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Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?

Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?

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Question:

I study Torah and really enjoy its beauty and I try to follow its lessons as much as possible. There is one "detail," however, which really bothers me. Why does the Torah mandate cruelty and war? Why do we have to "wipe out" Amalek and the Canaanites? Why administer capital punishment? Shouldn't G‑d's message be one of love? What am I missing in the bigger picture? Thanks in advance for your insight.

Answer:

You're not missing anything. If it sounded okay, to you, then I'd be worried. The fact that it bothers you demonstrates a healthy neshama (soul).

The Torah is not all sweet. Reality isn't all sweet. Even the most pleasurable faces of reality aren't all sweet--on the contrary, they often come with an equal dose of agony. Beauty, viewed from too close up, can be as ugly as hell.

Torah is a deeper reality, the reality that focuses on the inner human being. And that's a very muddy place.

In this case, you've pointed out something that has bothered me, as well, for over thirty years. One small incident provided me a sense of resolution--but I can't truthfully say that I have made peace with it. I don't know that I want to make peace with it--or that my Maker and the Author of this Torah (and this world) wants me to make peace with it. What kind of a world would we live in if we made peace with such things?

But some way to swallow it we need, and that's what this incident provided me.

I was learning Tai Chi from a student of one of the great Chinese masters. A very peaceful, gentle man. One day, he came with his sword, just to demonstrate the sequence of motions that involves that instrument. Although he did it alone, and although it was exquisitely graceful, it was downright gory to anyone with sufficient imagination.

We asked him if it was necessary for Tai Chi to have such movements. In fact, even in the standard set of movements, there are some which suggest inflicting pain upon an opponent. Do these need to be there?

So he told us of an attempt by some American group to develop a "peaceful" Tai Chi, without any such motions. Yet, when his teacher got word of this, he expressed his disapproval.

He said, "Tai Chi is about balance and harmony. In all things in life there must be balance. A man must know to recede, he must know to attack. He must know to be a rabbit, he must know to be a lion. Only then is life balanced and healthy."

His words echoed those of the wisest of all men, King Solomon in Ecclesiastes:

Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build.
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.
A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away.
A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

Life, true life, does not thrive at any one pole. Life, as with beauty and truth, must contain at least some small dose of each and all things.

I see this in Israel today--we need this balance. Without it, we cannot survive. We must be both doves and hawks at once, training our youth for both war and peace. And even in the messianic times promised by the prophets--true the wolf will lie with the lamb--but the wolf will be a wolf just as the lamb will be a lamb...

Please also read Does Torah Promote Genocide? and Torah and Genocide FAQ.

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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Evan Fresco Crown Heights, Brooklyn August 10, 2017

as i was reading this, I had this sneaking suspicion that i knew the author. Once I got to the bottom, lo and behold Tzvi Freeman strikes again. I am astounded as to the breadth of his knowledge and ability to spin almost any criticism of judaism into an utterly baffling display of circular reasoning, argumentum ad absurdum, and plenty of other logical tumblesaults and barrel rolls. This rabbi is proficient in everything. From the secret quantumn mechanical truth hidden in gemara, to how one can absolve themselves of the ethical conundrum of worshipping a 'moral' god that orders the wholesale slaughter of children. Love him. he's really the tops. Reply

Akinah May 21, 2016

From a North American Discussions like this are why so many members of my Native American family are rejecting all Abrahamic religions and going back to the Good Red Road. We were labeled " evil" once. You do know what happens when the victors write the history? If Hitler had won, what do you think folks would be reading about you? And you are not the only tribal society to survive into modern history..far from it. We have been winning court battles in the US and Canada over treaty rights for years as sovereign entities, but it seems the ignorance runs wide and deep in western society in all non-native settler groups.
There is no excuse for wiping out entire groups, killing babies, etc. I'm baffled at how people can read these Bible passages and not consider their ancestors as bad as the " evil" people they fought. My specific tribal group was far from perfect and sometimes fought, but not to wipe out another tribe and we didn't justify war with a divine will or command. It was a failure to avoid conflict. Reply

Andrew Nielsen Toowong May 10, 2016

Dear Maccabee About killing someone before they kill you, when the tribes came to the promised land, they made a very preemptive strike, to say the least. Reply

Andrew Nielsen Toowong BC May 5, 2016

Replies Dear Devorah, Northbrook, IL:

Your son says not to worry about the violence because you can't understand the Torah in English. It seems that he also means that you can't explain to someone, in English, why there is so much violence in the Torah. Speaks for itself.

Dear Anonymous from Hawaii. I can't comment on the daemon-possessed giants that had to be killed because I missed that bit of the Torah when I read it. And, I never did get through Lord of the Rings, so I can't say if you have mixed them up.

