Friday, August 17, 2018

Parashas Shoftim: The Eleven Nations of America and the Seven Nations of Canaan

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Woodard's map of the 11 Nations of America

Parashas Shoftim: The Eleven Nations of America and the Seven Nations of Canaan

Woodard's Theory of Eleven American Nations

I've been hooked on a book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011), by Colin Woodard. The author states his thesis in his introduction:
America's most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another. These nations respect neither state nor international boundaries, bleeding over the U.S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico as readily as they divide California, Texas, Illinois, or Pennsylvania. Six joined together to liberate themselves from British rule. Four were conquered but not vanquished by English-speaking rivals. Two more were founded in the West by a mix of American frontiersmen in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some are defined by cultural pluralism, others by their French, Spanish, or "Anglo-Saxon" heritage. Few have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture. On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.
Woodard then clarifies what he means by "nation":
I have very consciously used the term nations to describe these regional cultures, for by the time they agreed to share a federated state, each had long exhibited the characteristics of nationhood. Americans - because of this particular historical circumstance - often confuse the terms state and nation, and are the only people in the world who use statehood and nationhood interchangeably. A state is a sovereign political entity like the United Kingdom, Kenya, Panama, or New Zealand, eligible for membership in the United Nations and inclusion on the maps produced by Rand McNally or the National Geographic Society. A nation is a group of people who share - or believe they share - a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols. Some nations are presently stateless - the Kurdish, Palestinian, or Quebecois nations, for instance. Some control and dominate their own nation-state, which they typically name for themselves, as in France, Germany, Japan, or Turkey. Conversely, there are plenty of states - some of them federated - that aren't dominated by a single nation, like Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada and, indeed, the United States. North America's eleven nations are all stateless, though at least two currently aspire to change that, and most of the others have tried to at one time or another.
In order to appreciate the author's thesis on even a basic level (which, I should mention, is essential for understanding this blog post) read or skim this article, which the author recommends as an overview of his theory. At the very least, scroll down through the descriptions of the eleven nations provided there to get a sense of what he means by "nation" and how these nations continue to persist and shape the cultural and political landscape of our country today.

The quality and quantity of evidence the author provides in his book is staggering. I will never view American history or American politics the same way again. Although the particular claims he makes are subject to disagreement, Woodard's paradigm is compelling to the point where I wonder how people can think otherwise.

I'm not even finished with the book yet and it's already having far-reaching implications for my Torah learning. I'd like to share one example from this week's parashah

Annihilating the Seven Nations of Canaan

One of the most controversial mitzvos is the commandment to annihilate the seven nations indigenous to the Land of Canaan. This is actually a pair of mitzvos: the mitzvas aseh (positive mitzvah) to exterminate the seven nations is from Vaeschanan, and the mitzvas lo taaseh (negative mitzvah) to not allow them to live is from Shoftim. Here is the Sefer ha'Chinuch's summary of the mitzvas aseh:
Vaeschanan: Mitzvah #425 - the Mitzvah of Annihilating the Seven Nations 
[We are commanded] to put to death the seven nations that held our land before we captured it from them - these being the Canaanite, Amorite, Hittite, Hivite, Perizzite, and Jebusite [and the Girgashite] - and to eliminate them from wherever we may find them, for it is stated about them: "you shall utterly destroy them" (Devarim 7:2); and the mitzvah was reiterated in Sidrah Shoftim, as it is stated there: "for you shall utterly destroy them - the Hittite and the Amorite, etc." (ibid. 20:17)
At the root of this mitzvah lies the reason that these seven nations are the ones that started to perform all kinds of avodah zarah (idolatry), and every abomination of Hashem, which He detests. Therefore, since they were a principal root of avodah zarah and its first foundation, we were commanded about them to extirpate and eliminate them from under the heavens, that they may not be remembered or recalled in the land of the living. And in this mitzvah of ours about them, to destroy them, a benefit will result for us: we will eliminate their remembrance from the world, and [thus] we will not learn from their actions. It is, moreover, for us to learn a moral lesson from this - that we should not turn towards avodah zarah, for when we pursue every man in this evil family [of nations] to kill him, because they occupied themselves with idolatry, the thought will not arise in the heart of any man to do acts like theirs under any circumstances. [1]
Before we move on, let me be clear about the scope of this post. Our aim here is not to analyze how it is morally justifiable to eradicate another nation. That is a far more difficult question, which requires its own analysis. Likewise, we will not address the question of the status of these nations in the present day, nor the question of whether we would or wouldn't implement this mitzvah in the present time.

