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I am bothered by an incident in the Torah that seems morally unacceptable.

After the incident with Pinchas, the Torah records that Klal Yisroel were commanded to attack Midian to avenge their attempt at seducing them. Klal Yisroel goes to war and kills all the male Midianites but spares the females. This angers Hashem: after all, the women were the whole problem in the first place, and Hashem commands them to kill all the (already defeated) women "who knew men." Klal Yisroel them goes and kills all the women of Midian, sparing 16,000 women who "never knew a man" and taking them as slaves.

A slightly upsetting story, but I can accept it was necessary.

The issue that bothers me to no end is a Gemara in Yavamos 60b that adds the following point to the story: When Hashem commanded them to kill all the women "who knew men", that did not mean all women who actually slept with a man. Rather, it meant all women legally old enough to have intercourse - 3 years and older.

The Gemara then asks the obvious question of how it was possible for Klal Yisroel to identify the age of the girls - after all, a two year old may look like she is three years old, and many three year olds can easily pass as two year olds. The Gemara explains that the Jews lined up the girls in front of the Cohen Gadol wearing the Urim viTumim, and all the girls older than three would be identified as they passed in front of the Urim viTumim.

Assuming those under 2 years old and over 4 years old were readily identifiable and did not need the Urim viTumim to be ferreted out, that leaves a line of 8,000 little girls (who had just watched both their parents and brothers get killed) forced to stand in a long line to see if they will be killed, or spared and allowed to live as a lifelong slaves.

Let us assume that the Jews had a very efficient killing system - with only 5 seconds for each girl to pass in front of the Cohen Gadol and be identified, and 10 seconds for another person to pull the girl aside and kill her or send her off to her master. Even with these unreasonably quick timeframes, that still means that even if Klal Yisroel worked around the clock, it would take a day and a half (33 hours) to get through the line.

How is this not barbaric? Lining up 8k 2 and 3 year old orphan girls for over a full day with a team of executioners at the end of the line who are busy killing half the girls - how is that not a terribly depraved and inhuman event, even compared to other horrors in the history of the world?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this issue?

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    God commanded it, therefore it's good, doesn't work for me either. But, unlike Natan, I don't consider the earlier bits "nothing too crazy." Not everything has a justification...
    – Cyn
    Nov 1, 2018 at 6:02
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    Related: amalek
    – Double AA
    Nov 1, 2018 at 12:16
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    +1 for a good question. And this might not be a satisfying answer. But one thing I got to understand in learning Torah is that one shouldn't learn and decide if one agrees with it or not, or if it fits our 21st century "morals" or not. One should learn and believe this is absolute truth - and try to understand what this means for us today. In this case, it seems that destroying evil potential was the thing to do whether we understand it or not
    – mbloch
    Nov 1, 2018 at 13:53
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    judaism.stackexchange.com/q/4037/759 this is a Midrash after all, not the verses themselves
    – Double AA
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:39
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    Why is this more problematic than when a hundred million people died of the Black Death? Or when any innocent child dies of a disease? I find that problematic too. But Hashem runs the world, and sends people into it, and takes them back out. Why are you asking about this particular set of deaths?
    – MichoelR
    Jan 22, 2023 at 0:28

6 Answers 6

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Of course, it's upsetting.

Especially when these young girls are all innocent right? Wrong.

This is the point.

Let's discuss the range - 3 years to 12 years. Children can be indoctrinated very easily. They are used today in the most horrific ways - slave labor, fighting in wars. It is estimated according to Reuters that 350 million children worldwide are used as soldiers. This is today, yes, 2018. Horrific!

My point is to illustrate that your assumptions about innocent girls is simply based on your own moral compass. I agree that all things being equal killing small children for fun, is morally reprehensible. Period. I totally agree. Can small children be redeemed - can they repent from their ways. I would venture to say that the answer might be an emphatic no.

