When War Includes Women And Children
07/17/12
Special To The Jewish Week
Shlomo Riskin
Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:04 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 30:2 - 36:13 
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28;
3:4; 4:1-2
Havdalah: 9:09 p.m.    

Our portion of Matot opens with God’s vengeance against Midian, an avowed enemy of the Israelites who had joined Balak, the king of Moab, in the hiring of Balaam to curse Israel. The Midianites also seduced Israelite men into having forbidden sexual relations with Midianite women and engaging in idolatrous orgiastic worship of the Midianite gods. Israel was therefore enjoined to go to war against a nation that had demonstrated their desire to see Israel vanquished.

“And they warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew every male. … And Moses said, ‘So now kill every male child, and every woman [capable of sexual relations] you shall kill. But all the female children that had not know sexual relations, keep alive (as servants)” [Numbers 31:7; 15-19].

The Bible records Moses’ insistence that the young Midianite women (capable of further sexual indiscretions) be killed, along with the male Midianite children. How difficult is all of this carnage to the modern ear? How can we possibly justify such action, even if it was against a nation which had already lifted its banner for Israel’s disappearance from the face of the earth?!

What we must remember as we read the Bible is that we believe we are studying a God-given text from the earliest times of recorded history, more than 4,000 years ago, but that it was never intended that every verse is necessarily applicable to every generation.

Our tradition insists that alongside the written Torah, there is an Oral Torah, a vibrant and still developing legal system which determines which biblical laws only applied to the ancient world, which were open to limitation, re-interpretation and even expansion in different generations, and which were deemed unchanging and immutable for all times.

The arena of warfare is probably the one in which sweeping change from Biblical law is most evident. The Torah commands, “But in waging war against the people from the cities which the Lord God has given you for an inheritance, you shall not allow any person to live. Rather you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizite, the Hivvite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God commanded you. This is so that they may not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they performed for their gods and sin before the Lord your God” [Deut 20:16-18].

Apparently, at that juncture in history, there was no other way to wage and win a war, and unless we had a national homeland, the nation of Israel never would have emerged. Our historic mission would have been still-born. It would seem that these particular nations were especially evil and heinous, addicted to inhuman and sexual acts of violence in their idolatrous orgies. They had to be extirpated if a moral society was to emerge and influence the world. 

The Talmud, therefore, insists that the command to “utterly destroy” every inhabitant of our enemies only applied to the specific nations singled out by the Bible during the early Biblical period. During the First Commonwealth, King Sennacherib of Assyria conquered the lands of the Middle East and confounded the indigenous people by forcing them to re-settle in different areas and to intermarry with their new neighbors.  Hence the ethnic nations identified by the Bible no longer exist and so the law demanding their total destruction no longer applies [B.T. Berachot 28a].

Moreover, Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that it is forbidden for a Jew to wage war against any nation or individual, whether of the seven indigenous nations, Midian, or even Amalek, unless the enemy is given the option of making peace and accepting the seven Noahide laws of morality [Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6:1].  Once they agree to become moral individuals, we dare not harm them. According to this view, this was the case even in the Biblical period.

There is also a fascinating interpretation of Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, of the Volozhin yeshiva. He argues that the Biblical command to kill women and children only applies to those who were acting in the service of the enemy. We could never have been commanded to harm perfectly innocent human beings, created in God’s image.

When we think of the women and children who are being encouraged and trained by al Qaeda, Hamas and Fatah to become suicide bombers, when we realize how Hamas terrorists used innocent Palestinians as their protective human shields so that they can continue their evil murders, then we understand how Israelis are sometimes compelled to fire at women and children for our own self protection and the protection of the free world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Last Update:

07/17/2012 - 19:49

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