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.
Friday, July 21, 2017
Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot
Image by Bas Leenders, used under Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike
2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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