This blog is written by the National Director of Together For Humanity Foundation (TFH), Rabbi Zalman Kastel. It explores contemporary social issues as these relate to an Orthodox understanding of the Torah, (the Bible) and other Jewish sources. This blog which shares the personal thoughts and journey of an Australian Jewish man is part of the bridge building work of TFH and is written for readers of many faiths and none. It often references the Sidra, the weekly Torah reading.
Image by Bas Leenders, used under Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike
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words scream accusingly off the page. Moses, himself, raged against the
officers of his army returning from a war of vengeance against the nation of
Midian. Moses asked rhetorically, “Have you allowed all the females to live?”
about this two years ago, but the words don’t fail to disturb me anew. How can
I reconcile my belief in the inherent worth of all humans, while also affirming
the holiness of this sacred text? I don’t have an answer but I still feel
compelled to explore and probe this text. First, by providing the context for
how this text is read today in contrast with its historical context. Secondly,
by reviewing how traditional scholars have responded to the text in their
commentary and, finally, by offering a comment of my own.
does not permit this kind of behaviour today. This was an instruction, for a
particular time over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses. Jews no longer have
prophets and, therefore, no- one has the authority that Moses had (2). Most
modern Jews are not aware of this particular passage. As for those who are
aware of it, it is understood in more abstract and metaphoric terms. One
example of this is the teaching that Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation,
is symbolic of baseless hatred which we must eradicate from ourselves (3).
context of the passage above was a battle ordered by God and presented in the
text as revenge against the people of Midian. They (and the Moabites) sought to
deliberately destroy the Israelites’ spiritual lives, by sending their
daughters to seduce Israelite men and then pressure them to worship the false
god Peor, thus incurring upon themselves Divine wrath(4). Theirs was a hostile
act that attacked our way of life, at its core (5).
it may still not justify the deeds in this story, we need to recognise the
difference in the conditions of war today, among those who adhere to the Geneva
Conventions, in contrast with the conditions of all-out war in ancient times.
Today, nations can resort to sanctions to deter others from trampling on their
rights, or engage in a limited military operation to protect their interests.
In order to survive in ancient times, it is argued that you needed to be as
cruel as other nations were (6).
from a modern critical perspective, our earliest commentators did not appear at
all concerned about Moses’ desire to see the women dead. On the contrary, we
find that Moses had asserted that the battle against Midian was God’s revenge,
not that of the Israelites because he argued that “if we had been idol
worshippers the Midianites would not hate us or pursue us” (7). Because of
this perspective, Moses had a great desire to witness the revenge against Midian
before he died (8). The Midianites led the Israelites to sin and ‘leading a
person to sin is considered more serious than killing him!’ (9).
a later commentator read the phrase “have you allowed all the females to
live?” not as a complaint that the Israelites did not kill all the women,
but that they allowed all the women to live, including those who had been
recognised as being the perpetrators, who seduced the Jewish men and then
pressured them into worshiping idols (10).
Another argument was advanced that Phineas and the
soldiers did not judge the women to be deserving of punishment because they would
have been under the control of their husbands and forced into offering their
bodies for the war effort (11). In addition, while two nations engaged in these
bizarre battle tactics of using women to lead the Israelites to sin, revenge
was taken on only one, Midian, while Moab was spared. This is explained by the
fact that Moab felt genuinely threatened by the Israelites (12). These
commentaries reflect that, at least, some value was placed on the lives of the
Israelites’ “enemies” in our tradition.
exploration of this text is far from comprehensive. As I did on my blog two
years ago, (2), I leave this matter unresolved. I take some comfort from the
fact that I am not the first to be concerned about these deeds. Scholars
believe that questions were asked at the time and that Moses himself was
disturbed and angered by aspects of the killing (13). A senior editor of
Chabad.org wrote that the “war of retribution on the Midianites...sends
chills down my spine” (14). He asserts that “Jews are supposed to ask these
questions, even if the answers are not satisfactory”. In asking these questions,
we emphasise our abhorrence of genocide and racism, and our tendency to read
these texts primarily as metaphoric messages about the importance of rejecting
senseless hatred and the disruption of the cultural and spiritual lives of
8)Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash
9)Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5
10)Seforno on Numbers 31:15
11)Ohr Hachayim Numbers 31:16. However, in the end
this argument was countered by the argument that the women had of their own
volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols, which
went further than the acts that they were coerced into by the men.
