Parshat Va-Etanan: Moral Choice in the Reading of Torah

Jacob Bender, 9/17/2003

This week parsha includes these verses:

hen the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are about to invade and occupy, and He dislodges many nations before youhe Hitties, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than yound the Lord your God delivers them to you and you destroy them, doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and giver them no quarter.(Deut. 7:1-2).

The ideology expressed here is not an uncommon in the Bible, for later on in Deuteronomy we read the following:

When the Lord your God has cut down the nations whose land the Lord God is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their towns and homes(Deut. 19:1). nd when the Lord your God delivers [the town] into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword(Deut. 20:13).

No amount of apologetics can lesson the degree to which these verses grate upon the ethical sensitivities of post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima (whose anniversary falls this week on Aug. 6), post-Vietnam liberal Jews. These verses take on an even more distasteful cast when considered in light of the expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of many hundreds of Arab villages by the Jewish armed forces of the nascent State of Israel during the years 1947-1950.

These are not mere political sentiments, for if the Torah is to mean anything to us, it must be relevant to the external world in which we live, as well as to the internal spiritual universe within each of us. For this congregant, as for many other religious and spiritually inclined Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora, the kibbush, Israel occupation by military force of another people, is not merely politics or current events, but the foremost Jewish theological issue of our time, precisely because it brings into sharp focus the ethical values that lie at the heart of the Jewish tradition.

We may therefore ask: how have modern Jews responded to unethical acts, either when found in the traditional texts or when carried out by Jews themselves? Ever since the Enlightenment, Jewish intellectuals have chosen one of two paths: that of secular humanism, whereby Marx, Freud, Trotsky, Benjamin, Chomsky and others viewed religion as one of the primary sources of war, oppression and racism (not without good reason) and therefore rejected any identification with Judaism per se; or the path of what we may call ewish revisionism,whereby Buber, Scholem, Kafka, Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Arthur Waskow, Judith Plaskow and many other Jewish feminist scholars, all chose to remain as self-identified Jews, wrestling with, revising and reinterpreting Jewish tradition, in the process widening its meanings to meet the demands of the contemporary.

The answer to secular humanism rejection of Judaism is, therefore, contained within Jewish history itself. Jewish revisionism has long allowed Jews to draw upon openly non-Jewish sources, as well as openly challenge and indeed change the meaning of both our sacred texts and our history, especially when tackling the questionable ethics of either Jewish texts or Jewish practice. Thus the Talmudic rabbis, clearly uneasy at the apparent ease with which capital punishment was applied in Exodus and Leviticus, added many restrictions in Tractate Sanhedrin that made it virtually impossible for the death penalty to be applied with the Jewish community. (Following this argument, Maimonides added the stipulation that, o person shall be put to death upon his own admission.This 12th century moral condemnation of self-incrimination was even quoted by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the U.S. Supreme Court famous Miranda Decision of 1966.) Thus the early rabbis, ill at ease and frightened by the triumphalist militarism of the Maccabean revolt (165 BCE) enshrined in the Hanukkah story, as well as the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome (132 CE), purposely excluded the ooks of the Maccabbeesfrom the Hebrew Bible, invented the iracle of the lightsstory to de-politicize the holiday, and included many disparaging verses about Bar Kokhba in the Talmud. Thus medieval Jewish spirituality was immeasurably enriched by the utilization of Christian and Islamic/Sufi mysticism in the development of Kabbalah and kabbalistic imagery, especially in its response to the catastrophe of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. And thus the early Reform movement, as well as Jewish socialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rejected much of traditional Jewish practice (going overboard, we may now argue) in favor of a narrow concentration on prophetic and ethical values.

Perhaps most relevant to our discussion of Parshat Va-Etanan is the fact that the entire ookof Deuteronomy itself is an audacious act of revisionism upon the first four books of the Torah. Everett Fox, in The Schocken Bible, his new translation of the Torah, writes:

euteronomy, by its inclusion as the final book of the five, officially began the practice of xplainingthe traditions of Israel, and thus paved the way for the classic form of Jewish religious and intellectual activity: the interpretation of Scripture, as well as nner-biblical exegesis,interpretation that appears within the Bible itself and hence becomes a legitimate part of its traditions.The Sefer Emet, a Hasidic rebbe who died in 1905, goes even farther down the revisionist road, according to Professor Arthur Green (former President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), by imaging that:

