Radicalism in a Shaking World
As we come to the conclusion of the book
of Numbers, we read in the Torah chapters how the Israelites
are preparing to enter the Promised Land and wage war with
the nations living there.
Don’t the Biblical battles set the precedent for
all the religious wars fought throughout history, including
the violence we are experiencing today?!
This essay – second of a series – debunks some
fundamental myths about Biblical violence, and actually
reveals quite a surprising fact: That the Torah offers a
blueprint for a violent-free world.
Last week’s article, Radicalism
Today, elicited quite a few reactions about the issue
of religious violence, or better phrased: violence perpetrated
in the name of religion.
The most obvious question
was about my premise that the Torah is filled with the message of love and compassion,
and that G-d would never sanction the killing of other people in the name
of religion. “Never, ever use religion as a weapon,” I wrote. “No one ever
was commanded by G-d to form a “lynch mob” and kill the infidels.”
Some readers were up in
arms: “Doesn’t the verse clearly state that when it comes to the seven Canaanite
nations living in Israel ‘you shall not allow any people to remain
alive…you must wipe them out completely as G-d commanded you’ (Deuteronomy
20:16-17)?! And regarding Amalek – ‘obliterate the memory of Amalek from under
the heavens’ (25:19)?!”
Even in this week’s Torah
portion war seems to be sanctioned, as G-d tells Moses “take revenge for the
Israelites against the Midianites.”
Good questions. Very good
ones. However, as usual what appears on the surface does not at all reflect
the complete story, and actually may even distort it. Furthermore, any topic,
especially a controversial one that occurred thousands of years ago and is
briefly documented (in Hebrew) in the Torah, requires context. Context, context
and more context is the only way to get perspective on the entire picture,
and to recognize the “forest from the trees.”
How much more so when
addressing a topic that is fraught with a blood stained history of religious
wars – Crusades and Jihads, which is continuing to take a toll on lives today.
Consider as well the millions
of books being sold today that describe the upheavals of Tribulation and the
apocalyptic wars to be fought in the end of days. Some even argue that this
“end of days” apocalypse is foretold in the Biblical prophecies.
All this underscores the
critical importance of understanding in context Biblical references to war
First of all, it must
be stated that life is not a movie and the Torah is not a screenplay. The
Torah’s premise is that the material universe was created for the purpose
that the human being, as a partner with G-d in creation, should transform
his/her life and surroundings into a Divine home, by spiritualizing the material
and thereby integrating spirit and matter.
G-d did not create the
universe and all its dark dimensions in order that we destroy each other and
the world in which we live. The world as we know it conceals the Divine challenging
us to reveal it. We are sent into a dark and cold world to illuminate and
warm it through our commitment to virtue and goodness – through our mitzvot.
The end of days, when
the universe will realize the purpose of its being, will be a time of ultimate
peace. As Maimonides concludes his magnum opus of Torah Law: “At that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry, for
the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. The entire
occupation of the world will be only to know G-d... As it is written: ‘For
the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the
This future world is not
created in a vacuum. All our work today, and throughout history, builds the
world of the future. Every mitzvah, every act of self-control, every deed
that demonstrates the supremacy of spirit over matter, every virtuous gesture,
reveals the Divine in the universe and is a building block of the Messianic
age (Tanya ch. 37). The accumulation of all the billions of good deeds throughout
history finally will erupt into a transformation of consciousness, in which
materialism is no longer an end to itself but a means to spiritual growth
and Divine knowledge.
and any conflict is anathema to the model of unity aspired to in the Torah.
“The entire Torah was given to bring peace (shalom) to the world, as it is
written (Proverbs 3:17) ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths
are peace’” (Maimonides end of Laws of Chanukah).
War is despised in the
Torah. Even when
King David fought justifiable wars, he was not allowed to build the Holy Temple
because of the blood on his hands. As G-d said: “You have shed much blood and made great wars.
You will not build a house for My Name, [and repeats again]
because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight. Your son, Solomon, man of peace, will build
the Temple” (Chronicles I 22:8-10).
Thousands of other references
– and above all, the entire foundation of Torah thought – all testify to the
underlying theme of the entire Torah: Love thy neighbor (as elaborated upon
in last week’s article). This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.
The mission of the human race is to bring light into the world, not shed blood
and fight wars.
This of course is built
on the premise that the human being – and the world – is fundamentally and
inherently good. If we were at the core narcissistic beasts, then the only
way to tame a beast is through fear, discipline and aggression. If the universe
were essentially an evil place – controlled by original sin, the Id, or natural
selection by virtue of “survival of the fittest” – than war would be the norm
and peace would be an aberration. After all, we are all struggling to survive,
and in this “dog eats dog” environment many the best man win.
