Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

Paintings and Words

Ki Tetzeh – When you go out to war

September 14, 2016

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzeh, which begins with the words “When you go out to war against your enemies.” A year ago I took part in the Women of the Book project, in which I was invited to interpret this text visually on a piece of parchment.


Ki Tetzeh (When you go out to war), 2015, oil on parchment, 50 X 70 cm (19.7 X 27.5”)

Actually, I hesitated to join the project at first, thinking it did not connect to my interests at that time, until I noticed that this portion was available, and realized it couldn’t be more relevant. In addition to the laws of war, including the taking of a female prisoner, there is a law requiring one to free the mother bird before taking eggs or chicks from a nest, and the prohibition to wear the clothing of the opposite sex.

Here is part of the statement I submitted with the work:

The Torah portion, Ki Tetzeh, discusses laws of war, and spoke to me immediately, as I am currently the mother of three soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. With admiration for their responsibility and leadership, I pray for the wholeness and health of their bodies and souls.
I am the mother bird, who needs to be sent off to fly away from the nest before the eggs are taken. Perhaps I am also the foreign female prisoner of war who shaves her head and weeps, as at times I feel imprisoned by the reality of unending conflict, its demand for patriotism and sacrifice, and by my own failure to search for a peaceful alternative. My children swore to defend their country, even at the cost of their lives, at a ceremony which included holding a Bible in one hand and a gun on the other, the two joined in an act of salute. The female figure enacting that moment brings to mind the text’s prohibition against the wearing of male attire by a woman (and vice versa), raising questions about the meaning and the price of gender equality. Seeing the Torah joined with a gun reminds us that its words have the power to both give life and death and to promote love and violence. “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Ethics of the Fathers 5:26). We bear the responsibility to interpret in a way that reveals its goodness, without tempering its force and passion.

The intricate organic pattern of the parchment guided me in forming many of the images, and led to the decision to leave much of this raw foundation bare, allowing its richness to play a central role in the work.

Postscript: Reading the parsha today, I am impressed with its realism: violence is a human reality, which is reflected both in war and in eating. The laws here are aimed at tempering that violence.  And I learned that sometimes chance opportunities stimulate deep processes – in this case some of the imagery here has entered recent paintings.


Purchasing information: As part of the Women of the Book project, the Jerusalem Publishing Atelier has produced a limited series of  high-quality prints of the work. If purchased through the artists, part of the set fee, $345 (including shipping), goes to them. For more details, contact me at


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