This week’s parasha is the dual Matot–Massei. We read in it how God commanded Moses to “take revenge” on the Midianites and smite them. Moses and the Israelites fulfil God’s word to a tee:
And they killed every male, and they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain… the children of Israel took the Midianite women and their children captive, and they plundered all of their beasts, and all of their livestock, and all of their possessions. They set fire to all of their cities and fortresses, and took all the booty and all the plunder of man and beast… (Numbers 31:7-11).
Every modern reader should be absolutely horrified to see this passage in the holy Torah. How could God command such seemingly despicable acts? To slay every single man without trial, and to abduct their women and children? To loot all of their possessions? To burn down their cities? Could this be the conduct of holy, moral people?
The Torah records a number of other instances that an ethical person would find reprehensible, including four types of cruel death penalties (stoning, burning, strangling, decapitating) and a call to commit genocide (Deut. 7:1-2), among others.
At the same time, the Torah records far more laws dealing with kindness and charity, peace, love, justice, and holiness. How is it that the same God that commands vengeance and extermination also commands to “judge your fellow favourably… do not take revenge or bear a grudge… and love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:15-19)?
What’s going on?
Not in Heaven
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) recounts a famous incident that happened in the study halls during a debate on the cleanliness or uncleanliness of one tanur shel akhnai, the “oven of Akhnai” or “oven of the snake”. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus declared the oven clean, while the majority of rabbis declared it unclean. Although the majority is always followed, Rabbi Eliezer was certain he was right, and said, “If the halacha agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Amazingly, the carob tree that he pointed to uprooted itself and moved some 800 feet.
The rabbis, seemingly unfazed, told him: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”
Rabbi Eliezer then upped the ante: “If the halacha agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!” Immediately, the river switched courses and miraculously flowed backwards.
Again, the rabbis told him: “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.”
Rabbi Eliezer continued: “If the halacha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it.” As soon as the words exited his mouth, the walls started to shake violently and begin to tip over.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah interjected and told the walls: “How can you interfere when scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute?” So the walls stopped their descent and remained standing on an incline.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said: “If the halacha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Lo and behold, a Heavenly voice emanates from above and states that Eliezer is indeed correct.
At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua looked up and said: lo b’shamayim hi, “It is not in Heaven!” Rabbi Yehoshua was quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, where Moses tells the Israelites that the Torah is not in Heaven; it is not distant from the people, but here on Earth for them to use and benefit from. The halacha went with the majority, and Rabbi Eliezer was overruled.
The Talmud continues by telling us that Rabbi Nathan later met Elijah the Prophet and asked him what God thought of the whole incident. Eliyahu told him that God had laughed heartily and said nitzchuni banai, “My children have defeated Me!”
This incredible story illustrates clearly how God’s intention in giving us the Torah was not to have us obey it blindly. Instead, we are meant to ponder it and grapple with its dictums, debate it, and come to our own conclusions as to what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. This is a key part of what the Talmud is all about.
For example, many of the Talmudic Sages found the Torah’s death penalties quite unpalatable; Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said that they would never issue a death penalty at all (Makkot 7a), and ultimately, the death penalty was abolished from Jewish courts. Similarly, wars were replaced with debates in study halls; sacrifices were replaced with prayers; and the Torah’s caste system (where a select few priests lived in opulence and glory off the backs of the common people’s hard labour) was replaced with one of complete equality, where no distinction is made between even the greatest rabbi and the simplest Jew.
Struggling with God
So, do Jews really follow the Torah? When it comes to literally fulfilling its precepts – absolutely not! Of the 613 commandments that are derived from the Five Books of Moses (the nature and validity of which we have discussed in the past: see ‘The Puzzle of the 613 Commandments’ in Garments of Light), well over 300 are impossible to keep today, and have not been possible for two millennia. Even if they were possible, very few people (if any) would actually want to return to an agrarian, slaveholding, militaristic, polygamous society. Those laws ceased to exist long ago for a good reason.
But do Jews continue to uphold the spirit of the Torah? Certainly. It is clear from the words of the Torah itself that God wanted us to question His commands and develop them on our own towards a clearer, more moral end. We see this at least as far back as Noach. While God commanded Noach to build an Ark, He also expected him to go out into the world and inspire people to repent so that a flood would be unnecessary. Noach failed, and the Sages say the Flood was called mabul noach, “Noah’s Flood” (or mei noach, “Noah’s waters”, as in Isaiah 54:9), because he was partly responsible for it.
We see it again with Abraham when God told him that Sodom would be totally destroyed. Abraham did not simply bow his head and accept; he questioned God’s decision and argued with Him. Moses argued with God for seven days during his first encounter with the Burning Bush at Sinai. Following the Golden Calf incident, Moses refused God’s suggestions again and brazenly told Him, “erase me from Your book!” if He would not agree to forgive the people. Rabbi Yehoshua’s bold rebuttal to the Heavenly Voice was just one in a long line of rebellious acts.
This is precisely the meaning of the name given to our forefather Jacob: He was called “Israel” ki sarita im Elohim… va’tuchal, “for you have struggled with God… and prevailed.” Jewish history is nothing but a centuries-old struggle with God. And for the most part, we have prevailed.