In terms of today, child soldiers could possibly be, sadly, irredeemable. A child's experiences, especially in the formative years, affects brain chemistry, and reforming them, might be an altogether impossible task. It is not a simple matter of simply 'converting people'. We're talking dedicated indoctrination of principles that antithetical to moral culture. We see this today in the cycle of hatred of various groups calling for the destruction of Israel and do not recognize the Jewish state. This is inculcated very early on, and children assume this to be the truth, and do not question it.

This is going on today.

Back to the Torah. The Torah is talking about a spiritual issue that cannot be corrected, and must be eradicated. We don't make these judgments, G-d does. We see very clearly, that the Jewish people were not happy to do this, and had to do be told a second time to carry out the act. We were told to do it by G-d.

In sefer Hayashar it is brought that the Egyptians buried children in the walls. Moshe Rabbeinu has a complaint directed at Hashem for doing this, and as a result, Hashem allows two to be saved to show Moshe what becomes of these children. They become the leaders of the Eiruv Rav and become extremely wicked people (see Rokeiach Beshalach 14-11). We see from a spiritual perspective G-d saw that these children are not going to be redeemed nor are redeemable. They must be removed from this world. Again, G-d makes these decisions. We don't.

We see death and being killed by the sword as being negative and destructive. However, we also know that one of the punishments of Beis Din is Saif (death by sword). Punishments meted out by Beis Din are not punishments in the sense of correction. If G-d wanted to, He could have done things differently. The point about the punishments so that we end up in the World to Come. They are there to help us fix the mess we made in this world. Death is a neutralizer of our many failings and sins.

While we see that death and destruction, especially of small children is completely at odds with our western sensibilities; nonetheless, if we change our perspective of what is going on here, we understand that things aren't always as they seem, and that we're open to different views and we question our assumptions, we will find that the Torah's understanding is the correct moral approach.

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    Thank you for answering. Your main point seems to be that after 3 years old these children are irredeemable and can justifiably be eradicated just like the adults. This is simply not true. Rehabilitation programs for ISIS children or children leaving cults are quite successful in normalizing children much older than 3 years old. Most people have no memory of such a young age. If they spent the rest of their children raised in a Jewish household, barring supernatural intervention, it is absurd to say that a 3-year-old is irredeemably corrupted. Nov 1, 2018 at 13:03
  • The example was there to illustrate that your assumptions about all 3-12 year-olds are simply not true. You're making an assumption, and I think that assumption is very much at odds with reality. ISIS children comprise what percentage of the 350 million children who are child soldiers? What is it meant by 'success'? There are still major issues with children used in these circumstances. You have not provided any sources to prove your point. You say people have no memories of their early years.
    – user18155
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:35
  • I would say that people remember key events that make an impression, especially if those events are reiterated by their parents. I think you're not questioning your assumption about what G-d says vis a vis these actions. You see them as 'barbaric'. I think it's important to acknowledge that if we assume that G-d did actually say to do this then objectively there would be absolutely no problem. You don't accept that G-d could do this.
    – user18155
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:39
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    But even if this is true, would it be moral in your opinion to kill these child soldiers en masse today? If not, why was it moral back then?
    – b a
    Nov 1, 2018 at 17:50
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    It is moral because G-d said so. If, theoretically, we would hear a direct command from Hashem to kill child soldiers, we would be obligated to do it. However, since today, Hashem does not reveal Himself openly, we do not have direct commands from Him, and so we would have to use other mechanisms to determine whether it would be okay to do so. However, I doubt there would be any reason to today unless these people are a direct existential threat to the Jewish people. In which case, we have a mitzvah to do any means necessary to prevent atrocities from being committed to the Jewish people.
    – user18155
    Nov 3, 2018 at 18:33
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That's exactly the difference between our human judgment and Heavenly knowledge.

Those girls (and many more examples in the Tanach) were not judged by Moses and his earthly court, they were judged by the Heavenly court and found guilty and sentenced to death. Only Moses and his army were asked to execute the sentence.