Dear Zal from brooklyn: When tribes cane to the promised land and killed the men, women and children, no mention was made of the children all being murderers.

Dear Dr. Ahuva Goldenthal N.M.B, Fl: I see that you are concerned that the deterioration of the world means that the end times are here. The issue I have is that the world is in a much better place than during WW 2, WW 1, the time of the black death, and any time that whole societies were getting wiped out eg Americas Reply

Maurice Kaufman Ormond beach May 5, 2016

I am humbled Rebecca I am humbled by your compliment and I thank you. I have struggled with this aspect of Torah for as long as I can remember. Many times I wanted to run, to just use the violence as an excuse to show that Torah was wrong. Yet I kept being brought back to its beauty and clarity. Finally I realized that it was my ego that was preventing me from accepting that which I didn't comprehend. Who says I need to understand Hashem's will or his great plan? We see but the back of the tapestry with all its knots and off patterns. Hashem is the only one to look at the front and beauty that he has created. He has never let me down and so I choose faith and apologize for not understanding his great ways.:) Reply

Rebecca London April 26, 2016

"I choose to take the jewels and apologize for the rest and say I just dont understand."

Maurice, you may never read this comment but I just want to let you know that your comment of October 26 2011 is one of my favourite statements on faith and credo by any human ever, and I come back to its simple, humble decency and wisdom so many times with tears in my eyes. Thank you. Reply

andres meza July 19, 2017
in response to Rebecca:

rebecca - statements of faith and credo Rebecca

Is it possible for you to post a link to the statements on faith and credo you reference? that would be grand! thanks in advance. Reply

Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman San Francisco January 6, 2015

What is Man? Since the beginning of the created physical universe, according to the deeper interpretations of TORAH, the universe was created with both light and darkness, good and evil........two Trees in Gan Edan, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man has both a good inclination and an evil one, and has the potential of conquering the evil within himself, by degrees, allowing him to attain to closeness to the Holy One. Each person must continually war with their yetzer hara, the evil inclination within them, in order to gain that Crown. But, as everyone knows, just like in Torah history, so too today, there are some very evil people who violate and corrupt anything to do with goodness or innocence. We must also not allow those entities to exist within our midst, and must war incessantly upon them. This is what Torah is talking about, and what we must commit ourselves to accomplish. It is not prudent to be "soft" with evil, and never was. Reply

Andrew Nielsen Australia January 6, 2015

So... no answer, then. Reply

cy April 4, 2014

i agree with Solomon that there is a time for all those things he lists. I just don't agree with the Bibles view of when the right time for those things is or was. If you find two men laying together the bible says to kill them, i don't think there is ever a right time to do something like that. There are many acts of violence, murder in the bible that there should never be a so called "right" time and place for. Reply

zal brooklyn January 28, 2014

violence in torah? no! Putting a stop to a pathological murderer isn't violence. It's called justice. Reply

Anonymous Hawaii September 3, 2013

Nephilim in Canaan The simple reason is that Amalek and the Canaanites were evil. I mean REALLY evil. As evil as humans can possily be. Past the point of no return, unsavable. Remember how evil men were before the flood? Every thought was only evil continually. As far as I know, there are two times in world history where nephilim are mentioned, and both times they were destroyed. In the flood, and in the conquest of Canaan. The nephilim (fallen ones), are the demon-giants of the ancient world. They had humanlike bodies, but demon souls. The angels that were cast out of heaven had created a race of "men" which were inhabited by souls of the demons. This is different than a normal person who is simply demon-possessed. A demon-possessed person can be cured, but a demon can't. This means they weren't even really human. If they had been allowed to live, they would have corrupted the entire world just like in the days of Noah. So they had to be destroyed. The wicked do not understand justice. Read Zech. 14. Reply

Devorah Northbrook, IL November 10, 2012

thank you Thank you very much for your article. My family is trying to follow the path of Jewish observance, and we are often being asked about the violence in Torah, why there is so much stoning and lashes and killing for one thing or another, and how can we condone such inhumanity. My 13-year old son replied to one such concerned humanist that you cannot take verses out of context, that the great sages of Talmud spent their entire lives interpreting the law and you can just read a page in English translation and claim that you know what this is all about. However the questions about violence keep coming up, and if you can recommend books and articles on this subject I'd greatly appreciate it. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 23, 2012

We may be entering the age of Moshiach, Because there have been documented and photographed instances of enemy species caring for each other. One species breast feeding the orphans of another species. A gorilla mommy watching a human baby that fell into the pen and holding it, fending off the other gorillas, until a human came and rescued the baby. So, things may be changing. Why so much violence in the old testament? I assume the war stories made better oral history than the good things that happened down through the ages. Reply

