Parashat Va-Et’hanan 5768/ August 16, 2008
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Doom them to Destruction” – the Moral Question
Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig
Faculty of Law
“When … the Lord your G-d delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter” (Deut. 7:2). This is the fate that the Torah ordains for the seven nations living in Canaan; later on (Deut. 20:16) this commandment is restated in the negative: “You shall not let a soul remain alive,” meaning women and children are to be killed as well. Maimonides ruled (Hilkhot Melakhim 8.4): “It is an affirmative commandment to destroy the seven nations, for it says, ‘you must doom them to destruction,’ and anyone who has the opportunity to kill one of them and does not do so, violates a negative commandment, for it says, ‘you shall not let a soul remain alive,’ but they have already perished and all memory of them has vanished.”
Although Maimonides says that this commandment is not longer practiced, since “all memory of them has vanished,” nevertheless the very commandment itself raises a moral question: how had the children sinned? Moreover, we were also commanded to wipe out the Amalekites,  and Maimonides does not say that these people have disappeared, so are we to wipe them out? There is also an important halakhic innovation implied by what Maimonides writes elsewhere, that one could make peace with Amalek, even after having been at war with them.  In any event, Scripture seems to say that when at war one should kill every living soul, and this requires explanation.
The Talmud teaches that “No wisdom, no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). Indeed, Saul sinned in this respect, as we read in I Sam.15. The gemara in Tractate Yoma (22b) recounts that Saul found it hard to uphold the command to utterly destroy the enemy, as relayed to him by Samuel in G-d’s name, and asked: “The adults might have sinned, but how have the children sinned?” It would then seem that there is place to understand the reason for the command, though not to contradict it.
As we shall see below, great Jewish thinkers have considered the moral issue and have raised several suggestions. This is not the place for a thorough examination of the issue in all its facets, so we shall confine ourselves to presenting several of the views given by early rabbinic authorities on this question. Sefer ha-Hinukh, positive commandment 425, says:
The roots of this commandment lay in the fact that these seven nations were the ones who began to engage in all sorts of idolatry and abominations that the Lord detests. Since they were the essence of idolatry and its primal foundation, we were commanded to wipe them out off the face of the earth, so that they not be remembered and not be noted in the world of the living. In this commandment to utterly destroy them we find benefit for ourselves, for in erasing all memory of them in the world we will not learn from their actions. There is also a moral lesson for us in this, that we not turn to idolatry, for when we pursue every single person in this wicked family to kill him for engaging in idolatry, no one of us would ever think of doing what they did.
It is altogether out of place to ask why these wicked nations were created in the first place, if their destiny was to perish from the world, for we know that human beings can choose to do good or evil and that the Lord does not force a human being to choose one over the other. This being so, we see that these seven nations went to the bad and were wicked to the extent that they all deserved to perish and die; but at the beginning of Creation they were also fit to be good. It is for this reason that the commandment to annihilate Amalek, in parashat Ki-Tetze, is adjacent to the end of the affirmative commandment in the parashah (commandment 604). We could say further that they may have had an opportune moment at one time or another, and due to that moment they all merited being created. Or perhaps one decent person was descended of them and by his merits they all were created, as in the case of a certain wise man whom the Sages said (Avodah Zarah 10b) was descended of Amalek, namely Antoninus. Nor is the possibility to be excluded that the Creator create several human beings for the sake of a single one, for He, blessed be His Name, does not view as tedious anything that He desires, … and He understands all our deeds and knows why others need to be created for the purpose of the special individual (or, perhaps, they were created so that others in the world would learn a moral lesson from them, or so that they would build cities and plant gardens and vineyards for Israel).
Here we note several arguments justifying total annihilation of the enemy: they have chosen evil; they were created because of momentary good favor; they were created on account of a decent person who descended from them, or as a deterrent to others. Examining what he said closely, we see that he was not troubled by the issue of killing the children, or the question of a single individual who had sinned and perished, but by the notion of killing a wicked nation whose destiny was to perish from the face of the earth. 
