Parshat Matot: A plain (brutal) truth

‘And they [the Israelites] set their legions against Midian as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male’ (Numbers 31:7)

city 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artframe.)
city 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artframe.)
Matot opens with God’s vengeance against Midian, an avowed enemy of the Israelites which had joined Balak, king of Moab, in hiring Balaam to curse Israel. The Midianites also seduced Israelites into having sex with their women and engaging in idolatrous, orgiastic worship of the Midianite gods. Israel was therefore enjoined to make a preemptive strike against a nation which had demonstrated its desire to see Israel vanquished.
The Torah goes on to record Moses’s insistence that the young Midianite women fit for sexual relations be killed, and along with them the young male, Midianite children. How difficult is all 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 on behalf of Israel’s disappearance? What we must remember as we read the Torah is that we are studying a text which we believe was written more than 4,000 years ago, in the earliest era of recorded history. Yes, we also believe the text is God-given, but it was never intended that every verse 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 that determines which of the biblical written laws applied only to the ancient world, which were open to limitation, reinterpretation and even expansion in different generations, and which were deemed immutable for all time. Today’s Orthodox are the heirs of those who fought valiantly against the Sadducees of the Second Commonwealth and the Karaites of the Middle Ages. Our ideological ancestors regarded these sects as heretical 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 the Written Law is most evident.
The Torah 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” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Apparently, at that point in history there was no other way to wage and win a war – and without a national homeland, the nation of Israel never would have emerged, and our historic mission would have been stillborn. It would seem that these particular nations were especially evil, addicted to inhuman acts of sexual violence in their idolatrous orgies. They had to be extirpated if a moral society was to emerge.
The Talmud therefore insists that the command to “utterly destroy” every inhabitant only applied to the specific nations singled out by the Torah during the early biblical period. During the First Commonwealth, King Sennach-erib of Assyria conquered the lands of the Middle East and confounded the indigenous people by forcing them to resettle in different areas and intermarry with their new neighbors. Hence the nations identified by the Torah no longer exist, and so the command that they be totally destroyed no longer applies (B.T. Brachot 28a).
Moreover, Maimonides and Nahmanides 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 that nation or individual first 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 this was the case even in the biblical period, according to this view.
There is also a fascinating interpretation by Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in Ha’amek Davar, ad loc) – that any woman or child we were biblically commanded to kill had to have been 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-Qaida, Hamas and Fatah to become suicide bombers, when we realize how Hamas terrorists used innocent Palestinians as their human shields so that they could continue their evil murders, we understand how – tragically – women and children can end up in the line of fire when Israel is fighting in its own defense and in defense of the free world.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.