Monday, July 28, 2008

Holy War: Alive and Strong

Maven of Parshat Matot for BBYO Project NYC on Saturday, July 26th

By Deanna Neil

Storah On The Road

Do you know anyone who has ever served in the military? This is what Avi Fox-Rosen and I asked of 70 high school students from around the country, who were participating in our Maven show at HUC in New York this past Saturday for BBYO’s Project NYC. In answer to our question, about 55 of the 70 kids came up for an aliyah. So, yes, many knew someone who had served in the military either in the U.S. or abroad. Given that the U.S. and Israel are currently engaged in seemingly unending conflicts, this should not have been a surprise. And yet, it still was.

We raised this question because Saturday was Parshat Matot. War, revenge, and religious solidarity are prevalent in Parshat Matot, when the Israelites go to war against the Midianites. The war was prompted by the worshipping of false idols and consorting with Midiante women. The result was a holy war done to exact "God's revenge" and "God's jealousy." The Israelites slaughter all of the Midanite men and their 5 kings, and take in the women and children to be absorbed into Israelite culture. Cities were burned and plundered. It was a dark day for humanity but a bright day for God and the Israelites. Reconciling these two truths is and was difficult.

The kids also had a difficult time reconciling a Jewish military success against the idea of a Jewish holy war. I watched their faces strain. Just moments before they had said a prayer: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
 neither shall they learn war any more." And then we introduced them to the violent biblical hero Pinchas, who blew the trumpets as the 12,000 Israelites attacked Midian. It was dissonant to them. It was also difficult for them to reconcile the idea of a Jewish holy war. To them, holy wars were only supposed to come from terrorists.

Though we read an ancient text, Holy war seems to be alive and strong and thoroughly ingrained in the minds of American teens. Although it is painful to me to read articles like this one, I found by Rev. Jerry Falwell—who uses these biblical examples to prove that God is "Pro-War" or that George Bush believes God told him to end the "tyranny" in Iraq --in some ways holy war makes sense to me. Much of human morality is derived from an idea of God. If moralities conflict, meaning people understand the purpose for existence on earth in different ways, that is a logical cause for war. I don't endorse it, but one can understand why zealotry exists. (But let's not blame only religion for war—one of the most oppressive and zealous regimes came under the name of atheism: Russia under Stalin.)

But the biggest issue is whether or not the idea of "God" is covering up a greater political scheme. Like attacking Iraq for its oil or annihilating Native American populations for their land or blowing up the World Trade Centers because you crave political power. Whether Matot falls into this category or not remains unclear. This was the start of the Israelite entrance into the "promised land." The Midianite women weren't killed, but were rather taken in by the Israelites. Wealth, livestock were taken. So the question remains, are these "holy wars" about resources or about God? In the face of Moses' marriage to a Midianite women, the "foreigners" were destroyed. If we eliminated "God" from the equation entirely, would it just look like a bald political move and a power struggle? Genocide?

In the face of the destruction against Midian, for our final aliyah we called up those who were looking to end the cycles of vengeance and violence. A war of revenge and tit for tat is particularly apt given Israel's current relationship to its Palestinian neighbors, and the Palestinian neighbors back to Israel. Not to mention the actions the United States has against Iraq and Afghanistan post 9-11. Is it retribution or revenge? While a lot of kids came up to break the cycles of violence, it wasn't as many as those who came up because they knew someone in the military. Given our violent history, we have our work cut out for us in how to teach these ancient stories to our future generations. While I do believe that some of the kids walked away with a greater understanding of the Jewish place in holy war and a sense of some of its heroes, I am personally happy to close this chapter.

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