Shoftim: A Tikkun for Holy War

Parshat Shoftim begins with a beautiful, inspirational teaching: tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’ma’an tichyeh. Justice, justice pursue! So that you may live.

The parashah continues with examples of how to pursue justice. Honest judges. Unbiased judgments. Careful questioning of the right number of witnesses.

And then all of a sudden, there is a shocking example of what happens when you apply the principles: If, through these procedures, you discover that someone has worshipped an alien God, he or she shall be executed.

And then back to the principles. Hold witnesses personally responsible for the effects of their testimony. Establish a supreme court to review difficult decisions. Respect the authority of this court.

And then suddenly: Anyone who fails to abide by a Supreme Court decision shall be executed.

And then back to principles. Make sure the political leader is ethical. Support your public servants. Preserve your history and culture. Keep those accused of crimes safe until they can stand trial. Negotiate for peace before declaring war as a last resort.

And then suddenly: But when you go to war in the land of Canaan, in order to take up residence in the area, engage only in total war. Kill every living person. Otherwise, they will teach you their revolting religious practices, and cause you to stray from God.

This does not sound like justice to me. Living in a country that separates church and state, and has established tolerance as a legal principle, it’s hard to accept that Torah defines practicing a non-state religion as a crime. But even if I did accept this definition, it’s still hard to accept the mandatory sentencing. No negotiation, no judges, no witnesses, no appeal — just a summary execution. It doesn’t sound like justice as it was defined just a few pesukim (a few verses) earlier.

This is one of those difficult passages of Torah that leave me uncomfortable, angry, and embarrassed. I recognize the philosophy of realpolitik (political necessity) that motivates it. You may well not be secure with enemies living in your midst. And I understand that many powerful ancient nations practiced total war. But I like to think that Torah teaches alternatives to political necessity, and offers possibilities for healing the damage caused by such thinking.

It turns out that the sages who paired the haftorah readings (the prophetic readings) with the Torah portions felt the same way. The haftorah they chose for Parshat Shoftim is an oracle of comfort and healing in the wake of total war. The haftorah comes from the prophet Second Isaiah (or Isaiah the Second, as I like to call him.) Isaiah the Second prophesied in the late 6th century BCE, just before the return from the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonians, who conquered Judah in 586 BCE, believed in subjugating a country through mass killing, public execution of leaders, forcing the skilled elites to march to Babylonia, and leaving the less skilled workers to starve to death. This is the scene that we call “the Babylonian exile.” The Persians believed in convincing countries that they would fare better by being self-governing colonies who paid the Persians for protection. When the Persians conquered Babylonia, the Persian emperor Koresh, Cyrus, gave the Jews permission to reestablish Judea as their political and religious center.

Isaiah the Second spoke of this opportunity as a kind of healing from the scars of total war. He said things like:

Hit’orreri, hit’orreri, kumi Yerushalayim

Uri, uri livshi bigdei tifartech

Hitna’ari, mei’afar kumi

Rouse, rouse yourself, O Jerusalem!

Awake, awake, put on your majestic robes

Arise, shake off the dust

Wrack and ruin – who can console you?

Famine and sword – how shall I comfort you?

Herewith I take from your hand

The cup of reeling,

The bowl, the cup of My wrath

You shall never drink it again.

How welcome on the mountain

Are the footsteps of the herald

Announcing peace

And heralding good fortune

Isaiah’s oracle specifically comforts Israel in its recovery from wrack and ruin and famine and sword. It comforts Israel in its recovery from a war of ruin like the one described in Parshat Shoftim. As a haftorah, the oracle seems to say: now you know what total war is like. You have experienced this type of war, and you would not wish it on anyone. Pray for restoration. Recognize that the true power of God lies in healing, not in holy war.

The haftorah offers a tikkun, a healing correction, for the difficult words of Parshat Shoftim.

A thousand years after Isaiah the Second, a Kabbalistic poet wove the words of Isaiah into an even more powerful tikkun.

Hit’orreri, hit’orreri, kumi Yerushalayim

Uri, uri livshi bigdei tifartech

Hitna’ari, mei’afar kumi

You may recognize these words from L’cha Dodi, the highest point of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, the mystical and mystifying poem written by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, in Tzefat in the sixteenth century. This is a time when Jews are searching for spiritual responses to anti-Semitism in Christian Europe.

L’cha Dodi is a “found poem” – that is, it’s completely made up of quotations taken from other poems – specifically, from poetic portions of the Tanakh(Hebrew Bible). But it’s a very sophisticated found poem. The quotations are arranged to express layers upon layers of Kabbalistic symbolism.

One layer of symbolism directly addresses holy war in the name of religious difference. And it offers a messianic vision of an alternative.

Here is the eighth stanza of L’cha Dodi.

Yamin u’smol tifrotzi

V’et Hashem ta’aritzi

Al yad ish ben Partzi

V’nismecha v’nagilah

Spread out right and left

Extol the might of God

By the hand of a son of Peretz

We shall rejoice and celebrate

Midrash teaches that Peretz, the son of Tamar, is the name for a specific understanding of mashiach. Peretz will restore the innocence of the Garden of Eden, bringing back unity of consciousness. After Peretz, evil will not be possible, because human consciousness will be filled with the knowledge of God. Human consciousness will be identical with the knowledge of God.

L’cha Dodi explains how this miracle will happen:

Our consciousness of the sefirot, that is, our knowledge of God’s nature will spread to the right and to the left.

At the center of the tree of sefirot is tiferet, splendor, identified with the dashing adventurer Ya’akov, whose spiritual name Yisrael became the name of the nation descended from him.

To the right, we will find chesed, love, expressed through the life of Avraham, who argued with God to save the lives of sinners. Avraham is father of Yishma’el, the mythical founder of Islam.

To the left, we will find gevurah, harsh judgment, so influential in the early life of Yitzchak, who narrowly escaped the fate of being a child sacrifice. Yitzchak is the father of Esav, whose name is used in midrash to represent Christianity.

Israel in the center expands to unite with its close relatives Christianity and Islam. How does this happen?

By means of the Eden-like consciousness offered by Peretz. All the symbols of human consciousness will point towards the one God. The cultural origin of symbols will be irrelevant. Just as there was originally one human in the Garden of Eden, now all humanity will be one.

The very beginning and end of L’cha Dodi reinforce this message. The first verse contains the quotation from the prophet Zechariah that is also found at the end of the Aleinu: “Hashem echad u’shmo echad.” – God will be one and God’s name will be one. The last verse welcomes Shabbat with Shalom – “Bo’i l’shalom.” L’cha Dodi teaches: On the day that religious traditions heal their rifts, we will have shalom. No more wars will be fought to crush religious difference.

I’m very proud to be able to say that our tradition doesn’t shrink from the challenging parts of Torah – and that we have evolved so many resources for teaching about nonviolence and cooperation. You may know that I’m very involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress’s Jewish-Christian dialogue project, as well as CJC’s emerging Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue project. Every step we take is a baby step forwards. And even though I’m well aware that we may take two giant steps backwards from time to time, I still like to think I’m hearing the footsteps of Mashiach.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2008


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