Friday, September 09, 2011


A guest post by G.A

Further to DB’s thoughtful post on female POWs and liberal Torah, R. Moshe Meiselman’s words on shoehorning Torah into various worldviews never go out of style. From Jewish Woman in Jewish Law:

The apologist tries to show the consistency of Judaism with another value structure, generally that of his audience—“You are liberal, Judaism is more so; you are conservative, Judaism is more so; you like ecology, Judaism likes it better,” The apologist’s characteristic approach—“Anything you can do, Judaism can do better”—never works because it is essentially dishonest. Judaism fits into its own value structure and no other.

The book is from 1976 (“ecology” was what people said before “green/environmentalist/locavore”). While I am no fan of RMM, he is dead right that trying to “reconcile” Torah with any –ism is a mug’s game. Just try playing the “How Would Jesus/Moses Vote?” game.

The post reminded me of an interesting illustration of what I call Artscrologetics, in Parshas Matos. I was curious to see how ArtScroll treated the execution of the female, and young male, Midianite POWs.

[Background: The Midianites induce the Jews to sin sexually, and the Jews take revenge via war. Moshe is angered that the women have been taken as POWs rather than killed, and orders the people to kill all “Zachar BaTaf VeChol Isha Yoda’at Ish L’Mishkav Zachar” (males among the young, and women who have known (alternatively: are capable of knowing) a man by lying with him). Other girls may be kept alive, Lachem (for you).]

As per Yevamos 60B via Rashi, those women who were fit for sexual activity (3 years and up!) were killed, even if they had not participated in the preceding sexual escapades. In fact, virgins would theoretically have been among those killed. In order to determine whether a woman/girl had in fact crossed the relevant threshold, the group was passed in front of the Kohen Gadol’s headplate, and those fit for sexual activity experienced some sort of discoloration. So far, so good (Geneva convention aside).

Cue the Stone Chumash (see below), which reads that “the Kohen Gadol’s Headplate identified the women whom the Divine wisdom condemned to death. They were made to pass before the Headplate and the guilty parties’ faces miraculously took on a greenish complexion.”

As I see it, ArtScroll is trying to justify the collective capital punishment inflicted on captive women and girls. To me, the first sentence plays things somewhat fast and loose, but I can let it slide. Technically, sure, these women were being condemned to death by the Divine Wisdom via the headplate, although God could easily be pulled from the equation and the headplate likened to nothing more than an infallible ID-detector in its role here. However, the second sentence drives me nuts. “Guilty parties?” Guilty of what? There is simply nothing to support the assertion that the women condemned to death were guilty of anything, other than being of sufficient age to have participated in the relevant sin.

What ArtScroll is doing here is dishonestly shielding readers from certain (currently) unpalatable but undisputed conduct of the Jewish people. In my view, there are three real options here.

1) Own up to the fact that the ethics of war differ from those of 2000 (or 50) years ago, and lament how far we have drifted from Torah-true morality. Look for an Amalekite child to kill.

2) Own up to the fact that the ethics of war differ from those of 2000 (or 50) years ago. However, while acknowledging the Torah as a God-given source of morality, also acknowledge that as humanity matures, we discover new moral truths which are in fact grounded in the Torah. Fall off tightrope, and watch as your kids become either Charedi or secular.

3) Have an honest discussion about the aims, justification, and ethics of collective punishment.

Any of the above are more intellectually honest than crafting a translation which so dramatically obscures the original. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of whatever place it is that they chop the heads off young female POWs, but don’t make stuff up.

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