There’s No Resisting the Beautiful Captive – Part II of the Self-Control Series

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Last week, we discussed the normative virtue of self-control; recognizing that we are the proprietors of our body, with all of its portals of expression — our thoughts (expression to ourselves), our speech (expression to others), and our sense (interaction with the world around us).

We concluded last week’s essay, however, with a caveat that will come as a surprise to no one: self-control is easier said than done.

And a prime example of Torah’s acknowledgment of this fact is right in this week’s Parshah of Ki Teiztei.

The Parshah open up with a commandment involving the following scenario: “If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your G-d, delivers him into your hands, and you take captives, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her — you may take her for yourself as a wife.” [1]

The Torah then proceeds to impose certain requirements that must be fulfilled prior to consummating the marriage with the beautiful captive, such as 30-day “cooling off” period. According to the Midrash, these requirements are primarily calculated to chill the man’s ardor, dissuade him from marrying her.[2]

Which begs the question: If G-d disapproves of his indulging in his lust and marrying the gentile captive, why does He not simply prohibit it? Why permit it, but only with the greatest of reluctance?

The Midrash explains that the Torah, in permitting this marriage, is acknowledging the overwhelming temptation that drives him to desire her, and recognizes that if G-d would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. [3]

But what an odd statement that is! Torah is certainly not shy about trying to curb our behavior — especially when it comes to disapproved sexual relationships.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, In Parshat Re’eh, Moses recounted the prohibition against eating blood, stating: “Be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul; and you shall not eat the soul with the flesh.” The Midrash asks, why must we “be strong”? It concludes that from this expression one may learn that the Israelites were strongly tempted to eat blood, and so the Torah used the expression “be strong” to strengthen their resolve to overcome that temptation.

So even when Torah acknowledges and is sympathetic to our struggle, it perhaps undertakes special efforts to assist us in overcoming temptation — but does not just throw in the towel, and say, “Eh, whatever. You’re going to succumb anyway, so I might as well allow it.”

So if Torah disapproves of a sexual liaison with a beautiful gentile captive, why not simply prohibit it, and encourage us to overcome our urges?

Clearly, there are some temptations that even Torah acknowledges are too overwhelming for man to cope with.

In the case of the female captive, the Torah is faced with a situation in which a man leaves his home, his community, the routine of his daily life, and goes to war. In battle, this genteel soul is suddenly thrust into an environment in which he is fighting against those seeking to take his life and the lives of his brethren, just as he is seeking to take theirs. The transition from civilized society to wartime killing is a wrenching one, and some of the baser instincts that we ordinarily do a good job of suppressing suddenly find themselves with an outlet. Bloodlust. Sexual abandon.

In the heat of things, it is impossible to demand that a man act so completely contrary to his human nature that he will, on the one hand, find it within himself to kill the enemy, yet on the other, retain complete mastery over his temptations.

Later in the Parshah, we do find several commandments that are calculated to maintain the integrity and holiness of the Jewish camp — even in the middle of a military campaign.[4] Nevertheless, recognizing the enormous internal conflicts that the individual Israelite soldiers would confront on the battlefield, Torah permits a narrow outlet for the overwhelming sexual urges.

And it is not only in the case of a beautiful captive that we find recognition of the overwhelming nature of temptation.

The Talmud famously states that: “Man does not commit a sin unless a spirit of folly enters him” [5] — a statement derived from the way the Torah describes a Sotah, a woman accused of being an adulterous wife. [6] A “spirit of folly” means, quite simply, something that takes over our minds, almost like a hallucinogen; it is in that state in which we sin.

One of Maimonides’s more famous quotes is that every Jew “wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that overwhelms him.” [7] This too acknowledges that power of temptation to overwhelm, and to rob us of control over our urges.

Indeed, the Talmud makes the following fascinating statement regarding repeat sinners: “Once a person commits a sin and repeats it, it becomes permitted to him.” The Talmud asks: “Is it conceivable that the sin actually becomes permitted to him?” The Talmud concludes: “Rather, this means that it becomes to him as though it were permissible.” [8]

Committing a sin in the first instance is one thing. Then, the temptation leading to the sin consists solely of one’s imagination of what the sin will feel like. Once a person sins, however, the sin has now become a part of his practical, firsthand experience, a part of his empirical memories. It has not made some serious inroads into his psyche.

Repeating the sin then affirms that experience, and in doing so, removes a person’s inhibitions. At that point, it is difficult to ever return — not only to the pre-sin state of innocence, but even to the state in which one could perhaps have dismissed the sin as a “once-off” and an “experiment” not to be repeated. At this point, his internal gauges have been altered, his fortifications have been toppled, and his relationship with sin has been fundamentally changed.

Does he, at that point, have the capacity for self-control?

Perhaps in some sense, although the landscape is now entirely different. Here is an example:

A girl goes to a bar with some friends. She’s not really a drinker; she goes more for the social experience. But she does allow herself one drink — no more. But then she’s offered another. And at that moment, it doesn’t seem to her as though two drinks are that much more significant than one. So she downs her second shot. Then a third.

She calls it a night, and heads out to her car.

Her friend asks, “Are you okay to drive?”

She says, “Yeah, I’m totally alert. I’m fine.”

Tragically, on the way home, she didn’t notice the pedestrian crossing the street when she made her turn. The collision ends his life.

Is she to blame?

Of course.

But did she have a choice? What could she have done? At what point did she have the capacity for self-control necessary for her to be culpable when she failed to exercise it?

At the moment of impact? No, she genuinely didn’t see him. At that point, it was entirely unavoidable.

When she got in her car? No — she saw no issue with getting behind the wheel. She felt fine.

So when?

The answer must be when she decided to have her first drink without making arrangements to be driven home. Once she had that drink, however, everything changed. “It becomes to him as though it were permissible.”

And just think of how remote the later tragedy is from the decision to have that first drink! It is truly a difficult thing for a person to stand, miles away, surrounded by friends, and to consider that having this one drink, here and now, may cost someone his life miles and hours away. Imagine if she was an extraordinarily-sheltered girl, and had not been raised in a society bombarded with DUIs, warnings not to drink and drive, and the ubiquitous designated driver. Imagine the mental acrobatics that she would need to go through in order to identify the final moment in which she would have the crucial self-control necessary to keep that future pedestrian alive.

Yet such is the foresight that we must have, and the preparations that we must make, in order to avoid losing our proprietorship over our impulses.

In Ki Tetzei, Torah removes this responsibility from the Jewish soldier, as it is not his choice to go to war, and there is no way for him to avoid the chain of causality that will ultimately and inevitably result in his being overwhelmed with lust for the beautiful captive.

For the rest of us, however, we are expected to be able to identify the links in the causal chain, to anticipate the effect that each of our actions has upon our psyche and sensual memory, and to be prepared to make the right choice at the key moment.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment in the self-control series!

Shabbat shalom!

Works Cited

[1] Deuteronomy, 21:10-11.

[2] See Deuteronomy, 21: 12-13, Rashi.

[3] Id., Midrash Tanchuma, 1; Rashi..

[4] Deuteronomy, 23:10-15.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 33a.

[6] See Numbers, 5:12.

[7] Mishnah Torah, Geirushin, 2:20.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b.