Thursday, 21 Jul 2011

Written by Rabbi Janet Darley

If you look at the Liberal Judaism Lectionary, you will notice that, unusually, for this week there is only one suggested reading. Why?  Well, a closer examination reveals that much of Mattot contains material that is quite uncomfortable.    

The setting for Mattot is the last year of the Israelite journey through the wilderness. It contains three distinct sections. In the first, Moses addresses the assembled tribal leadership concerning vows and oaths. The second section discusses the war on Midian and the third, the request of Reuben and Gad to settle east of the Jordan rather than crossing it.  

This last section is the only part that appears in the Liberal Judaism lectionary and that of the Movement for Reform Judaism. The division of lands is quite a safe topic. It contains the request of the tribes Reuben and Gad, herders with large numbers of animals, to remain in the fields to which they had taken a liking rather than be required to cross the Jordan. This incurs a rebuke since the order of their words in their plan to build pens for their livestock and cities for their children seems to indicate more interest in their flocks and herds than in their children, but it is not by any consideration unsettling.  

The same cannot be said for the middle section, which prescribes a war against the Midianites.  Going far beyond a simple military campaign, it calls for the slaughter not only of soldiers, but of women and children as well.  This seeking of vengeance is in response to an incident at Baal-peor recounted in Numbers 25.  Rabbi Gunther Plaut points out war that has posed a moral challenge to Jews throughout our history.  In many ways, this passage stands in stark contrast to other discussions of warfare in Torah. Elsewhere, Torah sets out rules for war, including the prohibition of cutting down fruit-bearing trees when laying siege to a city and exempting people from military duty under certain conditions.  If asked about the Jewish view of war, we would be more likely to quote the injunction of Psalm 34:15 to “seek peace and pursue it”, than to quote Numbers 31.

Plaut reminds us that this account in Numbers, written after the fact, was more of a reconstruction of history than actual history.  He argues “it doubtlessly came from an age when Israel had trouble with the native inhabitants of its conquered territories and when widespread immorality was ascribed to these components of the population.” 1   This story is therefore a retrospective judgement, suggesting that if Moses’ injunctions had been followed correctly, there would have been fewer problems in the land.  

Though this section requires a ritual atonement to be made by those involved in the killing of the prisoners, arguably a unique provision, I would struggle to explain it to a visitor to my synagogue.  Furthermore, there is always a chance that someone will use it to justify some horrible act.  Indeed this section of Mattot may well have been one of the texts relied on by Rabbi Dov Lior, recently arrested in Israel following his endorsement of a publication which states that it is permissible to kill innocent non-Jewish civilians in times of war.  That concern may be why we don’t read it—we certainly don’t want to be seen to be advocating such behaviour.

Yet, I wonder if we really do ourselves a favour when we forget that our sacred writings contain some passages in which we as Progressive Jews do not see divine inspiration but rather their writers succumbing to all too human fear and anger.  In the context of Interfaith relations it is often easy to point out troubling passages in others’ sacred texts, while we have seemingly forgotten our own. As Progressive Jews we believe that we can find divine inspiration by reading Torah, but we do not believe that everything in Torah is the word of God.

One value of reading these texts is the reminder that there are passions that we humans have had to struggle against in the past and still do today.  We also have to deal with the consequences of succumbing to them, and in the case of war the consequences are often more than we are willing to acknowledge at first. What effects would a war such as the one described in Mattot really have on those conducting it?

War is always troubling and the mental and moral impact on the combatants is as much to be feared as the physical destruction it brings.  As an American baby-boomer I became well acquainted with the effects of the Vietnam War on many of those who fought in it as well as its impact on American society. Only a couple of years ago a close friend spoke to me of her fears about what her son would be like when he returned from his tour of duty in Iraq.

The potential effects of war did not escape previous generations of rabbis. In his 1914 Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Israel Mattuck voiced his concern about the war seemingly enveloping the world: “The results of centuries of human effort in civilization are threatened with complete destruction.  The ruin of towns and sacred houses is but symbolic of the deeper spiritual ruin which this war threatens.”

Rabbi Harold Saperstein, in a sermon given on Armistice Day 1936, offered these words.  “I can see them marching down the streets of Lynbrook [the Long Island community of his synagogue].  Fine brave-hearted boys, chin up and eyes straight ahead.  Boys we know and love, boys whose voices we have heard from this pulpit, dedicating themselves to the cause of Judaism in their Bar Mitzvah speeches…. The years will pass.  A weary, shattered, broken world will declare another armistice.  The boys will come back. But not all of them. Some who come back will not come back the same as they went.  And some will curse God for having permitted them to live and suffer.”3

I find little in Mattot that is inspiring or edifying, but I do find in it the reminder that our ancestors were human and that they struggled with some of the same issues we struggle with today. Their responses may have been appropriate for their time, but we cannot follow them unquestioningly.  We live in different times and with different knowledge and understanding.  We must bring that difference to our struggle with the texts left us by our ancestors.

Rabbi Janet Darley
July 2011





1 W. Gunther Plaut The Torah: A Modern Commentary,  p.1230
2 Israel Mattuck  “The Comprehension of Reality in Life” Rosh Hashanah Sermon 1914 unpublished manuscript, LBC archives
Harold I. Saperstein Witness from the Pulpit,  p.53   Rabbi Harold Saperstein was the father of Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, former Principal of Leo Baeck College




The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.