Mattot-Maasei: Torah and Peace

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mattot-Maasei 

“They took the field against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and slew every male. . . .” (Bamidbar 31:8)

Good afternoon!

The double portion which concludes the book of Bamidbar [Numbers} contains laws of vows, laws of property, a recounting of the history of the journeys of the Israelites. . . and a narrative of total war which is shocking to read. Chapter 31 relates a war against the Midianites in revenge for the events at Baal-Peor back in chapter 25.The troops kill every male, capture the women, children, and animals, and burn the towns. Upon their return, Moshe commands the troops to kill every male child and every female  from the age of sexual maturity and up (verse 17, if you don’t believe me.)

We are taught that Judaism is a religion of peace, and so we read these words with some disbelief- how can a Torah of life and peace teach ethnic cleansing? Well, it turns out that we are not the only people to ask that question; as far back as the Talmud, there is an opinion that in laying siege to a city, one side must be left open, so people who wish to escape rather than fight may do so. Maimonides picks up on this opinion as well as the verse from Deuteronomy (20:10) which commands the Israelites to first offer terms of peace to a city before attacking it; if the residents accept basic Israelite law and taxation, then there can be no further fighting. (Cf.Mishnah Torah, Law of Kings, ch. 6).*

I am somewhat comforted knowing that at least some of our ancient sages could not look on these verses comfortably, nor allow them to stand unchallenged, but there remains the question: so what do we do with this story now? If Torah is not only history, and not only law, and not only sacred narrative, but a reflection of the inner life of the Jewish people, as individuals and as a nation, how shall we understand the commandment to kill every male, even the children, in Midian?

For me, encountering the story of the war against the Midianites- man, woman and child- is like doing a “fearless moral inventory” of my Jewish soul. As we go into the introspective time before Tisha B’Av, leading within weeks to the Days of Awe, we are reminded that the world cannot be neatly divided into “us” and “them,” with all the good on one side of the ledger and all the evil on another. Each of us is the inheritor of a complex history; each of us is capable of making peace and making war, capable of greatness and cruelty. This is not a matter of moral equivalence across time or between nations. Rather, it is a simple acknowledgment that some of what Judaism stands against is found within our own texts and history, and therefore self-reflection is required when seeking to bring light to our broken world.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- for more on the rabbinic interpretations of these difficult verses, see Shlomo Riskin’s weekly commentary here. 

1 Comment »

  1. Wow – I usually read through these divrei Torah nodding happily (and occasionally borrow tidbits), but I really feel I must jump in here: “We are taught that Judaism is a religion of peace.”
    I don’t think the single word “peace” encapsulates Judaism any more than “Shabbat” or “kashrut” might. It is a religion “of” doing God’s will, whatever that might be – and sometimes, it takes a form that is dismaying to “modern sensibilities.” A few more thoughts here, because I didn’t want to tie up all your comments space! 😉

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