Having said that, working on the premise that the extermination of the seven nations is morally justifiable, my question is: Why was it necessary to eradicate every member of the Seven Nations? In other milchamos (wars), whether a milchemes mitzvah (obligatory war) or a milchemes ha'reshus (optional war), if the opposing nation refuses to make peace with us, we only kill the adult males, but we spare the women and children. Only in the cases of the Seven Nations and Amalek do we kill every individual - that is, in the event that these nations don't accept our overtures to peace [2] - as it says in Shoftim: "do not allow any soul to live" (Devarim 20:16). Why can't we allow women and children of the Seven Nations to live, as we do with other enemy nations?

The Sefer ha'Chinuch cited above addressed this question, saying: "a benefit will result for us: we will eliminate their remembrance from the world, and [thus] we will not learn from their actions." This answer wasn't innovated by him, but is openly stated in the pesukim:
But from the cities of these peoples that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather you shall utterly destroy them - the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivvite, and the Jebusite - as Hashem, your God, has commanded you, so that they will not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they performed for their gods, so that you will sin to Hashem, your God. (ibid. 20:16-18)
I've known that this is the Torah's reasoning for quite a while, but it hasn't sat well with me. Is it really necessary to exterminate every person in order to achieve this goal? Even the women and children?

Woodard's Answer

It wasn't until I read Woodard's American Nations that I found the answer stated in the pesukim to be satisfying. Woodard raises an objection to his own theory, and his answer to that objection also answers our question:
Any argument that claims to identify a series of discrete nations on the North American continent must address the obvious objection: can nations founded centuries ago really have maintained their distinct identities to the present day? We’re a continent of immigrants and internal migrants, after all, and those tens of millions of newcomers representing every possible culture, race, and creed surely must have diluted and dissipated those old cultures. Is it not the height of fancy to suggest New York City’s distinctive culture is a heritage of having been founded by the Dutch, given that people of Dutch ancestry now account for just 0.2 percent of its population? In Massachusetts and Connecticut – those most Yankee of states – the largest ethnic groups are the Irish and Italians respectively. One might naturally assume that the continent’s nations must have long since melted into one another, creating a rich, pluralistic stew. But, as we shall see, the expected course of events isn’t what actually happened. North American life has been immeasurably enriched by the myriad cultures and peoples who settled there. I personally celebrate our continent’s diversity, but I also know that my great-great grandfather’s people in western Iowa – Lutheran farmers from the island of Funen in Denmark – assimilated into the dominant culture of the Midland Midwest, even as they contributed to its evolution. My Irish Catholic great-grandparents worked the iron and copper mines of the interior West, but their children grew up to be Far Westerners. My great-great-great-grandmother's family fled from the same part of Ireland as their future cousins-in-law, but the mines they found work in happened to be in Quebec, so their descendants grew up speaking French and traveling on aboriginal snowshoes. All of them undoubtedly altered the places to which they emigrated - for the better, I hope - but over the generations they assimilated into the culture around them, not the other way around. They may have embraced or rejected the dominant culture, but they didn't replace it. And it wasn't an "American" or "Canadian" culture they confronted and negotiated with or against; it was one of the respective "national" cultures identified earlier.

