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The Challenge Of Morality In The Face Of War

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“All is fair in love and war,” according to an old aphorism. Not so in Judaism.

In fact, the test of moral standards is not how one acts when things are peaceful, clear and smooth. Such instances do not by and large require moral strength. Rather, the test of moral integrity truly presents itself when one faces difficult situations.

One example of such an instance is during war. It’s precisely then when soldiers can take advantage of the weak and the captured using the excuse that “all is fair in war.” It is precisely then that the Torah demands that we conduct ourselves with the greatest moral fortitude.

Note the law of a woman captured during war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). The Torah tells us that such a woman is to shave her hair, let her nails grow, and weep for her father and mother a full month. Only after that process, the Torah says, “she shall be a wife to you.”

A classic difference emerges between Nachmanides and Maimonides. Nachmanides believes that after the thirty-day period, the captured woman can be forced to convert and marry her captor. Still, for Nachmanides, during the thirty days the soldier must observe firsthand how the captured woman is in deep mourning. Clearly Nachmanides sees this law as the Torah doing all it can in order to evoke feelings of sympathy toward the captured woman in the hope that ultimately her plight would be heard and she would be freed.

Maimonides takes it much further. The thirty days of mourning were introduced as a time period during which the soldier tries to convince the captured woman to convert and marry. After the thirty days, however, the woman has the right to leave her captor. Under no circumstances can she be forced to convert or marry.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld argues that Maimonides’s position is not only morally correct but it fits into the context of our portion. Note that the portion concludes with the mandate to destroy the nation of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Amalek’s sin was attacking the weakest. Here, one sees the great contrast. Amalek set out to abuse the most vulnerable. Maimonides tells us that Jewish law prohibits taking advantage of the weak. Indeed, the test of morality is how one treats the most vulnerable.

War is horrific. Given its horror, our portion reminds us of our responsibility even in those circumstances to conduct ourselves morally. This is a mandate the IDF is superbly fulfilling today.

About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.


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One Response to “The Challenge Of Morality In The Face Of War”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice drasha. However while the position of Rambam is more humanitarian and comforting, it is likely that the p'shat goes according to Ramban. This is a very bellicose parsha.

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