It seems that everyone in the international community – even those countries that traditionally don’t agree on much of anything – seems to agree on the need to destroy ISIS. Who are these jihadis who so quickly are earning the condemnation of the whole world? They claim to be the “true believers” of Islam who take the Koran and hadith literally. They want to establish a caliphate that will be governed strictly by Sharia law without the harmful influences of infidels who don’t accept their prophet.
How does ISIS’s conquest of large swaths of Syria and Iraq play out on our evening news and in videos that the group posts on the Internet? Among other things, the group uses the most brutal tactics possible in order to terrorize whole populations into fleeing and abandoning their real estate and other major possessions to the approaching ISIS fighters. The ISIS fighters then arrive and young men who previously may have owned little more than a motor scooter then can say to one another, “You take that apartment building and I’ll take this shopping center.” Such a deal. A little terrorism and brutality can go a long way.
In contrast, we Jews are generally a cultured bunch. We place great value on our books, music, social causes, a fulfilling profession, etc. Beheadings, cutting off people’s hands for minor infractions, selling girls as slaves, hanging people to die on poles who disagree with us, stoning people to death, etc., well, that’s just not our style. We value an impassioned debate in defense of our favorite political candidate or his agenda, let’s say, but we would never consider having his opponent assassinated. Such behavior is just not seen as civilized.
ISIS is seen as the resurrection and resurgence of a primitive and brutal mindset that saw bloody conquest as a legitimate means of achieving political power and promoting religious harmony. Just eliminate the opposition and the world will be perfect, they think. In other words, even they can win a debate if their opponent is shot before the debate begins. In our wildest imaginations, we cannot comprehend the cruel brutality of ISIS.
It might come as a surprise to many of us that, according to our own Torah, ancient Israelites under the leadership of Moshe committed many of the same atrocities that ISIS today commits. Huh? Yep, read it for yourself in this week’s parshah. Am I equating the ancient Israelites to modern ISIS? Of course not. Yet in some pesukim, simply substituting the term “ISIS” fighters for “Israelite” soldiers in the Torah would sometimes seem to change an ancient text into today’s brutal headlines.
For example, according to Deuteronomy 21, the Torah permitted ancient Israelites to take beautiful female captives as possessions (v. 11-13). That was enough to make any testosterone-enriched young men no longer want to avoid the draft. Furthermore, ancient Israelites were commanded to stone to death a disobedient son (v. 18-21). Such a custom would definitely put the fear of God into any cocky teenager trying to stretch his wings. Our forebears could even hang people on poles as long as they didn’t leave them as a spectacle all night (v. 22-23). Does any of this sound similar to ISIS videos posted on the Internet? Yet it’s right there in our sacred Torah.
There are also several juicy tidbits in chapters 22-24, but let’s skip to chapter 25, where there are even more ISIS-sounding practices. Here ancient Israelites could flog someone with 40 lashes, but no more lest the person being whipped become too degraded (v. 3). That’s a fair assumption. They were commanded to cut off the hand of any woman grabbing the private parts of a man in any attempt to stop him from beating up her husband (v. 11-12). Of course, the Israelites were commanded to seek revenge against the descendants of Amalek, once the Israelites had achieved peace with their other enemies (v. 19). Amalek was very bad. So take it out on his kids, right?
Do I believe that we should literally obey these types of commandments in the Torah? No. Do some Jews? Unfortunately, there are some Jewish literalists who want to make Israel into a modern theocracy. Plus, they have no tolerance for the rest of us who might disagree with them. Oh yeah, and they believe in keeping all of the biblical commandments, even the very cruel ones. So how different are they in what they want Israel to become from what the Islamic State already is? How different are they from ISIS when they burn churches or a Palestinian baby?
So what is the moral of my story? One of the main differences between ancient Israelites who “possessed” female captives, hung those worthy of capital punishment on poles for public exhibition, removed the hand of a woman who grabbed a man’s privates (even in defense of her husband), and had their disobedient children stoned to death, and modern ISIS fighters, lies in the fact that ancient Israel was surrounded by primitive and cruel societies where savage behavior – including child sacrifice – was the norm. Moshe was trying to transcend and lift his nation to a higher plane and, according to modern commentators, too slowly rid the ancient Israelite nation of practices that are today considered especially offensive.
Progress is usually slow, but look how far western nations have come from the dark days when people were burned alive for heresy or pressed by heavy stones until they died. It took several centuries for western nations to finally rid themselves of the practice of slavery and all its horrors. Consider the ill treatment of Native Americans by the European settlers whose descendants today make up the majority of Americans. The American civil rights movement of the 1960s also illustrated in graphic detail how far the country still had to go a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The challenge for modern societies and especially religious leaders today is to instill in every new generation tolerance for other people’s right to have their own distinct beliefs regardless of how different those beliefs may be from our own. We must be intolerant with the practice of intolerance and seek to rid the world of violence perpetrated against others. Yet we must be forever vigilant, ready to defend our families and our nation against those who would rob us of our land and liberty.
We must also acknowledge that although Moshe represented great improvement over many ancient primitive practices, he was a man subject to error as the Torah itself points out. In Judaism, only Ehyeh asher ehyeh is infallible and infinitely merciful. In every generation, we must seek to manifest mercy to as many people as possible and strive to rid the world of ignorance as we get closer to verifiable truth.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may email Eli Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org