Zalman Kastel – Defensive genocide? July 19, 2015

“Defensive” genocide?: wrestling with cruel commandments in the Torah

by Zalman Kastel

A young Muslim man approached me the other week at a Shiite Islamic centre where I had been warmly welcomed. He quoted a section of the Torah in which Moses reprimanded Jewish soldiers for not killing the females during a battle.1 Moses commanded them to kill the mature women who had “known a man to lie with”2 and the male children, but to allow the young girls to live.3  I did not know how to respond. Luckily for me, a community leader told the young man to leave me alone as “this is not appropriate”. However, I continue to struggle with this passage.

Judaism is not suggesting that this passage has any relevance for action today. This was an instruction for action in a particular time, over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses who was trusted “to know the will of God”. Jews no longer have prophets and therefore no one has the authority to do as Moses did. In my Chabad tradition, Midyan, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is taught as being symbolic of baseless hatred.4 A recent scholar has argued that it was only “in ancient times, when all nations that were around (the Israelites) were like ‘wolves waiting in ambush’, that it was necessary to fight (in this way), otherwise they would annihilate the rest of Israel, God forbid. And moreover, they needed to conduct themselves with cruelty to frighten/deter the savages among men.”5

The context of the above passage was a battle commanded by God, presented in the text as revenge 6 against the people of Midyan because they: “distress7 you with their plots 8 which they contrived against you in the incident of (the idol) Peor and in the incident of Cozbi their sister…”9 This is understood as a strategy deployed by Midyan to deliberately harm the Jews spiritually, that used the daughters of Midyan10 to seduce Jewish men and then pressure them to worship Peor. An argument is made that Midyan continued to be an on-going threat and killing them was an act of self-defence. It might be read today as a morality tale that teaches the dangers of lust and its spiritual risks, although it positions the threat as external, in the non-Jewish female “other” rather than focusing on the lust in the Jewish male heart. One problematic dynamic at work in prejudice is essentialising the other.11 The Midyanites are portrayed as an evil threat12based on “their very nature.13

We recently marked the 20th year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre and genocide. I shudder to think that the human family, by a combination of action, inaction and thought can still sink to such evil. I reflect on my experience in a Melbourne taxi. The Serbian driver told me his narrative. “The world doesn’t understand the true nature of the Serb’s enemies “, he asserted. He argued that the “others” were essentially terrible people, based on historical grievances dating back to the 1200’s, and that he thought Serbian actions against them were justified. It made me realise how people could be persuaded of the supposed essential evil of the “other” and the “morality” of perpetrating violence, despite the concern and condemnation of the “whole world”. I suggest that the fact that Moses himself was married to a Midyanite woman, Tzipora 14, is an effective refutation of this essentialist argument, both in terms of Midyan and generally.

Ironically one argument for killing the children, which certainly amounts to genocide, is based on the threat from the children of the enemy when they grow up.  “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you”.15 An example of this is the case of Haman16, a descendent of Amalek, another divinely ordered undesirable people who were to be destroyed. Amalek began the process with an unprovoked hateful attack on the Jews in the desert. This nation was almost completely annihilated by King Saul many centuries later, but a survivor managed eventually to produce this descendant, Haman. This same Haman who argued “that there is one people, spread between the nations, whose customs are different”17 and that this justified their genocide. Without irony, the same words להשמיד להרוג ולאבד, to “destroy to kill and annihilate”18, that were proposed for the Jews because of Haman’s decree are also used about the intended action against Midayn.19 What an astonishing example of karma, blowback, and the failure of genocide as a security measure.

It is useful to draw attention to teachings that raises concerns about the ethics of this killing. One commentary draws attention to Moses’ anger when learning that the women have been kept alive.  His anger is explained by the fact that “Certainly by law, it is not proper to kill the male children”.  Although another consideration “forced” Moses to violate this principle of law, he was angry that he is in a situation where he is ordering this killing. Moses’ anger, and perhaps underlying distress, is so great that he errs in a separate matter of law in the following passage, in which it is left for Elazar to speak the laws. The justice of killing the women, who were pressured into offering their bodies to the spiritual warfare by men, has also been questioned by the leader of the battle Pinchas himself. However in the end this was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols.

