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Basics of Judaism

Basic Values and Morality

Innocent Midianite Children

Question: In Numbers 31, Why did Moses order the death of the young male children if they could not have participated in any way in causing the Children of Israel to sin? What are the ethical and moral ramifications of Moses’s ordering the killing of innocents, and wasn’t that the sin that really kept him out of the Promised Land?

Answer: I agree that at first glance it seems unethical to our eyes. However, it is axiomatic that Moses is a spokesman for God, and that “good” and “evil” are defined by what God wants and doesn’t want, not by what I think. That is why Abraham did not hesitate to bind Isaac on the altar.

Therefore, if Moses ordered their death, we must conclude that they were not innocent and our question should be, “why did they need to be killed?” rather than assuming that they were innocent. God tells Moses explicitly that his striking the rock was what kept him out of the Land.

Rabbi Seinfeld

[Reposted from the archives]

3 Follow-ups »

  1. What if someone believes that one of their prominent religious leaders has a deep and correct understanding of the will of G-d. If such a leader declares that G-d desires that planes be flown into the World Trade Center, is it appropriate for him to conclude that whether the act is “good” or “evil” depends, not on what he thinkss, but on what G-d wants or doesn’t want? And should they conclude as well that, because G-d desired the deaths of the people in the Towers, those people were not innocents and the only question is why did they need to be killed? What lessons are to be learned here? Are we never to attempt to decide what is “good” and what is “evil,” but only to decide what God wants and doesn’t want, and act accordingly? Thank you for your answer.

    Thank you for the follow-up question.

    No, it is inappropriate to believe that someone speaks for God unless you have evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she does indeed speak for God. The world has seen time and time again how it is possible to raise a generation who believe in a “false messiah” who teaches that evil is good and good evil. Judaism teaches that it is not our beliefs that make a particular action good or evil; rather, the action is objectively good or evil.

    Part of the problem is that in this country we have created a non-judgmental culture. Tolerance and pluralism are creeds that translate to indiscriminate acceptance of all belief systems as equally valid. Judaism says categorically that some actions (such as flying airplanes into buildings) are absolutely bad or evil. So what if some other religion says that it’s good? We do not hesitate to say that they’re wrong.

    The reason that we cannot rely ONLY on our inner voice to decide right and wrong is because, What if my inner voice is wrong? What if my passionate stance against Islamofascism is wrong, and the correct moral choice is to embrace Islam? What if my firm conviction pro-choice or anti-abortion, pro- or anti-death-penalty, and so on, is wrong?

    Another example: In ancient Greece, the most spiritual and intimate human relationship was held to be between a grown man and a young boy. Today we lock people up for that. Values change across cultures and history. If there are no absolutes, then the terrorist is right (“for himself”) and is acting morally. If there are absolutes, who has them?

    Recognizing the extent to which our deeply-held beliefs are the product of our society rather than objective inquiry is the first step towards enlightenment.

    The second step is to ask, How do we know that we’re right and they’re wrong?” It seems to me that the intellectually-honest way to approach this latter question is via investigation of the evidence.

    Comment by ATR — April 18, 2006 @ 1:28 am

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. As I understand it, you believe that good and evil are objective concepts that are essentially absolute. You suggest that we fall into error when we adopt a non-judgmental culture of tolerance and pluralism that leads to an indiscriminate acceptance of all belief systems as equally valid when they are not, and when we follow false messiahs. Objective inquiry and investigation of the evidence, you believe, are the first steps toward enlightenment. And finally you say that it is inappropriate to believe that anyone speaks for God unless there is evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she does indeed speak for God.

    I confess that I know little of the precepts of Judaism, my own religion. But is there some way to conduct an objective inquiry or investigation of evidence to learn why it is wrong to eat an animal that does not both chew its cud and have cloven hooves, but right to eat one that does; why it is wrong to wear a garment that combines linen and wool? The torah speaks of how one is to trea bondsmen. Does that mean objectively that it is not evil to hold another as a slave so long as one treats him or her according to torah precepts and that the idea that slavery is evil is the tainted product of our modern society?

    I fear that there are many of our co-religionists who would reject the notion of finding good and evil through objective inquiry and investigation of evidence. They would much prefer to receive the guidance of the learned. Is there a member of the Lubavitcher community, for example, who would reject the idea that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the late Rebbe Schneerson was a prophet who spoke God’s words? And that brings me full circle to my original question. What are we to make of the killing of the Midianite children? Was that evil, or does it simply appear so through the relativistic prism of modern culture? You argue against accepting a non-judgmental culture. What, then, is the judgment on the killing of the Midianite children? Again, thank you for your response.

