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?
As a Reform Jew and a layperson, I have always marveled at the ability of our rabbinical leaders to lead us to see ideas within the Bible that are not always apparent to us. At the same time, however, I have been taught by some of my teachers to be very careful lest we go overboard in reading into the text ideas and concepts that are not present. Such would be my conclusion relative to this parashah of Matot and the extension drawn from its words to the politics of our moment in history.
Like so many laypeople, I am concerned about the use of the biblical text to lead people to take particular political positions for or against specific personalities. What can be read into the text by one may not be read into the text by another. So for me, I am instructed by what we learn from our Reform commentary, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005]).
Rabbi Plaut has been very specific in suggesting to us that Jews throughout history have been challenged by the moral questions of the requirement to slaughter combatants, women, and children, as occurs here in the text. Is Moses angry that the women were kept alive as a way of enhancing the amount of the spoils of war to be distributed? Or was he angry just because the women and some of the children were kept alive? Plaut points out that we should always keep in mind the time and place of biblical writing. These thoughts and acts were in keeping with the context of the time (ibid., pp. 1,110–1,111).
But even more, Plaut teaches us that this historical narrative was probably written long after the fact and is not meant to be taken literally. The numbers are much too large to be actual. Long after this event, Israel still encountered Midianites and so had not utterly destroyed them. Plaut writes, "The biblical account . . . represents a reconstruction of history as a statement of what should have happened rather than what actually happened. It doubtlessly came from an age when Israel had trouble with the native inhabitants of its conquered peoples . . ." (ibid., p. 1,111). I take from this a number of lessons concerning Reform Judaism and Torah.
First, Reform Jews read Torah differently than many other Jews. We are able to maintain its sanctity while challenging its literal words. Second, we can ask moral questions about the actions suggested in the text as to how they might or might not relate to our times. Surely, this section in Matot applies. What about other sections of biblical text? For example, how about the morality of Jacob's stealing the birthright? What about the notion of slavery?
Finally we must be very careful in how we might use the text. The third commandment of Aseret HaDib'rot ,which suggests we should not take the name of God in vain (old translation), might be understood in the following way: certain sacred things should be used very carefully and not taken lightly. Extracting political doctrine from the biblical text may be just such an example
Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012