Eruvin 17 The army and spiritual challenges

We have pointed out various times during our posts how everything in Torah is related, and that very often that relationship stands out so clearly that one is absolutely awestruck.

The direct connection between our daf and this weeks parsha is certainly one such example.

The parsha opens with the highly unusual law of אשת יפת תואר, the beautiful captive girl taken in war.

In an unprecedented ruling, the Torah permits the soldier who falls for an enemy captive to begin a process whereby he will be able to marry her and even gives him permission to sleep with her once before this process begins, in order to satisfy that lust.

The explanation for this most unusual capitulation to human sexual desire on the part of the Torah is that לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע – “The Torah only spoke against the evil inclination. “

In the heat of war, the Torah understood that if a soldier was not permitted any outlet for his desires, he would carry them out anyway, and thus came up with a permitted way that allowed him to do so if necessary, while never encouraging it.

There is much to discuss about this idea, and the first question that jumps to mind is why is this extreme lust treated any differently to other extreme situations of lust?

The Torah always insists that people have free will and are responsible for their actions, no matter what the temptations, yet here, suddenly it acts completely differently.

Is the lust of a soldier at war really so much stronger than a man whose wife is a Niddah, a homosexual man who has no permitted outlet for his passions, or a single man who isn’t even permitted to masturbate to satisfy his urges, let alone carry on a sexual relationship with someone outside marriage?

Even if we argue that this is a question of פקוח נפש, given the emotional pressures that a soldier is under, we have found that a person is not permitted to practise forbidden sexual relations even to save his life (Sanhedrin 74a,) one of three great transgressions which one may not even transgress with a gun to one’s head.

In the case where the danger to his life comes from his emotional state caused by his desires, this could apply even to a non-married Jewish woman!

We see this from the case (Sanhedrin 75a) where a certain man fell so badly for a woman that he became desperately ill from desire.

The doctors opined that he would never heal unless he got to sleep with her.

The Rabbis ruled that it is better to let him die than to allow him to sleep with her, or even “talk with her from behind the fence.”

Clearly, the fact that a person gets himself into an emotional state that endangers his life does not justify illegitimate sexual behaviour.

It might be possible to distinguish between the two cases in a few ways, among them:

  1. The reason given by the Gemara why such a harsh ruling was given even in the case of un unmarried Jewish girl (who was not even a Niddah) was either because of פגם משפחה (damage done to the girl and her family) or שלא יהו בנות ישראל פרוצות בעריות (so the daughters of Israel would not be engaged in sexual immorality. )

The former reason focusses on the individual girl and her family whereas the later focusses on societal needs – The good of society takes precedence than the good of this individual, as we need to uphold a moral society at all times.

The case in our parsha is different given that the girl is an enemy captive, and neither of those two concerns apply, at least on a technical legal level.

The fact that the soldier is away from society also lessens the impact on society.

  1. In the case mentioned in Sanhedrin, the threat to the person’s life came from his lust itself. We cannot allow our girls to become the “medicine” for every person who is unable to control himself. In the case of the solder, the danger is from the war, the lust simply increases that danger, and the permission given by the Torah simply removes that extra danger allowing him to focus on the prime directive of survival and most important, victory for the nation as a whole.

Despite the above, given the extreme stringency with which the Torah usually treats these matters, there is little doubt that the situation of war should be treated as the exception rather than the rule, and however we try our best to understand it, it is likely that it cannot be applied to any other situations and אין בו אלא חדושו .

On our daf, we see that this is not the only allowance made for people at war.

Our Mishna tells us that there are 4 areas in which Chazal were lenient went it comes to soldiers in an army camp:

  1. They may collect wood from anywhere, even if it does not belong to them.
  2. They are exempt from washing hands before eating bread.
  3. They are permitted to eat דמאי (produce bought from an ignorant person who might not have taken tithes.
  4. They are exempt from putting aside an ערוב חצירות (though they still need basic מחיצות in order to carry within a designated area.

With the exception of the first which involves the biblical prohibition of stealing (probably permitted through the rule of הפקר בית דין הפקר,) these are all rabbinical laws that are waived, but the facts that such allowances were made also makes it clear how much of a need Chazal saw to allow soldiers to focus on the sacred task at hand of achieving victory without having to allocate too much energy to other things that were not practical at the time.

In an even larger concession, the Gemara (Chullin 17a) says that during the wars to conquer the land, the soldiers were permitted to eat forbidden foods if they are hungry, even pig!

What all these things have in common is that the Torah and Chazal have waived certain very important halachik requirements in order to allow soldier to focus on the battle and not use all their energies battling hunger, the evil inclination, or circumstance.

In the context of all of these things, it seems that the although the Torah only spoke against the evil inclination in the case of the captive girl, this is not because the Torah allows people to sin “legally” in order that they not come to sin “illegally,” but because of the unusual situation soldiers face in war where survival and victory has to be their only goal and the Torah therefore chooses not to make them spend their energy fighting their evil inclination in almost certain losing battles.

One of the major objections raised by many in the Torah world against religious youth going to the Israel army involves the spiritual dangers that they face there, given that much of the army is irreligious.

One of the strongest arguments against this comes from the many extreme allowances that the Torah itself makes for those at war, to the point of permitting some very serious transgressions- what it does not do is in any way discourage soldiers from going to fight, whether the war is obligatory or voluntary in nature.

If this is the case in situations where religious life is not possible, how much more so, we could argue, should it be in a Jewish army where so many allowances are made for religious soldiers, such as kosher food, Shabbos observance, and even time to pray and study.

On the other hand, one could counter that there is a difference between leaving one’s own camp to go into battle or to enemy territory, where the religious threat is from the outside, and being in a Jewish camp where the religious temptations come from the inside, from one’s own side.

The former is more likely to be a temporary setback, whereas the chance of long-term assimilation into secular society poised by being part of an irreligious unit is on a completely different level.

One can argue back and forth on this issue, but one thing that we see for sure on our daf is that certain leniencies were applied by Chazal even INSIDE our own camp.

The army certainly does not seem like a place for imposing extra stringencies above the basic requirements of the law, and even certain laws themselves, namely the 4 mentioned in our Mishna, are pushed aside even while in the מחנה itself.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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