The Point and the Premise
This book is very specific in the particular issues it addresses. There is a wide variety of literature regarding the topics of “Is Religion Dangerous?” or “War in Religion,” with some defending the enterprise of religion against claims that it leads to violence, and many more attempting to make a direct link between religion, war, and violence. I have seen many articles, essays, and other works put out addressing general issues of war and violence in the Jewish Scriptures. I have yet to see, however, an in-depth and comprehensive coverage of the violence mentioned in Scripture in its totality. I have seen books touch on these issues, and I have seen articles focus on isolated instances of violence (and other issues that are hard to digest for the contemporary palate) in Scripture, but I have never seen all of the issues combined and explained thoroughly, at least not from the point of view defending the integrity of Scriptures. It is my conviction that the material covered in this book is unique in its coverage of the varied topics in the Bible that are perceived as unethical and barbaric. The contribution I hope to make in this work is to shed the light of context onto the Scriptures highlighting the fact that the violence and (perceived) injustice contained within them are either justified or non-existent.
I would like to address the reasons why I have omitted a defense of the citations of violence and injustice in the Talmud and post-Biblical writings. While this work is a response to misrepresentation of Jewish Biblical sources, I am aiming to make it appealing on a universal level. Adding a section on the misconstruing of the Oral Law and post-Biblical writings would serve the interest of few, and may mitigate the impact of my overall message. The primary (ethical) criticism of the Talmud and post-Biblical sources comes overwhelmingly from anti-Semitic white supremacist and radical Islamic sources, with which very few people of academic pedigree (or any critic with self-respect for that matter) feel comfortable putting themselves in the same camp regarding their scholarship of religion. This being the case, and because it is rarely a topic on the table to begin with, I do not view it as a necessity to address the citations of such a small group of people devoid of anyone who has upstanding stature in respectable society.
With all this taken into consideration, I would like to acknowledge ahead of time that God’s reason for commanding violence (or anything else for that matter) cannot always be understood by us (and certainly not completely). I am not naïve enough to suggest my investigation into the violent parts of Scripture will answer every question regarding violence in the Bible. As John Ruskin said, “How can man understand God, since he does not yet understand his own mind, with which he endeavors to understand Him?” What I do aim to demonstrate is that there is a cohesive logical pattern of justified violence, and when one understands the underlying logic in this pattern, it will pull the rug out from under the moral criticisms of the Bible.
This book is not an effort to demonstrate the reliability of Scripture but begins from the assumption that the picture of history and the nature of God that the Bible gives are accurate. The anticipated question from the skeptic, or any thinking person for that matter, is: How can you say your understanding of God and the Bible is a reflection of reality? This is a valid question, but it is for a different book. The reason establishing the Divinity of the Bible is not necessary here is because the criticisms of Scripture are based on its content, not its bearing on reality. It will behoove us to take into consideration that the critic really only has two valid forms of critique. First is that even if what the Bible recorded is inaccurate, Scripture is still responsible for giving people incentive for committing atrocities in God’s name. The alternative criticism is the claim that the accounts the Bible gives are accurate, and the Jewish People and their God should be held accountable for their actions. Given the fact that the criticism aimed at the Bible is taking the Bible’s account as factual, which means every Scriptural verse is a valid testimony of the totality of the picture, one cannot blame Jews for killing Amalekites based on Biblical testimony and at the same time reject the Biblical portrait of the Amalekites as a wicked nation. If one is to challenge the morality of the Bible, it is only logical to admit that the Biblical picture of the facts should govern what we are dealing with in order to consider whether the episodes of violence were justifiable. As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman says: “Matters of interpretation must be decided entirely on the basis of the Torah’s own internal dynamic. Introducing external factors is as unacceptable here as it would be in any other self-contained system. The Torah is an entirely independent framework and must be recognized and respected as such.”
Exclusive Focus on the Jewish Scriptures
While I am fully aware that the Jewish Scriptures are not unique in being taken out of context and misrepresented regarding violence (not to mention numerous other topics), the exclusive focus of this book is criticism of the Jewish Scriptures. It is not my responsibility or desire to defend the texts of belief systems that differ from my own. Even though I am only covering the Jewish Scriptures and providing a defense from a Jewish point of view, it is my contention that even someone not of the Jewish faith (especially traditional Christians) will find the material here useful in responding to the general critique of skeptics regarding matters of religion and Scripture.
