You Asked About Genocide, So Why Am I Talking About The Little Rascals?

Real questions, submitted by actual OU Torah followers, with their real answers. NOTE: For questions of practical halacha, please consult your own rabbi for guidance.

Q. In 2013, I started learning deep in the Bible about rapes, spoils of war, genocide and other stuff from the Old Testament. Absolutely no rabbi – Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – will sit down to talk, email or Zoom with me. They won’t explain the passages that I have major problems with.

A. Are you familiar with the Little Rascals? These were short films made in the 1920s and 30s that were originally shown in movie theaters. They were shown on TV as children's programming pretty regularly from the 1950s into the 1980s but nowadays they really only appear on "classic movies" stations. The reason the Little Rascals fell from grace is because their depiction of minority characters is deemed to be backwards in this more enlightened time. What most people don't realize, however, is that the Little Rascals weren't designed to be racist, they were designed to be progressive. Theaters down South wouldn't show these shorts because they depicted black and white children playing together, going to school together, etc. The Little Rascals pushed the bounds of equality, but one has to consider the context in which they originally appeared.

So why am I talking to you about the Little Rascals? Because a lot of stuff in the Torah is kind of like that (lehavdil). Nowadays, things like slavery ruffle our feathers in any way, shape or form (and rightfully so), so people are bothered that the Torah permits certain forms of servitude. The context that's missing is that what the Torah permits represents a huge step forward in terms of how servants were to be treated. In this, the Bible pushed society forward, something that couldn't have been accomplished overnight. (I write more about that here.)

The same is true for the laws of warfare, in which the Torah is also far more progressive than the world in which it was written. For example, when attacking a city, one side had to be left open so that the enemy could flee. Ideas like this represented an unprecedented push forward for humanity.

You talk about rape and genocide – I assume you are referring to the law of the captive woman and the seven Canaanite nations. Neither of those are what people normally think of them. The law of marrying the woman captured in warfare was specifically designed to discourage rape in warfare (which has been a problem since time immemorial) and even the Canaanite nations had non-violent options available to them, such as to leave or to accept Israelite rule, so destruction in warfare was not inevitable.

Nowadays, we may consider ourselves more enlightened than things we read about in the Torah, but our societies are largely more enlightened specifically because the Torah pushed us forward from what were once universal norms.

Rabbi Jack's latest book, Ask Rabbi Jack, is now available from Kodesh Press and on