Torah from Around the World #335

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By: Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake, senior rabbi of

Westchester Reform Temple

in Scarsdale, New York, USA

Morality in War, Then and Now

I first wrote about Parashat Matot in 2008 for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Reform Voices of Torah online column. My comments here draw substantially on those remarks published earlier, but have been updated to reflect present-day realities.

We begin this week’s


in the fortieth and final year of Israel’s desert trek toward the Promised Land. The Israelites, encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho, are preparing to enter

Eretz Yisrael

as a trained fighting force, ready to dispossess the native Canaanites through armed conquest, and thereby inherit the land promised on oath by God to their ancestors.

Moses initiates a war against the Midianites (Num. 31:4-5), purportedly to avenge the people for the sin of the Midianites. Recall that a Midianite woman, Cozbi, seduced an Israelite named Zimri into carnal relations (a deed abruptly terminated by the spear of Pinchas which dispatched both participants at once) (24:6-8, 25:15). Presumably, her transgression spurred the men to acts of idolatry. (Some confusion lingers over this passage because we learn that Moabite women, not Midianite women, seduced the Israelites, and then “invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god”) (25:2).

But here our text identifies Midianites. Moses intends for the Israelite warriors to slaughter all their males and especially their kings (31:7-8), as well as “every woman who has known a man carnally” (31:17), sparing only the virgin females (31:18).

After the slaughter, Moses instructs that “everyone among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself…” (31:19).

W. Gunther Plaut regards this “ritual atonement” as “a unique provision in any human code,” (

The Torah: A Modern Commentary

, p. 1111) one that “introduces certain meliorating rules” [like tithes on the spoils claimed in battle]. Parenthetically Plaut continues:

(These may be compared to the various Geneva conventions of modern times, applying themselves not to war as such but to the treatment of prisoners and civilians whose fate is to be bettered in conflicts still to occur.) …

The realities have not changed greatly to this day, except that in many ways modern war may have increased the cruelties practiced in ancient, more “primitive” times



, emphasis added).

How sad, and true, is this last remark. Many of us who read this section of our Torah portion understandably shudder at the religiously commanded slaughter, especially when Moses remarks in disgust, “You have spared every female!” before ordering their deaths too.

But we should approach cautiously in contrasting our 21st-century sensibilities against Biblical views of warfare. One could in fact make a compelling case that the wars of the last century and this century display humankind at our most brutal since the dawn of time. Certainly, the cumulative wartime death toll since 1900 lends evidence to this claim.

Moreover, our increasingly sophisticated technologies of warfare have enabled us to wreak unprecedented destruction from an unprecedented remove—a remove both geographical and emotional. The Iraq War that began in 2003 introduced us to the phrase “Shock and Awe,” a military tactic of massive, protracted aerial bombardment. Such maneuvers are intended to spare the lives of military ground personnel; we might ask, however, at what civilian cost?

In July 2016, the Obama administration released its long-kept-secret statistics about fatalities from drone attacks, claiming 2,500 deaths of members of terrorist groups and just 116 civilian casualties, a report already garnering skepticism and controversy, atop the already controversial use of unmanned aircraft to carry out strikes against human targets.

And now we have a presidential candidate who openly endorses the use of torture and has proposed harsh reprisals against terrorists’ family members without clarity of purpose (punishment? deterrence? vengeance?). Even though the crimes at Abu Ghraib, still fresh in our memory, should halt us from alleging the moral superiority of 21st century, Western warfare over the Biblical bloodbaths of which our Torah portion speaks, we continue to glamorize torture in entertainment (like the wildly popular TV show “24”) and falsely believe in its efficacy, which has been widely disproven.

For decades, Reform Jewish leaders have decried the use of torture and collective punishment. These practices have no place in civilized society governed by the rule of law. And yet they endure. In today’s climate of rising anxiety at the naked barbarism of ISIS–who beheads, burns alive, tortures and gleefully rapes its victims at will, and who, at the close of Ramadan in July obliterated over 140 civilian lives in a single bombing in Baghdad–we now hear calls to embrace brutality on our end, with torture receiving support from many Americans, including elected officials.

John McCain, Republican Senator and former presidential candidate, parts company with most of his party on this issue. A victim of torture himself, McCain has been refreshingly outspoken in his opposition to torture and the public rationalization of it. In this McCain stands with the Reform Movement, which in 2005 “passed a Resolution on Torture that affirms the validity of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party and the legal definitions of torture present in international law, and demands that the U.S. enforce and uphold domestic laws and Supreme Court rulings that make torture illegal” (as cited on the website of the

Religious Action Center


That URJ resolution cites a case presented before the Supreme Court of Israel. The contours of the argument go like this: “On the one hand, the prisoner is a human being, created

b’tzelem Elohim

(in the image of God), and as such is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. On the other hand, there may exist a clear and present danger to the lives of innocent persons, whose death and injury might be prevented by information that the suspect can provide” (“Resolution on Torture,” Submitted by the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees to the 68th Union for Reform Judaism General Assembly, Passed – Houston, November 2005, as cited on the RAC website).

It turns out that “[t]he Court held that even in a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, torture or physical coercion is banned without exception. Experience has taught that there are more effective and moral ways of extracting information from detainees that do not reach beyond the bounds of law” (


). “Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak stated in an article after the Court’s decision: ‘The war against terrorism also requires the interrogation of terrorists, which must be conducted according to the ordinary rules of interrogation. Physical force must not be used in these interrogations; specifically, the persons being interrogated must not be tortured’” (



This Israeli ruling highlights the complexity of legislating moral conduct during warfare. Yet instead of despairing of our capacity to compel moral behavior in wartime, it insists all the more that ethical standards must be applied and enforced—


in war. This view pervades Israel’s doctrine of

Tohar Ha-Neshek

, or Purity of Arms, the Israel Defense Forces’ official rules of engagement in combat, whose intent is to preserve human dignity and the rule of law even in the hell of battle. Israel has many times investigated and prosecuted violations of

Tohar Ha-Neshek

to the full extent of the law. And even with this, Israel will still, on occasion, wrestle with the question of if and when torture is appropriate.

War has always been a brutalizing, dehumanizing affair, both for combatants and civilians. Our Torah portion this week makes this fact abundantly clear.

But have we really come so far?

About the Author:

Rabbi Blake served formerly as associate rabbi with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, current President of the

Union for Reform Judaism

(URJ). A summa cum laude graduate of

Amherst College

(1995) and ordainee of

Hebrew Union College

(Cincinnati, 2000), Rabbi Blake is a regular commentator on Jewish text and Jewish life who has been a featured author for the URJ’s

Ten Minutes of Torah

and who appears in

Text Messages

: A Torah Commentary for Teens

, as well as GQ magazine and the acclaimed documentary films “51 Birch Street” (2005) and “112 Weddings” (2014).

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