Mesorah, the Integral Nature of the Oral Tradition
For the person who is truly familiar with the Pentateuch (i.e., the Written Torah) and the Oral Law (i.e., the Oral Torah), the conclusion flows naturally that the Written and Oral Law are so intertwined that one has to accept or reject both of them together. There are too many sources in Scripture that are direct commands that are ambiguous enough that without an Oral Law as an accompaniment they cannot be understood. Still, there are two main objections to the Oral Law. First, the Oral Law often contradicts Scripture, and, second—rather paradoxically in light of the first objection—the two complement each other so precisely that the rabbis must have created the Oral Law in order to fill in the blanks of the Written Law. A short refutation of the second argument is that the entire thrust of it is based on a premise that the Oral Law was invented by the rabbis—a conclusion stemming not from evidence but rather from the critics’ refusal to even attempt to address the issue because of a starting point partially objectionable to them. In other words, it is a complaint based on biased, preconceived starting points and not evidence.
While there certainly are other, lengthier responses, we can address both objections with a concise point. It is clear the Bible was created by God in order to give us instructions for how to live. It is also clear that many of those instructions require a more in-depth description of how to fulfill them. Being that the Oral Law as taught by the rabbis is the only body of law that even claims to accompany the Written Law, it behooves us to appreciate this fact and its ramifications. Going back to the time of Moses, there was always an unwritten instruction on how to fulfill certain parts of Scripture that it would be impossible to fulfill otherwise, and at no point in Jewish history has there ever been an attempt to suggest any oral tradition that accompanied the Torah other than the Talmud! We can and should infer from this that the Talmud is the only legitimate body of explanation that is available to us as an explanation of the Written Law. While complete Scriptural evidence for the assertion of the need for an Oral Law is too numerous for me to mention here, I will give a few examples of evidence that show a need for an oral tradition.
King David’s great-grandmother, Ruth, was a Moabite. According to the Written Law, a Moabite is explicitly prohibited from marrying into the Jewish People So, how could Ruth have been permitted to marry Boaz and thus play a crucial role as “the mother of kings” in building the Jewish nation? The Talmud explains that the prohibition allowing Moabite converts to marry is only referring to men of Moabite descent and not women.
In Deuteronomy 12:21, we are told to slaughter animals “in the manner that I have commanded you.” Where is the manner God commanded us mentioned in the Written Torah? Obviously, God had something specific in mind with the word “manner.” The answer can only be found in the Talmud, where the laws dealing with shechitah, ritual slaughter, are discussed at length in Masechta (Tractate) Chullin.
In Leviticus 16:31, we are told to “afflict your souls” on Yom Kippur. What does this mean? We should walk on hot coals? Where do we know it means fasting (along with other specific practices)? The answer again is: the Oral Law!
For the holiday of Sukkos, there is a commandment to “take for yourselves the fruit of a beautiful tree.” But from which tree and which fruit? Only the Oral Law lets us know it is an esrog, citron. The esrog is universally accepted and used in practice as the fruit mentioned in Leviticus.
We see from these examples and many more that the Talmud so perfectly complements the Written Torah, with so many details being nonetheless completely in sync, which suggests that no other possible tradition could exist, for no fabrication could be that close-to-perfect.
Not All Violence in Scripture Is Endorsed by the Divine
While the Bible is not merely “a history book,” it does contain a lot of history. Not all violence mentioned in the Bible is actually endorsed by God. When the Bible records violence, it is just that—a recording of a people’s history, for better and for worse. For a few examples of the many times this occurs, consider: Judges 9:5, 9:45, 11:29–39, 18:27, 19:22–29, II Samuel 20:10–12, II Kings 15:16, II Chronicles 21:4, and Lamentations 4:9–10.
