Jewish Life Torah Portion


By Shlomo Riskin

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and God your Lord delivers them into your hands, and yousee among the captives a woman of beauty, and you desire her, you may take her to be your wife. When you bring her home, she must shave her head, and let her fingernails grow, mourning for her father and mother. Only then may you be intimate with her and possess her, making her your wife. (Deuteronomy 21:10–13)

Indeed, if we’ve ever thought of Judaism as a straight-laced religion that doesn’t concern itself with sexual blandishments, or alternately was lenient about inter-marriage in Biblical times, here is something to jolt our imagination. And Rashi meaningfully comments: “The Torah speaks only in consideration of a person’s evil inclination. For if God would not have permitted her to him as a wife, he would nevertheless marry her although she would be [biblically] forbidden to him.”

But what is the Torah really saying in “consideration of the evil inclination?” Are our Scriptures allowing us to momentarily give in to our desire, in order to prevent a major transgression of intermarriage or is the Torah actually teaching us how to overcome our evil desires entirely?

The answer to this question lies in a difference of interpretation on this issue by two giants of biblical exegesis. Maimonides, on the one hand, rules that a soldier has the right to have sexual relations with “the beautiful gentile captive woman” one time before the month-long period of waiting and mourning begins – but only once. Then after he has satisfied his initial lust, he takes her home, and must go through the steps the Torah commands, in order to dissuade him and her from an eventual marriage. Only if he still feels the same way about her when he sees her in his home environment, and only if she is willing to leave her previous lifestyle and convert to Judaism, are they permitted to be married (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:1–6). And perhaps Maimonides feels that in order to give the “experiment” a chance to be successful, it is necessary to remove the “sweetness” of the “forbidden fruit” by permitting the one act of intimacy before the process of alienation or conversion can properly begin.

Nahmanides, in contrast and in accordance with the Jerusalem Talmud, rules that the woman is not permitted to the soldier even once before first taking her home; he must take the month-long preparatory steps, and if he and she then still wish to be together she may convert and become his wife.

I believe that Maimonides is taking the more pragmatic approach:  give in a little bit so that you not lose the entire battle. Try to allow him to get her out of his system with one sexual act.  Hopefully it will work, especially after a month of reality in accustomed surrounding.

In general, Hasidut was critical of self-styled ascetics who tortured themselves in order to bring their bodies into line. One of the important followers of the founding father of Hasidut, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name, eighteenth century) was a leading rabbinical scholar, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who had previously been given to fasts and mortifications. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was initially an aggressive opponent of the Baal Shem Tov and the following story is told how he became one of his most faithful disciples. One day the Baal Shem Tov whispered to him, “When horses get wild, a stupid rider tightens the reins, but that only gets the horse more upset and difficult to manage. A clever rider loosens the reins, and in that way brings the horses into his control.” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef understood, stopped his fasts, and became a Hasid.

Nahmanides, who may agree that the yetzer hara is very powerful, might argue that the result is the opposite: give the enemy a finger and he will ultimately take your hand. Therefore he understands the verses in the Torah as giving advice on how to conquer the evil instinct completely. Hold out the promise of sexual conquest, but only after following a complex procedure which he believes will generally lead either to the complete splitting up or to her willing and even joyous acceptance of Judaism; they would then be able to get married in accordance with “the laws of Moses and of Israel.”

This difference of opinion is further confirmed by a talmudic adage which advises that if a person is smitten with the yetzer hara he should go to a place where no one knows him, dress in black, wrap himself up, and do what “his heart desires” (Moed Katan 17a).

Maimonides, taking these words at their obvious meaning, would say this advice is comparable to the law allowing the soldier one act of intimacy with a forbidden woman. If one’s evil inclination is so overpowering that he cannot control it, let him locate himself in a strange city, incognito, and do what he has to do: in this manner he can “get it out of his system” and soon return to his former life without the shame of the entire world being privy to his indiscretion. There is no need to ruin your life because of one incident of weakness.

R. Ĥananel (ad loc.) gives the passage another interpretation, more in keeping with Nahmanides. By the time the individual changes his clothes, takes the journey to a city where he’s unknown, and finds a new place to live, he’ll be so exhausted and ashamed at what he sees in the mirror that if he does “what his heart desires” it could very well be returning home. Halakha, or Jewish law, takes the would-be sinner by the hand, and step-by-step teaches him to desire what Torah would say is right to desire.

Rabbi Shalom Riskin is funder and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

fnd founding rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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