("Moses Ordering the Slaughter of the Midianites" by Claes Cornelisz Moeyaert, 1650, courtesy of jweekly.com)
There are many beautiful and important passages in this week’s parashah, and one profoundly disturbing story.
Normally I might dive into one of the wonderful sections to find a deeply valuable piece of Torah for our lives. But today I cannot turn my eyes away from the troubling story because it rings so terribly true in these days.
Chapter 31 of Numbers brings us the story of the war of vengeance on the Midianite people, who had ensnared the Israelites to engage in worship of Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:1-4). God commands Moses to order a violent campaign against the Midianites to punish them for enticing the Israelites to idolatry — “to wreak God’s vengeance on Midian” (Numbers 31:3). Twelve thousand Israelites, one thousand from each tribe, as per God’s command, killed every Midianite man in the community. The Israelites took the Midianite women and children captive, seized as booty all of their animals and wealth, and destroyed the towns in which they lived.
Apparently, all of this violence was not sufficient. Moses was furious when he learned that the Israelites had spared the Midianite women and children. He commanded them to slaughter all the male children and the adult women as well.
How are we to respond to such a dreadfully violent and morally indefensible story?
Over the years, I have wrestled with the question of how to relate to the difficult texts of Torah (what Christian theologian Phyllis Trible has called “texts of terror”). At times I might have looked for commentaries that would suggest what we are to learn from this horrific story. What are we to learn about why the Israelites’ sin at Baal-Peor was so heinous as to justify this “holy war” in response? What can this passage teach us about our own tendencies to vengefulness? How does the rage we see in God and Moses relate to the episodes of anger in our own lives?
At other times, I have taught the importance of acknowledging the presence of appalling texts in our Torah. It is a disturbing and humbling exercise to reckon honestly with the places where Torah seems to elevate the unethical. This shakes our comfortable certainty about the beauty and perfection of Torah, and challenges our belief that our texts are ethically superior to those of other religions and peoples. The Torah is fallible, just like the human beings who created it, seeking to put words to their experience of God.
But today, I am horrified by Numbers 31 because it so clearly reflects recent events in the West Bank. Torah is imitating life and, worse still, life is imitating this story.
In recent days and months, we have witnessed an unbearable number of revenge attacks by self-described “religious Jews” on Palestinian civilians. Of course, it has been a terrible year, in which far too many Israelis have been hurt and killed by Palestinian attacks. It is so hard to know how to respond to these terribly painful events. Among American Jews, as among Israeli Jewish leaders, well-informed people of good will can disagree about the wisdom and efficacy of various Israeli military and political responses.
But we must all agree that revenge attacks carried out by individual vigilante Jews can never be acceptable or Jewishly legitimate. I remember the particularly hideous attack on the village of Huwara in February by religious Jews, who paused their acts of burning and terrorizing villagers to daven Ma’ariv (the evening prayer service), before resuming what many Israelis called a pogrom. Painfully, in recent weeks, we have seen far too much of the same behavior again.
For those of us who love and honor Torah, it is heart-wrenching that such people may turn to Numbers 31, and other texts like it, for justification. They may claim that “the Torah” sanctions and even inspires such acts of murderous vengeance. For me, this is an unspeakable use of Torah.
Many years ago, I read a piece in Sh’ma written by Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the University of Judaism (now called American Jewish University). He described teaching a violent and misogynistic text to his rabbinical students, placing it in historical and sociological context to make sense of it. But the text haunted him.
Historical analysis might bring important perspective, but it was not sufficient, because this text — for Rabbi Cohen and for the students in his classroom — was Torah.
On such texts, Rabbi Cohen recites (as do I) the daily blessing, “Blessed are You, O God, … who sanctifies us with your mitzvot, and commanded us to immerse ourselves in words of Torah.” How could one imagine that this blessing for sacred study applied to such a horrifying text?
Adapting a famous statement from rabbinic literature, Rabbi Cohen continued that one must ask, “Would a holy text say something like this?”
Rabbi Cohen concluded that when he says the sacred blessing for Torah study, the terrible text he had encountered lay outside the bounds of “words of Torah.” It is a bold and debatable theological move.
I honor Rabbi Cohen’s conclusion. The God that I worship could not order such a massacre. Those who use this text and others like it — in Israel or anywhere else — are committing a desecration of God’s name. God save us from such desecrations of the Holy.
This piece is adapted from one originally posted at https://jweekly.com/2023/07/13/the-torah-cannot-justify-revenge-attacks-in-west-bank/