Matos: Religious Violence Part II


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, 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 and violence.

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 sea.’”

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.

Divisiveness, discord 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” – then 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 may 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. 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 something.

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 of 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 out.

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. 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 land].

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 4).

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 (Joshua 11:19).

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, as do the wars with the Canaanites and Amalek which contain profound psychological and spiritual significance in dealing with 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.


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Cornelius Reimer
18 years ago

Maybe you could say my Mennonite background as in none-resistance not taking part in anything that pertains to war, makes me parcially minded here. But I believe I am free of such thoughts. Or at least my hearts desire is to be free from it.

I have left Christianity, and am searching for truth, and I want nothing but the truth.

This was a first time reading of who ever wrote this article, and I may not be able to explain it. But just reading this article gave me ex-amount of confidence in the writer, even though I know nothing of this writers life. It is simply speaking to my heart. And I would like to become a friend of whoever wrote this article. Thank-you.

Cornie Reimer, which maybe should be, Avraham Mordecai

Shashi Ishai
17 years ago

It is no wonder that G-d chastised Miriam for rejoicing when the Egyptians drowned in the Sea…..

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