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Midianite Women and Deut 21:10-14

In the Torah Portion of Mattot Moses chastizes the soldiors for bringing the Midianite women home instead of killing them. Weren’t the soldiers justified in their actions as this appears to be a case of Yefat To’ar (Captive Woman see Deut 21:10-14). Could Moses have forgotten this mitzvah as Rashi explains he forgets the subsequent Mitzvah regarding the booty and needs to be reminded by Elazar?

Hi! You’re asking an interesting question. I would think that Moses is not mistaken in what he says here, since it is not corrected (unlike the case of the booty where he is reminded by Elazar). More likely, the army itself made the mistake that you’re describing, thinking that it was permissible to capture the Midianite women as examples of Yefat Toar. Moshe objected that this was different from a regular war: The whole purpose was to uproot the destruction created by these very women, thus in this special case it was forbidden to capture them.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

3 Follow-ups »

  1. [The original question was removed for the sake of brevity, but it is rephrased in the response below]

    Hi! You’re asking a very interesting and important set of questions. I’m afraid I can’t give a full answer, but I don’t want to keep you waiting anymore.

    Here’s what I think you are really asking: Does the Torah tell Jews to be sneering and arrogant? To be vicious and merciless? To be as greedy as locusts, and think that we can and should take whatever we please? Are we the same as the Taliban?

    The answer is no, we’re not Taliban. But, we’re not Americans either (ideologically). From the point of view of the Torah, Islamic fascists, conservative Americans, and secularists are each extremes of some true value that they have taken off the deep end.For this reason, I’m not going to be able to give you an answer that will satisfy someone with Western values, any more than I could satisfy a Taliban. All I can do is to try to tell you the truth about what the Torah says.

    I think it’s important to examine carefully the rightness of what the Torah does say, rather than engage in apologetics. If the Torah is to be our guide for life, it must represent a morally superior position, not one superceded by a Western civilization that has grown beyond it. First I want to talk about war, then slavery afterwards.

    War has always been a horrific thing. It is hard to find anything in humanity that leads to so much suffering. However, it is part of the reality of the world in which we live, and has to be dealt with. Thus, it has always been true that any nation that won a war sought to make sure that they would not have to fight it again. Generally, that involved completely removing their opposition, either by killing them or enslaving them.

    For the last sixty years, though, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the world. It has been the de-facto arbiter of the world’s military issues. Though America chooses not to go to war over every international squabble, it still sets the limits within which the game is played. The US set up the UN. It want(ed) the world to perceive itself as a single entity, all brothers so to speak. Most nations don’t really look at it that way, but they either have to work within the American framework or try to sneak around it. Israel is an example of a country that has more-or-less tried to live up to the American ideals of war. They dealt with their conquered enemies as people who have rights. As a result, they are really stuck. They have an unsolvable Palestinian problem, and cannot even keep land that is actually theirs. They have had to fight war after war; they can never really win.

    India and Pakistan, on the other hand, basically ignored the American system, had a horrible war that created literally tens of millions of refugees from both sides. But, eventually they have been able to settle down, each nation within its own borders. (Truth is, America itself found no other solution to its own Indian problem except to completely conquer and subjugate the American Indians.) The American system doesn’t work too well.

    Americans are not fools. They are working with an ideal. Would that it would be that all humanity are brothers. But, remember that America can afford it. They are far from their enemies (now that the Indians are no more), and generally don’t feel personally threatened. Thus, they imposed the Marshall plan after WWII, when I imagine that France and England might have preferred to see Germany paved over once and for all. China probably felt the same way about Japan. But since we at present live in a world with a world court (i.e., the United States) other nations have to work with America’s dislike of war and its consequences.

    Of course, circumstances can change. It is interesting to see now the dilemma the US faces with Al Qaeda and militant Islam, an enemy that apparently cannot be defeated, only destroyed. I’m not trying to say that America is wrong. I just want to point out that in the ancient world, where there was no overarching superior military power that could call the shots, the rules were totally different, and everyone knew it. Losing a war meant losing everything; the enemy would do whatever was best for them.

    This leads me into my discussion of slavery. To the best of my knowledge, until recently slavery was a non-issue. There were no ancient peoples who thought it immoral. Everyone knew that if you were unfortunate enough to lose a war, you stood a good chance of getting killed, or enslaved if you were lucky. You would lose your property and maybe your land, and maybe your life.

    All of this began to change with the advent of Western civilization. People began to believe in Freedom of Opportunity. To the extent possible, they felt that people should never interfere with each other. [The ideal world for an Westerner would be a kind of video game that each individual plays in which he lives his life surrounded by virtual people. He can do whatever he wants to them, including torture and murder, since they aren’t real. He can be whatever he wants, president, or dictator, or monarch. He also can have the full experience of all social interactions, of love, fatherhood, etc., that one has between people.]