The Importance of Acknowledging a Spiritual Reality
When addressing the issue of morality in the Bible, it is imperative to acknowledge the working assumption that the portrayal of reality contained in the Bible is Reality with a capital R. Avoiding the discussion of religion and politics is standard advice in social etiquette because it’s impossible to discuss such matters without offending someone. Nowadays, talking about religion in pluralistic societies seems not to have the potency it used to have for getting people riled up. I suggest the reason for this is that for many people in Western culture these days, religion consists more of existentialist pragmatism than set and defined theology. Therefore, when a person comes from an existentialist, pragmatic religious perspective, he is not bothered by other perspectives because he does not believe those religious perspectives to reflect reality.
When it comes to politics, however, the same uncombative, relaxed person can metamorphose into a person frothing at the mouth regarding issues on how to run the country. The reason for this is that they know they are affected by the policies of the country, and they are well aware of the cause-and-effect mechanism of the decision-making that goes on by policy makers. In order to properly understand Scripture, however, we must be cognizant of the cause-and-effect mechanism that occurs with spiritual reality. The Torah (five books of Moses) is the blueprint of the world, as taught by authoritative Jewish sources: “God looked into the Torah, and created the world.” This being the case, we are obliged to take the overall Biblical picture into consideration (in order to understand the reality in its context). We must not isolate verses in a vacuum.
The Verses Covered Are Comprehensive, but Not Totally Exhaustive
I have tried to address every part of the Bible that could be conceivably judged as violent and morally objectionable. Nevertheless, it is not a realistic expectation for this book to address every verse that every person perceives as morally objectionable. What I have done is try to address as many locations in the Bible as I can that are often quoted by critics as being morally unacceptable.
An In-Depth Explanation of the Concepts of Peace and Mercy
It is my contention that authentic shalom, peace, is not limited to the peace of the flower-power type, but that peace also means invoking violence and division when necessary. It is true that abstaining from war is a form of peace; however, the root of the Hebrew word shalom comes from the word shaleim, meaning complete. Many people have the belief that people have to work toward unity at all costs to achieve peace, but Scripture informs us differently. In the episode where Abraham separates from his nephew Lot, the verse reads, “Thus they parted, one from his brother.” On this verse, the Baal HaTurim commented: “The final letters of the four words…spell peace. This tells you that they parted in order to maintain peace between them.” We see from here that separation between people can be used as a means to achieve peace.
Rabbi Zev Leff elaborates on the concept of peace by informing us:
Shalom is not merely the absence of strife or disagreement, but a state of peaceful serenity. It is precisely through the interaction of opposites, of fire and water, that God is described as the One who makes peace. Machlokes l’shem Shamayim, argument for the purpose of reaching truth, is the epitome of shalom. The Kohanim, priests, who are the representatives of shalom—servants in the Beis Hamikdash, the Temple, the place of shalom—were consecrated by killing their relatives who served the golden calf. And Pinchas was initiated into the kehunah, priesthood, by Hashem and given the covenant of shalom as a result of his slaying Zimri and Kosbi. True shalom is the achievement of perfection—the harmonious functioning of the world. As long as evil and evildoers destroy this harmony, there can be no shalom. There is not shalom, says Hashem, concerning the wicked. Hence, true shalom is conditional on destroying evil.
When it comes to the Lord having mercy, this does not mean to say that God tolerates or wants us to tolerate evil in the world as an expression of mercy. In fact, mercy applied in the wrong fashion can be detrimental to society, as the Midrash teaches: “Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Whoever acts compassionate toward those who are cruel, will act cruelly toward those who [are in need of] compassion.’” Rabbi Mordechai Gifter uses this concept to answer an enigma in the phraseology in a certain verse of the Torah:
The name Elokim denotes the Divine attribute of judgment, while the name Hashem (the four letter, ineffable name) denotes the Divine attribute of mercy. Since our verse focuses on God’s destruction of entire cities, why does it not use Elokim instead of Hashem? Although destruction may seem harsh, Hashem’s destroying the wicked stems from His mercy on behalf of the rest of the world. This concept is expressed by Seforno on Shemos 15:3: “Hashem is a man of war; Hashem is His name.” Seforno explains: “Even though He is a Man of war, decimating the wicked with the attribute of justice, nonetheless Hashem is His name—indicating His attribute of mercy. Through destroying the wicked, He grants being and existence to His world. He removes the thorns from the vineyard, for the wicked destroy the world.”