Just look around - innocent children are killed in accidents and terminal illnesses, but we do not question G-d's justice as the Torah says:

הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ כִּי כָל־דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט
אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא׃

"His deeds are perfect, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false, True and upright is He. "

It is a huge difference in understanding the Torah logic - some actions are ours to judge and decide, some are not, we follow it brainlessly, counting on G-d's judgment.

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In general these types of questions about things of this nature are difficult to answer because there is so much missing information. The Mitzvah is not in practice today, it's practical application is not discussed in the Mishna or Gemora etc so we don’t know the details. We also don't know the nature of the people who were being killed and the general circumstances of the time. As such I’m not overly bothered by it.

To raise two points however,

(1) It’s not so simple that the girls and their families were not deliberately given the option to run away. The source from where we know that one may not commit genocide during a milchoma but rather must allow a path for anyone who wants to run way to do so is from this very Milchomes Midyan. (There is a machlokes in the Sifrei by milchemes midyan if they let everyone run away this time or did Hashem tell to make an exception)

(2)This was not some Einsatzgruppen massacre. This was a situation where people who were going to be killed were identified by Hashem, one by one, by clearly miraculous methods (the use of the Urim V’Tumim). While there may be limits to how satisfying a frequent answer of “Hashem knows what is right and decided….” can be ,that would not be the case here. In a situation where Hashem is making his will known through miraculous methods at the moment of the command to kill someone, then it is a satisfying answer is “if Hashem made the Urim V’Tumim work to identify girls who should not survive you can be confident that he wasn’t making open miracles for nothing. These girls were really better off not surviving. Maybe when I'll be older I'll have more exact reasons why. "

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Similar to the Hitler question, if you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a cute baby, would you / could you?

Perhaps all these children would have turned out destructive later in life, and therefore for the greater good it was better to kill them now.

Regarding the part of waiting in a queue, maybe they were sent into a different room, and had no knowledge of what was to come.

So to answer your question:

Depraved and inhumane? Certainly.
Absolutely necessary? Certainly.

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    We neglected to kill one amalekite, and his philosophy of "nothing really matters" has led to countless deaths since. We really need to grow up a bit and realise that God knows what He is doing and we have no right to second guess Him. We should also bear in mind that God gave Ashur 2000 years of chances to improve, as well as sending a prophet to help them do teshuva, only a few decades before they scattered the tribes. Also, we should bear in mind that God does not ENJOY killing children (the contrary...)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:56
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Im too new to comment, what i have is largely additions to what people said. so I'm kind of bringing other peoples answers and adding to them, dont mean to plagiarize.

You seem to be focusing on two points A why kill the kids and B why have Bnei Yisroel kill the kids

For A, a few people mentioned already that innocent people of all ages die all the time. Why? We can't know in this world. Even if we had all the knowledge, we couldnt, we cant even discuss it because we're too deeply entrenched in this world to view it properly. There's an entire world we dont see and don't understand behind everything. But we can discuss what we do know.

As Jim says, we see throughout Tanach, if you pay attention to the chronology or midrashim, very small children would and could act adult(Look in perek Ben soreh umoreh, then read the pesukim and medrashim about the people listed). Complex plans, moral decisions, careers, clearly children then and children now are very different. Even in the gemarah we see it sometimes to a much lesser extent.

user18155 brought up about rehabilitation. Isn't that what taking in the younger ones was for? As maidservants, yes. But remember that the eved ivri system was used as rehabilitation of criminals. We see similar ideas with other occurrences of avadim and shifchos (Eliezer losing the status of cursed, the ups and downs of hagar, etc)

Why did they have to be killed?

Why were we forbidden to marry ammom and moav, and only the men? Why did one act give the leviim a higher status forever? Why cant amalekim convert, and how could haman's descendants have converted?

I wonder, if you look into the more haskafa/nistar oriented meforshim, you may see some idea similar to what it says in Derech Hashem, about passing on spiritual genetics. Some kind of blemish, some aspect of... i dont know what. But we see there was time where this happened. We even see it when a nation was destroyed, but pops back up. Midian themselves come back, Amalek is killed off almost entirely but attack en masse a short time later. Whether it's survivors, or different, groups, or as Rav Resiman suggests, just people moving in the land acquiring the traits of that land.