    The truth, though, is that even in today’s society people are very restricted in their opportunities. Most people can’t really become president, or a CEO. This is a fact of life resulting from human limitations, and because there are other people in the world. In Western civilization, slavery especially grates on us, because we resent the fact that other people are a built-in limitation to a human being’s sovereignty. Man is supposed to be the master of everything. Slavery is the diametrical opposite to that. It is perhaps the most extreme example there is of non-Freedom of Opportunity due to other people.

    I know I haven’t finished answering your questions, but I hope this is a start. Let me know what you think.

    Best wishes,
    Michoel Reach

    Comment by ATR — August 27, 2006 @ 12:33 pm

  2. Shalom Rabbi, Thanks for your time and effort in explaining me about this question. Frankly speaking I still have certain doubts which I have typed below :-

    1) You gave examples about Israel and Palestine in your last reply and also about the U.S. These countries are not walking on the path of Torah or taking guidance from G-D before going to war.So I dont think comparing the Torah wars with wars of India and Pakistan or U.S. would be the right thing. I agree with you that in a war the nation who lost had to become slaves as it was the normal at that time.

    2) When they were taken into slavery how were they treated ? In the book of Deuteronomy there is law which says if the the enemy nation doesn’t surrender then we have to kill all the men. So does this literally mean we kill all the men or only the men who decide to fight? I think if we go and kill all the men then that would be like murder.

    3) As you said that at that time it was normal that the losing nation had to become slaves so does this mean that this concept of war was also of that time and not timeless as the Torah ? I mean it is not applied today and under what circumstances was this law applied at that time ?

    4) Before making anybody into a slave we must never forget that we were once slaves in Egypt. We must never forget how it feels when our people are killed and massacred by others so before going to war today and forever we must remember the persecution we faced at the hands of the Nazis, the Romans and the Babylonians.

    5) If we imagine ourselves in the place of the people who are taken into slavery then maybe we can get the real idea of how it feels. You said that we are not Taliban but we are not American as well.I disagree on this point. I mean America allowed the Jews of almost all of Europe to settle over there after the 2nd world war. America gave equal rights to the Jews and did not treat them as 2nd class citizens nor did America oppress the Jews like the Europeans did. What would we as Jews have done if they were treated like foriegn slaves in the US ? You should know better than me of what American freedom is like as you live over there. America stands for freedom justice and liberty and I think these are the Torah ideals.Theres nothing wrong in accepting the American concept of justice of giving equal rights to the people. Maybe we should wage a war on oppressors like Saddam and liberate the people like the US did in Iraq. We shouldn’t enslave people and take what belongs to them

    6) Avraham also did the same thing while rescuing Lot. He waged a war but did not kill innocent people nor did he enslave the people of that city nor did he accept the loot.That’s the way wars should be waged. In the story of Purim also people defended themselves but did not do any looting.G-D didn’t allow David to build His Temple because he had done much bloodshed.This shows G-D hates bloodshed.And we must always keep in mind that G-D is watching us.If we shed innocent blood then our blood will be spilled; if we loot somebody’s else’s things then our things will be looted. Why cant we be satisfied with whatever G-D provides us with .

    I personally don’t think that by depriving other people’s rights or enslaving them would do any good. At the end of the day we all are G-D’s creation. Either the enslaved people would revolt or there would be turmoil in the country so its better to give them their rights.

    Anyways thanx for your time and effort in solving my doubts.Take care !

    Hi! I’ll try to answer some of your questions as best I can. I think I already answered others already, if you’ll look back at my earlier words.

    I don’t think the example from Avraham is correct. Look again at the story and you will see why he didn’t take spoils from S’dom; he says why. Anyhow, S’dom was not his enemy in the story. It doesn’t say there that he refrained from completely destroying the four kings he was fighting against. In the Purim story, Esther asked for an extra day in Shushan to destroy their enemies better. They didn’t take spoils because they came from Amalek, which the Torah tells us to despise completely. G-d never says anywhere that he disapproves of what David did. On the contrary, David is one of his greatest servants who is given incredible reward, as that same prophet emphasizes. The prophet only says that the Temple has to be built by a different personality. The Torah tells us to be kind to slaves, because we were slaves – it never tells us not to own them. Nor does the Torah criticize the Egyptians for owning slaves, only for mistreating them. And, of course, you’ve already pointed out the many examples in the Bible that say just the opposite, both about warfare and about slavery. I hope I’m not being troublesome; I just think that the point of view you’re seeking is not really found in the Torah.

    I mentioned in the previous letter that just as the radical Moslems have taken some positive characteristics (belief in G-d, self-sacrifice, modesty…) overboard, so has Western civilization. Kindness and tolerance are wonderful things, but not kindness and tolerance of evil. Psalms 139: “G-d, do I not hate those who hate you? ... I hate them completely.”

