Friday, July 21, 2017

Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot

Image by Bas Leenders,  used under Creative Commons License
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The 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?” (1)

I wrote 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.

Judaism 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).

The 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).

While 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).

Disturbingly, 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).

However, 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.

My 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 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 others.

1)       Numbers 31:14-15
3)       The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
4)       Numbers 25:18, 31:1-2, read in relation to Numbers 25:1-3
5)       Samson Raphael Hirsch on Numbers 31:3
6)       Rav Kook, Igros Hareia, vol 1, p. 100, cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי,
7)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 2.
8)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash Tanchuma
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
13)   Chasam Sofer, Klei Yakar on Matos

Monday, July 10, 2017

Silenced Man of God – Joshua, the “severed head” - Shlach

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.

Fortunately, in 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 to hear.


(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.
(6)    Talmud Sota 35a 

(7)     Numbers 14:6