Friday, July 17, 2015

“Defensive” genocide?! wrestling with Numbers 31:14-18- Mattot Maasei

A young Muslim man approached me the other week at a Shiite Islamic centre where I had been warmly welcomed. He quoted a section of the Torah in which Moses reprimanded Jewish soldiers for not killing the females during a battle 1. Moses commanded them to kill the mature women who had “known a man to lie with” 2 and the male children, but to allow the young girls to live. 3  I did not know how to respond. Luckily for me, a community leader told the young man to leave me alone as “this is not appropriate”. However, I continue to struggle with this passage.

Judaism is not suggesting that this passage has any relevance for action today. This was an instruction for action in a particular time, over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses who was trusted “to know the will of God”. Jews no longer have prophets and therefore no one has the authority to do as Moses did. In my Chabad tradition, Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is taught as being symbolic of baseless hatred 4. A recent scholar has argued that it was only “in ancient times, when all nations that were around (the Israelites) were like ‘wolves waiting in ambush’, that it was necessary to fight (in this way), otherwise they would annihilate the rest of Israel, God forbid. And moreover, they needed to conduct themselves with cruelty to frighten/deter the savages among men 5.”  

The context of the above passage was a battle commanded by God, presented in the text as revenge 6 against the people of Midian because they: “distress 7 you with their plots 8 which they contrived against you in the incident of (the idol) Peor and in the incident of Cozbi their sister…” 9 This is understood as a strategy deployed by Midian to deliberately harm the Jews spiritually, that used the daughters of Midian 10 to seduce Jewish men and then pressure them to worship Peor. An argument is made that Midian continued to be an on-going threat and killing them was an act of self-defence. It might be read today as a morality tale that teaches the dangers of lust and its spiritual risks, although it positions the threat as external, in the non-Jewish female “other” rather than focusing on the lust in the Jewish male heart. One problematic dynamic at work in prejudice is essentialising the other 11. The Midianites are portrayed as an evil threat 12 based on “their very nature13.

We recently marked the 20th year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre and genocide. I shudder to think that the human family, by a combination of action inaction and thought can still sink to such evil. I reflect on my experience in a Melbourne taxi. The Serbian driver told me his narrative. “The world doesn’t understand the true nature of the Serb’s enemies “, he asserted. He argued that the “others” were essentially terrible people, based on historical grievances dating back to the 1200’s, and that he thought Serbian actions against them were justified. It made me realise how people could be persuaded of the supposed essential evil of the “other” and the “morality” of perpetrating violence, despite the concern and condemnation of the “whole world”. I suggest that the fact that Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman, Tzipora 14, is an effective refutation of this essentialist argument, both in terms of Midian and generally. 

Ironically one argument for killing the children, which certainly amounts to genocide, is based on the threat from the children of the enemy when they grow up.  “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you” 15. An example of this is the case of Haman 16, a descendent of Amalek, another divinely ordered undesirable people who were to be destroyed. Amalek began the process with an unprovoked hateful attack on the Jews in the desert. This nation was almost completely annihilated by King Saul many centuries later, but a survivor managed eventually to produce this descendant, Haman. This same Haman who argued “that there is one people, spread between the nations, whose customs are different” 17 and that this justified their genocide. Without irony, the same words להשמיד להרוג ולאבד, to “destroy to kill and annihilate”18, that were proposed for the Jews because of Haman’s decree are also used about the intended action against Midian 19. What an astonishing example of karma, blow-back, and the failure of genocide as a security measure.

It is useful to draw attention to teachings that raises concerns about the ethics of this killing. One commentary draws attention to Moses’ anger when learning that the women have been kept alive.  His anger is explained by the fact that "Certainly by law, it is not proper to kill the male children".  Although another consideration “forced” Moses to violate this principle of law, he was angry that he is in a situation where he is ordering this killing. Moses’ anger, and perhaps underlying distress, is so great that he errs in a separate matter of law in the following passage, in which it is left for Elazar to speak the laws. The justice of killing the women, who were pressured into offering their bodies to the spiritual warfare by men, has also been questioned by the leader of the battle Pineas himself. However in the end this was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols.

In the end, I am still troubled by the passage the young man approached me about. It helps that this is not a directive for behaviour today but is instead taken metaphorically as a message against baseless hatred. It was a specific instruction by someone presumed to know the “mind of God”’ in a particular context thousands of years ago. As man evolves, we learn more compassionate and less destructive ways of dealing with threats and grievances, which some of us practice, some of the time. The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and the restorative justice approach are two examples of better ways to deal with past harm. Diplomacy and negotiation can sometimes be effective in preventing future harm. Part of my truth is that my relationship with God and Torah is not entirely based on logic, but rather one that continues despite the tensions of my passionate rejection of defensive genocide, certainly in the modern context, while also holding on to the holy Torah.

