Saturday, August 17, 2013

War of words

 A guest post by Y. Bloch 

As Shabbat Ki Tetzei ends here in Israel, I can't help but notice how many of the weekly parasha sheets decided to focus on this week's release of the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the latest round of peace talks. I've already written about my personal reaction, as a terror survivor, elsewhere, but I wonder about the use of Jewish sources, especially the Torah itself, to approach these difficult hot-button issues. 

It strikes me as disingenuous the way some invoke verses like the final one in last week's portion (Deut. 21:8), "And you shall clear out the innocent blood from your midst;" after all, those verses refer to what we define here as "criminally-motivated murder," a personal grudge between two individuals. "Nationalistically-motivated murder," on the other hand, is about tribal grudges, the waging of war by other means. The immediately following verse is, "When you go out to war against your enemies, Lord your God will put him in your hand and you will take him captive." So the Torah itself acknowledges that there are captives, prisoners of war, those taken during war whom we do not subject to the criminal justice system.

But perhaps it is I who is being disingenuous now. The Torah goes on to talk about the "woman of beautiful form," since there is no concept of adult males being taken captive in biblical war. (I'm unsure if there is any significance to the shift from the masculine shevi to the female shivya as a term for all those taken captive.) Incarceration is a post-biblical concept, so there really are no prisoners of any sort in the Torah, and the only enemies who would survive war would be children and women, all of whom would be enslaved.

So maybe there is nothing to be learnt from the Torah on this subject. But if so, how can we say that it guides our morality? It's one thing to say that tzaraat is not leprosy and reinterpret over a hundred verses of text as a roundabout warning against slander, but is war not war anymore? Or are we simply left with Maimonides, since he is the last Jewish sage to seriously deal with these laws? This at least I'll say about the parasha sheets: they are dealing with the question, even if I find their answers at best unsatisfying and at worst dangerous. 

Shavua tov.

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