We see from the above that according to the Biblical view (not to mention from the vantage point of logic), violence when channeled correctly is good for society; violence can bring us complete and authentic peace through real mercy.
Explanations and Reasons—a Limited Endeavor
When I undertook to write this book, one of the most common concerns people expressed was how it could be possible to explain the ways of God in such a way as to satisfy the secular mind. Although a person who rejects the truth of Scripture will not be pacified with answers based on the premises of the Bible, the purpose of this book is to show that actions can be morally justified within the structure of Scripture. So, even if one does not acknowledge the authority of the Bible, he can still admit that his perception of Biblical moral content has been skewed by a misunderstanding of the nature and context of Scripture. I will be forward and acknowledge that on the whole, my book is more persuasive regarding the exposure of false narratives of critics who are unaware of the proper understanding/context of the Jewish Scriptures than forceful in compelling secular people to recognize the authority of Scripture. While I’m sure people could offer better arguments than I on this topic, I think it is only realistic to admit that proper understanding/context of the Jewish Scriptures only goes so far (addressing inaccuracies of Scriptural understanding), where even proper understanding of textual context will not bring most secular critics to accept the moral authority of the God of the Bible. A “buy in” into the system is somewhat required to fully appreciate an internal coherent moral logic of Scripture. I need to be clear on this: There are two ways for the Bible-believing Jew to respond to criticism of the Bible. The most effective way is to show that the critique is incompetent even from the point of view of the critics’ beliefs and values. The critic has made some mistake in logic or fact. The second, less forceful response is to show that we (Orthodox Jews) with our beliefs and values can defend ourselves against the critique even though from the critics’ point of view their critique is still valid. The former is obviously stronger than the latter. There are certainly cases where I accomplish the first approach. However, for a significant portion of the book, I often appeal to the (Jewish) Oral tradition for explanation (i.e., Talmud); it is in these cases where I am only accomplishing the second approach. I think two further points are necessary to take into consideration. First, the flip side of this applies to the critic. In other words, the critic is at a weaker position if they make an argument based only on their values and beliefs. They are under no obligation (logically) to accept the authority of the Oral Jewish tradition; at the same time the Orthodox Jew is logically under no obligation to accept the critics’ premise of rejecting the Oral tradition while defending our (Jewish Orthodox) understanding of the texts. The second point is if the critic would accept the interpretation of the Oral Jewish tradition as moral, then the significance of their opposition to its authority would be diminished via their moral critique even if they do not accept the authority of the Talmud, as they would be on the same page with Orthodox Judaism on the ethical understandings of the interpretations.
A different, but almost as prevalent concern is that by trying to give reason and explanation to certain Biblical events and ideas, I am opening up an opportunity for people to try to make their own justifications based on my explanations. I would suggest that my views are not different than anyone else who can have people rip their message out of context. If someone is going to misconstrue a text to validate religious violence, it certainly will not be my book, which focuses on contextualization of past events.
Not unrelated, another charge is that by pursuing a question to unreasonable measures, I am somehow trying to psychoanalyze God. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, “If there is a God, there are no questions. If God does not exist, there are no answers.” I think this statement has to be understood in context with a deeper statement pertaining to the nature of our ultimate understanding of the ways of God. We will never be able to fathom the great scheme of God, nor should we expect to even come close to such an understanding. The words of Saadia Gaon are unquestionably true: “To know God, is to be God,” and we should not even expect to understand all the depths of Torah, the vehicle of the Divine will. After all, it does contain all of the secrets of the universe.
