Torah says: Kill the women and children?!?

D’var Torah/Sermon
1 Av 5778 // July 13, 2018
Parashat Matot-Masei and W. Gunther Plaut

The past two gatherings of Torah study at JCOGS,
we have spent our time struggling with
what to do with the aspects of our Torah
that — to put it mildly — do not align with our modern sensibilities.

So too, this week’s double Torah portion Matot-Masei
is nothing short of alarming to the ears of us moderns.
Of particular concern are the seeming lack of ethics around warfare.

In this week’s reading, G-d calls on Moses and the Israelites
to wage war against the Midianite people.
It was the Midianites over the past few Torah portions
who had sought to curse the Israelites,
and whose women had seduced the men through cultic sexual rites,
leading the Israelites to the abhorrent sin of sacrificing to another god.
And so, the Israelites attack the Midianites.
“A thousand from each tribe…fought against Midian
as G-d had commanded to Moses, slaying every-male.” (Bamidbar 31:6-7)

We learn that “the Israelites took
the women and children of the Midianites captive,
and seized all the beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth as booty.
And (the Israelites) destroyed all their towns by fire…
and they brought the captives, the booty,
and the spoil (back) to Moses…” (9-12)

Thus far, this sounds like your mournful, but common wartime story:
killings and plunder.

But things turn yet more disconcerting quickly.
As the soldiers return,
“Moses…comes out to meet the (soldiers)…” (13)
וַיִּקְצֹ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַ֖ל פְּקוּדֵ֣י הֶחָ֑יִל
“And (he) became angry with the commanders of the army.” (14)
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה הַֽחִיִּיתֶ֖ם כָּל־נְקֵבָֽה׃
Moses said to them, “You have spared every female!?”
“Yet they are the very ones who…
caused the Israelites to turn away from G-d,
לִמְסָר־מַ֥עַל בַּיהוָ֖ה
acting unfaithfully against G-d…
so that G-d’s community was struck by the plague.”
וְעַתָּ֕ה הִרְג֥וּ כָל־זָכָ֖ר בַּטָּ֑ף וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֗ה יֹדַ֥עַת אִ֛ישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּ֥ב זָכָ֖ר הֲרֹֽגוּ׃
So now, kill every male among the children,
and kill (as well) every woman who has known a man by lying with him!”

Here the brutal truth of war takes full effect —
the killing of all of the men, destroying their towns, and taking the spoils —
is taken yet a step further by Moses,
where he calls the Israelite leaders to kill all the male-children,
and all those Midianite women
who turned the Israelites towards other gods.

Now, take pause for a moment and consider our Torah.
We call Her our Eitz Chayim Hi, our Tree of Life.
We say that our Torah is our source of wisdom;
it has been the first thing we have turned to
in order to sustain us all these years in exile.
Yet, what kind of source of wisdom calls for the brutality of war,
and more so, the death of women and children?
In what way is our Torah our source of wisdom
when we confront stories like these?
As famous 20th century commentator W. Gunther Plaut strains to understand:
“This report contains historical and moral problems of a high order…
How can the idea of slaughtering so many prisoners
be reconciled with the humanitarian ideals and the deep sense of compassion
that are the very heart of the Torah?” (p.1230)

It is in these moments in our Torah
that we are so keenly aware of the humanity of the text
and the foibles of the people therein.

As commentator Plaut writes:
“The fact is that, as in the matter of slavery and the status of women,
the Torah speaks within the context of its time…”
In other words, we must confront the text from a historical point-of-view.
We might understand the actions of the people in their context
in order to give them their proper critique.
Here are words on the page that
speak of humanity’s evil inclinations and vulnerabilities.
We look back and can rightfully be openly critical of their values,
while also seeing it for what it was in its time:
an Israelite culture struggling to assert its own identity among other cultures,
while fighting for its life in the wilderness.

Yet, as we approach the text from a historical lens,
the very historicity of the warfare is called into question.
Is it truly possible that every male was killed?
In a later account “a relatively short time thereafter”
in the book of Joshua (6-8),
it says that the Midianites “dominated Israel.” (Plaut)
How could this be if the Israelites killed them all?
Further, the story recounts that
“not one Israelite is reported missing” or killed from the war (Num. 31:49).
Is that really possible? Is that truly the way of war?
Further, the text lists
improbably high numbers of booty captured and people killed.

Here, we turn from the historical to the theological.
The storytellers wanted to make a point about G-d in this rendering:
that the Almighty is there to protect those
who stay faithful to their Israelite religion.
The apparent miracles of the war
are a theological statement of G-d’s power.
As Plaut questions, though:
“If these are not historical (accounts),
then it makes the ethical dilemma worse:
Why would the Torah be writing in this manner?
Why would Moses say to go back and kill the children?”
And what part does G-d play in all of this?

An early rabbinic story tries to reconcile the theological difficulties
by taking the blame away from G-d.
“A midrash attempts to relieve G-d of responsibility
and comments that Moses’ anger brought him to sin,
implying that it was not G-d, but Moses,
who issued the fatal command concerning the Midianite women,
and that (ultimately) G-d punished him for it.” (Plaut)

This rabbinic story orients itself to the inhumanity of the experience.
G-d cannot be culpable for such atrocity.
With the close reading of the text, we see that it is Moses
that made the decree to kill the children and women, not G-d.

Let me say this about our Torah.
It is not only the Torah’s abundant
“humanitarian ideals and the deep sense of compassion
(at) the very heart of the Torah” that make it holy.
It is not only the words on the page that guide us.
It is also our orientation to these words.
We have modern, critical thinking.
We have thousands of years of commentary to guide our thought.
We have each other in the struggle,
as we meet to discuss words of Torah,
as we wrestle and turn them over and over again.
We ought to be openly questioning,
to invite the critical gaze.
Yet, that gaze should not only look backward.
We must also remember, as Plaut writes, that
“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.”
As we look at our Torah, our gaze must turn inward also.
The way we look at our texts is the way that we live our lives.
To grapple with our texts is to grapple with our own lives.

So let us pick up the sparks from each Torah story,
at times marvelling at its deep and ancient “humanitarian ideals”,
at times putting it in its context
and learning from the past,
so that we might be present for today,
and prepared for our children’s future.
And let us also hold onto the Torah’s prophetic vision of a time
“when all wars would be abolished” (Plaut)
and we shall only wrestle over words of Torah,
not each other’s very lives.
For surely then we will have oriented ourselves towards the light.