Anonymous toronto, canada February 23, 2012

I want peace now I have seen to much war already and after 44 years this is just too much for me to handle I want it all to stop I am so depressed when I look at the shoah and see our brothers and sisters perish and to think all in the name of nonsense there is time to say enough no more lions roar I really want the mashiach badly so why can't we all just get along? Reply

Dr. Ahuva Goldenthal N.M.B, Fl. January 30, 2012

Why are people bad The coming of Messiah is unfolding before our eyes. Jews and Gentiles believe that this is the time for a big change in the world. Strange things are happening. As the world becomes tenser in every aspect, and the gravity of the world is getting weaker, just as our skin elasticity loosens up, so does the gravity. People have fewer feelings towards one another, our energy level has subsided, and we depend more on electronics which promotes a certain amount of energy for specific purposes only. The more the gravity and the energy levels go down, we will become like astronauts floating in the air. You will be sitting on a chair, and suddenly you will float up into the air. People are spaced out, confused, and more people become demented, even though they live longer as in the past. Now, with last week’s solar storm, we will see unbelievable events heading our way. Prophesies come true. Put your enegry into prayer and not into arguments. Reply

Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman GUANAJUATO, MEXICO January 20, 2012

Compassion and Strict Justice.... Kabbalists have always said that stories in the Torah that appear strange or unreasonable need to be explored at a deeper level; that they may represent something nearly entirely different than how they appear on the literal or surface level.
We know that in this world there is constant friction and unending strife/warring elements that seem to be increasing on a daily basis......supposedly until the Moshiach and the world to come comes, when all the "evil" in the world will be nullified. Until then, we must all do "battle" with our evil inclination until it submits utterly to the Divine Will. Tradition says that the person with a very strong evil inclination can raise himself to greater heights than a person with little evil inclination. How is that so? Because, a peson gains spiritual muscle by doing battle with the evil inclination, and the greater the battle ( if won) the greater the elevation. It is a war. Reply

Anonymous berkeley, ca October 28, 2011

natives I had a conversation with a native Canadian.

He told me about wonderful legends and sweat lodges.

Then he told me about the terrible inequalities on the reserves and corrupt leaderships. He told me about the squabbles between reserves of the same tribe. He told me about the rampant corruption and deathly gang activity. He told me about the past history of tribes warring with each other throughout North America and the cannibalism practiced by some tribes when victorious in battle.

He did not disparage other faiths. He had enough on his plate. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA October 26, 2011

Maurice, I agree with you. Did I tell you all About my conversation with a native American? He said that he didn't believe in the warrior religions, I asked him what those were. He cited the 3 big ones. Judaism, Xtianity, and Islam. Reply

Maurice Kaufman ormond beach, florida October 26, 2011

Not sufficient!!!!! We may all read these essays and congratulate Rabbi Tzvi for his empathetic, open and honest attempt to explain away the atrocities of the Torah but i for one don't buy it and i venture to suggest that many of you do not buy it either. There is just no easy answer that allows us to placate our neshama's from what we know is WRONG. There, I said it. Murder, pillaging, bigamy..they all feel wrong because they are. You dont need someone to tell you what it looks like..we all know. So where does that leave me? Either abandon the Torah in its entirety, like throwing out the baby with the bath water or take a different approach. I choose to take the jewels and apologize for the rest and say I just dont understand. It leads me to be less judgmental of the muslim Koran which has its good and bad as well. The point is we are not saints and neither is our Torah but our Hashem must be pure and perfect and free of all this which leaves a bad taste..and my Hashem is. Reply

Andrew Toowong BC August 1, 2017
in response to Maurice Kaufman:

The comparison between the Torah and the Koran is a good one, and the approach to them is a good one. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA July 7, 2011

Judaism does NOT require a leap of FAITH In some sects it requires a BLINDING of the brain. In other sects of Judaism, this type of discussion is OPEN for debate, which is intellectual stimulation as well as it serves to draw a person closer to Judaism, seeing how open of a religion it truly is! I feel so much freer here in my Judaism than I did when I tried to "escape" into Xtianity. There was MUCH more brainwashing there than here. In fact, FAITH was the answer to every question. There would have been NO BLOG SITE such as in Chabad.org. Also, NON JEWS do often write here, and the rabbis do accept their ideas!!!!! I love it!!! I see the Torah more as POETRY than fact; therefore, the fact that it can't be scientifically proven or even shown to be true is not an issue. I can and am allowed to pick and choose those stories and scriptures which APPLY to my life, which help me have peace, and which help me feel emotionally balanced and happy; which enable me to love G-d, myself and others.. MEN did PEN the words, u no. Reply

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