    Of course the Torah wants us to be kind and just. G-d is only kindness; to be close to him we have to cultivate kindness in every way. This is a fundamental principle for our lives. But that doesn’t mean that there are no situations where it doesn’t apply; that’s taking a good principle overboard. There are those who want to destroy civilization, who hate everything that Israel stands for, and who want to sever G-d’s connection with this world. There have been entire nations that made that choice. And when that choice was made, sometimes G-d decided that that nation no longer had a positive contribution to make. He had it removed from the world, which means all the babies gone too. (If some of its people could still continue as part of a better nation, they are enslaved by it instead of being killed.)

    That doesn’t mean that the babies sinned; of course they hadn’t. But the world belongs to G-d. He gives all of us life, and he will take it away from all of us when he chooses. He gives us reward in this world, and in the next if we deserve it. G-d keeps track, and we all get everything we deserve, including babies. But he decides who lives and who dies, and he decided that these nations (Amalek, Midyan, Canaan) no longer had a role to play.

    Probably the right example to bring is the story of Shaul, when he was commanded to destroy Amalek. He chose not to do it completely, to show mercy. G-d’s reaction was not to praise him for his mercy: Shaul was called rebellious, and fired from being king. And events proved how wrong Shaul had been: Amalek survived, and its descendant Haman tried to destroy Israel. G-d knows what’s best, and he knows what works. “Those who are kind when they should be cruel, end up being cruel when they should be kind.”

    Best wishes,
    Michoel Reach

    Comment by ATR — August 30, 2006 @ 11:18 am

  3. Shalom Rabbi Reach,
    Thanks for your reply.I must tell you that you are not at all being troublesome and on the contrary I might be troublesome to you by arguing about this thing.

    First of all the original question was about the Midianite women.The virgins who were allowed to live , I want to know how were they treated. Were they treated as “things of amusement” or were given proper rights. Please tell me about that.

    I agree with you completely on the topic which you mentioned that there are those people who want to destroy us and we must take steps in order to destroy them. In order to defend ourselves we must take necessary measures. But are we allowed to become aggressors? Are we allowed to go and wage a war on anybody we like and occupy their territory? In Deuteronomy it is written that when we go to wage a war on the faraway countries we are to give its people a chance to surrender.If they do so then they are to become our slaves. Which are these faraway countries. And does this literally mean that they become slaves or does it mean that they pay a certain amount of tribute to us?

    If they don’t surrender then we are to kill all the men in the city. How can this be allowed , I mean we cant just go in and kill each and every man. G-D does not allow the killing of innocent along with the guilty. He told Avraham before destroying Sodom that even if there were 10 innocent people then He would spare the entire city. Shouldn’t we do the same – kill the ones who are guilty of crime but spare the innocent. We cant destroy the innocent along with the guilty can we? To my knowledge this law is not applied anywhere today. Will this law be applied in the future? About slavery also will there be slaves in the future or was this law given to the people at that time because slavery and other things were common at that time. G-D in His Divine knowledge must have known that in the future when the people develop they would leave the system of slavery and so He might have provided this law to be used at that time. I might be incorrect but this is my assupmtion.

    About killing children and babies which you mentioned, I have a slight doubt regarding that. You said that the babies are not guilty and had not sinned but then you also said this world belongs to G-D and He can do whatever He wants. If that would be the case then why did G-D tell Prophet Jonah in the last chapter of the book of Jonah that even thought Nineveh was an evil city He does care for the small children living in that city and also cares for the animals of that city. It is impossible that G-D would kill somebody who is not guilty of any sin. He is the Judge of all and He cant destroy innocent along with the guilty.

    I am not at all saying that evil people should not be destroyed – of course they should be – but all I want to know is if the innocent are also punished with the guilty .

    I am not at all arguing about David’s great deeds but he only said to Solomon in the book of Chronicles about the bloodshed he had done. I’ll qoute the exact verse below along the chapter name and verse :-

    22:7 And David said to Solomon, My son, as for me, it was in my mind to build an house unto the name of the LORD my God: 22:8 But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars: thou shalt not build an house unto my name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in my sight.

    Thanks for your time Rabbi.Take care and have a great time in the festivals that are coming ahead in this month.

    I’ll try to answer your questions to the best of my understanding.

    1) I do not think that there is any record of Israel just going to conquer countries for the fun of it. They were attacked and oppressed by many of their neighbors, as is detailed in the books of Judges and Samuel. The law in Deuteronomy is talking about when G-d gives us the upper hand in these recurrent battles. I do not think that the law requires killing every male, and the books of Judges and Samuel don’t normally describe such a practice. What it does say is that Israel was allowed to take whatever action felt necessary to make sure that the enemy can’t recover and strike again (we’ve talked about this before in our first exchange of letters), up to killing every male. Whereas, if they surrender, we’re not allowed to hurt them, they don’t become slaves; they just pay tribute.

