Recently, I had a discussion with a friend as to whether humanity has made any moral progress in the 200,000 years Homo sapiens have roamed the earth. My friend did not think so. He felt we were as brutish and as morally obtuse as our ancestor the cave man. I on the other hand, thought we had indeed made a good deal of moral progress. As we know, slavery was once widely accepted in societies around the world. It is undoubtedly still a problem, even in the United State, in the form of trafficking, for instance. However, slavery is no longer the legal, acceptable social norm. That is progress. Despite the reports of violence that we see and hear about in the news daily, it is important to be mindful that the absolute level of violence has been decreasing around the world as well. The death rate from war has fallen from 22 per 100,000 in the beginning of the 20th century to 1.4 per 100,000 in 2014. More countries than ever have democratic forms of government. Our expanding circle of concern, according to Philosopher Peter Singer, is a further measure of our moral progress. It has gone from being concerned only with our own family or tribe, to encompassing over time larger groups, nations, families of nations, all humans and perhaps even animals and wildlife. People who were formally marginalized – women, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and those who are not able bodied, as well as others – now have a voice. As Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Perhaps Dr. King’s observation sheds some light ion the reasons why we find some laws in the Torah morally reprehensible from our point of view, from our place on the arc of moral development. One such law found in our parasha this week is the Law of the Captive woman. It might happen, says the Torah, that when an Israelite soldier goes out to war, he might want to possess a woman he has captured. We are keenly aware that throughout human history, women and girls captured in war have fared horrifically. Soldiers viewed women as spoils of war. Women captured in battle were often violated, mutilated, put to death, or all of these. Those that survived would be sold into slavery. Amid this barbarity, the Torah attempts to institute some sort of protection for women. The Israelite soldier was not to act immediately on his carnal desire. He was not to touch the captive woman in the heat of battle. Rather, he was commanded by the Torah to bring the woman into his home, shave her head and pare her nails. She was to wear clothes of mourning and allowed to mourn her parents for a month. This is presumably, to make her unattractive and give the man some time to let his ardor cool. Perhaps he will have second thoughts, and let the woman go free. After one month, if the man still desires her, the Torah allows him to take her as “a wife”, against her will.
This is, of course, difficult for us to hear. We know and we feel very strongly that this is an immoral act, sanctioned by the Torah, of violence and subjugation against a woman — albeit delayed by a month. We cry out in outrage — How could the Torah condone such behavior on the part of a Jewish man? Why doesn’t the Torah simply forbid such a monstrous act?
Our sages reply that given the mores of the times, 3500 years ago, this was the best the Torah can do. Had the Torah absolutely forbidden the woman to the man, the man would not have obeyed. Prohibiting women outright to soldiers would not have helped any women and would make untold numbers of soldiers violators of a Torah law. Mass disobedience of this law would have undermined respect and obedience for Torah law in general and would have helped lead to an early demise of the Jewish people. Better to have a law that at least soldiers would not ignore and that would put some limits on the bestial behavior that was the norm of the day. It was a starting point, not the final goal.
This raises a very complex question for us. How do we judge the morality of the behavior of those in the past? The Torah tells us that Noah was chosen by G-d to be saved from the waters of the floods because, he was “righteous in his day”. The rabbis debate whether this statement is “condemning with faint praise”. Was Noah to be admired because he was the most ethical man in a time when everyone else was corrupt? It’s hard to be honest in a society when everyone else is lying and cheating. Or does it mean that in any other time Noah would not have stood out, but in his time, he was the best of the worst?
Should we judge the past according to the morality of today? It is a question that we have been asking recently, in the light of Charlottesville. Balbo Drive in Chicago is named after Italo Balbo, head of Italy’s air force, who flew a squadron of Italian sea planes over the Atlantic and landed on Lake Michigan during the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Mayor Edward Kelly was so enamored of the feat that he named a prominent street in downtown Chicago after him. But Balbo served under the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In his military role under Mussolini, Balbo was an important, yet brutal, leader who brought the Fascists in Italy to power in the first place in 1922. Apparently many did not recognize the danger posed to the world by Fascism in 1933.
Should Amherst College, one of the premier universities of higher education in this country, change its name? It is named after Lord Jeffery Amherst who, in 1763, proposed that blankets infected with the small pox virus be distributed to Native Americans in the Ohio Valley in order to exterminate them. That makes him an early purveyor of biological warfare and an advocate of genocide. But at the time, it wasn’t thought of in the way we think of it.
Then there was Thomas Jefferson. He not only was a slave owner but fathered 6 children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, after the death of his wife, Martha. Jefferson was 44 years old and Sally Hemmings was only 16 when she gave birth to her first child. In Jefferson’s time, it was accepted that wealthy widowed Southerners would have relations with women they owned. Jefferson’s father in law had done so after he was widowed, and in fact, Sally Hemmings was Martha Jefferson’s half-sister! Martha Jefferson owned her half-sister who later became the unwilling mistress of her widowed husband. How’s that for morality!
I think all of this should make us feel not so much outraged as humble. What will people living 3500 years from now think of our morality when they look back at our time? Will they struggle to understand how a nation as wealthy as the United States could allow a child to go to bed hungry? Will they wonder why nations in the 21rst century were so quick to resort to violence to resolve our differences? Will they consider raising live animals to slaughter and to eat to be morally reprehensible? How will they evaluate the ethics of a criminal justice system that puts one in every one hundred Americans behind bars, four times the number as in 1980, a disproportionate number of them minorities? What will people 3500 years from now think about a society that pays women $.80 for every dollar it pays a man for comparable work? It is easy to point fingers at the ethical and moral deficiencies of the past. It is easy to fill ourselves with righteous indignation over the ethical shortcomings of ages gone by. They are as clear as day to us, although they were not so clear to the people who lived in those times. Hindsight is always 20/20. It is much more difficult to identify our own blind spots, both individually and as a nation, and to address their consequences in our lives and the lives of our children.
The Torah is the record of the encounter between G-d and the Jewish people at a certain point in human history. The morality of the Torah is a starting point in humanity’s efforts to make the world as it ought to be, as G-d wants it to be. We are partners with G-d in discovering and achieving ever higher levels of moral insight and ethical living. The Torah calls upon us to continue the struggle to push humanity toward ever higher moral standards.