The Bible Says What? ‘An Israelite can rape a woman on the battlefield and convert her’

The Bible Says What? ‘An Israelite can rape a woman on the battlefield and convert her’

Rabbi Neil Janes takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a Progressive Jewish angle

No part of Jewish law has ever condoned rape in wartime or included it as part of military strategy. However, there is no escape that Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describes the practice of raping women taken captive and forcibly removing them from their family.

Of course, there are interpretations of this text: this could be the Hebrew Bible some 3,000 years ago trying to steer away from a prevalent practice – in which women were raped and then abandoned by the rapist. Granted, a horrific protection, but the law means the woman cannot be abandoned and must be supported the rest of her life.

The rabbinic texts 2,000 years ago narrow this yet further, defining the specifics of the war described, that the man cannot rape multiple women or capture women for his father and the reason the Torah may permit such an act in the first place.

In any event, the texts only imagine a scenario never witnessed in living memory. The rabbis had not been out in battle, so the text is already decontextualised and removed from reality.

The rabbis do imagine the possibility of an Israelite soldier raping a non-Israelite woman on the battlefield. From that plain sense there is no escape.

What do we make of this terrifying text? First and foremost, Judaism does not permit rape. But in a world increasingly aware of violence, assault and oppression of women, through #metoo, we have duty to confront our traditions.

The Biblical texts deal with the consequences of warfare in the Ancient Near East. Today the pressing issues of sexual violence remain.

Only by confronting our texts of terror honestly and sincerely, with their interpretative history, can we deal with the problem and protect against any literalism in their application.

  •  Rabbi Neil Janes is executive director of the Lyons Learning Project
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