However, Torah psychology radically rejects this malevolent notion of human
nature. Though we have a selfish side (which was instilled
in us as the evil inclination) for us to overcome, at the
heart and soul each of us is created in the Divine Image,
with a soul that is inherently good (see Psychology
Today). Thus, peace and love is the norm and
war the aberration.
With this background,
let us return to the story of the Canaanites and Amalek, and for that matter,
any other episode that appears violent and war-like.
All references in the
Torah to violent battles and struggles must be looked at with the backdrop
of the love and compassion weaved into the very fabric of Torah, and the world
of peace that will come about when it reaches fruition.
Thus the question is really
the other way around: If the Torah – called Torat chesed (Torah of love) and
Torat Chaim (Torah of life) – is fundamentally driven by a compassionate mission
to expose the Divine Image within all human beings and transform the world
into a peaceful place (“with no hunger or war”), then how can the Torah condone
any killing and any war?!
Clearly, we are missing
Reminds me of the argument
against a universe of design because of natural aberrations and mutations.
The argument goes like this: Since the human body, for example, has wisdom
teeth and an appendix that don’t seem to serve any apparent function, this
proves that the rest of the body was not shaped by intelligent design.
However, this argument
has one major flaw. The fact is that the multitude of systems and organs in
the human body all are driven by brilliant design. Indeed, billions of cells
in billions people are all functioning in the most elaborate structure ever
witnessed. So which is more logical: To say that the entire body is random
because we don’t know the function of two of its parts (wisdom teeth and the
appendix), or the other way around: Since everything else is driven by design,
perhaps these two parts also have a function that we are not yet aware of.
(After all, the tonsils were also considered negligible in the 1950’s, until
they discovered its contribution).
The same is in our case.
Since all the Torah’s ways are “pleasant” and “peaceful,” and the infrastructure
of the entire Torah consists of love and against war, we have to conclude
that these isolated episodes, in context, must have a deeper meaning.
Indeed, the mere fact
that the Torah has to specify the need to go to war against the Canaanites,
Amalek and Midian, tells us that this was not the norm, and it had to be spelled
Furthermore, history is the greatest witness of all. The
Torah and the Jewish people brought civilization to this
world, as testified by numbers of scholars and political
leaders (see Are
Jews Treated Differently? and Israel
and the Non-Jews). The moral principles of the
Ten Commandments remain the first and greatest statement
of virtue and ethics. Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of the
Jews and Michael Novak in On Two Wings powerfully explain
how the Torah gave us a new vision of men and women with
unique destinies; a vision that life has purpose and progresses
forward toward a destination. Everything in creation is
suffused with reason. This vision, as they write, would
thousands of years later inspire the Declaration of Independence
and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow
can be better than today.
Is it then logical to
say that the same Torah – whose values stand out till this very day as a shining
example of the noblest standards that man can ever attain – could contradict
itself in a call for genocide?!
And finally, consider
this fact: As opposed to other religions, Judaism never pursued a religious
crusade to impose on others its beliefs – through wars, inquisitions, jihads
and other violent means. Torah actually dissuades conversion to Judaism. Because
every person has the ability to access G-d in his/her own way, and a non-Jew
can reach his greatest heights in spiritual growth without becoming Jewish.
The righteous gentiles have a share in the world to come, Maimonides writes.
Indeed, countless verses
tell us that at the end of days the nations of the world will all serve one
G-d. “For then I shall turn to the nations a pure tongue, that all shall call
upon the name of G-d to serve Him as one.” “The entire occupation of the world
will be only to know G-d.”
All nations – without
converting to Judaism – will all be united, without compromising their diversity.
So what do we make of
the Biblical statements about wiping out the Canaanites and Amalakites?!
Within the context of
all the above, the answer is right there in the Bible.
As prelude to the verse
“you shall not allow any people to remain alive,” the Torah unambiguously
states: “When you
approach a city to wage war with it, you must propose a peaceful settlement
with it” (Deuteronomy 20:10). Based on this Maimonides rules accordingly: “One does not
wage war with anyone in the world until one seeks peace with him. Thus is
true both of authorized and obligatory wars… If they respond positively and
accept the seven Noachide commandments, one may not kill any of them and they
shall pay tribute” (Laws of Kings 6:1). [Even according to Rashi, who is of
the opinion that a peaceful overture is not required in an obligatory war,
Joshua sent overtures of peace before crossing the Jordan and entering the
Now accepting the seven
Noachide laws does not imply a religious crusade, but quite the contrary.