Nevertheless, we are told to delve into the Torah. One reason for this is that the more we understand the Divine will, the more we will appreciate the greatness of God. Furthermore, when Ramchal investigated the principles of Divine oversight, he taught us that accepting the existence of things we cannot understand does not undermine the validity of striving to understand what we can. Rabbi Zev Leff articulates this point well:
We don’t speak about the reasons for mitzvos; we speak about the taamei ha’mitzvah, tastes of the mitzvah. It is comparable to a regular eating. The reason people eat is not because it tastes good, or because it looks good, or because it has a good aroma. The reason people eat is because that is the way God made the world, and the reason we eat foods that are nutritious is because that is the way God made the world—that these things give nutrition and other things don’t. If you ate rocks, you would gain weight much faster, but it has no nutrition to it. So, we eat foods that are nutritional. Why are these things specifically nutritional and not other things? No one knows. We can describe what they are, but why it is like that, why God couldn’t have made us to be sustained by other kinds of food, we have no idea. So we really don’t need the answer why do we eat these specific foods, because that is the way God made us, and that is the way He made the world, and there is no explanation that we can possibly understand. We can describe the process, but we can’t understand the why. But, once we have to eat, God wanted it to be palatable to us. He wanted us to enjoy it. So he gave it a taste, a color, an aroma that makes it palatable and interesting, and enjoyable. So too, God said: “Look, mitzvah is spiritual food, this is the way it has to be, I made you, I made the world, I made these mitzvos. You don’t understand the why, it’s beyond your comprehension, but I want you to enjoy it too. So in those mitzvos, I am also going to give you intellectual and emotional understandings…that you can have a taste in that mitzvah too, where it can be palatable to you, on your level.”
Rabbi Yisroel Miller wrote:
When the Sefer Hachinuch suggests reasons for mitzvos, he writes: “Mi’sharashei ha’mitzvah—Among the roots of this mitzvah,” roots rather than reasons, perhaps to underscore the fact that these are not the mitzvah’s primary reasons. Even the more common term for mitzvah-reasons, taamei ha’mitzvos, is often translated as a “taste” of the mitzvah, i.e., an insight that gives us a taste for the mitzvah rather than an explanation of the mitzvah’s essence.
Finally, Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter wrote:
The details of a mitzvah are indicative of the nature of the mitzvah itself. If the details of a mitzvah are beyond our comprehension, then the mitzvah itself must be far removed from our ability to understand. Even if we sometimes feel that we do understand the rational[e] for certain mitzvos, particularity those categorized as mishpatim, that relates only to the external nature of those mitzvos. In truth, however, each mitzvah has incredible, sublime effects in the Heavenly realm, and each mitzvah in the Torah is based on endlessly profound Divine logic.
While it is true that we are in no position to understand God based on only our own understanding, we do have something to attach our understanding to: revelation. If one takes a look at Jewish history, the observer should take note that a great many scholars have spent a great deal of time explaining many facets of the Bible based on their understanding of the revealed sources, and they have spent a great amount of time preserving those explanations in order to ensure we have the opportunity to gain from them. This point becomes even stronger when taken into consideration that many of these men took an accounting of every minute that they wasted. It is unconceivable that these men would have exerted so much time and effort into these matters if they were not worthy of great contemplation.
The reason I pestered others and even myself to come up with such in-depth analysis on the topics included in this book was not to psychoanalyze God, but because my limited experience with Jewish learning has been that, in most cases, the “satisfactory answer” does eventually arrive with perseverance. That being said, I would like to conclude with the insightful words of Rabbi Meiselman: “Reasons and rationales are needed only for a deepened understanding of the Divine will, not for motivation.” And, I should add, acceptance.
To sum up the introduction, the point of the book is to evaluate Scripture cited as being indicative of immorality and examine the various variables based on a traditional position of Jewish scholarship. The premise is that skeptics should reserve their doubts on Divine authorship of the Bible, and learn the insider’s approach to how to understand troubling passages. This is because it is disingenuous to judge a system’s internal merits based on an external value system. The key, we have learned, is to learn the Bible through the lens of the Oral Tradition that has always accompanied the Written Law (i.e., Torah). I have also demonstrated through numerous verses that not all violence recorded in the Bible was endorsed or condoned by God. I mentioned that while coverage of the Biblical concerns would be comprehensive, it will not be exhaustive. We have seen a deeper understanding into the concepts of “peace” and “mercy.” Finally, I have tried to convey that even though there is nothing wrong with learning explanations and “reasons” for different parts of Scripture and the commandments, ultimately, the human mind is not capable of understanding everything in the Bible. However, neither should that be the expectation. While Galileo said, “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use,” we need also keep the words of Charles Caleb Colton in mind: “He that will believe only what he can fully comprehend must have a very long head, or a very short creed.” We can also gain strength from the insight of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”