Humanity in Wartime

War and peace--and the difficulties with both--are the subjects of Parashat Shoftim.

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Are there any biblical examples of this mode of discourse? One example concerns a woman who saves an entire city from destruction (II Samuel 20:14-22). That passage tells how Joab, a warrior acting on the king's behalf, pursues Sheba son of Bichri, the leader of a group that has rebelled and fled to the town of Abel of Beth-maacah. When Joab besieges the city, a "wise woman" employs persuasive rhetoric and feminine imagery to avert war, warning loab that he risks destroying a "mother city in Israel" (v. 19). Joab assures her that if the people hand over Sheba, he will not attack the city. The woman makes sure that this women justice shoftimhappens when she convinces the townspeople to cut off Sheba's head and toss it over the wall. In this case, the wise woman's sense of mercy and calling out in peace means that one life is sacrificed for the greater good, to avert large-scale bloodshed and ruin.

Parashat Shoftim tells us that if war cannot be avoided, there are humane ways to go about it: "When in your war against a city you have to besiege ... you must not destroy its trees" (20:19). Why not? The verse continues, "ki ha-adam etz ha-sadeh," which can be read either as "Are the trees of the field human?" or, alternatively, as "for a human is like a tree." Trees have the ability to draw water into themselves, and nourish themselves. What will sustain and nurture us? An answer may come from the end of the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses charges all the people--men, women, children, and strangers-to listen to and learn "every word of this Teaching (Torah)" (31:12). Just as we may not cut down fruit trees so they may continue to bear fruit, so we must actively study and teach Torah, striving to incorporate it into our hearts and our minds. That way, the quality of mercy will envelop and permeate our individual lives and our society as a whole.

Are there distinct ways that women strive to infuse our world with more mercy and peace? Professor Galia Golan, who has studied Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups for twenty-five years, has found that dialogue groups composed of all women differ in certain respects from mixed-gender groups ("Reflections on Gender in Dialogue," Nashim 6, 2003). She has observed that women tend to start from their shared experiences, beginning the conversation not with an abstract, angry summation of the history of the conflict, but with emotional accounts of their personal experiences. According to Golan, women seem more invested in the ability to "dissolve the psychological barriers obstructing resolution of the conflict, by reversing the dehumanization of the enemy that takes place during a prolonged conflict; expanding understanding of the other's positions; creating empathy with the other side; and thus paving the way for eventual reconciliation." Dialogue shows unique ways that women call one another to peace, reminding us that through our words and our actions, we possess the potential to "love peace and pursue it."

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Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, "Questioning Return," and is currently working on a second novel at Yaddo. She has taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.