Shoftim: Justice for All?

August 6, 2013 at 2:01 am | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment

The most quoted sentence in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), is:

Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)

tzedek  = right behavior, justice

Moses is urging the Israelites to keep seeking better justice and higher levels of right behavior in their own society, in their own land. The passage also includes an injunction not to judge people differently according to their rank in society, but to apply the same standards to all Israelites.

Later generations expanded the ideal of pursuing equal justice among your own people to pursuing equal justice among all people, the whole world. Today, our actual practices fall far short of our ideal of universal justice and human rights, but at least most cultures accept that ideal, and people often feel obliged to explain why they are not meeting it.

In both ancient Israelite society and modern nations, warfare and citizenship are two of the areas where different standards of justice are applied to different categories of people.

When it comes to warfare, societies today resort to narrowly limited codes for ethical behavior. Killing an enemy combatant in war is considered acceptable, while killing a resident of your own country is considered murder—even though both are human beings. Nevertheless, governing bodies attempt to set the same standards for all wars.

The book of Deuteronomy, however, clearly distinguishes between the long war to conquer the “promised land” of Canaan, and wars involving other lands. The first war is considered mandatory, required by God; all other wars are considered optional. This week’s Torah portion gives one set of rules for besieging towns in optional wars, and a different set of rules for besieging towns in the “promised land”.

The rules in Shoftim for sieges in optional wars were relatively ethical for the 7th century B.C.E., when modern scholars believe the book of Deuteronomy was written down.

When you approach a town to do battle upon it, you must call out to it for shalom. It shall be that if it answers you with shalom and it opens to you, then all the people found inside it shall do forced labor for you, and they shall serve you. (Deuteronomy 20:10)

shalom = peace; wholeness, intactness, well-being

In this case, shalom means terms for surrender, presumably in order to preserve the physical well-being of the vanquished. The acceptable terms of surrender are that the Israelites will own the town, and its inhabitants will work for their new Israelite masters—but no one will get hurt. This is notably humane for that time and place.

But if it [the town] does not make shalom with you, but does battle with you, you shall tzar it. Then God, your god, will give it into your hand, and you shall strike down all its men by the edge of the sword. However, the women and the small children and the cattle and everything that is in the city, all its booty, you shall plunder for yourself, and you shall eat the booty of your enemies, which God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy 20:12-14)

tzar, tzarar = wrap up, tie up; cramp, impede; besiege

This passage describes the standard procedure in that part of the world. An army that captured a town or city usually killed all the combatants (here assumed to be all the men) and took everything else for their own use, including the women and children, who became their slaves.

This is bad enough, but not as bad as what the Torah prescribes for the native residents of the “promised land”.

Thus you shall do to all the towns that are very distant from you, those which are not among the towns of the nations here. However, among the towns of these peoples, [the towns] which God, your god, is giving to you as a permanent possession, you must not let any living soul live. (Deuteronomy 20:15-16)

The Torah then lists six nations that the Israelites should completely wipe out, down to the smallest baby: the six that happen to be living inside the boundaries of the geographic area God promised to give to the Israelites. What is the reason for this order to commit genocide?

So that they will not teach you to do according to all their abominations that they did for their gods, and you would offend God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)

What happened instead, according to the books of Joshua and Judges, was that the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan the usual way, killing men in battle and massacring the populations of a few towns, but never eliminating an entire ethnic group. The book of Judges states that the Israelites then settled down amid the remaining members of the same six peoples they are told to wipe out in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites took their daughters for wives, and they gave their own daughters to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:6)

The children of Israel continued to serve various native gods. During the period chronicled in the two books of Kings, Israelite worship of other gods was so widespread that even the temple in Jerusalem was full of idols. In the second book of Kings, the high priest Chilkiyah discovered (or possibly wrote) a scroll that inspired King Josiah/Yoshiyahu to clear out all the idols from the temple, and carry out a nationwide campaign to eliminate other religions from his country.

According to modern scholars, this scroll was the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, assembled and edited in the 7th century B.C.E. during Josiah’s reign.

I conclude that the command to commit genocide was written into this week’s Torah portion because the author wanted King Josiah to get the idols out of the temple and eliminate all the other religions competing for the hearts of the Israelites. If only the Israelites had wiped out every last native when they conquered the land in the first place, he must have thought, there would have been nobody left to entice the Israelites into adopting Canaanite gods!

Unfortunately, this grumpy fantasy is preserved in the Torah as if Moses had commanded genocide.

Yet earlier passages in Deuteronomy echo the sentiment in Exodus and Leviticus that resident aliens should be treated fairly and judged according to the same laws as the Israelite citizens.

… judge with tzedek between a man and his brother, and between [him] and the stranger. (Deuteronomy 1:16)

You must love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

These injunctions seem less discriminatory than modern laws that treat resident aliens differently from official citizens.

So how should we approach a Torah that contains both “you must love the stranger”, and also “among the towns of these peoples …you must not let any living soul live”?

I believe it is futile to attempt to reconcile contradictory passages such as these. We need to recognize that the Torah was written down by human beings who were often, but not always, divinely inspired.

This does not mean we should reject the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible. Instead, I think we should remember that as human beings, we have tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, and we can continue to refine our ability to discriminate between right and wrong, just and unjust.  As we read the Torah, we should recognize where some of its writers erred, but also dive into the passages written with deep insight and holy inspiration. And we should follow the good advice in this week’s Torah portion:

Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue.

Keep seeking out what is just, what is right.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you, Steve Ulrich, for your question that challenged me to write this post.


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