10th Anniversary of 9/11
Ki teitzei on the 10 Anniversary of 9/11: Some Meditations About War: Ideas for a Sermon
by Aryeh Cohen
This week’s Torah which falls on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 talks about a certain aspect of the laws of war. The portion opens with the description of the eshet yefat to’ar, the beautiful woman who is taken captive by a soldier who wants her as his wife. While on the one hand, the Torah makes provision for this “captured wife,” the Torah also tries to impose conditions so that the man will let her go free and not rape her. (verse 14)
This leads to a discussion of a person who is married to two women, one of whom is beloved and the other is hated. The Torah mandates that the laws of inheritance may not be perverted to wrongly benefit the children of the beloved wife.
The final law in the opening section concerns the “rebellious son” who will not heed his parents. This son is executed.
Rashi, the great commentator, quotes a midrash which ties these three laws together. The Torah is speaking against the evil inclination, the midrash says. If one goes out to war, it will come to pass that someone will want to take a captive woman to wife. However, the Torah is warning, this will lead to having a hated wife and this will lead to having a rebellious child.
I would suggest that the theme of this portion is that war is a bundle of unintended consequences and collateral damage. If we take one step back to the opening verse of the parsha we read: ki tetze lamilchamah al oyvechah, “should you go out to battle against your enemies.” This is Robert Alter’s translation. The King James Version (and many in its wake) has “When you go out to war against your enemies.” The New JPS translation goes along with this, too. “When you take the field against your enemies.” The Septuagint, the Greek translation renders the verse: “Now if you go out to war against your enemies.” The translations reflect the inherent ambiguity of the Hebrew word “ki,” a linguistic fact that was noted already by the Talmud (Gittin 90a) which comments that ki has four different meanings. Is going to war an inevitability? Is it a command? Is it a choice?
The linking of these three sets of law in this fashion, suggests to me that from the beginning, the Torah is saying, know that if you do go out to war all manner of things will happen over which you will seemingly have no control. War will lead soldiers to capture enemy women which will lead to hated wives and rebellious children. War will lead in uncontrolled and uncontrollable directions. The end of last week’s parsha, which is the beginning of chapter 21, is the law concerning a murdered body that is found between cities in a case when the murderer is completely unknown. The anti-sacrifice of the heifer who is slaughtered by way of breaking its neck is employed to declare that neither city is held responsible—though the rabbis (Mishnah Sotah) understanding that both towns have to actively deny responsibility, leaves them in the position of protesting too much. This law is also grounded in a war situation. The dead body that is found is called a chalal, one who is killed by a sword.
On this anniversary of 9/11 it is well that we think of what guidance we might get from Torah and the tradition about war. I would suggest that it is both less and more than we might expect. On the one hand, it is well known that the rabbis in the mishnah and the talmud developed two categories of war: optional, reshut and neccesary or commanded, chovah. However, on the whole those wars were all relegated to Biblical times, to the wars of Joshua and David. In one event, the Jerusalem time defines optional wars as those in which we attack and commanded wars as those in which we are attacked. There is little of relevance, seemingly to a contemporary situation—especially given the necessity for a Sanhedrin, a King and a high priest in order to declare war.
On the other hand, we learn from the prophets that the ideal is the day when swords will be made into plowshares, when no one will learn war any more.
I want to suggest that this week’s portion forces us to focus on what war does to us, rather than our obligations (or not) to go to war. This brings us back to that ambiguous word ki. If is very different that when. Furthermore, beyond the fact that all wars are choices, there is the question of what war does to the way I see and behave. “Should you go out to battle against your enemies…”. This is the necessary precursor to seeing “them” as one, as a group of people who are your enemies, rather than individuals. This, the Torah says, leads to “and you see among the captives a woman of comely features and you desire her and take her for yourself as wife.” This, of course, is not a wartime love affair, but the result of the hubris and blindness of the victor. There is no question, there is taking. The woman is not described as having done anything wrong, and yet she is taken and “abused” (‘inita/raped). Rape has always been a tactic of war.
A philosophy that includes going to war, Emmanuel Levinas has taught us, is a philosophy that erases individuals. A general cannot go to war with a band of a thousand individuals, each with his or her own story and life’s narrative whose face the general has seen. In order to go to war the general must think of each of these soldiers as pieces of the whole. This week’s parsha forces us to focus on the fact that war does this to us, and then the so-called “collateral damage” of war is not incidental to war, but murders, rapes and injuries that are inflicted on innocent people as an inevitable part of any military conflict. War is the unleashing of awful violence which cannot be controlled. If nothing else, on this anniversary, we should spend some minutes reflecting on that.