    Well, first of all, I’m not saying it’s bad to cultivate tolerance and pluralism as a political stance, for tolerance is required for each of us to be open to each other’s perspectives. The only way I can arrive at the truth in any question is if I consider multiple perspectives. Furthermore, political tolerance is vital to a peaceful society, which is the only climate in which Truth can prevail. But my political tolerance does mean that I accept in my heart all perspectives as equally valid.

    The answer to your question on the objective inquiry into Judaism is yes. Regarding slavery, I think the answer is more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no”. Some kind of human relationship that we call “slavery” is evidently not-evil in principle, however, one would have to do a little more research to find out what the parameters of that are. Does it resemble in any way our stereotypes of slavery? Does Torah slavery even apply in this day and age, or does it require social or political conditions that no longer exist?

    Regarding those who follow a rebbe. The reason they do is the same reason you and I follow a doctor. Not because we have rejected objective inquiry, rather because we recognize the limits of our own ability to investigate the science of medicine and therefore choose to rely on the certified expertise of someone who has taken the time to do so. We are in effect, appointing an agent for our objective inquiry.

    I do not think that thinking Lubavitchers would call their deceased rebbe a prophet of God, especially given that true prophecy has been absent from the world for about 1300 years and a person has to pass a strict test before being certified as a prophet (according to Maimonides) – to my knowledge, R. Schneerson was a great scholar and pious man but never certified as a prophet. Therefore, his statements might be taken very seriously but not as God’s words.

    Moses, in contrast, was a certified prophet of God. How do we know that? Good question: in fact, central question. But for now, know that all of Judaism without exception starts with this axiom, that everything Moses wrote in the Torah was dictated letter by letter by the Almighty.

    Sometimes, the Midrash explains that what really happened was the opposite of what is written in the 5 Books (for instance, it says that Reuven was intimate with one of his father’s wives, and the Midrash says in fact all he did was move his father’s bed from one tent to another). In such a case, our question must be: why does the Torah tell that episode in that inaccurate way? (i.e., what are we to learn from the way the story is told as opposed to what really happened?)

    Chumash: “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”
    Talmud: the value of an eye for an eye…

    Chumash: “...he shall surely die…”
    Talmud: by the hand of Heaven (and not a human court)


    Now, if after all this investigation it turns out that the Torah advocates something that I had thought was evil, by definition my thoughts were wrong. However, if I begin your investigation with a mind that is closed; i.e., if I state a priori, that I refuse to accept any expression of _ as valid (fill in the blank: servitude, killing, etc) then there is no point in the investigation. I have to be willing to admit that my entire belief system, or any part of it, may be false, if I am to succeed at a rational, objective investigation. In my humble opinion, a philosophical inquiry into the Torah requires nothing less than that. Some rabbis may disagree with me, but I prefer to put every idea under full scrutiny and to take nothing for granted, as long as the commitment to Truth is real and complete.

    It is late at night as I type this and I hope that what I’ve written is clear and helpful, and apologize if any parts of it are not.

    Comment by ATR — April 23, 2006 @ 5:14 am

  3. Late at night or not, your response was clear, helpful, insightful, and wise. And, like all good answers, it provokes further questions, and this week I have three:

    First, on the issue of slavery, you pose the question of whether the concept of Torah slavery even applies in this day and age, or whether, instead it requiressocial or political conditions that no longer exist. It strikes me that the Torah is eternal, a gift that was meant to guide us when it was given, and to continue guiding us today and forever. If that is true, however, why does the Torah spend time discussing rules governing an institution Torah slavery that may require social or political conditions that no longer exist? (This week’s Torah portion deals largely with leprosy, a disease we have found the means to control and even eradicate. What eternal lessons are to be learned by continuing to study these Parshas?)

    Second, you say we accept as bedrock principle that “everything Moses wrote in the Torah was dictated letter by letter by the Almighty.” Thenyou point out that, while the Chumash says “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” the Talmud explains that what is meant is “the value of an eye for an eye.” But, if God expects us to live by Torah precepts, why would He write something, dictating it letter-by-letter , that seems so straightforward but yet needs Talmudists to interpret. Wouldn’t He let us know what He demands in language we all could all readily understand?

