This d’var Torah was written in 2010. Although it refers to some events occuring at that time, its larger message remains deeply relevant. -Ed.
The Book of Numbers is in many ways the least cohesive of the five books of the Torah. Its narrative excursions and legal legacies are occasionally related, but more often discrete.
In Matot and Mas’ey, which conclude the fourth book of the Torah, the narrators/editors of the Torah attempt to pull things together by accounts which summarize the forty years in the desert and anticipate the imminent entrance into the Land of Israel.
However, even before the Torah moves to prescriptions for social and religious regulation within the Land, it presents a narrative of proscription which is chilling. Beginning in Numbers 31, the text tells the story of the Israelite war against the Midianites. So brutal is the account that even Dr. J. H. Hertz, the preeminent apologist for the traditional rendering of the text, states in his well-known commentary that “The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties…we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised…”.
The text by itself is straightforward: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites’… Moses spoke to the people saying ‘Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian’ ”. (31:1-3) The punishment is understood as retribution for the role of the Midianites in seducing the Israelites from their God and luring them into false worship and sexual immorality (see Numbers 25).
After slaying “every male”, the Israelites “took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth” (31:9). Upon discovering this, Moses is extremely upset, and he orders the execution of all the women who are not virgins as well as all the male children.
The annihilation of the entire male Midianite population (with not one casualty for Israel!) is remarkable, but perhaps comprehensible within the annals of warfare. The rage of Moses, and the cruelty of his condemnation, is more difficult to absorb; even within the boundaries of war there are acts which are considered unacceptable, and behavior for which the circumstances of war are not considered a legitimate excuse.
Traditional commentators, constrained by the assumption of the divine nature of the text, go to great lengths to justify the actions of the Israelites and especially of Moses. The normal way to do this is to exaggerate the severity of the depravity of the Midianites, making their behavior so reprehensible that any action against them becomes justified.
The preeminent medieval commentator, Rashi, notes that Moses commands the execution of “the Lord’s vengeance” on Midian. Rashi suggests that “one who stands against [the people] Israel is as one who stands against the Holy One Blessed Be He”.
Contemporary commentators, whose assumptions about the text are respectful but not fundamentalist, see in this narrative many difficult moral problems. They attempt to respond by citing the somewhat legendary nature of the account, or by placing the story in the context of ancient ways of thinking of war and its relationship to the patron deities of the warring clans.
Whichever way we turn, however, we cannot avoid the fundamental problem of how to interpret, let alone accept, a story whose content is so obviously at odds with our own sensibilities.
We live in a time when fundamentalisms of every sort do battle with modern thought. Whether the issue is homosexuality, ordination of female clergy, abortion, “holy war”, or any number of other controversial and difficult issues, the gulf between fundamentalism and modernity appears to be widening.
Recently, Americans were shocked to discover that terrorism could infiltrate a major urban metropolis, and that plans for additional acts had been blocked at close to the last minute.1 “Islamic fundamentalists” were arrested and accused, reviving the images of confrontation with “America the Great Satan” that we remember from the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Recently, Americans were shocked when an “anti-abortion activist” assassinated a medical doctor, ironically and ostensibly in the name of the sanctity of human life.2
And not that long ago, many Jews were shocked when a “Jewish underground” in Israel was exposed before it could carry out its plans to demolish the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and attack other Arab holy places and population centers. 3
When one’s opponent becomes one’s enemy, as often is the case, actions that were perhaps considered inappropriate become legitimate. But when one’s enemy becomes the enemy of God — “as if one stands against the Holy One Blessed Be He” — then perhaps any action becomes acceptable, for what is at stake now has cosmic consequences.
The war against the Midianites is, on one level, one more account of brutality and suffering, one more chapter in the unending book of human warfare. If found recorded on an unearthed tablet in a far-flung corner of the Middle East, it would perhaps be of no more than passing interest.
But the story of the war against Midian is recorded in the Torah, and “all its paths are peace”. We who affirm the centrality of Torah to Jewish life, and who seek in Torah guidance and insight, must struggle with those parts of Torah that we cannot accept, and which we do not endorse.
This does not mean that we reject Torah, or that we see it as only one more story among so many others. It is to say, rather, that for the sake of Torah itself, we need to wrestle with the problems it brings us, not least because the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy chapter 21, attempts to place boundaries on the types of behaviors which are acceptable during war.
In other words, we are challenged by one part of the Torah to reinterpret another part. The “humanistic” emphasis of Deuteronomy challenges our passive acceptance of the “militaristic/fundamentalist” account in Numbers.
The chasm between fundamentalism and modernity remains; the grounds on which the conversation takes place are not even shared. Nonetheless, it remains our obligation to read our own texts with a critical eye, in order that the recourse to “God’s word” in defense of indefensible actions may not continue unopposed.