one, as well as a dark, cruel, and unfair one. Short of a Messianic era, we are not going to live in a world without poverty, war, or conflict, nor should we strive for utopia. People have tried that throughout history, and we know how that ends. So does this mean we should simply stop striving for ideals? Of course not.
Although Judaism has its ideals and we are to aspire to those ideals, Jewish law is practical in the sense that it provides us laws that are realistic for us to follow. G-d is not eliminating the yetzer hara in this scenario, but providing a response to the reality of the situation. Maybe G-d is signaling to us while we are to pursue our ideals, we still live in a reality that is distant from those ideals. What G-d provides the ancient Israelites is the opportunity to inch closer to our ideals in what is literally and metaphorically a battlefield.
Even in warfare and even in the surrounding ancient world where women were treated like objects, G-d provided the Israelites with a moral conduct that was within their grasp. The laws of the captive woman give the woman time to grieve her loss. If the man is no longer interested, the man has to let the woman go. The man also has to marry the woman as part of the arrangement. This is no minor detail. G-d could have said there's no waiting period and that the sex could either be premarital or extramarital, but He didn't. He said that the soldier would have to marry the captive woman. In Judaism, marriage is a long-term commitment, and to make such a devotion is no trifling matter. As previously mentioned, G-d gave the man enough time for his hormones to settle where the odds of him wanting to actually marry a woman solely based on her looks are next to nil.
Although our sense of morality has evolved since the time of the ancient Israelites, there is still the basic message of caring about the dignity and worth of a human being, regardless of gender. Look at this week's Torah portion and you'll see that it's a motif throughout, whether it is returning lost animals (Deuteronomy 22:1-12), immediately burying the body of an executed criminal (21:22-23), erecting a parapet (22:8), providing for the welfare of the disenfranchised (24:17-22), using honest weight and measures (25:13-16), or ensuring the timely payment of wages (24:14-15). G-d asked our ancestors to take the moral situation of their given time period and inch towards the ideals that Judaism teaches. It is currently the month of Elul. We are approaching the High Holy Days and have to realize that G-d is asking the same of us as He did of the ancient Israelites in this passage: to elevate our moral status quo. If we can take the lesson G-d is teaching us in this Deuteronomic passage and raise our spirituality even a little bit, we will have metaphorically put a smile on G-d's face.