    Third, and most important to me, you call for a rational, objective investigation into the Torah’s truths, as long as the commitment to truth is real and complete. To undertake such an inquiry, you suggest, one must be open to the possibility that his or her “entire belief system, or any part of it, may be false.” There is no point to such an investigation, you say, if one begins with a closed mind, refusing to entertain the possibility that things like servitude or killing may be valid. As you explain, “if after all this investigation it turns out that the Torah advocates something that I had thought was evil, by definition my thoughts were wrong.” Suppose, however, that Mohammed Attah, the leader of the September 11th terrorists, had felt the same way, revering as the revealed word, not the Torah but the Koran? Suppose he personally and truly felt that it was evil to kill thousands of innocents yet he studied the passages in the Koran that speak about killing infidels? In your view, would it be appropriate for him to say: “Well, I have to be open to the possibility that my whole belief system about the invalidity of killing innocents is wrong because, if the Koran advocates something that I had thought was evil, by definition my thoughts are wrong”? What is the difference between such a man and us? Is it simply that we believe our Book is right, and he believes his is right? Can any rational, objective inquiry be made if one begins with the proposition that the Torah is God’s revealed word, dictated letter-by-letter to Moses, and cannot be questioned? We agree that the killing of the thousands in the World Trade Towers was wrong; but we cling to the belief that the killing of the Midianite children could not have been.

    Once again, you are asking penetrating questions.

    The first two I cannot deal with in this forum, they really require sitting down with some books and studying together. I will say, in regard to Q1 that I did not state categorically that the conditions do not exist nor – even if they do not – did I state that such conditions will not exist one day. Furthermore, the word “tsaraas” that some translations render as “leprosy” is clearly (from my personal understanding of the text) not leprosy. If you want to form your own opinion based on careful study, by all means I encourage you to do so and can possibly help you achieve that goal if you are interested.

    Regarding your main issue: if I understand your question, you are not asking how do we know we’re right and the terrorists and others are wrong; you are rather asking: Assuming the Torah is True, where does that leave room for rational inquiry?

    I think that this starting point is the only basis for objective inquiry. Because if you don’t have an objective starting point (X is true) then any further conclusions derived from X are baseless.

    What I think may be bothering you is the fact that the 5 Books of Moses (sometimes called “The Torah”) are open to wildly different interpretations. You referred to this in your second question, but I’m not sure you are appreciating the reason for and full significance of this point.

    Just this observation alone should lead us to an important conclusion. If the Torah was first published at some point in history, whether by Moses or someone else, it is thus clear to us that there is no way they could have hoped to use this document as the basis of a single, unified religious-society without an official interpretation. The Midianites are a subtle case in point; there are much more overt examples. For instance, the Torah says, only a Cohen may eat the animals CHLV. Later it says, no one should “bath a calf in its mother’s CHLV”. Now, the word CHLV could be vowelized “chalav” or “chaylev” – the former means “milk” while the latter means “intestinal fats” – which is which? Without an official (oral) interpretation, it is very likely that in these or any of the hundreds or thousands of ambiguities, different Israelites would arrive at different interpretations and develop parallel Judaism’s that look quite different from each other.

    In fact there were groups of Jews at points in history who doubted the Mosaic (or Divine) origin of the Oral Torah – but they were marginalized and politicially defeated again and again. I point this out so that you should know it is an old question that has been raised in the past.

    The fact is that the Talmud traces the chain of transmission from Moses to Talmudic times. It does this specifically so that we should have no doubt about the unbroken chain. Moreover, you might guess that there would be hundreds of individuals in that chain of “telephone” and therefore likely corropting the information. In fact, the number of individuals is quite few. From Moses to accepted history (ca 300 BCE) is only about 1,000 years; divide that by 60 years (the putative gap between elderly scholar and young student) and you have a chain of only 17 individuals.

    (Using this logic, from Moses to you and me is only about 55 individuals)

    Therefore, it is impossible to know what the Torah says about something simply be reading the written text. Maybe we’re reading it wrong? It requires studying the Oral Torah. Why did God give us an obscure Written Torah that requires an Oral Torah (your Q2)? Fair question. But given that that is what we have, we now understand where to start looking for answers. You want to know what’s the difference between killing thousands of Midianites and thousands of New Yorkers. Great question, for which I do not have a pat answer. That’s a Talmudic question, which is where I would recommend beginning the investigation.

    Hope this is helpful!

    Rabbi Seinfeld

    Comment by ATR — April 30, 2006 @ 2:45 pm

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


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