An Orthodox Reading of a Torah Passage

20 02 2009

In a small hall on the second floor of The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, a casual lecture was held by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the rabbi for Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, New York. The talk was about certain passages in the Torah pertaining to biblical wars. Rabbi Angel wanted to challenge the student audience about the meaning and reasoning behind these texts. This is an especially important topic in today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first passage introduced was from Devarim (or Deuteronomy), the fifth of the five books of the Torah, commanding the annihilation of the Canaanite tribes and their likes when the Jews came to the holy land. It is a loaded passage. It lays out the code of conduct in wars with the enemies. To towns and nations in general, you first offer peace, if they don’t surrender to your monotheistic ethics; you fight them and kill all their men. You can take their women, children and livestock for your benefits. With the Canaanites and the specified others, you will kill everyone so they don’t lead you astray from the rule of God. Here is the text in full:

Devarim 20:10-18

“When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it; and when the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town –all its spoils –and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the LORD your God gives you.

    Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you, towns that do not belong to nations hereabout. In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the LORD you God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them –the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites –as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the LORD your God.”


A Jewish student, wearing a black kippah, asked the Rabbi if this command is applicable to Jews today. His concern was in the ethical problem with this text, wiping out an entire people, with no exception to children, women and elderly, and no religious tolerance. The Rabbi responded that it isn’t applicable, seeing that there are no Canaanites today, and expressing his own discomfort with the text from a human perspective. (He later introduced another text from Devarim 7:1-5 and 2:24-30 that challenge this first text)

In the Quran, there are certain verses that imply or indicate an action similar to this, such as the enslavement of the fallen enemy’s women (Jariya is the Arabic term for a slave woman) and the issuance of tax obligations to non-Muslims (also known as Jizya in Arabic) indicating much intolerance. From my learning, those who do not accept the rule of Islam will be fought until defeated. One of the ideas of the Islamic Jihad is particularly based on that; defeat those who will lead you astray.

I have had many arguments with a Muslim friend about this topic, the wisdom, or lack-of, in these verses. Interpretations vary, of course. There are texts in the Torah and the Quran that contradict each other. But the similarity across the three main religions when it comes to war and survival remains strong. These laws, if you call them so, provoke ethical and moral questions that we should be asking.

Although the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has more than just a religious aspect to it today (e.g. political, economical and plain old human arrogance), its religious portion remains significant. If we are to build the future of tomorrow, this issue must always be on our minds.



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