5753 - #13
The law of yefat to'ar, the captive woman, is perhaps the most perplexing concept within Torah. The principles embodied within this mitzvah challenge us, not simply within the confines of this particular rule but in terms of our entire understanding of the Torah gestalt. How we understand the workings of yefat to'ar will influence our complete approach to mitzvot, how we comprehend that eternal battle between tov and ra and how we look at ourselves and our constituent parts i.e. yetzer tov, yetzer hara, body and soul.
There are many arguments among the rishonim regarding the halachic details of this command. Obviously, how one understands the particulars of this law will affect one's perception of the Divine purpose and the overall philosophical view of the command. For example, Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:41 develops a significant hashkafa view of the mitzvah based on his halachic perspective that the first relations are only permitted in private (which may not necessarily universally be agreed upon - see Mishnat Avraham on the Semag, p. 254). Yet what is of most significance is not the details but the very nature of this rule. As T.B. Kiddushin 21a, 22b points out, this is not an ideal but a concession to human weakness - better to do this than something worse. What does this mean? Is the Torah actually permitting an action that is really incorrect in order to prevent a worse action from being done? Are we not expected to fight the yetzer hara on every plane? How does this allowance work?
One approach to this problem may focus on the hierarchy of good and evil. There are degrees within goodness and degrees within immorality. Not all acts carry the same weight both negatively and positively. This concept is especially significant in distinguishing between the demands made upon the tzaddik and those made upon the average person. Torah abounds with the recognition that there are more requirements made of the former and that the dividing line between that which is permitted and that which is forbidden changes with growth. One may still wonder how this works within the world of good and evil and how that world connects to the human experience but the case of yefat to'ar presents a challenge beyond these parameters. T.B. Sanhedrin 21a informs us that Dovid Hamelech had a yefat to'ar. This concession also applies to a tzaddik. Do we say that Dovid
could not control himself? What does this say about free choice and that eternal tension between yetzer hara and yetzer tov? Would Dovid have performed a greater sin if he was not permitted to do this?
The literature regarding yefat to'ar abounds with complexity. What exactly does the Torah permit? How does the concession work? Sefer Chassidim still declares that one is punished for yefat to'ar although the Mishnat Avraham presents challenges to that idea (see Mishnat Avraham on Sefer Chassidim, vol. 2, p. 193). There is even controversy on what exactly is permitted that otherwise would be forbidden. See Minchat Chinuch, mitzvah 432 and Siftei Chachamim, Devarim 21:11, note 4. To me this complexity is not surprising for yefat to'ar is the opening to the Torah's understanding of its connection to the complex world of human psychology.
The world of morality is so often presented in the most simplistic of manners. Unfortunately there are books that abound that approach the human condition as a uncomplicated battle of good and evil with a free choice between equal calls. This is not the case. The forces within the human being are intricate and complicated. The world of human motivation demands a science of investigation. If Dovid Hamelech could succumb to yefat to'ar then the overpowering motivations involved must be recognized. So what is free choice? What are these motivations? How do we determine fully the concept of what is correct and what is incorrect? How does Torah and the demands of mitzvot - a world that seems to use only the two constructs of tov and ra - connect with the multi-faceted world of the human psyche? Yefat to'ar informs us that the Torah, obviously, knows the complexity of that connection and that a true understanding of this world must avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
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