Ki Tetze: Laws and wars

Ki Tetze: Laws and wars

This week’s parashah, Ki Tetze, is unique in that it contains more individual mitzvot than any other parashah in the Torah. Every verse opens a door to entire fields of law, and beyond that the ethical and philosophical issues that underline the values that the laws express. The parashah covers the broadest sweep of topics from family law to criminal law to business law to matters of pure ritual such as the prohibition of mixed seeds and the commandment to wear tzitzit (fringes) on four-cornered garments.

Yet it is no accident that such a rich survey of statutes should begin with the words ki tetze lemilhamah, when you set out to war (Deut. 21:1).

“It should be noted,” writes Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in a chilling note to this passage in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Torah commentary, “that these verses present ideal and theoretical, rather than practical legislation. Actual warfare, then and always, gave vent to humanity’s basest impulses.”

A great deal indeed of the Torah’s laws could be so characterized as “ideal” rather than “practical.” But I am not here concerned with the question of whether or not ancient Israelite armies allowed captive women thirty days to mourn their parents and then married them, as the Torah commands, whereas other armies raped and pillaged as they conquered. What is revealing to me is that the Torah makes such a demand.

Rabbi Plaut is of course correct that warfare brings out the basest instincts of humanity. That our parashah should begin with a law of warfare symbolizes the reach of the Torah ideal, that the Jew can follow God’s path (halakhah) at every step of life’s journey, even in war.

War marks the breakdown of civilization. Law is the articulation of a culture’s values, but the essence of what makes a culture is communication, and in the domain of international politics, communication is called diplomacy. War comes about only when diplomacy fails. War is the result of a failure in the relations between nations, and of civilization itself.

It should not be surprising that in such a context, especially when young men and women are taught to take rather than to save lives, that the idea of law is quick to retreat from the field of battle.

The Torah is not alone in seeking to establish rules of war. However, having arrived in the twenty-first century the peoples of the earth can no less agree on an accepted conduct of warfare then they could millennia ago.

Every time the State of Israel finds itself engaged in a conflict at its borders, there are calls for international inquiries regarding the laws of the conduct of warfare. Most recently, a United Nations report criticized Israel’s handling of the flotilla last year, but upheld the basic legal rights of Israel’s embargo on Gaza to prevent the import of weaponry. Israeli-Turkish relations are at a point of tension just as relations with Egypt were recently tried when Israel fired on terrorist invaders as they fled into Egyptian territory. Debates over the conduct of war will be waged as long as war is waged. Israel is not unique in this respect. We need only consider how much ink has been spilled by attorneys and government and judicial officials in the United States over wartime interrogation practices in the past ten years to realize how normal it is for wartime practice to engender debate.

As long as fear and ignorance have sway in the world, and our young people are sent to stand in harm’s way, will the ideals behind the laws at the beginning of Ki Tetze have meaning for us. Would that we could achieve the day when there is no war and these verses would not apply.

The Torah, in this same parashah, gives us a map to that point. Immediately following a passage commanding exclusion of the Ammonite and the Moabite for their sins against our people, the Torah suddenly changes gears: Lo tita’ev Edomi ki ahikha hu, do not abhor the Edomites for they are your brethren (Deut. 23:8). Edom, in rabbinic literature, is a code-word for Rome, the dangerous and powerful Other in Jewish history. Here, in the foundational document still referring to the real historical Edom, the Torah commands not exclusion but inclusion. Not hatred but brotherly love. The ultimate victory is a relational one in the way we think of others. When the peoples of the earth learn to recognize each other as siblings and not as rivals, then will we not again know war.