“The Massacre of the Midianites: Does Judaism Countenance Genocide?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

We have learned in Parashat Balak that Balaam finally realized that the Jews could not be defeated by his cursing or even by overwhelming military might. So Balaam resorted to the old time-tested method of defeating the Jews–-he called upon the Midianite women to seduce the Jewish men. This, of course, provoked G-d’s wrath, resulting in the death of 24,000 Jewish men in a plague.

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Matot, G-d tells Moses to mobilize the Jewish soldiers and exact vengeance upon the Midianites. Parenthetically, despite the fact that Moses is told that upon the completion of this mission he will die, Moses does not hesitate, and quickly attends to G-d’s command.

One thousand soldiers from each of the 12 tribes are dispatched, and all the male Midianites are killed, including Balaam. The women, children, and the flocks however are spared.

Moses expresses his anger at the officers, demanding to know why they allowed the female Midianites to live; after all, the Midianite women had been so instrumental in Israel’s sinfulness. Moses then instructs the army to kill all the male children and any woman who has lain with a man.

After a brief interlude in which the Torah deals with the issue of kashering the looted utensils, a full account is taken of the booty. G-d instructs the people how to properly divide the spoils, giving the greatest share to the soldiers who fought in the battle and put their lives on the line.

Although students of the Torah often encounter difficult parashiot and complex concepts, this particular parasha is especially challenging. After all, how can the children of Israel, who are known in Rabbinic literature as “Rachmanim b’nai rachamanim,” (based on Beitzah 32b) compassionate people, descendants of compassionate people, simply kill women and children?

The rabbis of old were troubled by this as well. They provided insight into this issue by insisting that the Jewish army is indeed a compassionate army. Maimonides elucidates this contention in his Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapter 6. He posits: “Kor’im lo shalom”–The Jewish army must always call out to its enemies in peace. Even the seven native Canaanite nations whom G-d commanded to annihilate–man, woman, child, and cattle must first be given the opportunity to surrender and accept Jewish dominion. If they refuse, only then may they be attacked (Maimonides: Kings, Chapter 6:1 and 4).

Jewish law assumes that the Cannanite nations are “non-Noahide” nations who do not even abide by the seven Noahide commandments, which Judaism considers to be the minimum level of civilization: belief in a monotheistic Deity, prohibition of blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, eating an animal’s limb while yet alive, and the injunction to set up basic courts of law. A people that cannot adhere to even these basic precepts, cannot live alongside the Jewish people. Hence, if they refuse the overtures of the Israelites to live in peace and abide by the Noahide principles, they may be attacked. Nevertheless, even when they may be attacked, Jewish law mandates that they may not be completely surrounded in battle, but that at least one escape route be left open for those who wish to flee.

Although we live in a very tolerant society, we cannot allow ourselves to become, as Lionel Trilling put it, “so open minded that our brains fall out!” Moral societies require minimum standards of civilization to properly function. Society cannot simply operate under conditions of moral or ethical anarchy.

Judaism aspires for the day when all of G-d’s children will recognize the monotheistic G-d, and hopes for the time that the world will be established under the Al-mighty’s dominion. Optimally, this transformation should be accomplished through discussion, exposure and education rather than coercion. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, especially when confronted by people who do not accept even the basic methods of discourse and intellectual exchange. There comes a point where only power, indeed military power, becomes a pragmatic and effective response. However, before resorting to that unfortunate alternative, we must be certain that all other means of persuasion have been exhausted. Judaism does not wish to harm any human being. Consequently, if the enemy wishes to flee and establish residence far away from the Jewish people, they may do so.

As difficult as this law may appear, the alternative is far worse. As the Midrash Rabba on Ecclesiastes 7:36 states: “He who is compassionate at a time when he should be cruel, will ultimately be cruel at a time when he should show compassion.” Establishing a moral world order is hardly an easy task. In the effort to achieve utopia, painful decisions must be made. As hard as it may be, we are not free to walk away from this task and we must labor diligently to accomplish this sacred dream.

May you be blessed.