I am sure I am not alone in my disgust when seeing an article or video about an event on the other side of the world in which (most often a woman) is put to death through stoning, or some other form of torture, for merely being accused of an act of infidelity or pre-marital union. After all — stoning? And for an act that, while traditionally immoral, is certainly not viewed as a capital offense in most societies.
We might view those who espouse and act upon these views as intolerant, backwards, fourth century-types who have no place in a modern and open society. And then we read verses in this week’s parsha, Re’eh, and our finger-pointing must end, because our look in the mirror tells us everything we don’t want to know about what our people were commanded when entering the land.
“[This is what you must do] if, with regard to one of your cities that G-d your Lord is giving you as a place to live, you hear a report, stating that irresponsible men among you have been successful in leading the city’s inhabitants astray by saying, ‘Let us worship another god and have a novel spiritual experience.’ You must investigate and probe, making careful inquiry.
“If it is established to be true, and such a revolting thing has occurred in your midst, then you must kill all the inhabitants of the city by the sword. Destroy it and everything in it as taboo, and [kill] all its animals by the sword. Gather all [the city’s] goods to its central square, and burn the city along with all its goods, [almost] like a sacrifice to G-d your Lord. [The city] shall then remain an eternal ruin, never again to be rebuilt. Let nothing that has been declared taboo there remain in your hands.
“G-d will then have mercy on you, and reverse any display of anger that might have existed. In His mercy, He will make you flourish, just as He promised your fathers. You will have obeyed G-d your Lord, keeping all the commandments that I prescribe to you today, and doing what is morally right in the eyes of G-d your Lord.” (Devarim 13:13-19)
How could this be? How could we not cringe at finding these instructions in our Holy Torah? Killing all inhabitants? Burning everything to the ground? Seeing no value whatsoever in preserving any landmarks, any history, any remnant of a group which lived an existence in this place for many years? And what about the innocent people — just because perhaps some people are deserving of death, does this condemn every single man, woman and child?
Rabbenu Bachaye notes that the phrase “you must investigate and probe, making careful inquiry” precludes just about every possibility of this ever coming to reality. When an inquiry is so exact in its questioning, the chances of a slipup or inconsistency among witnesses is so likely that the death sentence on the city is basically impossible to achieve. However, he does not delegitimize the Torah’s perspective. He declares the “evil people” described here to be in the same category of Korach, who rebelled against G-d and His holy word, who tried to destroy the nation’s autonomy from within.
While it’s not an easy idea to stomach, the principle behind total annihilation is actually meant to distinguish between turning this act into one which is the will of G-d versus one of cruelty. Compare this to the evil people in history who tortured their victims, let the “useful” live for a time being to enslave them, and who delighted in their self-proclaimed important work — all of which is the embodiment of cruelty. (And in stealing their belongings, the perpetrators demonstrated that their act was about money and wealth.)
The idea of total destruction — swift, quick, without keeping anything — is a moral indication that this was not about property or about converting people or about anything other than the preservation of our lives under G-d’s dictation.
The near impossibility of carrying this out cannot be overemphasized But we must understand the comparison to Korach — all of whose followers met a swift and immediate fate, leaving the people to see that some ideas are just not compatible with the community of G-d.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch recalls the Tosefta that this case is theoretical, never happened and never will happen, as he explains the degree of the betrayal of all that is sacred to the greater national community.
“All the places of residence in the Land belong to the nation; the nation dwells … in every place of residence … the character and the task of the whole nation must come to expression in each one of these places of residence. Only by remaining true to the character and task of the whole nation does every small place have the right to exist in the midst of the great whole.”
The promise Hirsch draws out from this theoretical episode is this: “The severity of your treatment of the people of this wayward city will not alter the kindness that is fundamental to your character. After you have carried out national justice, G-d will restore to you the kindness that is innate in you, allowing you to act mercifully, so that you will be worthy of His mercy.”
I am grateful that this story never happened and never will. However, it does give us insight into the difference between a divine justice (the removal of “evil” intent on destroying our community, which can only happen under the guidance of a real prophet) and the definition of cruelty, which includes evil intent, theft, desire to torture and/or enslave, and the removal of the humanity from victims.
Troubling, yes. Theoretical, completely. Informative of what is truly evil — couldn’t be more clear.