We begin our parashah in the fortieth, and thus, final year of Israel's desert trek toward the Promised Land. The people are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. The Israelites are preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael as a trained fighting force, ready to dispossess the native Canaanites and take possession of the land promised on oath by God.
Moses initiates a war against the Midianites (Numbers 31:3–4), purportedly to avenge the people for the sin of the Midianites. Recall that a Midianite woman, Cozbi, used sex to lure an Israelite named Zimri into illicit carnal relations—a deed abruptly ended by the spear of Pinchas, which dispatched both participants at once (Numbers 25:6–8, 25:15). Presumably her transgression spurred the men to acts of idolatry. (Some confusion lingers over this passage, because we learn that Moabite women, not Midianites, used sex as a lure and then "invited the [Israelite] menfolk to the sacrifices for their god") (Numbers 25:2).
But here our text targets Midianites. The Israelite warriors slaughter all their males and especially their kings (Numbers 31:7–8), as well as "every woman who has known a man carnally" (Numbers 31:17), sparing only the virgin females (Numbers 31:18).
After the slaughter, Moses instructs that "every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself . . ." (Numbers 31:19).
W. Gunther Plaut regards this "ritual atonement" as "a unique provision in any human code" ( The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,111), one that "introduces certain meliorating rules" (like tithes on the spoils claimed in battle). Parenthetically, Plaut continues:
(These may be compared to the various Geneva conventions of modern times applying themselves not to war as such but to the treatment of prisoners and civilians whose fate is to be bettered in conflicts still to occur.) . . . The realities have not changed greatly to this day, except that in many ways modern war may have increased the cruelties practiced in ancient, more "primitive" times. (Ibid.,emphasis added)
How sad, and true, is this last remark.
Many of us who read this section of our Torah portion understandably shudder at the religiously commanded slaughter, especially when Moses remarks in disgust, "You have spared every female!" (Numbers 31:15) before ordering their deaths, too.
But we should approach cautiously in contrasting our twenty-first-century sensibilities against biblical views of warfare. A compelling case could in fact be made that the wars of the last century and this century display humankind at our most brutal since the dawn of time. Certainly the cumulative wartime death toll since 1900 lends evidence to this claim.
Our increasingly sophisticated technologies of warfare have enabled us to wreak unprecedented destruction from an unprecedented remove—a remove both geographical and emotional. Increasingly commonplace "shock and awe" tactics of aerial bombardment do present less of a risk to military personnel than does a ground assault, but at the cost of death and injury to how many civilians?
Furthermore, we have seen in our most recent conflict in Iraq evidence that protracted war may erode basic morality. The crimes at Abu Ghraib alone should cause us sufficient discomfort in alleging any moral superiority of present-day wars over biblical wars.
The War on Terror has also been exploited by our government to justify the torture of detainees. The current administration's morally dubious defense of torture (on the grounds that the practice is warranted by the threats posed by "enemy combatants") further tarnishes any disparaging claims we might make about the "primitive" wartime practices of our biblical forebears.
In 2005, the Reform Movement passed "a Resolution on Torture that affirms the validity of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party and the legal definitions of torture present in international law, and demands that the U.S. enforce and uphold domestic laws and Supreme Court rulings that make torture illegal" (as cited on the Web site of the Religious Action Center, www.rac.org). Thoughtful, influential leaders from across the political spectrum—both Republicans and Democrats—endorse this position.
That URJ resolution cites a case presented before the Supreme Court of Israel. The contours of the argument go like this: "On the one hand, the prisoner is a human being, created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), and as such is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. On the other hand, there may exist a clear and present danger to the lives of innocent persons, whose death and injury might be prevented by information that the suspect can provide" ("Resolution on Torture," submitted by the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees to the 68th Union for Reform Judaism General Assembly, passed—Houston, November 2005, as cited on www.rac.org).
It turns out that "the Court held that even in a ‘ticking bomb' scenario, torture or physical coercion is banned without exception. Experience has taught that there are more effective and moral ways of extracting information from detainees that do not reach beyond the bounds of law" (ibid.). "Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak stated in an article after the Court's decision: ‘The war against terrorism also requires the interrogation of terrorists, which must be conducted according to the ordinary rules of interrogation. Physical force must not be used in these interrogations; specifically, the persons being interrogated must not be tortured'" (ibid.).
This Israeli ruling highlights the complexity of legislating moral conduct during warfare. Yet instead of despairing of our capacity to compel moral behavior in wartime, it insists all the more that ethical standards must be applied and enforced—especially in war.
War has always been a brutalizing, dehumanizing affair, both for combatants and civilians. Our Torah portion this week makes this fact abundantly clear.
But have we really come so far?