Teaching Jews and Genocide: A Moral Evolution

Battle between Israelites and Amalekites



A few weeks back, we saw in Parshat Mattot, the second to last reading in the book of Numbers, that the Bible records Moses castigating the Jewish people for sparing the lives of Middianite women who had allegedly slept with Jewish men. Like many younger Jews living in the 21st century, I found myself a bit uncomfortable reading these passages, despite the various reconciliatory theories postulated by today’s schools of moral relativism. In today’s world murder is almost ubiquitously frowned upon even when performed against licentious people and the worst of heathens. So when we read verses that say, “Kill every male among the young children, and every woman fit to know a man by lying with a male,” I find that our modern eyes begin to roll and the fumbling apologetics begin to wade in.  
Growing up Modern Orthodox, I remember Rabbis characterizing these verses  as “Choks,” or divine passages that defy reasonable explanations. This mysterious category of Choks contains the most impregnable of enigmas, like why bad things happen to good people, the meaning of life, and so on. But I feel that the very fact that we continue to regularly read these passages forces them to be explained. If they truly are so sophisticated that they are beyond our understanding, then why bother with them in the first place?
Beyond the above difficulty, I always maintained a more personal anathema for these parts of the Torah. For if one day, I dreaded, I were to be confronted by an erudite scholar from another religion of which I was critical for its extremism, how was I to justify my beliefs? The fact remains that many of our early Jewish texts prescribe violence against idolaters and religious dissenters. So how can we justify our texts while criticizing someone else’s?
Before entering college in the States, I had the obscure privilege of taking a tour of the contentious West Bank settlement Havat Gilad. Without doing any prior research into the town’s politically provocative past, I was given the opportunity to explore the grounds and speak to the residents. 
At one point, prior to Shabbat, the guide of my tour spoke about Havat Gilad’s short but active history and reminded me and my friends that we were surrounded by people that the New York Times formerly identified as Jewish terrorists. “Remember that you are amongst the most extreme religious segments of the Jewish people,” he declared bluntly. 
After hearing these words from the guide, I immediately began to put the situation in context. The people around me seemed largely normal, and their behaviors, though sometimes wrong and reprehensible, were rarely violent. When I then began to draw a mental contrast between these extremists and the murderous ones depicted in the media from other faiths, I found relief in knowing how different the two groups were.  
Although there are several accounts of apparent genocide mentioned in the Torah and other places in Tanach, no semblance of that ideology seems to have influence over today’s Jewish community. Only rarely is there any type of ecclesiastical violence from within our community, and no reputable Rabbi would conceivably condone such atrocities. Judaism continues to consider murder immoral as it has for the past several thousand years. 
When we read parts of the Torah that depict genocide and other seemingly horrific atrocities, it is crucially important to view them in the right context. Living in modern times, we see that our morality has thankfully evolved to a point that such behaviors are sensibly viewed as wrong. However, when we consider the time period in which these books were written, along with the events that occurred during those times, we should find it humbling to know that our world once acted in such ways. 
Since the only instances of Jewish genocide took place place several thousand years in the past, Jewish morality seems to have evolved faster in this way than that of some of today’s major religions. Islam and Christianity each have a long history of violent extremism, with radicalized sects of the former contributing to religious terrorism today. Therefore, I believe, it is important to review our history, if only to demonstrate our great moral progress. 
When I now consider what my Rabbis meant when they called the story of the Middianites a Chok, it all seems clearer. Why God allowed mankind’s morality to develop so slowly is indeed a question that we may never be able to answer. But in the meantime, let us unabashedly  understand this complex chapter of our history with a fresh perspective, one seen in the right context.