I would be grateful for readers’ comments and thoughts, which can be sent to me at

1  Numbers 31:14-18
2 Translation of these words by Arye Kaplan in “The Living Torah” edition, who renders יודעת איש למשכב  as actually having “known a man ”rather than being of the age at which she could “know” a man which is the view mentioned by Rashi. This is discussed in the Talmud, Yevamot, 60B
3 Numbers 31:18, the words in the text about the young women are “keep alive for yourselves” has this has been mistranslated as “take for yourselves” and misunderstood by some people who have never read the text in the Hebrew as allowing sexual slavery. Traditionally these words have been interpreted in the Talmud, Yevamot 60b, discusses their being kept alive for future marriage or to serve as maidservants and an instruction to convert them to Judaism by Ohr Hachayim,
4 The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
5 Rav Kook, Letters of the Seeing, Part, p.100, (אגרות הראיה ח"א עמ' ק) cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי, thanks to R. Y. G. Bechhofer for drawing this article to my attention
6 Numbers 31:1-2
7 The Hebrew word is צוררים (Tzoririm). I have deliberately chosen the translation of renders it as “they distress you” in the present continuous tense. This is similar to the translation of Unkelus who renders it asאינון לכון  מעיקין (Me-ikin Inun Lchon), “distressing to you”, this is also the translation of the King James Bible. This supports a self-defence argument made by the commentary of Klei Yakar that they are “still distressing you, and perhaps God knew what was in the hearts of the Midyanites that their rage had still not subsided and that they are still distressing (you), thinking thoughts” and wicked plots. Ibn Ezra followed by the New King James and many other translations that pop up in a quick google search render it as part tense which fits better with the text of this verse but cancel any self-defence argument and narrow the meaning of the war against Midian to be being just about revenge. The word can also be translated as a noun which might be translated as “antagonists”. This approach is taken (I believe) by the translation of the Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel who renders it as עייקון (Eikun) in Aramaic  
8 This word is in the plural which is hard to explain according to the approach taken by Ibn Ezra see previous note, but fit better with the approach of the Klei Yakar
9 Numbers 25:18
10 This plot is linked to the verse…, one resolution to this contradiction is that the Midyanite women pretended to be Moabites (Abarabanel)
11 Stuart Hall in his work on representations is one scholar who develops this theme
12 Ralbag Bamidbar 31-32, Matos, Toelles 4, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 177, Abarbanel
13 Ralbag ibid, states of the Midianites, "they are prepared for (harming the Jews) because of their nature, (acquired as it were from the) the rock that they were hewn from"
14 Exodus
15 Numbers 33:55, also cited by Abarbanel in relation to the war against Midyan
16 Ralbag Bamidbar 31-32, Matos, Toelles 4, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 177
17 Esther 3:8
18 Esther 3:13
19 Abarbanel

Friday, July 10, 2015

Cross-cultural generosity, not mean-spiritedness

Cooking Kosher dinner,
vegetables and veggie
burgers on a sandwich maker
at the Aly home.
Last week I posted an impassioned grave side sermon by Mohammad Hoblos, a Lebanese Muslim preacher (i) on Facebook Hoblos told the mourners at the funeral of Hedi Ayoub: "there are no gangsters in paradise", "...twenty-two years old, built like a tank... (a) one dollar (bullet) brought him to the ground" and quoted a line from a rap song: "Why are we so blind to see that the ones we hurt are you and me?". He spoke against glorifying violence and materialism and stated that a Muslim who kills another Muslim will never get to heaven.  One Facebook comment, however, got caught up on the inward focus of the talk - “Why doesn’t he talk about the real issues, such as ISIS and violence against non-Muslims?”! 

It is wrong to look at Muslims in general through the lens of ISIS and terrorism. Hoblos was certainly talking about issues that are very real to people he actually knows.   A generous approach would be to look at the merit of what he was saying, at an open grave no less, rather than seeking faults in what he didn’t say.  In fact, many of my Facebook friends of Jewish and other backgrounds did make positive
and appreciative comments afterwards about Hoblos’ sermon, e.g. “that was a great post yesterday of the speech at funeral...”.

Last week I myself experienced the cross-cultural generosity of a Muslim family.  Zohra and Abbas Aly had invited me for dinner at their home, which is difficult for me because of the way I practice Kosher. I can’t eat anything cooked in pots used for non-Kosher, for example. They generously agreed to allow me to cook my meal on a sandwich maker in their own kitchen!

The theme of generosity can also be found, if one looks for it, in the Torah reading this past week. God commanded the Jews to take revenge against Midyan (ii). While a critical approach would, reasonably, focus on the revenge, a more generous approach will probe further.

The crime that Midyan was to be punished for, according to our oral tradition, was that the Midyanites and Moabites used sex as a weapon of war. Not by raping the enemies’ women, as still happens today, but as a way to spiritually destroy the Jews by having their own daughters seduce Jewish men and then pressure them to worship the gods of their enemies. 

In this context, spiritual strength or weakness was everything. The Moabites and Midyanites had sought to destroy the Jews through the curses of the sorcerer Balaam.  Balaam had let them down by blessing the Jews instead of cursing them, yet he also provided a clue to their vulnerability (iii).  He asserted that God “did not look at evil in Jacob (iv)”. Balaam went on to advise his clients that if the Jews could be led to sin this will result in their destruction (v). This plan was implemented although the Torah places responsibility (vi), at least initially, on the Jewish men who we are told “began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites. They (the Moabite daughters) invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods (vii)”.