12)Ralbag, on Numbers 15, Balak, Toelles 1, Mosad
Rav Kook edition, p. 135, and Chizkuni
It is appalling
to see the silencing of “men or women of God” or other voices of conscience
when they are advocating for justice or compassion. I am not denying that
there are scoundrels, who cloak themselves in righteousness or clerical robes
and promote cruelty or foolishness. However, this blog focuses on the
thwarting of people like artists, journalists, cartoonists and clergy, in their
roles as social critics. The people who are supposed to be the brakes on the
darker impulses of the powerful and the many, are prevented from playing their
vital role in speaking for virtue, the weak and the few. This is like players
in a sport turning on the referee.
This calls for
some clarification: I would like to emphasise that I am not concerned
about people offering alternative views. What concerns me is when they attack
the legitimacy of credible people with whom they disagree.
According to one
scholar, this is the meaning of a peculiar expression in the Talmud relating to
Joshua, the prophet. Joshua was one of twelve spies, who returned to the desert
from Canaan (1). He dissented from the views of ten of his fellow spies, who
were opposed to God’s plan for the Israelites to go to the Promised Land.
The majority were not content to argue their case on its merits. Instead,
according to the Talmud (2), when Joshua tried to speak, they shut him up with
the following statement: “Will this severed head speak?!”
According to one
commentary (3), the strange phrase was an attack on Joshua’s status and
legitimacy or standing in the discussion. Moses had added the letter Yud
(Y), which is the first letter of God’s name, to Joshua’s name, changing it
from Hoshea, to Yehoshua (4). This name change symbolised his special status as
being one of two spies, deemed aligned to God (5). The other spies sought to
dismiss Joshua’s special status with the suggestion that the “head of his
name”, the additional Yud from the name of God, was disconnected or severed
from the rest of his name and not legitimately part of his name at all. The
technicalities in this case are quaint but the tactic is all too common today.
One response to
the tactic is often for social critics to get creative in order to get people’s
attention, using click bait or humour. Another strategy that is quite risky, is
for the social critic to give the impression that s/he agrees with the mob, but
then, when s/he gets their attention, to say what s/he really thinks. Caleb,
Joshua’s fellow dissenting spy, tried that approach with limited impact (6).
Often this leads
to frustration on the part of the social critic. “Joshua the son of Nun and
Caleb…tore their clothes” to express their grief (7). They continued to
speak their truth while no one was listening. The catastrophe they sought to
prevent, came to pass, with the Israelites’ anticipated entry into the Promised
Land delayed by a generation. Failure, at least some of the time, comes
with the territory.
some cases, there are at least partial victories that protect some people or
preserve some principle. Those of us who find ourselves in roles advocating for
compassion and justice, need to be prepared for our opponents to try to sever
our “heads”, to deny our legitimacy. We need to ensure that our egos do not
cloud our judgement - it is not about us - and that our emotions are
managed well. Then, we need to get in there and do what we can.
For all of us,
the message is that good “followership” is just as important as good
leadership. If we are ever tempted to discredit people we know to be good,
albeit imperfect, people, let us instead listen to their arguments on their
merit, instead of trying to silence them, if they are saying what we don’t want
(1) Numbers 13
(2) Talmud Sota 35a
(3) Maharsha, (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles,
lived 1555-1631) on Sota 34b and 35a, building on what he deemed a forced
explanation by the Aruch.
(4) Numbers 13:16
(5) Maharsha explains that, while God would have
preferred just two spies to gather practical information, the people had insisted
on a broader mission for the spies to determine if they should proceed with the
conquest of Canaan at all. This expanded purpose required representatives from
each of the twelve tribes.