In the end, I am still troubled by the passage the young man approached me about. It helps that this is not a directive for behaviour today but is instead taken metaphorically as a message against baseless hatred. It was a specific instruction by someone presumed to know the “mind of God”’ in a particular context thousands of years ago. As man evolves, we learn more compassionate and less destructive ways of dealing with threats and grievances, which some of us practise, some of the time. The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and the restorative justice approach are two examples of better ways to deal with past harm. Diplomacy and negotiation can sometimes be effective in preventing future harm. Part of my truth is that my relationship with God and Torah is not entirely based on logic, but rather one that continues despite the tensions of my passionate rejection of defensive genocide, certainly in the modern context, while also holding on to the holy Torah.

I would be grateful for readers’ comments and thoughts, which can be sent to me at [email protected].


1  Numbers 31:14-18

2 Translation of these words by Arye Kaplan in “The Living Torah” edition, who renders יודעת איש למשכב  as actually having “known a man ”rather than being of the age at which she could “know” a man which is the view mentioned by Rashi. This is discussed in the Talmud, Yevamot, 60B

3 Numbers 31:18, the words in the text about the young women are “keep alive for yourselves” has this has been mistranslated as “take for yourselves” and misunderstood by some people who have never read the text in the Hebrew as allowing sexual slavery. Traditionally these words have been interpreted in the Talmud, Yevamot 60b, discusses their being kept alive for future marriage or to serve as maidservants and an instruction to convert them to Judaism by Ohr Hachayim,

4 The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.

5 Rav Kook, Letters of the Seeing, Part, p.100, (אגרות הראיה ח”א עמ’ ק) cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות – דברי הרב אורי שרקי, thanks to R. Y. G. Bechhofer for drawing this article to my attention

6 Numbers 31:1-2

7 The Hebrew word is צוררים (Tzoririm). I have deliberately chosen the translation of renders it as “they distress you” in the present continuous tense. This is similar to the translation of Unkelus who renders it asאינון לכון  מעיקין (Me-ikin Inun Lchon), “distressing to you”, this is also the translation of the King James Bible. This supports a self-defence argument made by the commentary of Klei Yakar that they are “still distressing you, and perhaps God knew what was in the hearts of the Midyanites that their rage had still not subsided and that they are still distressing (you), thinking thoughts” and wicked plots. Ibn Ezra followed by the New King James and many other translations that pop up in a quick google search render it as part tense which fits better with the text of this verse but cancel any self-defence argument and narrow the meaning of the war against Midiyan to be being just about revenge. The word can also be translated as a noun which might be translated as “antagonists”. This approach is taken (I believe) by the translation of the Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel who renders it as עייקון (Eikun) in Aramaic

8 This word is in the plural which is hard to explain according to the approach taken by Ibn Ezra see previous note, but fit better with the approach of the Klei Yakar

9 Numbers 25:18

10 This plot is linked to the verse…, one resolution to this contradiction is that the Midyanite women pretended to be Moabites (Abarabanel)

11 Stuart Hall in his work on representations is one scholar who develops this theme

12 Ralbag Bamidbar 31-32, Matos, Toelles 4, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 177, Abarbanel

13 Ralbag ibid, states of the Midyanites, “they are prepared for (harming the Jews) because of their nature, (acquired as it were from the) the rock that they were hewn from”

14 Exodus

15 Numbers 33:55, also cited by Abarbanel in relation to the war against Midyan

16 Ralbag Bamidbar 31-32, Matos, Toelles 4, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 177

17 Esther 3:8

18 Esther 3:13

19 Abarbanel