Despite the Moabites participation in this bizarre sin, they are not included in Gods planned vengeance, which is restricted to Midyan. This is for two reasons involving generous thinking. One is the fact that the Moabites legitimately feared attack by the Jews (viii).  A second is that although, technically speaking the Jews had done nothing against the Moabites, they had possession of land that had been traditionally Moabite. The Jews had conquered that land in a war with the Emorites who had themselves taken the land from the Moabites. This legitimate grievance is seen as a significant mitigating factor (ix). 

My thoughts and prayers are with the Hedi Ayoub, his family, friends and community. Just as, when I was grieving over the violent loss of my brothers’ friend, the late Gabi Holzberg, in the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, many of my Muslim friends sent me messages of condolence. Let us respond to each other, in good times and bad, with cross-cultural compassion and generosity.

i., also available at in full, or edited version at
ii.    Numbers 25:18
iii.    Chizkuni
iv.    Numbers 23:21
v.    Talmud Sanhedrin 105, also see allusion to Balaam in Number 31:16
vi.    Lebovitz, N, New Studies in Bamidbar
vii.    Numbers 25:1-2
viii.    Ralbag
ix.    Chizkuni

Friday, July 3, 2015

Political Correctness: Boat People, Balaam and Muslims

The objection to political correctness is often used to justify insensitive, divisive and destructive speech. A man approached me this week at the Synagogue to say he supports the relentless, harsh rhetoric in the media and by some of our politicians about Muslims and terrorism because he doesn’t believe in political correctness. I disagree. While political correctness should not be allowed to stifle purposeful debate or criticism of specific people who do wrong, speech that generalises or disproportionately emphasises the negative, is unjust and irresponsible.

Elizabeth Ban, a giant spirit who passed away last week, facilitated dialogue between Jews and Muslims. This helped people in both communities develop a more realistic as well as positive understanding of each other.

Elizabeth had one last task she wanted to accomplish before she died. She sought to change the conversation about asylum seekers in the Sydney Jewish community. She made a good start by initiating an event at which 60 members of the community connected with asylum seekers (1). The following joke might help continue her mission: Dark- skinned young comedian, Suren Jayemanne, gets asked if he is a “boat person”? No, he replies, I am a car person actually. I’m really into cars, I hate sailing. It reminds me of the 7 months it took me to get to Australia… A pause, a little shock, and then everyone laughed: the “othering” term, ‘boat person’, is made to sound ridiculous.

The danger of negative speech plays out in our Torah reading (2). A man named Balaam faced a dramatic and successful attempt, involving a talking ass (3), an angel and God himself, to silence him. 

The colourful story begins with the one-eyed (4) sorcerer, Balaam, being asked to curse the Jews. While Balaam is on his way to do this, an angel is sent to stop him, he is reprimanded by his donkey, and finally God, Himself, puts words in his mouth that force him to bless and praise the Jews instead of cursing them.

The story is puzzling. Why would it have mattered if Balaam cursed the Jews?! Surely, only God decides if curses can have any impact (5).

There are four ways to think about this, all useful.

a) The impact of the curses would have caused distress to the target of the curses. “People then and now are impressed by sorcerers. The Israelites in those times, particularly the women and children (6), would have been greatly affected by the maledictions of such a renowned sorcerer (7)”. The impact on the Muslim community, particularly the young people, of being continually demonised, is substantial, unjust and unhelpful.  

b) The impact of the curses, had they been allowed to be spoken, would have been to embolden the enemies of the Jews (8). Again, this has relevance. The relentless, harsh rhetoric by politicians and the media encourages citizens who harbour prejudice, to express it both verbally and physically. In the case of asylum seekers, it reinforces prejudice and antipathy to the “boat people”.

c) Words have a spiritual, self-fulfilling impact. Negative speech can elicit negative behaviour from the targeted person, while praise strengthens the positive elements and potential in the person being spoken about (9).

d) At the literal level, our tradition clearly sees the prevention of the curses as being a protective and loving act by God for the Jewish people. “But the Lord, your God, did not want to listen to Balaam. So the Lord, your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord, your God, loves you” (10).

Words matter. There are times when circumstances legitimately call for criticism of specific or even systemic problems and the people or groups responsible for these problems. Serious debate between philosophies, world views and even faiths can serve to tease out the truth, and this requires disregarding political correctness. However, often, negative speech serves no legitimate purpose while being quite destructive. If one has nothing nice to say, it might be time to “open both eyes” to see the full picture of both the admirable qualities alongside the faults, rather than seeking to verbally destroy like a “one- eyed” Balaam.


2)    Numbers 22-25
3)    Ralbag suggests that the whole encounter between Balaam and his donkey was a dream
4)    Talmud Sanhedrin 105a, states that Balaam was blind in one eye
5)    Ralbag
6)    The sexist implication in this explanation needs to be seen in the context of the time, centuries ago, when this was written.
7)    Ibn Kaspi, Joseph, Tirat Kesef, cited in Lebovitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar
8)    Abarbanel
9)    The Lubavitcher Rebbe
10)    Deuteronomy 23:6