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Does Torah Promote Genocide?

Does Torah Promote Genocide?

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Question:

At my Rabbi's urging, I started to really read through Torah. I know through the years I have heard it all in bits and pieces, but reading it through has really thrown me for a loop. Why would G‑d ask any human being to go out and kill? Why would G‑d put the everlasting guilt of wiping out entire communities upon any group of people, especially those he favors. If there were populations that were so evil, why wouldn't He take care of it Himself?

Response:

Shalom G___,
Your question is really many questions in one, but it would be confusing for me to answer all of them. Let me pick the key points instead, and the rest you will answer step by step as you grow in your knowledge of Torah.

First off, if you are studying Torah "from the beginning", you must have started with "In the beginning…" I'll bet you were moved by the majesty of this account of creation, by which all that surrounds us, from the basic energy form of light, to the stars and planets, the sky, the ocean, the dry land and all that thrives and swarms upon it, all is nothing more than the word of G‑d, as He speaks to each and every one of us, generating our reality out of the absolute void.

You also read there that the human being was made "in the divine image", so that the life of each and every human being cannot be quantified in value, just as G‑d Himself cannot be valued.

Then you read the story of Abraham, one lone man upon the earth who called upon the name of G‑d, to let all know that this Creator of heaven and earth truly cares about all that is happening with His creatures below and judges them justly and with compassion—to the point that Abraham even argued with G_d to make his point in the case of Sodom and Gemora.

You read the story of the Exodus, a unique story, the likes of it unheard of in all the annals of any other people, whereby liberty, freedom and human dignity became realities in the world as the facade of natural law was ripped away and the truth of all nature revealed.

And then the story of the only prophet in history to arrange a meeting between G‑d and an entire nation, so that they could experience his revelation directly and be given their mission and destiny straight from the source.

All of which adds up to the most radical, earth-shaking message humanity was ever given: That life has purpose, G‑dly purpose, and each one of us stands at the vortex of that purpose.

So it's understandable that when you see these same people commanded to go to war and destroy life—namely the lives of the Canaanites—that something doesn't click. It's not simply un-PC, it seems internally inconsistent with the values being presented.

But the question only truly becomes difficult when we present the Torah as something more than an historical chronicle; as a timeless teaching, relevant at all times for all people in all circumstances. That's what the word Torah means—not "Law" as it is often mistranslated, but "the teaching", an instruction in life. If this were history, so that's how men lived once upon a time. But if it is a teaching, what could the Torah be telling me today about my life by commanding me to exterminate the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Emorites and the Girgashites? What time of year do they come and where can I find the spray at Home Depot?

Really, however, knowing that Torah is a timeless yet practical instruction in life is the solution to our problem. Life, you see, implies change. Not just small changes, but often dramatic ones, like a seed becoming an oak tree or a fetus developing to an adult. So too, the life of human beings has been in flux and change for over 33 centuries since the Torah was given.

Jewish life has moved from the desert to the country to the cities to exile and to survival in every corner of the globe. That's a lot of change. How can a timeless Torah apply to all the myriad modalities of life on Planet Earth throughout time?

Torah, Squirrels and Adaptation

Over breakfast, I enjoy looking out the glass sliding doors and watching the squirrels that scurry and play in our backyard, scavenging for food during all seasons of the year.

Squirrels are amazingly adaptive animals, one of the very few mammals that have managed to survive with humankind, yet never surrendering to domestication. If there are nuts, they eat nuts. But if not, they will eat our leftover moldy challah, our cookie-crumbs, our avocado pits, the bulbs from our flower beds, the bird food from the feeder no matter how we hang it—whatever carbs and protein they can get hold of. If there is no food—not even in their hidden stores in our attic, basement, air conditioner or under the hood of the car(!)—they will hibernate. But as long as the organic recycling containers remain somehow vulnerable, they will stay awake even through the most bitter winter—and they always seem to be having fun doing it.

You may think this is nuts, but yes, I'm comparing Torah to our fuzzy un-pets out there. But much more so.

