This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).
This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."
Our biblical forebears were actually quite militant, and the religion they believed in sometimes sanctioned extremely violent behaviors. Our ancestors carved out political independence that lasted for centuries, conquered neighboring peoples, and even vanquished the great Greek armies of Antiochus, which we commemorate every year in the religious festival of Hanukkah. But the Judean armies lost two massive and catastrophic wars against the Roman Empire that cost and uprooted millions of Jewish lives. As a result, the survivors reconstituted Jewish life in ways that avoided military engagement.
That created a dilemma with regard to the militant parts of our sacred scripture. What are we to do with all the calls in the Tanach to battle our many enemies? Through the ancient tradition of Hebrew Bible commentary, our Sages imagined a range of lessons that were embedded or even hidden within God's words of Revelation. Perhaps the verses referring to war at the obvious external level were intending to convey a deeper, and less obvious, spiritual message.
Some commentators who read the message of Torah in interesting and often deeply spiritual ways were the early Chasidic masters. Here is an example from Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (d. 1905), who is better known for the title of his best-known work, the S'fat Emet, "The Language of Truth" (see Arthur Green, The Language of Truth, JPS, 1998).
The S'fat Emet sees this opening sentence to our Torah portion cited above as a reference to the daily struggle of making it through to the end of the workweek. "In everything there is a point of divine life, but it is secret and hidden. Throughout the days of the week we are engaged in a battle and struggle to find that point ... " In other words, there is meaning to our daily, often mundane struggles, and it is our job to uncover that meaning. "During the week we need to do battle. ... The Sabbath comes only in response to our weekday struggles ... the Sabbath, on which it is revealed that God gives life to all."
The S'fat Emet also sees our opening verse as a reference to the constant struggle to fight the yetzer hara or "evil inclination," a kind of personification of the negative impulses that we all feel. He teaches that "We must realize that the strength we have to fight the evil inclination ... comes only from God, as in [the verse cited above], "... and the Eternal your God delivers them into your hand."
The S'fat Emet is reading the Hebrew slightly differently from the translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, cited above. The literal Hebrew meaning of this verse is, "When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers him into your hand ... " It can even be read as, "When you go out to war against your enemies, the Eternal your God will deliver him into your hand ... " The S'fat Emet notes that the sentence begins by referring to many enemies, but God will deliver a single enemy — "him into your hand." He understands this as a reference to the internal enemy — the natural human tendency to cut corners, to cheat, not to tell the whole truth, and worse. In short, the enemy referred to in the verses is the personal, human inclination to do evil.
The last part of the verse is "and you take some of them captive." That part is also rendered in the singular in the original Hebrew: "and you take him (or "it") captive." By taking the yetzer hara captive we overcome our natural human tendency to cut corners and make bad choices. But it is profoundly difficult to take one's negative urge captive, to overcome our impulse to act recklessly and make bad decisions when we should know better. Overcoming our evil inclination is nevertheless possible because "God will [give you the strength if you are open, to] deliver it into your hand."
This is the internal war. We are only human, and it is virtually impossible to always overcome our tendency to do the wrong thing. If we think we can handle it all alone, we are fooling ourselves. And I think that is how the S'fat Emet understood God's intervention in delivering it into our hand. We cannot do it single-handedly. But when we acknowledge our limitations, we are better positioned to allow the overwhelming goodness that is God-within to give us the strength to do what should be done.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters are struggling with the same issues that we are in the notion of the external and internal war. In Islam, jihad can mean both: the external struggle against physical enemies and the internal struggle to overcome our human tendency to do the wrong thing. The Muslim world never suffered horrific destruction such as our ancestors experienced when they tried to invoke the biblical commands for violence against the Roman enemy. Islamic civilization declined but never experienced the overwhelming catastrophe that we experienced. Naturally, therefore, they did not need to reimagine and reinterpret the violent verses in the Qur'an that parallel the violent verses in the Torah. Today, however, the current catastrophe that has infected much of the Muslim world is producing a reassessment of the meaning of war. Increasingly, Muslims in this country and abroad have rejected the view that the Qur'an is calling for physical violence in those verses. More and more are reading them instead as a call to engage in an internal jihad to overcome the evil inclination, a reading that parallels the approach of the S'fat Emet.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and author of Holy War in Judaism and also Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam.