“In the towns of the [Canaanites] which the Eternal One, your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not let a soul remain alive.” (Deuteronomy 20:16)
Having sat and cried through Forrest Gump with my family during the holidays, the scenes of the Vietnam War and its impact on the protagonists in the story appal.
As a student and a lover of 60’s and 70’s folk and rock music, I was drawn in fascination and horror to what, at times, seemed like a Biblical war with raising of entire villages.
Whilst we can explain away the above Torah verse, which appears to incite genocide or at best ethnic cleansing, as a 7th Century addition to a text otherwise more palatable, we ignore it at our peril; as we do by denying the existence of Jewish fundamentalists.
Taken literally, or interpreted out of their ancient context, these texts are as much fodder to a Baruch Goldstein as were and are Scriptures to the Crusaders or today’s Muslim fundamentalists.
How might Progressive Jews respond to the presence of such a Torah verse?
We might begin by stating that there is no such thing as a ‘Holy’ war – humankind abuse God by suggesting the possibility. However, given the reality of war, it is still possible to seek moral conduct, as David Ben-Gurion sought, introducing to the IDF the notion of tahor ha’neshek (purity of war).
Our People have suffered, perhaps more than most, a periodic threat of extermination.
But whilst, living in a time of subjugation, we might be drawn towards a base instinct to inflict on the oppressor the treatment they seek to mete out; we are reminded that the vast majority of Torah and rabbinic law and lore dwell in the spirit of the exhortation, “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:15).
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is senior rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue