This week’s Torah portion is a double and full of some seriously troubling text. Matot and Masei starts with sexism and ends with a role back slightly of the women’s rights gains of the daughters of Zelophehad last week. In between is genocide of the Midianites. This is brutal and somewhat unbecoming of a text that is supposed to be about love. There is little we can do to whisk these stories away and we shouldn’t. Ignoring them in our tradition is not the answer. We can confront them, argue with them, and challenge the text. The text is ours to struggle with and many times that struggle is difficult. But being difficult should not make us get give up. There are many ways to approach text.
Ancient commentators through the middle ages tried to be apologetic about this passage calling it God's revenge on Midian creating an image of the Midianites as so fully depraved that any punishment is worthy of them. This was the result of trying to justify a divine document as they saw the Torah with the real human feeling that the actions described in this text was wrong. It was difficult or impossible to challenge the text without being seen as challenging God. So if you can make the enemy so horrible they almost lose their humanity it is easier to justify the deaths of these people. This is an often repeated way to feel good about a horror we do or are done in our name. Hitler was a master of this but even today we can see how some in our culture talk about Muslims around the world.
After the development of liberal Judaism, (Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist) Torah was not seen as a literal text. Modern commentary challenges the text, especially this kind of text. While some choose to ignore these terrible words others choose to confront them. In the last two centuries we find Jewish commentators seeking to understand the brutality not finding excuses for killing evil people, but context of the time. Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a leader in the Reconstructionist Jewish movement writes:
The war against the Midianites is, on one level, one more account of brutality and suffering, one more chapter in the unending book of human warfare. If found recorded on an unearthed tablet in a far-flung corner of the Middle East, it would perhaps be of no more than passing interest.
But it wasn’t found that way. It sits in the book we pick up each week in shul, the scroll we venerate as our consecrated story of our people. It is part of who we are. But we cannot forget that at the time it was written the words make sense. Destroying an enemy was a common practice. A horrible common practice, but common. But if nothing else, this story shows us the importance of not focusing on a small part of the Torah to build our vision of how to live, but to try to glean what the Torah is saying in its entirety. Later in the Torah there are rules that Moses and the Israelites would violate in this story. Rules the govern actions about war, captives, and women. This is just one incident that must be seen for what it is, an angry delivery of hate on a people for revenge. But we can't just let that be the entirety of the story. If we hope to use the Torah today as a way to understand our place on earth, a way of creating a just society we must talk about it in terms of Moses being wrong and in fact God being wrong.
It is stories like this in the texts of ours and other faith traditions that lead to murdering of abortion doctors, flying planes into buildings, and shooting up the Tomb of the patriarchs. We cannot let all religion be defined by zealots. Zealotry embraces the ugly side of a religion or text because it will justify anything for the faith. We must, as my Rabbi Dennis Sasso said, have passion but not zealotry. Zealotry allows for things that we would normally avoid, passion is tempered by love of faith and our tradition has respect for humanity.
We can’t ignore the text however because as we do we do not give our young people a chance to respond when this kind of material is thrown up at them.
Rabbi Hirsh continuing his view of this troubling part of our sacred text:
But the story of the war against Midian is recorded in the Torah, and "all its paths are peace". We who affirm the centrality of Torah to Jewish life, and who seek in Torah guidance and insight, must struggle with those parts of Torah that we cannot accept, and which we do not endorse.
I read Torah every day. I argue with the text, I struggle with what the words say. More people should do that. So often we see anti-religious people and anti-Semites throw these texts around as examples of how horrible religion or specifically Jews are suggesting this is what defines us. If we don’t talk about these disturbing passages we fail to give our children the tools to talk about them when someone confronts them with these phrases. This is part of the history we shouldn’t ignore. There is lots of disturbing things in our text. Be it this story, the ending of the Book of Esther or the ritual at Passover when we open the door for Elijah and say, “Pour out your wrath…” these things should be made available to discuss. Because if we do not we are not only white washing who we are, we are setting up our children to fall prey to bigots, cults and conversion. It is hard, but so many important things are difficult. We don’t have to embrace the stories or become an apologist of old but we can struggle with the text and see how our people have grown. There is far more about love than hate in our tradition. Embrace the love, discuss the hate and walk in the world with justice.