Later on, whatever this was, was no longer. And so the nations got mixed up and all nations became permitted. Even Haman's descendants managed to get in (Rav Hutner ztl said that if an Amaleki deserved it, he would get in somehow despite the prohibition).

Why have the Jewish soldiers kill them? Possibly had to do with defeating this evil(which again, I dont have a source for, just it fits with what we do know). They had to do it with their own actions to counteract the sitra achra. We have to fight the evil in this world. Remove infection. Neviim is about what happened when we didn't. Maybe if we did all we were supposed to, so much more suffering could have been averted. Maybe we could have had Moshiach.

WHat could have happened if we didn't? Just like killing Agag would have prevented Haman and maybe his spiritual descendants. We dont know what would have come out. Not just speaking about the direct physical results.

There were various times we could have defeated evil and brought Moshiach. if we did, all the suffering for the rest of history would have been averted. This, when we we were about to enter the land, certainly seems to have been a critical time. heal

Another thing. We were about to be starting our own country. Not even have a government for a few centuries, a single judge at most. If we didn't know how to follow Hashem over our own feelings at the moment, we wouldnt have been able to last.

Yehuda asked that jihadists etc claim they got the mesage from God. If one guy said to kill the midianim, we wouldnt have listened either. Hashem made a display in front of the entire nation that Moshe is his spokesman so to speak, and made a very clear example of those who suggested Moshe came up with anything himself. No comparison.

And what's the other side? Chas Vesholom, that God created people and just hated them? And couldnt find a better way to express this than commanding them to be killed by the sword? Anything we can understand about Hashem, and observe, contradicts that. The necessity of His not having emotions and change, His omnipotent control, being infinitely above us, the ability to do anything, etc.

There's a lot we can't understand, but we can see and know clearly that there is something we just don't yet see and know.

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  • Welcome to MiYodeya Saon and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Note in particular that Mi Yodeya isn't like a standard internet discussion forum -- we're strictly a Q&A site, where we expect answers to answer the question at hand. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Jan 25, 2023 at 4:09
  • As I commented elsewhere, your division into points A and B is important. First is the question, is it moral for Hashem to do this? I don't see that as a different question from asking about every painful death of any kind that ever was. Second is the question, Is Israel right to obey Hashem's command to do that? Not sure what this question is; if it's okay for Hashem to command it, it's okay for us to obey. Third is the question, How does this compare to what the Taliban think they should do? The answer to that must involve what one knows, and what one makes up.
    – MichoelR
    Jan 25, 2023 at 13:47
  • So - to me - the first one is the only real question, and Iyov asked it already.
    – MichoelR
    Jan 25, 2023 at 13:48
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This question will be unsourced as it's my personal opinion. I have yet to find a moral answer to your question that I find satisfactory. Every answer written here hasn't satisfied me. This act appears as immoral any way I look at it, as long as I limit to morality to only existing in this plane of existence.

Anytime God asks humans to kill/murder something innocent, I believe God makes up for it to the entity being killed. I would apply this to the girls in this situation, all animal sacrifices, and those who are martyrs. The closest source I can come for any of these is I believe Sa'adiah Gaon says God will make it up to an animal who is sacrificed in pain.

"it is proper that He compensate the animal for the amount of pain that was greater than in [natural] death. We say this is so when the case of additional [suffering] is known from the intellect and not from prophecy."

Source: Does God Compensate Animals For Their Pain During Shechita?

This is the only answer to your question I've found that keeps me believing in God as a moral being. It's also the best evidence I've found for an afterlife. Those who have studied Tanakh are often surprised by how little the afterlife is discussed. So for me I see the truth in the afterlife being my hope that a God who cares so much about morality, would not limit morality to being in this life, but rather God will make sure the scales or morality are balanced beyond this life.

Note: I am fully prepared for my answer to be downvoted into oblivion.

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