This week's Torah portion, D'varim, occurs this year as it often does, on Erev Tishah B'Av — the ninth day of the month of Av. While not observed in many Reform communities, it is a day on which Jews throughout the world commemorate collectively all the tragedies experienced by our people. It was on this day, according to tradition, that both of our ancient, sacred Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the first by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, the second by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Many more horrific acts committed against Jews have been associated with this date as well.
Tishah B'Av has thus become a day of intense mourning and introspection for the Jewish People. We take great pains to remember our suffering. In fact, a deep and abiding consciousness of Jewish suffering has been firmly embedded in the culture of Judaism, however we personally engage in religious practice. I think it would be accurate to refer to it as a kind of spiritual consciousness of Jewish suffering. From a social-psychological perspective, our collective memory of communal suffering has served to bond together the many factions of our community despite deep and troublesome disagreements, and it has helped to keep our people alive through dozens of generations. It may also be the origin for a sense of "Jewish guilt." The commemoration says to us, "See how your grandparents and ancestors suffered through exiles, pogroms, and other calamities. See how they survived! Don't even think about leaving the tribe!" A well-worn joke reveals our collective sense of suffering and persecution: "What is the meaning of Jewish holidays? They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let's eat!"
It may seem ironic then, that the reading for the Book of Deuteronomy always begins on or near Tishah B'Av because right here in this Torah portion, D'varim, we encounter the the divine sanction to commit genocide against our enemies. "Sihon with all his troops took the field against us at Jahaz, and the Eternal our God delivered him to us and we defeated him and his sons and all his troops. At that time we captured all his towns, and we doomed every town — men, women, and children — leaving no survivor" (Deuteronomy 2:32-34). The same fate awaited the people of Bashan a few verses later: "So the Eternal our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his troops, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left. . . . We doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon; we doomed every town — men, women, and children — and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns" (3:3-7).
The term used to denote the total annihilation of these communities is the Hebrew word, cḥerem, and it first appears in Deuteronomy in our parashah. Cherem is unambiguous in these verses. Its meaning is to exterminate.
These ancient verses serve to glorify the power of God through the absolute and total destruction of our enemies, and via God, the special status of the tribes of Israel as God's beloved people. The text reflects a time when violence, and even viciousness and brutality, were sometimes extolled as a means to achieve national goals.
Judaism has evolved and for many centuries has minimized the applicability of violence to solve problems, or to glorify God or our own selves. Yet how are we to understand these and other verses from our most sacred texts that seem to teach the opposite? Our ancient Sages often ignored violent verses; some later commentators sought to represent the violence metaphorically. The Chasidic Rabbi Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the S'fat Emet, for example, made the evil kings Sihon and Og into abstract impediments to prayer that had to be destroyed in order to get past the obstacles keeping us from the spiritual world. And the Slonimer Rebbe, Sholom Noach Berezovsky, noted that Moses began to elucidate the teachings of the Book of Deuteronomy only after the destruction of these two communities. For the Slonimer Rebbe, then, the two kingdoms and their inhabitants represent the encumbering shell of evil that must be removed in order to reach the inner level of holiness in the instruction of Torah.
These efforts are all well and good, but the biblical narrative seems too real and the details too vivid to be easily made into metaphors. And even more disturbing, there are among our people today some communities that have begun to read such verses literally as providing authority to commit horrific violence against a people who believe they have a right to live in the same land as our brethren in the State of Israel. Whether or not we agree with their position or their tactics, we know that claims of divinely ordained brutality solve no problems but only complicate and worsen them.
So what is the meaning of the strange juxtaposition between ancient tales about our own acts of genocide on the one hand, and the commemoration of our victimhood through genocide on the other? I believe it teaches us to take heed, to beware of our own tendency to try solving problems through violence. We first learn of the genocidal cḥerem in Deuteronomy just as we ourselves engage once again in the sacred annual period of mourning as victims on Tishah B'Av. It can be easy to ignore the plight of other victims if we become fixated on identifying as victims ourselves. But today we must acknowledge that we can be both victim and perpetrator. That should be a somber warning.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and Senior Fellow in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the outgoing president of the International Qur'anic Studies Association and author, most recently of Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford, 2012).