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Torah and Genocide FAQ

Torah and Genocide FAQ

On the mitzvah to kill innocent Amalekite and Canaanite civilians and children

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Q: Does the Torah promote Genocide?

A: No.


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.1 Those who did not accept were to be entirely wiped out.2

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.3

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 the children.

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 today?

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 distinct entities.

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 episodes?

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 Hachaim4:

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.5

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.

Footnotes
1.
Maimonides states that the requirement to offer peace before making war applied even in the case of milchemet mitzvah, which includes the Canaanites and Amalek.
2.
Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 6:1; Leviticus Rabbah 17:6; Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6:5.
3.
Talmud Gittin 57b; ibid Sanhedrin 96b.
5.
Shabbat 151b
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Mendel J Australia September 15, 2016

Another bochur, appreciating the honesty Reply

Sheina Ny November 15, 2015

Thank you! I love the honesty. So many times , teachers and Rabbis alike answer questions in a way that the listener will be satisfied, even if it isn't the complete truth. Thanks for being honest and realizing that G-d is great enough. He doesn't need a lawyer. Reply

bocher ny November 14, 2015

ahh finally, instead of sugarcoating it or twisting/denying facts, you say it clearly "yes, we have those commandments, and I'm not so comfortable with them but that doesn't negate the truth of the Torah and Judaism" thank you Reply

Penny Vlahon Bonners Ferry, Idaho October 24, 2014

I appreciate the wisdom and kindness of the Jewish people (His chosen and beloved) Reply

Michael Petek Brighton, England June 26, 2014

Amalek I suppose I have an interest in this, as my maternal grandfather, Adolf Mscichowski, set out to kill Hitler in (we think) 1943 or 1944.

The destruction of Amalek can, indeed, involve literal killing. Ten of Hitler's henchmen - like the ten sons of Haman - were hanged at Nuremberg. Adolf Eichmann was hanged by the State of Israel. Reply

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