“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people” (Numbers 31:1-2).
I don’t want to write this blog post. I think I’m probably going to hate it once it’s written. But at a panel at a science-fiction conference a few years ago, I declared that there were no taboo subjects I wouldn’t write about on my blog, and I’ll stick to that pledge. And in the course of translating an extraordinary 18th-century Kabbalistic text, certainly written (although he didn’t sign his name to it) by the most distinguished rabbi of his time, I’ve come smack up against what is simply the worst chapter of the Bible. The 31st chapter of the Book of Numbers.
If I hated the Bible, I would revel in Numbers 31. But the truth is, I love the Bible. I don’t believe in the God who supposedly inspired the Scripture–I’m not sure I believe in any God, but that’s a matter for another time–but the Scripture itself is part of me, as a Jew, as a human being. I can’t cast it aside, even the worst of it, without casting out part of myself.
And Numbers 31 is very, very bad.
Here’s the story: The Israelites, at God’s command, wage a punitive war against the Midianites, the loosely organized collection of nomadic desert tribes who ironically provided Moses with his wife and his in-laws. “They slew all the males.” They burn the Midianite settlements; they bring the plunder, including captive women and children, back to the Israelite camp. Moses is furious.
“Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946), Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, wrote a commentary on the Five Books of Moses that was widely used in Conservative synagogues when I was a teenager in the 1960s. (I still have the copy I got for my Bar Mitzvah.) Hertz had a knack for putting a positive spin on features of the Pentateuch that would strike most people as primitive and barbarous. But he admitted himself unequal to Numbers 31. “The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties. We are no longer acquainted with the circumstances that justified the ruthlessness with which it was waged, and therefore we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised in that connection.”
Unlike some writers, Hertz couldn’t console himself with the thought that the atrocity had happened only on paper. (Which is probably true, although horrors of this sort were staples of life in the ancient Near East. The Assyrian kings, in particular, reveled in them.) He believed, unlike nearly every other informed person of the 20th century, that Moses really had written the books transmitted in his name. So the Midianite genocide had to have been described from personal experience, by the man who perpetrated it.
Hertz wrote in the mid-1930s, on the eve of the greatest and best-documented genocide in human history. In that one, of course, we were the victims. The parallel is an uncomfortable one to think about. It was brought forward, on the Sabbath at the end of July 1967 when the section of the Book of Numbers containing chapter 31 was read in the synagogues, by a rabbi whose name I have forgotten but whose courage and honesty I will always remember. He was preaching on the Midianite war at the Sabbath morning service at the Cornell University Hillel.
The ancient rabbinic interpretations frequently smooth and soften the Bible’s harsh edges. In this case, the interpretation made it even worse. The Talmud asked: how did the Israelites know which of the Midianite women were virgins or non-virgins? Answer: “all were led past the gold plate of the mitre on the high priest’s forehead, and this had the effect of making those who had been doomed to death grow pale” (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews; from Talmud, Yevamot 60b).
The rabbi said to us: we know of “selections” of this sort from more recent history.
He described how, serving with the American armies that liberated the Nazi death camps, he confronted an educated German and demanded: how could you have done these things? The German pointed to the 31st chapter of Numbers. “You taught us how!”
All that the rabbi could say in response, weeping and striking out: “This is where we were 3000 years ago! This is where you are now!”
The hitch: once something is part of your Scripture, it’s not ancient history no matter how long ago it happened. It’s part of what you carry with you, bear responsibility for.
If people you identify with have just won a stunning military victory–as the Jews of Israel had less than two months earlier, fighting a war of self-preservation that turned into conquest–you have a double responsibility, not to let anything remotely like it happen again. Was the Six-Day War on the rabbi’s mind as he preached to us about Numbers 31? I couldn’t ask him even if I did remember his name; there’s no way he’d still be alive. But I will answer for him: surely it was.
Which brings me to yet another rabbi, dead more than 250 years, whose mind and motivations I’m similarly obliged to speculate about. This was Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz (1695-1764), the leading intellectual light of central European Judaism in the 18th-century. For some years now, I’ve been working on a translation of Eibeschuetz’s youthful work of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), to which he gave the title “I Came This Day to the Spring.”
It’s a book unlike any other I’ve ever read. Eibeschuetz’s contemporaries felt the same way about it, but unlike me they didn’t much appreciate its unorthodoxy. (“After reading two or three paragraphs the hair of my flesh stood up,” one of them recalled. “Nothing like this was ever seen or known from any heretic or disbeliever of this world.”) In it, Eibeschuetz tackles the awfulness of Numbers 31 in a way that no religious thinker of today would dare attempt.
He doesn’t justify it. He doesn’t deplore it. He humanizes it, paradoxically, by mythologizing it.
The Midianites, the Israelites, Moses himself–all vanish as historical figures. They become metaphysical entities, characters in the rococo myth that Eibeschuetz inherited from earlier Kabbalists but developed out of his own unique religious sensibility. Which he turned into the theological underpinning for what he offered as the world religion of the future, rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion ever known.
In the next installment of this post, I’ll try to explain what Eibeschuetz did.
by David Halperin
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