Like the DNA of squirrels, Torah contains all the code necessary to guide any life through any of its seasons. If you don't believe me, look at the laboratory test: The Jewish People, living through nomadic, agrarian, civilized, technological life among idolaters, fire-worshippers, philosophers, shamanists, monotheists, atheists in tropical, mediterranean, temperate, arctic, maritime climates where they were persecuted, celebrated, enslaved, free, poor and affluent while eating chummus, sambusas, curried rice, empanadas, gefilte fish and pizza —yet always looking to the same Torah for the wisdom to guide them through whatever life could throw at us, so that today we have won the distinction of being the only tribal community to have endured into modernity.

One Torah throughout it all. How do we do it? Because we know the code to unlock its secrets and hear what that Torah has to tell us at all times. For us, it is not an ancient script, but a living Torah. When we read from it, we thank G‑d not for having given us the Torah, but because He gives us the Torah, in present tense, continually, as we learn it, ever-discovering new secrets and depths previously unplumbed.

For example, this issue we have of destroying the Canaanites: In that era of city-states continually locked at war with one another, a pacifist stance—even a non-aggressive one—would be tribal suicide. Land belonged to those that conquered it and stood closely at guard to protect their conquest. The world had not yet evolved to a state where nations could appreciate peace as a value; indeed it did not for another three millennium with the advent of the League of Nations—and even then we know how sincere that turned out to be. So Torah had to teach a people how to value life and human dignity while living in a savage world.

And then, at a later date, those laws no longer had practical application. Even before Hellenism inundated and homogenized all the cultures and tribes of the Mediterranean, Sancherib the Assyrian conqueror had forcefully broken those tribes apart, moving peoples from their places into foreign lands where they were quickly assimilated and disappeared. When they returned from the Babylonian exile, the Children of Israel were no longer commanded to destroy the populous of the land—since the original nations no longer existed. Persia had moved the world from a collection of city-states bullying one another to a competition of true empires, and so that application was no longer relevant.

But what then became of the instruction of an eternal Torah that gave that command?

Ingeniously: it became internalized. The seven nations of Canaan became seven elements of human character, such as lust, anger and haughtiness that must be eradicated from within each one of us if our bodies are to become a holy land in which a temple may be built and G‑d may dwell. The nation of Amalek became the cold, intransigent sense of "I am" that lies at the core of all evil. Instead of war upon nations around us, we are enjoined to make war at the evil within—by the same Torah, with the same words.

Now you will understand why Jewish people never study the text of the Torah without the glosses and commentaries our people have accumulated through the ages. The Talmud, the midrashim, the classic commentaries of medieval scholars, Renaissance Kabbalists, Chassidic masters and modern-day analysts provide much more than icing to a cake. They are the spices and herbs that bring out the essential flavor, demonstrating to us just how much wealth of wisdom this Torah contains, so that we can apply every story, every chapter and every word into vital practice in our daily life.

So just as your rabbi urged you to read through the Torah, I urge you to dig deep into some of those commentaries. It is all Torah: we heard the voice at Mount Sinai and Moses transcribed those words for over forty years in the wilderness; but the soul within those words, that has taken us 3300 years of journeys and adventures to unfold. And now it lies before you, all yours for the taking.

Please also read Why Is There So Much War and Violence in the Torah? 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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Julie France March 14, 2017

destruction I have recently seen an archeological documentary on the Israelites in Caanan. It suggests quite clearly, that there were wars but that the Israelites took over the land as the slave based civilisations of the area crumbled. The way of life that the Israelites lived was so good that many people joined them and they became powerful. That would seem to make it a kind of team work between G_d who seems to have designed destruction into all societies of sin and the wholesome actions of the Israelite people. Reply

Anonymous Canada March 13, 2017

Wow.. Having read this description and simply trying to understand where people are coming from, I'm left feeling terribly sad. It's quite obvious there is no difference at all in any of your religions. Reply

Sean Rowe Jacksonville, AR September 16, 2014

I'm sorry, I just don't understand. I come from a Christian background, and so lack the depth that history have given Judaism, so I'm hoping you can help me see why G-d would not simply use his people to change the surrounding tribes from the inside out? To use your analogy of pest control, why not simply work to change the behavior of the pest so that it is not longer a pest? Why is destruction the answer? Was Moses to blame? Could he have perhaps misunderstood the command? Was G-d speaking metaphorically, as you imply by citing the modern day understanding of internalizing the destruction as sin within? Or is it that G-d himself has changed and has himself become loving and peaceful? This is an honest question. When I contrast Judaism with Buddhism and note that both are equally ancient in origin, how can Buddha be enlightened during the same time when you say war was the only way? Reply

Michael Starr January 6, 2014

To anonymous: the gentile World ? From the above comments Holy G-d does not overgeneralize a particular peoples as all evil or aggressive. Doesn't sound like you would leave an open gate for peaceful people old and young to walk away from war. I unfortunately see this unreligious attitude too often amongst 'religious' peoples. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 26, 2012

As I said, YYR, Mel in Australia, You are free to accept the mass claim of revelation by G-d; many people do. Most do. I am just a crazy, individualized product of my own experiences and talks with G-d. Reply

YYR Mel, Australia August 25, 2012

To Karen It seems to me that you have complete faith in the human ability to decide what is morally right or wrong. Well, as I'm sure you're aware, humans are naturally self biased creatures, and can convince themselves of anything, given that it suits their purpose. So yes, while you claim that one's perception of right or wrong is based on upbringing, and you are right about that, I don't believe that the solution to a better world is allowing every self-serving person to pass judgment as to what it morally acceptable. Take the German nation of 1930-40's - their morals were man made. And the morals of PETA, who treat animals better than humans - that's man made. (I actually heard someone say that if there were a hungry human and a hungry dog, they would definitely feed the dog).

Rather, I prefer to accept my peoples claim of mass revelation at Sinai, in which The Supreme Being made His morals known to the world. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 24, 2012

YYR, however it is painted, it is wrong. Just because scriptures say G-d ordered this and that doesn't make it true. This is, though, an Orthodox site, and I will concede that it is mainly geared to give a response to people who want to believe rather than people like me, who question everything. You believe what you wrote, the Rabbis believe what they write, and G-d bless you to have peace with your beliefs. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble! But, my opinion is the answer to the question is yes. So? Your answers are NO. So be it. We have a different opinion, nu? Two people can view the same incident and give two different versions of it. Why? Because we are human, and humans think and perceive according to their upbringing, background, and belief systems. That difference also means that events are interpreted in different ways. Reply

YYR Mel, Australia August 23, 2012

Response to Karen Yes, the Jews were commanded to totally destroy the seven nations. But look a bit deeper and you will find that they also had to try reconcile with them before resorting to war. When even that failed and siege was laid, the Jews still had to leave one side of the city open, so those not wishing to fight could leave. That means that the remaining men, woman and older children were going to kill or get killed. (The younger children and the sick, who had no choice in the matter, were spared - Rabbi P. Waldman). So in fact the 'total destruction' was not so total. (The Torah states that the reason why G-d commanded these wars was due to the wickedness of those nations, and should the Jews become wicked, they too will be driven out).

So in fact, this bears no resemblance to genocide, in which those being killed have no way out, killed out of pure hatred. The wars that the Jews waged (those that were in accordance to Torah law) were arguably more humane than allot of 'modern day' wars Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman August 22, 2012

For Jeff G--about commentaries and rabbinical additions You raise an important point. Problem is, not everything can be said in a single article. Please see my article, "Why Don't We Just Go By the Book" on the issue of the context of the written Torah: chabad.org/1114845/ Reply

YYR Mel, Aus August 20, 2012

Responde to Jeff Actually, the oral Torah is constantly being refined. But, as the Rambam writes, a modern day rabbinic authority may refine Halacha, however he may not argue with previous authorities unless his court of law is greater in number, and wisdom, than the court that issued the first ruling. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 19, 2012

ONLY "7 nations and Amalek"? There is my proof right there. It was men, women, children and ANIMALS. Reply

YYR August 18, 2012

Ho Ho Ho! Dear Karen, you make brazen accusations. Just to address one that you have gotten woefully wrong, is the statement that when the Jews lost a war, they then pledged to kill all the men, women and children the next time they fought them. Where'd you get that one from? In fact, the only wars that all the fighters (including women and children) were commanded to be killed, were the 7 nations and Amalek. Any other war, only the men were killed, even if the women and children were participating in the war. See Maimonides, Laws of Kings. Check your fact before pointing fingers. Reply

