PARSHAT MATOT – MASEI
ETHICS AND THE TORAH
“Now, therefore, slay every male among the noncombatants, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally.” (Numbers 31:17)
We love to see the teachings of the Torah as reflecting the highest ethical insights of humanity. After all, we learn from the Torah to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to be honest in business practices, to honor our parents, etc. But sometimes the Torah turns unethical. Particularly in the long double portion Matot-Masei there are some extremely difficult sections. Many rabbis are glad this Torah portion falls in the middle of the summer when they are on vacation and do not need to speak about it.
This portion contains Israel’s war against the Midianites. To tell the backstory, the Midianite nation at the urging of the pagan prophet Balaam had drawn the people Israel into what can best be described as a giant orgy. The behavior of the Israelites at that moment was the opposite of every religious ideal God had given the people. As the result of the orgy a plague breaks out against the people. Only the violent action of Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, killing the ringleaders of the orgy, puts a stop to the plague.
Moses seeks a war of revenge against the Midianites, who he considers a danger to the spiritual nature of the people Israel. Israel defeats Midian buts the military officers spare the women. Moses becomes angry, calling for the women who had known men to be put to death. It is a violent episode that seems far from the peace-loving values of the rest of the Torah. How can we explain it?
Some would answer that the Torah is a human document, filled with violence, and containing little of spiritual value. In fact, here in Florida, in reaction to recent government school library book bans by the right, there is a move by some on the left to remove the Bible from school libraries. As a rabbi, I understand how the Torah contains episodes of extreme violence. But the key is not to avoid reading these episodes, but rather interpret them according to our best contemporary understanding of human values.
Let me try to reinterpret the difficult passage regarding the Midianite women. One of the classical methods of interpretation mentioned by the Rabbis is remez (literally “hint”), philosophical or allegorical interpretations. Using allegory, the Torah is no longer speaking of real women who must be put to death. Rather, the women represent a part of human nature that must be controlled. Allegory changes the story from history to psychology. It becomes a war against part of our human nature.
Humans are born with a powerful sexual drive, which Sigmund Freud identified as the id. These drives, when out of control, create chaos. The orgy with the Midianite women was the story of the id out of control, allowing passions to overrule reason. Moses understood that when such passions rule, the spirit of the nation will be destroyed. The war against the Midianites and the slaying of the women was simply a war against out-of-control human passions. It is a war that Israel had to fight if it were to become, as the Torah teaches, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Sexual passions must be brought under control. Or to quote Ben Zoma in the Talmud, “Who is strong? Whoever can control their passions” (Avot 4:1).
To read the story as an allegory removes much of the ethical discomfort raised by ethical issues. The war against the Midianites is something that each of us must fight within our own psyche. By conquering these out-of-control passions, we change our nature. Human sexuality becomes a way of serving God. In fact, later Jewish mystical thinkers will see human sexuality in theurgic terms (theurgy is way human behavior can affect spiritual forces in the universe.) According to kabbalah, the sexual drive used properly can literally bring together the male and female aspects of God.
Part of my love of Judaism is how it allows multiple interpretations of every Biblical verse. I hope this interpretation helps sees the greater spiritual purpose of the war against the Midianites.