This week I’m going to raise more questions than answers. And hard questions, the kind that don’t have good answers. How do we deal with it when the Torah goes against our inherent sense of morality, when it demands something that is clearly wrong? The “correct” answer is to acknowledge that our “inherent sense of morality” is based our imperfect understanding and on the influences of an outside society that even we would admit is not moral. We say that ה׳ knows best and His law is the “controlling legal authority”. But that doesn’t make the question easier. Alex Ozar had an essay on Hirhurim about Rabbi David Hartman who passed away this year. Rabbi Hartman was a liberal but traditional philosopher who argued that to deny our ability to recognize right from wrong is to “deny our humanity”. For example, he argued that Abraham’s response to the command to sacrifice his son was irretrievably morally wrong. Abraham should never have sacrificed his own moral independence before G-d’s will. Alex (and I) reject that view, but the issue still needs to be faced.
For instance, in this week’s parasha:
How can we slaughter men, women and children? First, what is the problem that is being addressed? Notice the problem is not that the Canaanites worship idols; לא ילמדו אתכם לעשות ככל תועבתם אשר עשו לאלהיהם; וחטאתם לה׳ אלקיכם. The problem is that they will influence us to serve ה׳ in the same depraved way (ככל תועבתם) that they served idols. עבודה זרה is not directly the reason for the killing, it is just the reason (or the excuse) for the real reason.
If the problem with Canaanite society is child sacrifice and immorality, then we can start to justify to ourselves the need to eliminate it. But why can’t the Canaanites themselves denounce it and redeem themselves? Because that is certainly the way the text seems to read, that the Canaanite cities cannot make peace:
But the Ramban argues that we need to allow the Canaanites the chance to make peace and accept our rules as well:
And that is the way the Rambam decides the halacha:
Most people hold that Rashi and Ramban are arguing about this issue, and that Rashi himself would say that the seven nations of Canaan should not be given a chance to make peace (which implies giving up the child sacrifice thing). But that contradicts the story about Joshua, and also contradicts Rashi’s own explanation later on:
And Mizrachi and Maharal, two commentators on Rashi’s commentary, explain:
So Rashi would agree that the Canaanites were allowed to accept the 7 Noahide laws; he just argues about the timing. Was there one mass pamphlet-dropping episode or was each city approached individually as it was attacked. It eases our conscience to think that the only Canaanites who were killed were those who espoused an evil ideology.
But that doesn’t end the pain. We’re talking about killing not for an action, for actual child sacrifice, but merely for believing that is is justified. And what does it mean to kill the children who do not do teshuva? Can we justify collateral damage like that (this is not bombs but swords)?
As I said, I don’t have answers, just questions. But our hashkafic questions do not take away our responsibility to obey ה׳ and the Torah.