Jeff G. Springfield, MO/USA August 17, 2012

Reply to YYL Something that's occured to me re: Talmud is why isn't it still being added to and refined? If it's rabbinical commentary and interpretations shouldn't that be a never-ending process? And if not, why were the authors and contributors of it "ok" but newer ones "aren't ok?" Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 16, 2012

People who believe, do not have to Follow rules of logic or common sense. They just believe. Plain and simple. There is a human need, sociologically, to believe that what our individual groups' teachings are is correct, better or holier than others, and puts us apart as being super duper people more beloved by G-d than others. In wars, whichever group one belongs believes if they win, then G-d commanded them to do that and blessed them with victory, and conversely, the losers were hated by G-d for their bad ways. Also, if we lost, we mourned and justify it by saying it was a test from G-d to see if we can keep the faith, and that next time we should exterminate all those other people's men, women, children and animals. Our Torah is revered as G-d's word to mankind and holier than holy. In fact, if I dropped a Holy Scriptures or other holy book, I was made to kiss it. So, if you believe it to be true and G-d given, it does NOT have to make sense or be logical. I love being Jewish, but not so much these stories. Reply

YYR Mel August 16, 2012

Reply to Jeff By the 'other texts that aren't in the actual text of the Torah', I understand that you are referring to the oral Law, like Mishna and Gemara. Why indeed, it was originally oral, and not a text at all, which is why it is not part of the actual text. However it is an essential portion of the Torah, and was given to Moshe on Sinai, and without it you have no hope of understanding even the literal meaning of the text. Take for example Deavarim 5,8: And you shall tie them (the words of the Torah) as a sign upon your hands.... Does that mean that you have to tie the whole Torah to your hand? Which part of you hand? There must be some explanation as to how to go about fulfilling this, and all the other commandments. But that aside, you can't accept the written Torah without needing at least one part of the oral Torah - namely how to vowelize and punctuate the words. But once you accept that, you must accept the rest of the oral Torah - explanations on how to make sense of what is written. Reply

Jeff G. Springfield, MO/USA August 16, 2012

Not Torah, but Torah plus other texts At the end of this article the author says, "Now you will understand why Jewish people never study the text of the Torah without the glosses and commentaries our people have accumulated through the ages..." To me this is like saying the Torah doesn't really matter, because if you read it and only it it seems out of date and useless. So we need this text, that text, and these other texts to make sense of it. I like to think Hashem had enough foresight to envision that over time the events detailed in Tanakh and the commands of Torah might seem to apply less and less and incorporate protections and measures to ensure they never seem 'quaint.' But coming up with 'authoratative' texts we're told carry the same weight as Torah seems sacreligious to me. Devarim 13:1 says not to add to, or take away from Torah yet accompanying texts seem to do exactly that. "What G-d really meant was..." Either we're following G-d, or we're following Man. But I don't see how we can do both. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA July 25, 2012

Justification by any other name is still... Justification. Another a priori assumption. Reply

YYR Mel, Aus July 23, 2012

Which textbook Which textbook in college is written in a mysterious language, without vowels, where each sentence could potentially be read in a myriad of ways, and even when read correctly, must obviously have some more explanation.

You can't accept the written Torah without accepting at least one part of the oral Torah - namely how to vowelize and punctuate the words. But once you accept that, you must accept the rest of the oral Torah - how to make sense of what is written.

Basically, if you accept the current literal meaning of the Torah, you in fact are accepting a portion of the oral Torah.

In the oral Torah it is explained that those wars were very different then genocide. How? The enemy was offered to accept the 7 Noachide laws and be subservient to the Jewish rule of the land. If not, they were allowed to escape. In fact, even when the Jews sieges a city, they had to leave one side open, so that those not wishing to war could escape. So in fact those that were killed chose to stay! Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 17, 2011

Thank you for this article. It has made a great deal clear for me. I especially liked the part about combating the "nations within". I have been troubled by the ideas of a violent G_d but you have here made sense of it for me in language I can understand. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 11, 2011

Which textbook in college... Could we read literal words and then the teacher says to disregard all of them because they really mean something totally different. The explanation given makes no sense and is illogical, UNLESS it is an attempt to JUSTIFY something very not nice, and to rationalize an action people did and then blamed on G-d. Reply

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