Proponents of Judaism often cite the fact that Judaism conforms to the highest and noblest ethical standards. Indeed, there is so much to support this contention in the Torah itself. For instance, the Torah demands the use of fair weights and measures and honest business practices (Leviticus 19:35-36) and fair treatment of servants and workers (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The Torah insists upon compassion for the disabled (Leviticus 19:14) and special treatment for widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21). The lowly condition of the poor must be improved, not tolerated (Leviticus 19:9-10) and even the poverty stricken must be treated with dignity (Exodus 22:24-26). The Torah insists upon equal justice under the law (Exodus 23:3, 6-8; Numbers 15:15-16; Deuteronomy 16:19-20) and even love of strangers (Leviticus 19:34) as well as neighbors (Leviticus 19:18). Human life must be preserved (Leviticus 19:16) and animals, too, must be treated compassionately (Exodus 22:4; Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The Torah demands giving attention to public safety (Exodus 21:33-34; Deuteronomy 22:8) and to environmental issues as well (Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 20:19). Not only did these rules set Israel apart from its ancient neighbors, it makes Judaism appear progressive even today.
But critics of the Torah in particular and Judaism in general are not entirely convinced; primarily because of passages that paint a picture of cruelty rather than nobility. For example, when Israel attacks the inhabitants of the Promised Land, they are commanded to totally obliterate them: “You shall not let a soul remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16). Here the Torah seems to legislate genocide.
Moderns were not the first to consider this challenge to the otherwise high-minded ethics of Judaism. The same concern was raised in the twelfth century and Maimonides was compelled to formulate an answer. Maimonides first points out that this commandment applies only to the seven nations that inhabited Israel at the time of Moses and Joshua and to no other people (Book of Commandments #187). And the reason for singling out the pagan inhabitants of Israel at the time of conquest was to prevent the gullible Israelites from being seduced by pagan ways. So long as even one native idolater remained alive within the boundaries of Israelite habitation, Israelite religion could be perverted and destroyed. Thus, concludes Maimonides, the command to eradicate the indigenous population was an existential necessity restricted in time and place. It would be both unfair and inappropriate to brand Judaism cruel on the basis of an historical exception to the rules of kindness and humaneness that characterize the Torah in general.
Interestingly, the philosopher David Hume argues that “were a civilized nation engaged with barbarians, who observed no rules even of war, the former must also suspend their observance of them, when they no longer serve to any purpose; and must render every action or recounter as bloody and pernicious as possible to the first aggressors” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section III, Part 1). He goes on to say: “the rules of equity depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed.” Given the Israelite circumstances, the rule of the Torah is entirely justifiable.