Cultural geographers came to similar conclusions decades ago. Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University formulated the key theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. “Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been," Zelinsky wrote. "Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later." The colonial Atlantic seaboard, he noted, was a prime example. The Dutch may be all but extinct in the lower Hudson Valley - and landed aristocracy may have lost control of the Chesapeake country - but their influence carries on all the same.
The Seven Nations had inhabited the Land of Canaan for hundreds of years prior to the conquest of the land by Israel. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes the depraved culture of Canaan: "do not act in accordance with the actions of the Land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their practices" (Vayikra 18:3). This corrupt culture started long ago, with the progenitor of Canaan:
Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness [which, according to Midrash Tanchuma, is a euphemistic way of saying that he either sodomized his father or castrated him] ... Noach awoke from his wine and realized what his small son had done to him. And he said: "Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves he shall be to his brothers. (Bereishis 7:20-25)
By the time the Avos arrived on the scene, Canaan had already become a nation with a reputation of degeneracy. Avraham made Eliezer swear "that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell" (ibid. 24:3). Before Yitzchak bid Yaakov farewell, he warned him: "Do not take a wife from the Canaanite women" (ibid. 28:1). Even the wicked Eisav recognized how his father regarded the culture of Canaan, as the Torah states: "then Eisav perceived that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of Yitzchak, his father" (ibid. 28:8) - though that didn't stop him from marrying Canaanite women, as the Torah later recounts (ibid. 36:2)

According to Zelinksy's "Doctrine of First Effective Settlement," it was necessary to annihilate every member of the Seven Nations in order to ensure the complete eradication of of their culture from the Land of Israel, in order to be able to establish a new "First Effective Settlement" on Torah ideas and values. Anything short of complete eradication would have left open the possibility that the Canaanite culture and its abominations would persist, and infect the new Jewish society.

Of course, this doesn't mean we regard every single Canaanite as a cultural cancer cell, which would grow out of control if left unchecked. Rather, the halacha must be formulated categorically, and in the laws of waging war, there are only two options: either the women and children civilian population is spared, or it is annihilated. It would be ineffective and impossible to independently assess each and every Canaanite to determine who poses a threat to the new nation. 

Woodard's numerous examples of this dynamic are what sold me on this answer, especially his example about the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and the present-day culture of New York City. As Woodard observed, "people of Dutch ancestry now account for just 0.2 percent of its population" - and yet, the Dutch values of diversity, tolerance, and mercantile ambition continue to set New York City apart from much of the rest of the state. But seriously - read the book and you'll find hundreds of examples.

This is yet another example of how the Divine perspective has a much longer-term range than the limited perspective of man.

[1] I'm going to quote the rest of the Sefer ha'Chinuch's explanation down here in a footnote because it's not really relevant to the question at hand, but is still important enough to cite:
Now, it should not be asked at all: Why were these evil nations created, since ultimately they were to be completely removed from the world? For we have previously known [learned] that free choice is given to man to be good or evil, and Hashem will not impel a man toward either one of them. And since it is so, we have to say that these seven peoples corrupted their ways of action and turned wicked, until they all incurred the fate of elimination and death, although at the beginning of Creation they were fit also for goodness. Now, to this reason we would [also] ascribe the mitzvah of extirpating Amalek in Sidrah Ki Teitzei, the last of the mitzvos aseh in the sidrah (#604).  
If we like, we could further say that perhaps they had at some certain time a brief period of worthiness, and because of that brief period they merited to be created. Or perhaps we could say that from among them all, one worthy person emerged; and for his sake they all merited to be created - in keeping with what we find that the Sages of blessed memory said, that there was one man among the descendants of Amalek, namely Antoninus. It is not out of the question for the Creator to produce any number of persons for the sake of one: for He (blessed is He) experiences no wearisome effort in whatever He desires to do. As His desire is established, whatever He wishes is done; and He (blessed is He), Who comprehends all our actions, knows what need there is for others because of the one particular person, so that all should be created for his sake.
[2] Whenever I teach these topics in school, I make sure to emphasize this point: we always offer peace to every nation - even to the Seven Nations and Amalek - and if they accept peace under the halachically specified conditions, then we do not annihilate them. See Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Shoftim, Hilchos Melachim u'Milchamos Chapter 6 for details. Likewise, I emphasize that we accept converts even from the Seven Nations and Amalek. See Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi) on Devarim 20:18, and Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Sefer Kedushah, Hilchos Issurei Biah Chapter 12.