The aspect of collective punishment is discussed by Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, par. 41), where he distinguishes between death for heresy as opposed to death as a punishment:
… in the same manner as the inhabitants of a “city misled to idolatry” are slain for their unbelief …and this includes. . . to blot out the memory of Amalek. For in the same way as one individual person is punished, so must also a whole family or a whole nation be punished, in order that other families shall hear it and be afraid, and not accustom themselves to practice mischief. For they will say, [if we do wrong] we may suffer in the same way as those people have suffered; and if there be found among them a wicked, mischievous man, who cares neither for the evil he brings upon himself nor for that which he causes to others, he will not find in his family any one ready to help him in his evil designs.
Maimonides notes the element of deterrence on the transgressor’s family and environment.  Rabbenu Bahya also addressed the question, relating directly to the issue of killing the children. Heavily influenced by mysticism, he wrote as follows:
In explanation we note that in an optional war ( milhemet reshut) we set out on our own merits to eradicate the strength of their good fortune/astral body (mazal) and to lay it low, not to uproot their guardian angel (sar ha- memuneh); rather, it is so that our own merits will lay low and topple the might of their mazal, so that they not raise their heads against us but rather be subservient to us; therefore, it suffices for us to kill the males, without killing the women and children. But in an obligatory war that the Holy One, blessed be He, commands us to fight, where the intention is to wipe out their guardian angels, for the Holy One, blessed be He will eliminate their might from above – in that case we are commanded to wipe everyone out, … in order to eradicate all the might that the appointed powers have on earth, … that we not leave them anything, for in this way they will be eradicated and pass from the world, both on high and below.
Should you have misgivings and think that perhaps in doing so we are doing a terrible wrong to the children who did not sin to us, behold this is the law given from Heaven and the decree of Scripture. Moreover, since the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots their strength on high, what we do to them below is as naught, as our Sages taught, it is like grinding flour that is ground or killing a lion that has already been killed, … and there is no injustice in this, nor is it considered killing, for they were already killed. Moreover, even if they are not considered killed, there is no injustice in killing the children that are the branches of the root of rebellion, of this bitter and impetuous nation, for surely they would hold onto the ways of their parents, doing all the abominations that the Lord detests, and then Israel would learn from them. …Lest you say that when they mature they will enter the Covenant and repent, note who it is who says their blood may be shed – the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows that they will not repent. Isaiah, the prophet of blessed memory, said explicitly: “Prepare a slaughtering block for his sons because of the guilt of their father. Let them not arise to possess the earth! Then the world’s face shall be covered with towns (14:21).” That being so, if we would leave them alive this would be reason for great evil, far greater than the evil of killing them, and it stands to reason that a person should do a little harm in order to avoid great harm, for the thoughtful and intelligent person will jump from a rooftop in order to save himself from danger, or will cut off his hand or leg or one of his limbs in order to save his entire body… and in all this he is not doing violence to his body, but a kindness to himself, keeping himself alive… All the more so, it is not violence to do so to others, and therefore the Torah permitted killing the children, so that a lesser harm be done in order to avert the greater harm that would come to the world from their remaining alive….
One of the reasons he gives is mystical, namely to eradicate the might of their good fortune. Another reason is the similarity to the punishment of the wayward son, who, like the seven nations, has no chance of returning to the proper path, according to the attestation of the Holy One, blessed be He.
We have presented some of the discussion of the early authorities (rishonim) on this issue. Aharonim (later rabbinic authorities, writing after the Shulkhan Arukh) as well as modern Jewish thinkers have also dealt with these questions, but this forum does not leave room to present all that they have said on the issue. My intention was merely to point out the sensitivity to the question and to leave it to the reader to pursue the matter further.
 Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 5.5.
 Loc. sit., 6.4, but this is not the place to discuss this innovative view.
 Maimonides discusses a similar question, pertaining to the role of uneducated folk in the world, in the preface to his commentary on the Mishnah.
 On collective punishment in general, see the article by Rabbi M. Batiste, “ Anishah Kibbutzit,” Tehumin 12, p. 229.