These laws are the basis of all civilization, which are meant to govern all
members of the world and form the basic groundwork for moral behavior and
mutual respect. In other words, an integral component of peace is the commitment
to ethical values. The Torah is telling us that even in war the primary obligation
is to achieve a peaceful solution with the obligation to ensure that the adversary
lives by the universal ethical laws, which include acknowledging G-d; prohibiting
idol worship; prohibition of murder; prohibition of theft; prohibition of
incest and adultery; prohibition of eating the flesh of still living animals;
and the obligation to institute a system of law and order.
This is not about imposing G-d on to anyone; it is about
the foundation of all morality and ethics. No different than say, the United
States Declaration of Independence establishing that “We hold these Truths
to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments
are instituted among Men…that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive
of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and
to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and
organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect
their Safety and Happiness.” In other words, ready to wage war to defend the
principles of liberty, justice and equality.
This commandment to initiate
a peaceful settlement was not just academic. In fulfilling this commandment,
Maimonides continues (6:5), “Joshua, before he entered the land of Israel
sent three letters to its inhabitants. The first one said that those that
wish to flee [the oncoming army] should flee. The second one said that those
that wish to make peace should make peace. The third letter said that those
that want to fight a war should prepare to fight a war.” When none of the
nations (except the Chivi of Giveon) responded to the peaceful overtures,
Joshua and the people had no choice but to wage war.
But even when the inevitable
war is waged, the benevolent standards only intensify. As Maimonides continues
(6:7): “When one surrounds a city to lay siege to it, it is prohibited to
surround it from four sides; only three sides are permissible. One must leave
a place for inhabitants to flee for all those who wish to abscond to save
their life.” [The Minchat Chinuch (527) holds that this is true also in a
case of an obligatory war].
Nachmanides explains the
moral obligation of this law: “We learn from this commandment to deal with
compassion even with our enemies even at time of war; in addition by giving
our enemies a place to flee to, they will not charge at us with as much force
(Supplement of Nachmanides to Maimonides Book of Commandments Positive Commandment
Essentially Torah law
completely rejects the notion of a “siege” as understood by military tacticians
and acceptable by contemporary standards of international law. Secular law
and morals allows the using of the civilians as pawns in a siege. Torah prohibits
it and mandates that non-combatants who wish to flee must be allowed to flee
the scene of the battle.
Now consider this: The
Jewish people are returning to their Promised Land after 210 genocidal years
of bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, and 40 more grueling years wandering
through the wilderness. When Jacob left to Egypt due to the famine, the seven
nations living in Canaan knew full well that the land belonged to Abraham
and his children. They were only too happy that the Jews left, as they moved
into their homes and property.
Now the Jewish people
are finally returning (to everyone’s surprise and chagrin). The Jews give
them ample warning. They make sincere peaceful overtures, which are all rejected
What would you do if someone
moved into your home and refused to leave after every attempt you made?! What
did nations do throughout history in situation where they wrongly decided
that another’s land belonged to them?
And after all that, the
Jewish people are still commanded to make peaceful overtures and not lay siege
and surround the city – everything possible just to achieve a peaceful solution!
And this is true not just
for the Canaanite nations but also for Amalek, as Maimonides makes clear,
even though Amalak, like Nazis, mercilessly attacked the vulnerable Jews as
they left Egypt!
Tell me if you find any
benevolent parallel in our entire human history!… Was there ever a war fought
with such high standards?
One additional point:
All these laws regarding the Canaanites and Amalek is, as stated earlier,
an exception. Both instances were one-time events in Biblical times, and never
repeated again! As Maimonides writes: “Their
identity has since disappeared” (5:4). Due to their utter corruption they
did not accept the overtures of peace and embrace a universal ethical system,
thereby bringing upon themselves their own destruction.
No nation in the world
would ever have tolerated such contempt and destructiveness.
[Allow me to add that above all, the Torah is a spiritual book. It “talks
about things above [spiritual] and alludes to things below
[physical].” In this context, the Torah’s language
of violence, wrath and vengeance take on an entirely new
meaning (see Divine
Wrath), as do the wars with the Canaanites and
Amalek which contain profound psychological and spiritual
significance in dealing wit our inner psyches and emotional
struggles. But this we will leave for another time].
The use of violence in
the name of religion has tainted our history and our view of G-d. No wonder
that so many people see religion as that cause of so much anguish and pain
in the world. We have been hurt by thousands of years of violence perpetrated
in its name.
Islamic Jihad and Christian
Rapture take the Torah out of context and turn it into a book of violence.
But when we go back in time, transcend the past and read the Torah in its
pristine form, untainted and unbiased by the history of
religious aggression, we find the most eloquent perspective
ever offered on the sanctity of life, the rules of engagement
and the co-existence of diverse nations – unprecedented
and unparalleled in any document ever written.
Today Part I