Vengeance and carnage, commanded by God. Slaughter of the enemy: man, woman, and child. Virgins as trophies of war. Wholesale taking of life.
This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, contains violent passages from which most modern readers will want to disassociate ourselves -- believing they do not reflect our Judaism, our values, who we are and aspire to be. This is Torah best spoken in whispers or brushed aside. Many communities will choose to gloss over these passages cursorily, with discomfort if not embarrassment.
Yet in synagogues all over the Jewish world, verses like these will be chanted aloud this week: "wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian" (Numbers 31:3), "slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman that has known man carnally" (31:17).
In a corner of the religious Zionist world, these words will be taken at face value. Last summer during the Gaza war, one popular national-religious rabbi wrote prayers asking God to "do to [our enemies] as once you did to Midian" while another opined that "the Midianites did not get [warning] leaflets."
Thankfully, calls for vengeful, deliberate, unsparing violence in the Midian paradigm remain rare, even in this rightmost flank of the religious Zionist world. More common are halakhic (legal) justification for aggressive treatment, if not negligible concern for civilians. Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu argued for carpet bombing Gaza on the basis of biblical commentaries assigning collective guilt to a society harboring wrongdoers. Some leading religious Zionist figures have argued that there are no innocent civilians in wartime -- that even children may be killed on the basis of membership in a corporate entity with whom we are at war. In one of the most influential and thorough treatises on Jewish war ethics of this century, Rav Shaul Yisraeli makes a case against intentional targeting of civilians, but provides far-reaching authorization for loss of enemy "innocent" life on the basis of passive and even inadvertent complicity.
These interpretations largely go against-the-grain of Jewish tradition, resting on obscure commentaries, ideas that have been restricted or repudiated by precedent, and stretched readings. Moreover, much of the Jewish world denounces yet dismisses these voices as marginal, in part out of understandable fear that drawing attention to them could fuel defamatory, even anti-semitic assaults on Judaism, Israel, and the Israeli army. But this fear must not stop us from honest reckoning with the growing impact of such readings, however shaky their standing in Jewish tradition. We must not wait for the worst to happen to do the kind of soul-searching that arose after the murder of a Palestinian teenager last summer to avenge the killing of three yeshiva boys, after which many realized we couldn't "write these murders off as the insane acts of deranged lone wolves".
The "all's fair in war" voices must be sharply differentiated from the official policy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the more "liberal" camp of the national-religious world, embodied by figures like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z"l. Yet it is crucial to acknowledge that this casual regard for enemy civilians typifies a growing movement, not an isolated phenomenon or a few bad apples -- a movement over-represented in IDF combat units, even if the IDF's own Ethics Code contradicts its discourse.
What are we to do with our Torah portion and other militaristic passages of our sources, given their real and dangerous implications? What are we to do when the literal word seems to condone reckless and indiscriminate killing -- and a segment of our people take it seriously?
First, we need to own it, not downplay or sanitize it. We must acknowledge the violence laid out plainly in our sacred texts, not paper over or tiptoe around the most troubling strains of our traditions and their reception in our time. It is entirely possible to find texts justifying calls for military and even vigilante revenge, and we should not pretend otherwise.One can make an authentic Jewish case not to be "overly righteous" in wartime, particularly in the context of self-defense and protection of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). One can make a legitimate Jewish argument privileging Jewish over non-Jewish life, certainly "our" soldiers over "their" civilians.
Second, we must "get in there" and not cede the field of Jewish war ethics. Prior to an explosion of war ethics scholarship in the religious Zionist world, this bellicose orientation was not the normative thrust of rabbinic tradition. While our Talmudic and medieval forebears do not offer systematic or well-developed treatments of war (given their remove from the battlefield), they do present principles with remarkable parallels to both modern war ethics and international conventions.
"Getting in there" means rigorous halakhic engagement, not apologetics or superficial textual hooks to shore up our moral intuitions and ignore countervailing strains.
It means, for example, demonstrating that mainstream Jewish legal discourse does not endorse revenge, only neutralization of an immediate threat where less violent means will not avert harm to life. It means substantiating that rabbinic tradition distanced itself from the biblical "extermination" paradigm, designating it as having no relevance for contemporary practice. It means, among other things, making the case that war is not exempt from -- and in fact when justified, must proceed from -- Judaism's crowning principles of life's inviolable sanctity and bloodshed's cardinal sinfulness. That we must do all we can to minimize harm toward "attackers" and extend mercy even toward combatants, let alone other innocents, even in a context of legitimate self-defense.
These ideals may not be attainable in absolute terms (especially when our enemies themselves systematically blur civilian-combatant boundaries), and they do not present an operational road map. But they do present a north star toward which to strive, a standard against which to measure our conduct before the complexity of reality. They lay the foundation for a Jewish battlefield ethic grounded in the dominant perspective of the Jewish textual tradition, which places stringent constraints on the use of force and rests on an affirmation of the belovedness of human life, all human life, before God.
There are counter-arguments to these assertions and counter-arguments to the counter-arguments. We must make them. In synagogues throughout the Jewish world, the words "wreak the Lord's vengeance" will be read out loud this week. Precisely because some will take these words at face value, we must neither trivialize the Torah's sanction of brutal violence, nor cede our tradition to those who dismiss the history of rabbinic reception -- and counter-passages in the Torah itself -- that restrict and supersede these teachings. Rather than shying away from objectionable texts, we must grapple unblinkingly with them as well as with the ideological arguments for which they are deployed by those calling for a "whatever-it-takes" course of self-defense and conquest. And we must respond, rigorously, and effectively.
As Rabbi David Hartman, z"l argued, the State of Israel is the testing ground for Jewish law and values. So much is at stake. There is so much work to do. We must not desist from it.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.