What we can learn from the ‘Ir Nidahat’?

We will focus on the third offense, the ir nidahat, or an entire city that shows disloyalty to God and is condemned to total annihilation.

‘THE DESTRUCTION Of Sodom And Gomorrah,’ John Martin, 1852 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE DESTRUCTION Of Sodom And Gomorrah,’ John Martin, 1852
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, three offenses are described in Deuteronomy 13 that might lead Israelites astray from absolute and exclusive allegiance to God. We will focus on the third offense, the ir nidahat, or an entire city that shows disloyalty to God and is condemned to total annihilation. All residents of the city are to be put to the sword along with their cattle. The property and possessions found therein must be burned. Finally, the ruins of the town must be left desolate, never to be rebuilt as an eternal message of what happens to those who are disloyal to God.
One of the questions that intrigues commentaries from the rabbinic midrash onward is whether minors are to be put to death. It leads to a debate among Tannaitic sages like Rabbi Eliezer, who says they are slain, and Rabbi Akiva who says they are spared.
Maimonides in Chapter 4 of his Laws Concerning Idolatry codifies:
“Every human being who was in the city is killed by the sword, including children and women!”
The Spanish sage Rabbi Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia questions the above ruling:
“I am surprised by what he writes: ‘All the children and wives… are killed by the sword.’ On what basis are these women killed? If they worshiped idols, then they themselves are among the people of this condemned city; if they did not worship idols, why are they killed?… Since when is a minor held responsible and condemned?”
Rabbi Elchanan Sammett suggests that behind this debate lie two fundamentally different approaches to the law of the condemned city. Those who maintain that the minors of the city are not to be killed appear to regard the verdict of this city as a regular legal act, in which case innocent people cannot be killed.
In contrast, the second school of thought suggests that the law of the condemned city is a suspension of the normal rules of justice. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann, in his commentary, brings the startling comparison to Sodom and Amorah:
“There is no reason to question why the minors are put to death. The nation of Israel, in this instance, is representing the Holy One. The city that is condemned to destruction is like Sodom and Amorah… Like the example of the great flood and the overturning of Sodom and Amorah where everyone was destroyed, even the minors, so likewise concerning the condemned city.
Rabbi Sammet makes an even more surprising connection, comparing the condemned city to Amalek, based on the commentary of Seforno:
“‘And its animals by the sword’ – to erase their memory, thereby avenging the blessed God – as is the case concerning Amalek, as we learn (25:19), ‘You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek.’ '
A WAR of annihilation was always waged for religious reasons, and in a war of complete annihilation the enemy was killed entirely; no captives were taken and spoils were to be destroyed. Invoking both Sodom and Amorah and Amalek suggests such systematic evil that it essentially works to justify the annihilation of men, women and children in the name of God to eradicate such immorality from the earth.
The moral complexity, of course, is the agency given to the nation to decide when such a violent process is warranted. The one example we have in the book of Judges illustrates how easily the nation can be swept up unjustifiably onto the path toward ruthless carnage of fellow Israelites.
Judges 19-21 tells the story of war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel that began when a woman, the concubine of a Levite man traveling from Judah to his home in Ephraim, was gang-raped to death while staying overnight in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah. The Levite in response, cuts his concubine into 10 pieces, sends them to 10 tribes and incites them to retaliate against Gibeah, which leads to a war against the entire tribe of Benjamin.
The destruction of Gibeah and other Benjaminites cities is herem-style, including the destruction of the booty, leading Prof. Aharon Demsky to suggest based on strong linguistic connections between the two texts, that some version of the ir hanidahat law lies behind the destruction in the Gibeah story.
One glaring difference between the two stories is the nature of the sin. Deuteronomy is expressly concerned with idolatry whereas the Judges story is seemingly concerned with sexual violence that spirals into political conflict. Recognizing the potential for insidious motives in condemning a city to utter annihilation, the Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a concludes:
“There never was, nor will there ever be, a condemned city. So why is [this parasha] written? To interpret it and receive reward.”
The Gemara explains that this opinion is in keeping with the view of R. Eliezer:
“We learn: Rabbi Eliezer says: Any city in which there is even one single mezuzah cannot be declared a condemned city.”
Nonetheless, it also brings the opinion of Rabbi Yonatan who claims to have sat on the ruins of an idolatrous city. Rabbi Yonatan probably reflects the reality of a time in which herem was practiced. This was a dangerous mechanism that could lead to absolute anarchy as happened in the period of the Judges.
The Talmud projects a rabbinic ethos onto the passage, claiming that such a reality could never have existed. Rabbi Eliezer explains that an Israelite community, although presently rebelling against God, cannot be described as having no remnant of loyalty to God if there is even one mezuzah on one of the doorways. As we approach the month of Elul, it is this idea, that a single sign of devotion has the power to uphold a tenuous but palpable connection to the Divine that is certainly an interpretation that itself becomes reward.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.