Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is Director of the MA in Jewish Education program at Gratz College. He has rabbinic ordination and an EdD from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
We turn to the Torah, many of us, for wisdom. And this week when we turn to the parsha, this is what we find: a command to the Israelites that, when encountering an enemy town, to enslave all the inhabitants. Unless they put up a fight, in which case all the adult males are to be slaughtered, and the women and children enslaved. And that’s outside the Promised Land. When conquering the Land, none of the indigenous population is to be spared. (Deut. 20:10-18)
Where we might have been hoping for something that would demonstrate a respect for all human life, even anticipate the Geneva Conventions, we find instead an invitation (or command!) to participate in forced enslavement or genocidal slaughter.
It’s true that this is by no means the final word in Jewish thought: rabbinic commentaries suggest that the slaughter of the indigenous Canaanite nations is only commanded if the peoples refuse to give up their idolatrous practices, and modern scholars argue on the basis of both archeological findings and other Biblical texts that not only were these laws never practiced, the authors knew that they were never practiced, and they should be read as allegories of the struggle against the ideas of polytheism. And of course, there are many who offer the explanation, for these as for other laws that shock the modern conscience, that the Torah was constrained by its times; that even if the writer or Writer could have imagined a moral order radically different from the one prevailing, the intended listeners would not have been so open. According to this view, while driven by an uncompromising moral vision, the Torah (and the tradition which built upon it) is a pragmatic work which could at best ameliorate the depredations of its world, not radically transform it.
Well, ok. Let us be honest, though: at the heart of each of those responses is a discomfort that dare not make itself explicit. We must do better. Prior to contextualizing, or modifying, or allegorizing, or historicizing the commands of the parsha, we must confront them, and what we must say about them is this: they are abhorrent. The massacre of civilians, the enslavement of populations, the destruction of peoples, even in the context of a defensive war is morally appalling– and of course, a defensive war is not what is being imagined here. To do otherwise would be to act in bad faith, denying the testimony of both our reading skills and our consciences. We need, in other words, to own our moral sensibility.
But to the extent that our consciences are informed by other passages of Torah, by the “uncompromising moral vision” we see underlying so much else; it is not enough to be appalled. We have to be surprised, confused, perplexed. How could the imagination which brought forth the radical idea that all humans are created in the Divine image, which says that justice, justice, is what we are called to pursue, is so glaringly absent here? If war is necessary why does not the Torah insist on a “clean” war, one in which destruction is kept to a minimum and civilians are protected?
I think that the answer is that the Torah can’t. Whatever we may think of the Torah’s prescriptions about warfare, its description is honest and clear: that there will be massive destruction; civilians will be killed or oppressed or enslaved in one way or another. As all of recorded history testifies, there is no “clean” war. For those of us (and I am among them) who are not absolute pacifists, this is a crucial teaching: that even if war may sometimes be necessary, it is always dirty.
These Biblical verses fall at the junction of the Torah’s visions of how the world is, and how we must be. The rules of warfare presented in this week’s parsha offer one way of navigating that junction, accepting the reality of war as normative. We may find those rules abhorrent, we may refuse to obey them, we may contextualize or modify or allegorize them out of our terror of harming the innocent. But neither allegorization nor reinterpretation nor contextualization will protect the innocent: only peace work will do that.