Rabbi Shimon Felix, the executive director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel has given us permission to publish his excellent commentary on this week’s Torah portion (parsha) called Balak. The parsha, in the eyes of Rabbi Felix, carries strong messages about the need to become a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community:
This week’s parsha, Balak, deals with the tensions between the nation of Israel and their new neighbors, Moab and Midian. As the Israelites leave the Sinai Desert, head towards the Land of Israel and begin to interact with the nations of the region, the locals are nervous about the approaching Jews, and one of their kings, Balak, hires a prophet, Bil’am, to curse them. This plan backfires, as God puts blessings, rather than curses, into Bil’am’s mouth. At the end of the parsha, however, the Moabites hit upon a more successful scheme to get at the Israelites. The Torah tells us that the Israelites went “a-whoring with the daughters of Moab”, who invited the Israelites to make offerings to their Gods, an invitation which the Israelites readily accepted. The story ends tragically, with God’s anger, an ensuing plague, death by stoning, hanging and the sword for many of the miscreants involved in the incidents of inter-sex (it doesn’t say they were planning to get married), and general bad feelings all around.
The Rabbis say that this was not a simple case of physical or romantic attraction between the men and women of the two nations. Rather, this was a clever plan, hatched by the would-be curser of the Jews, Bil’am, to ensnare the Israelites in idol worship, using the wiles of the Moabite women as bait. This story dovetails nicely with Halachic material elsewhere in the Torah, where we are warned to not intermarry, lest that lead to idol worship and the abandonment of God and the Torah.
I would like to share with you something that Nachmanides (1194-1270), also known as the Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe B en Nachman), says about this incident. Here it is:
The Ramban makes a distinction between the natural attraction between men and women - whether they be of different tribes or not - and what happened in our story, where there was a pre-meditated and immoral attempt by the Moabites to use their women to seduce the Israelite men into a relationship with their god. The Ramban is not condoning the former expression of “lustful desire”, but he understands it as the “natural” condition of humanity, and therefore not deserving of the kind of “revenge” which is appropriate for what the Moabites and their Jewish partners/victims did.
This distinction is extraordinarily important for us, today. The classic response to intermarriage - that the person involved in one is rejecting his or her faith, certainly made sense vis-à-vis the Moabites and other pagan nations of the ancient near east, and was also relevant, until recently, in Christian Europe and the Muslim world, where marrying a non-Jew meant adopting his or her religion, and becoming a member of his or her community. Today, however, Jews living in modern societies do not feel that a relationship with a non-Jew is necessarily an act of rebellion against the Jewish community, nor a rejection of it. It is, rather, an expression of what the Ramban calls a natural inclination for men and women to meet, be attracted to one another, and fall in love. In an open society, in which Jews and non-Jews interact freely, as equals, it would be positively unnatural for this dynamic to not occur.
If this is the case, the Jewish community would do well to adopt the distinction made by Nachmanides (in some circles this has already stared to happen). There may well still be Moabite-like situations, in which the choice of a non-Jewish partner is a de facto acceptance of his or her religious beliefs, and a one-way ticket out of the Jewish community and into the arms of a different faith-based (or faithless) society. The majority of such relationships, however, should be viewed as the Ramban views them: as a private, natural act between one man and one woman. Such a relationship is forbidden by traditional Jewish law, but does not warrant the “revenge” of the Jewish people, as it is not, intrinsically, an act of defiance or denial. Precisely how the Jewish community should behave towards this type of couple may not be immediately obvious, and requires thought, but it certainly should not be in the wrathful, thunderbolts-from-heaven mode that once made sense.