Q: Does the Torah promote Genocide?
Q: Did G‑d once not just promote, but
command genocide, including women and children, even infants?
A: Yes. Not genocide as we know it, since no one spoke of genes in those
times, but something that looks quite ugly nonetheless.
The Israelites were commanded to entirely eliminate the tribes that
inhabited the Land of Canaan in their conquest. The reason given was so that
they would not assimilate their evil ways.
That’s one of the reasons it’s not really genocide: If a tribe or a
member of one these tribes abandoned the offensive behavior of his or her
tribal cult, they were no longer targeted. There is a tradition cited in the
Jerusalem Talmud that Joshua sent three letters warning these people and
offering a truce if they would keep the Noahide Laws (basic, universal law) and
pay a tax to the Israelites—or leave the land.
Those who did not accept were to be entirely wiped out.
In practice, only one tribe accepted this arrangement, with some
complications. The Israelites never fully carried out the command to eliminate
the Canaanites, although large numbers were slaughtered in battle. And yes,
they did end up often ensnared in many of the degenerate practices of these
peoples, and these people continued their hostilities for many centuries—as
detailed in the Book of Judges and the Book of Kings.
The Israelites were also commanded to entirely eliminate the
Amalekites. King Saul came close to accomplishing this, but it was never entirely
fulfilled. (As a result, an Amalekite named Haman came close to annihilating
the entire Jewish population many centuries later.) An Amalekite also has the
choice to abandon his or her tribe for a civil way of life. The Talmud tells
that descendants of Haman (an Amalekite) converted and taught Torah.
There was also a war of retribution on the Midianites that sends
chills down my spine.
Q: Do I understand why?
A: I understand that G‑d had His reasons. But I can’t say I understand.
True, this was at a time and place of unending war and hostilities. A
tribe that did not fight—and aggressively so—had no chance of survival. I’ve
even written that elsewhere as a partial
explanation. But, truthfully, I am not satisfied. Especially not the part about
Yes, it is possible that the deleterious traits of these people will
be passed down to their children, as contemporary epigenetics may suggest. Yes,
He created these people, and He is the Master of Justice.
But He is also all-knowing and all-merciful. Why did He create beings
knowing that they would become so corrupt that even their small children would
have to be brutally destroyed? And why did He choose us to do it if He wants us
to be a humane people?
These are questions to which I do not have answers. But there are many
more such questions.
A Hebrew school teacher once asked me what she should answer when her
students ask her these questions. I answered that she should tell them they are
asking Jewish questions. Jews are supposed to ask these questions, even if the
answers are not satisfactory. He is still our G‑d even when we have no answers.
Q: If I was told that I could have pushed a
button in 1932 and killed every adult Nazi, would I have?
A: You bet. I would probably be traumatized for life by the event, but I
would (hopefully) understand that it had to be done.
Q: If I was told that I could have pushed a
button in 1932 and killed every Nazi and every baby who would someday grow up
to be a Nazi, would I have?
A: No, honestly, I don’t think I could have done that.
Q: If I was living in Biblical times would I
have participated in the slaughter of women and children?
Obviously, the thought sickens me, as it should any decent human
being. Of course, Torah values also mean that you obey G‑d’s law, even when you
don’t understand. Here, I’m again at a loss.
Q: Does G‑d command or condone similar acts
A: Thank G‑d, no. Aside from the elimination of Amalek, this was a
command only for a certain period of time. As the Talmud makes clear, in the
ancient Age of Empires, these tribes melded together and disappeared as
The elimination of Amalek remains a command until the times of
Moshiach, but as we can no longer identify any specific group as Amalekites, it
is no longer directed against a particular tribe, but rather against
incorrigible evil in general.
Now here is something very tell-tale about the Jewish People: We do
have one day a year on which we are to commemorate the elimination of Amalek.
It is Purim. The arch-villain of Purim is Haman, who was an Amalekite. How do
we commemorate this command? By rioting, threatening, and spitting on our
enemies? No. By stomping on the floor and making noise when Haman’s name is
mentioned. And then we go out and deliver gifts to the poor and to friends, and
make people happy. That is how we eliminate incorrigible evil.
Q: Would I rather have a Torah that does not
include these commands and episodes?
A: Truthfully, yes. But if I wanted a guide to life that made sense to
me, I would write it myself. If my G‑d were only a little smarter than me, He
wouldn’t be my G‑d. He made this world, and very little of it makes sense to
me. I am amazed that I can understand anything at all. Should it surprise me
that when He communicates to us, we understand so little?
Q: Are there things that I can learn about
myself and the nature of good and evil by studying the commentaries on these
A: Thank G‑d, yes. We understand the seven tribes that inhabited Canaan
to correspond to seven bad human traits that must be eliminated. Other traits
are not to be eliminated, but used for the good. The core of all bad human
traits is existential intolerance—the hatred of another tribe or person not for
any evil quality, but simply because they exist. That is represented by Amalek.
So, ironically, the story of the elimination of these tribes teaches
me that we must destroy intolerance.
Q: Are these commandments defining episodes
of the Jewish psyche?
A: No. Despite preserving such narratives in our holy books, we did not
evolve as a hate-mongering nation. On the contrary, when war and conquest were
the highest values of the nations, Isaiah the prophet was foretelling of an era
when “men will beat their swords into plowshares and no nation shall go to war
again.” The word peace appears 320
times in the Bible and 505 times in the Talmud. The rabbis considered peace to
be one of G‑d’s names.
The Jewish sages and its people saw beyond the details and placed them
in their larger context. They received a Torah that begins by teaching of the
divine image within every human being, tells the story of Abraham’s pleading
for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemora, commands us to “love your neighbor
as yourself,” and dictates that if we see a suffering animal, we must relieve
its suffering. They saw beyond the details of these commands and incidents and
adopted the spirit of the Torah, a Torah of compassion.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar writes in his commentary, Ohr Hachaim:
The verse says,
“He will give you compassion and He will have compassion upon you.” Because
they were commanded to destroy a city…and such an act instills a cruel nature
within a person. We have seen this among those hired by the Arabic kings to
assassinate by command. They lose all sense of compassion and become cruel…
So therefore G‑d
gave them this promise, that He will give them compassion—contrary to the
nature of things. The very Source of Compassion would flow into them, giving
them a fresh power of compassion that would overwhelm the cruelty that such an
act might instill in them.
In the Talmud, we find:
The School of
Rabbi Yishmael taught, “There is a wheel that goes around in the world.”
We learned that
Rabban Gamliel son of Rebbi taught:
The verse says,
“He will give you compassion and He will have compassion upon you and multiply
you…” This tells us that anyone who shows compassion to G‑d’s creatures, heaven
shows compassion towards him. And anyone who does not show compassion for G‑d’s
creatures, heaven does not show compassion towards him.
Today, wherever there is humanitarian aid in the world, there you will
find Jews at the forefront. No army in the world approached the compassion and
caring of the Israeli army. No country in the world has anything approaching
the track record of Israel in providing such aid to all who are in need, even
to their own enemies. And in every Jewish community throughout the world, you
will find a spirit of caring and compassion, for our own and for others, that
is unsurpassed. That is the spirit of Torah.