History Does Not Repeat Itself

Masei Mattot By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Jul 26, 2003 / 5763

History does not repeat itself. The experience of the past is valuable not so much for its similarity to the present as for its differences.

Avigdor Lieberman, a minister in the Israeli cabinet, was recently quoted as commenting on what should be done with Palestinian prisoners who are being released from Israeli prisons. According to Lieberman, they should be drowned in the Red Sea. By equating Palestinian terrorists with Pharoah’s army, Lieberman is following an old tradition of viewing each generation of Israel’s enemies as the lineal descendant of the previous one. This tradition has provided Jews with a certain comfort: we know today’s enemies; we’ve seen them before; we’ll overcome today’s threats just as we overcame yesterday’s. This view, though well-established, can be misleading and even dangerous.

This week’s parasha tells of the culmination of an episode that began in Parashat Balak and Parashat Pinhas: the conflict between the Israelites and the nation of Midian. God condemns the Midianites for having beguiled the Israelite men with their women and enticed them with their idols. Accordingly the Israelites, at Moses’s instructions, wipe out the people of Midian, leaving only young girls alive. (Numbers 31)

The Midian episode set the pattern for the Israelites’ encounters with their neighbors, as described in subsequent books of the Bible. Foreign women are either enticing and lead the Israelite men to their destruction (Samson and Delilah); or, they lead the Israelites to worship foreign gods (Solomon and his wives.)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is entirely different. Very few Israeli Jewish men are chasing after Palestinian women. Even fewer are crowding their way into mosques. There is probably less social contact between Jews and Arabs today than there was between Israelites and their neighbors in ancient times.

It is possible to have a debate about whether God was justified in commanding the Israelites of the Bible to wipe out the Midianites, or, in another example, the Amalekites. It is not possible to debate whether modern Israel should do a similar thing to its enemies. For practical and moral reasons, the answer is no. God’s word is not heard today; there is no Moses to transmit it. The Bible, for thousands of years now, has become a book of sources and teaching, not a manual for individual or national conduct. For that, we have Jewish law as it developed over the centuries. To pretend that the episodes of the Bible are directly applicable to situations today is dangerous. Such a pretense turns upside down the Judaism of the last two thousand and more years.

It is a fundamental misconception of many non-Jews – and Jews – that what is says in the Bible, Jews should automatically do today. The Bible has been interpreted for generations – and, consequently, as is the case with all interpreted traditions –has changed in its application. The strength of Judaism today lies in the fact that it is not the same religion as described in the Bible.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.