This week’s parsha, Matos, includes a command to wipe out the women and children of Midian. Shocking, yes, and disappointing, perhaps, to those of us with “modern sensibilities.” Still, I must disagree with this assertion I found in an otherwise helpful dvar Torah: “We are taught that Judaism is a religion of peace, and so we read these words with some disbelief- how can a Torah of life and peace teach ethnic cleansing?”
Here’s the thing: I don't believe the single word "peace" encapsulates Judaism any more than "Shabbat" or "kashrut" might. It is a religion "of" doing God's will. We can argue about what that will is (yay, arguments l’shem shomayim!), but sometimes, as in the difficult bits of this parsha or the command to wipe out Amalek, that Godly will comprises bloodshed and revenge as much as it does peace.
Which is not to say that the two – devilishly brutal, bloody revenge, and sweet, Godly peace – are mutually exclusive. As much as I enjoy the phrase "fighting for peace is like [ahem; marital relations] for virginity," it's dead wrong, at least from a Jewish perspective. Bloodshed can be a means to a peaceful end, but in any event, God’s “end” – in the context of this parsha – is not peace, but about making His will known among the nations that will border the Jewish homeland.
It's very trendy right now for folks everywhere to assert that Islam is a "religion of peace," which I don't believe, simply because that's not what the religion is ABOUT; that's not why it was established. It doesn't seem to me that it's any more true about Judaism.
Oh, and before we use that phrase “modern sensibilities” without the quotation marks (a straw man I introduced in the first paragraph – it was NOT in the original dvar Torah, but I hear it a lot), I recommend travelling forwards 200 years and listening as they enumerate their judgments on our moral character. I’m sure they will be many, and valid. Doesn’t every era view itself as the most forward-thinking, the most modern, sensible, advanced… only to be quickly surpassed by future generations? Only Torah offers eternal moral certainty, and sadly, our glimpses of its truths are often tinted / tainted by the lenses of our various “modernities.”