This week’s Torah portions, Matot and Masei, wrap up the dramatic fourth book of Moses, Bamidbar. What I’d like to do today is review all of the storylines that end here, explore some of the ethical problems that these texts pose, and suggest a productive way of dealing with them.
When I think about these parshiyot from a narrative perspective, it feels a little like I’m watching the final episodes of a TV show that I really love, but for some reason got cancelled and the writers had to scramble to wrap it up. Pinchas, the homicidal zealot that God has a crush on, Mr. Shishkabab-in-Flagrante-Delicto himself, takes the Israelites on a revenge rampage against the Midianites, but somehow fails to follow the instructions and much to Moses’ chagrin leaves the Midianite women alive. And that’s the last we hear of him! Bilaam, the original most interesting man in world, who by the way the Sifri claims was a greater prophet than Moses, is killed and the parsha presents this plot point as an afterthought.
“And Bilaam the son of Beor they killed by the sword”.
What? Why? We do get a post-mortem blaming of Bilaam by Moses for the whole Baal Peor mess which is interesting, because that’s the first we’re hearing about that, but that’s it. Game over. Thank you for playing.
Then we have a little side narrative about the tribes of Reuven and Gad wanting to stay on the East side of the Jordan river. For a minute we think that maybe they’re going to get God angry again like we saw with the spies, but a compromise is reached and they gettheir wish in exchange for agreeing to help ethnically cleanse Canaan. Aaron, the High Priest, the man who earlier in the book stopped a lethal plague by standing between the living and the dead dies and and we get a location for his death.
Finally, our feminist heroines the daughters of Tzelaphchad, Machla, Tirza, Chugla, Milka, and Noah, who due to extenuating circumstances were allowed to inherit land despite the disadvantage of their gender are forced to marry their cousins so that their inheritance doesn’t end up out of tribe.
You may have guessed by now what some of my ethical problems with this week’s parshiyot are. From the denial of agency that the laws of vows reinforce for women to the revenge genocide of the Midianites, to the conquering of Gilad and Kenat and the dispossession of the Amorites that lived there. These episodes and many more in the Torah ought to make any person of conscience uncomfortable. An increasingly popular way to deal with this discomfort in our day and age is to reject religion altogether. And let me be clear. The ability to reject religion is one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment and we all ought to protect the separation of church and state that makes this move possible. Having said that, outright rejection of religious tradition is not really an enlightened move.
The psychological drive to purge our culture of damaging traditions comes from a good place. After all, how can we ever move forward as a species if we justify the very regressive forces that are holding us back? But I think the idea that we have to either accept or reject traditions, texts, works of art because they are tainted by cultural forces or even individuals who offend us is premised on a false dichotomy. I’ll go further. I think this kind of thinking has more in common with religious fundamentalism than it does with a more humanistic approach that is a little more complicated, but ultimately much more rewarding.
We have texts of terror. The God character in these Biblical stories is a psychopath who demands of the Israelites that they commit war crimes, acts of genocide, and ethnic cleansing. But if you think for a minute that my ability to stand here and say this out loud has done anything to eradicate these actual crimes from the world, allow me to remind you that this week is the 74th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few short years after that war crime was committed Zionist forces perpetrated an ethnic cleansing of Palestine eerily reminiscent of this week’s parsha.
What I’m trying to say is that we can’t escape the fact that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years. And rather than dissociating from our horrific past, a more elegant and rewarding move is to accept that this is who we are and do everything within our power to change it.
One of the biggest disputes that animates tractate Shabbat is the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon on the issue of Muktzah. The classic example has to do with dragging a chair across a lawn. Now there’s a primary prohibition in the laws of Shabbat against plowing-it’s one of the biggies-and if you drag a chair across a lawn, there’s a chance that you may create a furrow in the dirt thereby violating this big prohibition. Rabbi Yehuda says that since the person dragging the chair knows that it may create a furrow in advance, if it does actually create a furrow when he drags it, he’s in violation. Rabbi Shimon on the other hand argues that the person dragging the chair is not intending to create the furrow, therefore whether or not a furrow is created he is not in violation of Shabbat.
When it comes to war crimes, Just War Theory and modern international law side with Rabbi Shimon. The intention of the attacking party matters. This is part of the reason that so much energy goes in to arguing about the intentions of the Zionists in 1947-1948. Because, some people believe, that if one can plausibly argue that they did not intend to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the State of Israel can be exonerated from the charge of ethnic cleansing. A similar logic is at play with apologists for the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If they can establish that Truman’s intention was to end the war and save the cost of an American ground invasion, then they can claim with Rabbi Shimon that the consequences of dropping the bomb are justifiable.
But what if Rabbi Yehuda is right? What if no matter what your intention is, if you know that the consequences of your action will lead to a morally unacceptable outcome, you can’t do it?
As it happens, in both the case of Hiroshima and the Nakba, it doesn’t matter whether you side with Rabbi Yehuda or Rabbi Shimon. Truman knew through intelligence intercepts that the Japanese were on the verge of suing for peace through Russia and that no ground invasion would be necessary to procure this outcome. So why did he drop the bombs? The truth is that already in 1945 the Americans were concerned about the spread of Russian influence and they didn’t want the Russians to have sway over Japan. Furthermore, the Truman administration felt that they needed to justify the 2 billion dollar cost of the Manhattan Project to the American public with a working demonstration. Finally, it seems that Truman had been desensitized to the humanity of the Japanese people he was about to kill, because of the atrocities that the Japanese committed against American prisoners of war. In other words, the intention was to maximize civilian casualties. Even Rabbi Shimon would disapprove.
And while only something like 90,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by a central, official Hagannah order in Lydda and Ramle, the other 550,000 who fled or were expelled village by village were prevented from coming back and their homes were systematically destroyed by the state, betraying the long-standing desire of the Zionist project to establish a demographic Jewish majority. Again, even Rabbi Shimon would disapprove.
My own position is a sort of compromise between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon. I believe that the larger the magnitude of the crime, the less the intention matters. As a principle, war crimes like genocide and ethnic cleansing are so devastating that the intention of the perpetrators just doesn’t carry much ethical weight. On the other hand, when we bring it down to the level of individuals, intention matters a lot. Which brings me to the one passage in this week’s parsha that doesn’t make me want to curl up in the fetal position and cry. The Arei Miklat. The cities of refuge. We have the sketch here of something that the Rabbis will develop much further, but the idea is that if someone accidentally kills someone else, they should have a place to go where they can live their life in safety. That the state should provide a space for them beyond the reach of avenging family members. Here we have a recognition of the difference between what in legal terms would be murder on the one hand and manslaughter on the other. And a deep compassion is on display for the individual who is the victim of what today we might call bad moral luck.
I’m not saying that this passage somehow makes all of the other passages okay. I’m saying that we can choose what kind of Jews we want to be. We can choose to draw on the texts of terror and support or apologize for genocide, ethnic cleansing, separating children from their parents and all the rest of it. But we can also choose to draw on the Cities of Refuge and the prophets and Rabbi Yehuda.
My blessing to us all on this auspicious Shabbat is that we have the courage and the vision to acknowledge that both impulses exist in our very human tradition and that we choose compassion.