This parsha has personal, sentimental significance for me. Several years ago when I begain studying Tanach seriously for the first time it was during this parsha, and it was consequently the first I earnestly struggled with and tried to understand. It is somewhat ironic that it was, because this parsha opens with a “command” from Hashem that I find repulsive and morally indefensible. That mitzva is to destroy the temples, altars, and images of the resident Canaanites who we dispossessed, according to the story, when we entered Israel as freed slaves.
Utterly destroy, we are told. Burn their sacred trees. We are then told how to offer animal sacrifices to Hashem. We are not to be distracted by the practices of the survivors of the tribes we destroy. We are to be weary of false prophets from amongst our own ranks, and we to kill any Jew who takes up the practices of the tribes we have displaced.
The Parshah then goes on to discuss kosher laws, tzedakah (charity) and the mitzva of the Jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all slaves are set free. So on the positive side, in my view, this parsha teaches the essential Jewish mitzva of giving to the needy and the fascinating practice of remitting debts and freeing slaves every seven years (a big shabbat of sorts). As Joshua Berman has recently demonstrated so thoroughly and brilliantly (in Created Equal), these mitzvot were part of the radically egalitarian and utopian vision of Israel.
These teachings are pretty straightforward and worth contemplating personally and politically. The more difficult question is what there is to learn from the violent commandments of this parsha. When I studied this parsha for the first time I interpreted these mitzvot entirely symbolically: sacrifice your lower animal nature, and destroy those things you worship instead of God- the “strange god within you” as the Ba’al Shem Tov creatively interpreted the original commandment.
Reading it this cycle, years later, the way I look at Torah has changed. I have gone through the stages of initial romance, marked by hopefulness and blindness to my beloved’s faults; marriage, characterized mostly by trying to find a way to live together; divorce, characterized by seeing all the faults I had repressed in my awareness and the passionate embrace of others; and now rapprochement, in which I have a balanced view of my beloved’s faults and virtues and understand that she will always be a part of me.
In any case, when I read Tanakh now I still look at it symbolically and thoroughly enjoy the non-literal drashes of the Rabbis. I do not shrink from seeing the horrors and the madness of the text, however. The question I am left with now is, what can we learn from an unflinching reading?
First of all, why did the Jews want to eliminate the Canaanites and their practices? The Tanakh suggests that they wanted to eliminate them because they believed they had a divine dispensation to re-settle in Canaan, the land of their forefathers, and create what we would call an enlightened society. The fact that they believed that wholesale slaughter of the natives was justified towards this end I can’t forgive. The best we can say is that it was standard practice in their neighbourhood: the Assyrians or Babylonians did the same and much worse to those they conquered, things too horrifying to bear repeating here. “Standard practice” has never been enough for Jews, however, and I can understand, but not accept, their behaviour on that basis. Certain things are, and must be, forever unacceptable, even if commanded by God.
As for destroying the religious artifacts of the Canaanites, the text itself explains why: we believed they were morally abominable. They even sacrifice their children, the text says, and many historians agree. The Canaanites, in Jewish eyes, were guilty of the following: child sacrifice; ritual rape and cult orgies which involved ritual sex; a hierarchical society which lacked social justice; and of course, the cardinal Abrahamic sin: making images of the God beyond form and worshipping Him through man-made objects. The opposing virtues, as reflected throughout Torah law, were valuing all human beings as of inherent worth; the abandoning of human sacrifice; sexual restraint and purity; social justice; and the worship of a formless, morally demanding God who was the sole Divine reality.
I am not suggesting here that the Jewish displacement of the Canaanites was entirely motivated by moral and spiritual sentiment. I imagine that the desire for a homeland of their own was also a motivation, and to some degree we painted the Canaanites black to justify our violence against them. That said, while I don’t accept in any way killing people for the sake of ideology, I am interested in understanding the moral intuitions of our ancestors. Just as I assume that the Canaanites, as well as engaging in morally objectionable practices, also had beautiful aspects of their culture which were wiped out by emerging Israel, I also want to see the positive moral intuitions interwoven with our ancestors violence.
I would argue that the follwing lessons wait in the parsha. 1) The divine is to be found not in images and temples, but in life itself and in our actions. The God of Israel is everywhere- no where in particular. He is not bounded by form or location. Yes, the Jews had a central temple where they brought offerings, but this was extremely minimalistic compared to their neighbours. According to Maimonides it was a compromise. The locus of the sacred, then, is everywhere, and our expression of the sacred is in our actions: “seek justice practice kindness, and walk in humility with the sacred”, to paraphrase Micah.
2) On a psychological level we can relate this to what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”: the transformation of spiritual life itself into an idol, an object of consumption, a servant of the ego. This is, as we all know, is as rampant today as ever, as a flip through Yoga Journal will testify. I don’t want to equate the Canaanite religion with spiritual materialism: my point here, rather, is that our ancestors may have viewed it that way.
3) Protest. Our journey through time and place has molded our culture. One way is through our persistent status as outsiders. The outsider possesses a special lens through which to view the dominant civilisation and is perfectly placed to become a socratic gadfly, provoking change and un-ease in the larger body of culture. Jews have played this role abundantly over time. This role seems to have begun with our enslavement in Egypt, and it is interesting to note that this event is traditionally viewed as the genesis of the Jewish people, divinely orchestrated and planned to such a degree that Hashem warned Abraham about it generations earlier.