Judaism: Light of Torah from Efrat: Matot-Masei
Rabbi Shlomo RiskinThe writer is the founding and Chief Rabbi of Efrata, Gush Etzion, as well as founder and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, author of Torah Lights and other well known Judaic texts.
"And they (the Israelites) set their legions against Midian as the Lord had commanded Moses and they killed every male." (Numbers 31:7)
Our Biblical portion of Matot opens with God's vengeance against Midian, an avowed enemy of the Israelites who had joined Balak the King of Moab in the hiring of Balaam to curse Israel.
The Midianites also seduced Israel to have sex with their women and to engage in idolatrous orgiastic worship of the Midianite gods. Israel was therefore enjoined to make a pre-emptive strike against a nation which had demonstrated their desire to see Israel vanquished.
The Bible goes on to record Moses' insistence that the young Midianite women fit to engage in sexual relations be killed along with the young male Midianite children.
How difficult is all of this carnage to the modern ear! How can we possibly justify such action, even if it was against a nation which had already lifted its banner for Israel's disappearance from the face of the earth?!
What we must remember as we read the Bible is that we are studying a text from the earliest times of recorded history, a text which we believe to have been written more than 4,000 years ago.
Yes, we also believe that the Biblical text is God given, but it was never intended that every verse of it be applied to every generation.
Our tradition insists that alongside the written Torah, there is an Oral Torah, a vibrant and still developing legal system which determines which Biblical laws only applied to the ancient world, which were open to limitation, re-interpretation and even expansion in different generations, and which were deemed unchanging and immutable for all times.
The traditional orthodoxy which survives today is the heir to those who fought valiantly against the Sadducees in the second commonwealth and the Karaites of the middle ages. Our ideological ancestors regarded these sects as heresies because they believed in a literal interpretation of the written law for all generations.
The arena of warfare is probably the one in which sweeping change from Biblical law is most evident. The Bible commands "But in waging war against the people from the cities which the Lord God has given you for an inheritance you shall not allow any person to live. Rather you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizite, the Hivvite and the Jebusite as the Lord your God commanded you. This is so that they may not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they performed for their gods and sin before the Lord your God." (Deut 20:16-18)
Apparently, at that juncture in history, there was no other way to wage and win a war- and unless we had a national homeland, the nation of Israel never would have emerged. Our historic mission would have been still-born. It would seem that these particular nations were especially evil and heinous, addicted to inhuman and sexual acts of violence in their idolatrous orgies. They had to be extirpated if a moral society was to emerge and influence the world.
The Talmud, therefore, insists that the command to "utterly destroy" every one of our enemies only applied to the specific nations singled out by the Bible during the early Biblical period.
During the first commonwealth, King Sennacherib of Assyria conquered the lands of the Middle East and confounded the indigenous people by forcing them to re-settle in different areas and to intermarry with their new neighbors. Hence the ethnic nations identified by the Bible no longer exist and so the law demanding their total destruction no longer applies. (B.T. Berakhot 28a)
Moreover, Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that it is forbidden for a Jew to wage war against any nation or individual – whether of the seven indigenous nations, Midian, or even Amalek- unless he be given the option of making peace and accepting the seven Noahide laws of morality (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6,1). Once they agree to become moral individuals, we dare not harm them.
And according to this view, this was the case even in the Biblical period!
There is also a fascinating interpretation of Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the famed Dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in HaAmek Davar, ad loc). He argues that the Biblical command to kill women and children only applies to those who were acting in the service of the enemy. We could never have been commanded to harm perfectly innocent human beings, created in God's image!
And when we think of the women and children who are being encouraged and trained by al-Qaeda, Hamas and Fatah to become suicide bombers, when we realize how Hamas terrorists used innocent Palestinians as their protective human shields so that they can continue their evil murders, then we understand how Israelis are sometimes compelled to fire at women and children for our own self-protection and the protection of the free world.