he mystical view of the primordial Torah is quite transformative. Torah as God speaks it is beyond any language, and that includes the Hebrew of our own Torah-text. The written Torah is itself commentary (italics added), the interpretation that Moses and ancient Israel gave to the transverbal utterances of God.The ookof Deuteronomy purports to be a record of Moses addressing the children of Israel upon the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, shortly before his death at the age of 120. Yet, by general scholarly agreement (both Jewish and non-Jewish), Deuteronomy was in fact written some six hundred years later (!) during the reign of King Josiah, who ruled the Kingdom of Judah from 640 to 608 BCE. Josiah reign was marked by three important developments: first, Josiah aggressive campaign of military expansionism; second, a determined effort in bringing the HWHcult under the central authority of Jerusalem; and lastly, a bitter struggle against the wide-spread and common practice of the Israelites to worship other gods in addition to YHWH (even some seven centuries after Moses supposedly smashed the Tablets of the Law at the sight of the golden calf). According to biblical scholars, clear allusions to all of these three developments are to be found within the text of Deuteronomy. According to this scholarly interpretation, Deuteronomy should be understood, consequently, as a political, religious, and social exhortation, addressed to its audience in the 7th century BCE, but employing the figure of the mythical Moses as narrator for dramatic and authoritative effect. The conquest of Canaan, for example, described with such brutality in this week parsha, is therefore not an actual record of Joshua and Israel conquest, for which there is scant historical evidence (see The Bible Unearthed, p. 72-96, by Israeli archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman), but rather a thinly disguised account of Josiah expansionism.

Yet, even as we recoil from the cruelty in the text of Deut. 7:1-2, quoted at the beginning, we are immediately drawn back into engagement with the text in Deut. 9:4. Here, with the conquest of Canaan complete, God explicitly warns the Children of Israel ot to say to themselves, he Lord has enabled us to posses this land because of our virtues. The JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy further states that:

ere Moses preaches against the feeling of self-righteousness that defeating the Canaanites might engender. He states that victory can be no proof of virtue, for Israel history has been one of continuous provocation and rebellion.No Israeli peace activist could invent such a profound warning about the dangers inherent in Israeli policy, when, intoxicated with the lightening military victory of June 1967 and the conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan, Israel undertook its ill-advised and illegal settlement policy in the occupied territories with the full financial and moral support of world Jewry. Expelling thousands, confiscating land, bulldozing homes, destroying orchards, building y-passroads to link far-flung Jewish outposts, the real object of Israel settlement policy was always to forever forestall the emergence of an independent, viable, contiguous State of Palestine living in peace next to Israel. And when we read further on in Deuteronomy that, ou must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt(Deut. 10:19), the real tragedy, the real sadness, of Israel occupation becomes all too readily apparent.

A Jewish response to the Israel/Palestine conflict demands an engagement both with the hard realities of history and politics, controversial as they may be, as well as with texts and traditions of our people. A community that eschews controversy betrays the very values that make it both worthwhile and enjoyable to be part of that Jewish community in the first place. The UJA slogan, e are One,perhaps effective in fundraising, is fundamentally anti-democratic and betrays the logic of Jewish history itself, dialectically lurching from Hellenist vs Maccabbee, to Pharisee vs Saducee, to rabbinic vs karaite, to Hassid vs misnogid (anti-Hassid), to orthodoxy vs haskalah (The Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries), to Zionist vs Bundist, to haredim (ultra-orthodox) vs secular in modern Israel.

The challenge before this community, as it is for the Jewish people as a whole, is not how to avoid controversy and achieve unity (one of my teachers, Professor Y. Leibowitz, z, described the quest for national unity in Israel as he golden calf of Israeli politics, but rather, how to debate the great issues of the day (Israel occupation of the Palestinian people, the place of religion in the State of Israel, the struggle for racial and economic justice in America) with civility and a respect for opposing views.


1. Is it important to you whether the events in the Bible actually happened in the manner in which they are described in the text? If no, why? If yes, why?

2. Are you ethically bothered by biblical texts that appear to contradict your own values (for instance, the justification for slavery in Leviticus 25:44-46)? If no, why? If yes, why?

3. If it is legitimate in Jewish tradition to reinterpret the meaning of biblical texts, is this act of revision open to everyone? Are all interpretations as valid as all others? What criteria should we use to judge the interpretation?

Jacob Bender is a video producer, photographer, Jewish educator, and husband to Katharina and father to Dalia Rosa. He is currently working on eason and Revelation,a documentary film about the lives of three medieval philosophers: Averroes the Muslim, Moses Maimonides the Jew, and Thomas Aquinas the Christian. He can be reached at

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