    2) I’m not sure we’re really disagreeing on the story of David Hamelech. The verses nowhere say that G-d disapproves of what David did; obviously he didn’t – see the original discussion in Samuel II, Chapter 7, where David and his battles are warmly praised. It merely says that that’s not the right type of person to build the Bais Hamikdash. 2) The Midianite women were actually small children (the gemara says under the age of 3). They certainly were not mistreated, but they did become slaves.

    3) We’ve discussed before the issue of slavery, and I guess we don’t agree. As I said before, I don’t see that the fact that the world has “left the system of slavery” means that it is immoral. It is difficult for the person enslaved, but so are many things in this world. The gemara in Bava Metsia 73b says, “If someone does not behave properly, it is permitted to enslave him.” While this obviously mustn’t be over-applied, we can see one example of it in a remarkable gemara in Nedarim 32a: “Why was Avraham Avinu punished that his children were exiled to Egypt? ... Rabbi Yochanon said, Because he neglected to bring people under the wings of the shechinah, as the verse says [after he won the battle of the four kings], ‘Give me back the people, and you keep the spoils [and Avraham didn’t keep the people]...’”

    Avraham had had a tremendous impact on the world, teaching everyone of G-d and doing kindness. The only ones he failed with were the people of S’dom and Amorah. They were so deeply sunk in their selfishness and cruelty that he couldn’t reach them. Therefore, G-d in his wisdom arranged that they should become captives in a war, and would fall into Avraham’s hands. “If someone does not behave properly, it is permitted to enslave him.” If they wouldn’t learn decent behavior on their own, they would become subject to Avraham and learn it against their will. Avraham is actually being criticized for not implementing this plan!

    Note also that this is called “coming under the wings of the shechinah”. A slave to a Jew is a kind of Jew, who keeps mitzvos. G-d was providing a way for unsuccessful people to achieve success. Look at Eliezer, the slave of Avraham. He was from Canaan, and cursed. By his beautiful reflection of what his master embodied, he was worthy of becoming blessed, as the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni points out on Lavan’s first words to him, “Come in, O blessed of G-d.” He had become one of the greatest people in our history, and could only have achieved this because of the slavery which forged his connection to Avraham.

    4) This brings me to my last point. G-d does say about Nineveh that he cares for people, and animals; of course he does. That doesn’t mean that he can’t take innocent lives. Do we not know of so many innocent children who die of terrible diseases, often before they could possibly have done any sin? Our lives are in his hands, and he has many purposes in this world, far beyond your local comfort or mine. We don’t have a “right” to long and healthy lives; whatever he lends us is a gift. Of course many (most?) people die not as a specific punishment, but because in his plan of things their time is up. Sometimes he carries things out through illness or forces of nature, but other times through human beings. And again, he keeps track: No one will lose, and he gives everyone what they need, in this world and the next.

    (Though Avraham Avinu argued on behalf of S’dom and Amorah, it’s clear from the narrative there that it would have been different without an Avraham to take responsibility for the cities. Indeed, the story eventually says explicitly that Lot and his family were saved only because “Hashem remembered Avraham, and sent Lot out from the overturning…”)

    In short, I don’t see a difficulty with saying that G-d can order the destruction of innocent people. Obviously, he wouldn’t do that for no reason, but he can if he needs to. We belong to him.

    I feel that part of what may be bothering you is: The Taliban think this way too. They also feel that they are serving G-d when they commit their horrific crimes. We think we’re right – well, they think they’re right, too! We all appreciate the West’s religious freedom, because we know that the alternative is evil people abusing others and claiming to do it in the name of their gods.

    Please understand: We Jews do not fight any such wars now, nor kill anyone. The time that the Torah is discussing was a special, unique one. G-d had revealed himself through miracles and prophecy, and that whole part of the world was fully aware of it. This was totally true during the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, but it lasted through the entire First Temple period, and beyond. Anyone who wanted could go to the Temple, and see open miracles. It wasn’t that some believed “A” and others believed “B”. Everyone knew the truth; the question was, would they embrace it or resist it? The Torah is not describing how different people acted according to their respective beliefs. It’s describing how they dealt with the reality of the world.

    Today is different. Nobody out there understands anything. It’s hard to hold anyone responsible for disbelief; they don’t know what to believe. Certainly none of us wants anyone killing anyone else based on their confusions. And G-d has, probably wisely, taken such a power out of our hands also. He will return it to us again – but only when “The world will be full of the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11(9)).”

    Best wishes,
    Michoel Reach

    Comment by ATR — September 4, 2006 @ 11:08 am

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