Our sense of morality feels violated when we see or hear about the murder of innocents, particularly children.
So what are we to do when the Torah itself, to which we turn for moral guidance, calls for that very action?
While it is tempting to gloss over these difficult encounters and some will question why I bring this up in this parsha talk, it’s important to address them head on, driven by a deep love of God and the belief in the eternal truth of the Torah.
If it is established that the majority of the town’s residents have rebelled against God by worshipping idols, the Torah requires that the town’s population be executed, that their possessions be destroyed and that the town be burned to the ground, to remain in an eternal state of ruin, never to be rebuilt, as a reminder to the Jewish people.
We can understand why the Torah is so adamant about deterring idolatry, but in any Jewish town, there will be innocents, including spouses and children, who will be condemned to death for something they did not do.
How can this be? How can the Torah of compassion and righteousness require such a terrible injustice?
In fact, the requirements that must be met in order for the High court to carry out the punishment are so specific that in reality, it never actually happened.
1. First, all of the negative influencers involved in perpetrating this crime must be all residents of the city, and from the same tribe, not other Jewish tribes.
2. The courts need to ascertain that the majority of the residents have been involved in idol worship.
Each person in the city is judged as an individual, and there must be two kosher witnesses that testify that they witnessed each individual worship idols until you get to a majority who have worshiped foreign gods.
3. If anything less than the majority of the population has been found to have transgressed this crime, the city is not classified as an idolatrous town.
4. Even if it has been established that a majority of the town’s population is guilty, a team of positive influencers are to be brought in to see if they can change the attitude of the town to try to get the residents to change their behavior. If that effort succeeds, all is forgiven.
Essentially the focus of this Torah section is on the seriousness of the event – rebellion against God – more than any possible consequence in this world.
It is like the verse an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24), where such a consequence for this heinous crime of maiming someone is not possible but the Torah refuses to limit its description to the consequence of paying different forms of financial compensation for a bodily injury.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that according to Maimonides, the law could have theoretically been applied, allowing for the killing of innocent children.
One of Maimonides’ contemporaries, Rav Meir HaLevi Abulafia, a highly regarded Spanish halakhic decisor and author of the sefer, “Yad Ramah”, challenges Maimonides and asks why innocents should face collective
Citing a verse from the Book of Job (34:10), Rav Abulafia writes: “חָלִלָה לָאֵל מֵרֶשַׁע” – God forbid that He would demand such a wicked act.
According to Rav Abulafia, who also has sources from within the Talmudic tradition upon which to rely, the Torah never meant to include innocents among those to be punished.
Rav Abulafia knew in the Middle Ages that with no Sanhedrin, this commandment was no longer operative and perhaps could never be implemented.
Nevertheless, he debated it as a reminder that Torah scholars must challenge even halakhic giants such as Maimonides in order to ensure that interpretations of the Torah are consistent with the moral norms and values of the Torah.
And this is a call to each and every one of us that we, too, must engage with our understanding of Torah to make sure our understanding is consistent with certain deep values of human life.
While reason does not lay down the path along which the person of faith walk, when we feel that an ideal of Torah will affect our engagement with God, then we need to explore our tradition/mesorah carefully, speak to rabbis, Talmidei and talmidot chachamim/Torah scholars, and learn an approach within our tradition that speaks to us – for, ultimately,
דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכׇל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם
The ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peaceful. (Proverbs 3:17)