Was Moses Too Harsh?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: I have been studying Devarim 13 and I was a bit confused why Moses’ legislation was especially harsh: one has to stone relatives that explore other religions. Is Moses giving the Law by his own judgement or by Hashem’s orders? Is there any parallel in other parts of Scripture, or were Moses’ legislations entirely new in Devarim? Is the Torah in part Moses’s innovations, or is everything in Torah Hashem’s will?
Gamboru Ngala Nigeria
Rabbi: Let’s review Moses’ words:
If your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, “Come let us worship other gods”—whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced—from among the gods of the peoples around you, either near to you or distant, anywhere from one end of the earth to the other: do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him; but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death, and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter. Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thus all Israel will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not be done again in your midst (Deut. 13:7-12).
Exodus 34:29 reads, “And it was when Moses came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the treaty in his hands as he descended, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant when God spoke with Him.” Why did God create this miracle of light beams emanating from Moses’ face? This was done to validate Moses, that all his teachings were endorsed by God. For God does not perform miracles for a person lying in His name. Thus, all Moses said of his own in Deuteronomy, God endorsed.
Why so harsh? Moses understood idolatry as the worst crime. Rashi (Avos 2:8) teaches that, “Earth was created solely for Israel to study Torah. Otherwise, God will destroy Earth.” Elsewhere in Torah extreme measures are found, as God killed the sinners of Noah’s generation as well as idolatrous peoples.
God created human life for the sole purpose of man recognizing God. If one fails, his life is worthless. Unlike modern societies, Judaism does not value life as an inherent good. Life is worthless when God is not part of that life, and worse, when one follows idolatry. Moses’ words above are not new.
“Show him no pity or compassion.” The reason the relative shall be first to murder the idolater is to counter the greater compassion a relative feels; he must be extra vigilant against his compassion for the sinner.
The sum good of this law is to rid Israel of idolatry, which can cause others to veer from God and forfeit the goodness God wishes man to attain through living with the joy of Torah wisdom on Earth, and inheriting the next life.
The Jews are to teach the world, so we must ensure all idolatrous people are rooted out and killed.