by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; taboo; an abomination.
This is only the first of five times the word toeivah appears in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”). This emotionally loaded word appears as a noun or adjective 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times.
An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God. The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians.
Toeivah to Egyptians
The book of Genesis/Bereishit says that Egyptians find eating at the same table with Hebrews toeivah (Genesis 43:32). We do not know whether Egyptians considered the manners or the diet of the Hebrews abominable.
Next Joseph tells his brothers that shepherds are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34), meaning that Egyptians shun that occupation. Then in the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses tells the Pharaoh that the Hebrews must travel some distance to make sacrifices to God because their animal offerings are toeivah to Egyptians (Exodus 8:22).
Toeivah to God
The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a group of humans, is in the book of Leviticus:
With a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman; it is toeivah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:22)
This infamous line (misused by fundamentalists to claim that all homosexuality is an “abomination”) occurs in the middle of a list of sexual prohibitions God tells Moses to issue to the Israelites.
Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization. God, unlike Egyptians or other humans, has no viscera.
Immediately after warning that God is revolted by offerings with physical defects, this week’s Torah portion says that for Israelites to worship other gods is toeivah, and anyone who does “this evil thing within your gates” must be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 17:4-5) Furthermore,
Carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire. You must not covet the silver and gold upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be snared by it, for it is toeivah to God, your god. (Deuteronomy 7:25)
Toeivah deeds in this week’s Torah portion include not only offering defective animals and worshiping other gods, but also practicing magic.
When you come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to do as the toavot of those nations. There must not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead. Because everyone who does these things is toavot, and on account of these toeivot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you. (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
toavot, toeivot (תּוֹעֵבֹת, תּוֹעֲוֹת) = plural of toeivah.
(See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)
Toeivah to incite murder
The word toeivah appears one more time in this week’s Torah portion. Moses tells the Israelites that when they conquer any Canaanite town in the land designated for Israel, they must kill all the inhabitants, men, women, and children.
Only from the towns of these people, [the towns] that God, your God, is giving to you as a possession, you must not let any soul live … so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they do for their gods; then you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:16,18)
Here Moses appears to assume that since the Israelites are so easily tempted, they are not responsible for their own actions. He orders them to murder all of the potential tempters, as if genocide were a mere peccadillo compared to conversion to a different religion.
Which comes first, visceral disgust or the decision to commit genocide?
The most famous example of modern genocide is the Nazi round-up and slaughter of Jews and members of other minorities, including homosexual men, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blacks.
When Hitler came to power, Germany was suffering from a long economic depression. Hitler wanted to make Germany great again. His government intensified pre-existing prejudices, and used the perception of minorities as “inferior races” or abominations as an excuse to confiscate Jewish wealth, which funded 3-5% of the national budget and perhaps a third of the German war effort.
Then the Nazi government doomed Jewish men, women, and children, as well as the members of other minorities, to slavery and death in concentration camps.
Increasing visceral disgust for Jews enabled the government to improve the German economy, and treating the Jews as toeivah led to and justified genocide.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses wants to inspire the Israelites to conquer Canaan and secure it as an Israelite land, without any future assimilation or retaliation. The most certain way to accomplish this would be to murder every Canaanite in every captured village or town.
Is the purpose of the proposed genocide to ensure Israelite ownership of the land? Or to eliminate religious freedom and enforce the worship of one God? Either way, labeling the Canaanites as toeivah justifies Moses’ call for genocide.
When we feel repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us. Personally, I find okra disgusting. I believe that no moral issue is involved if someone gives me a bowl of gumbo with okra and I quietly dispose of it.
But what if we find a class of human beings disgusting and believe that they are even toeivah to God? Can we just get rid of them? No. Genocide is never justified.
Moses underestimates the need for human responsibility in this week’s Torah portion. He should be preaching that we are responsible for our own religious worship—and that we must avoid doing abominable deeds in the name of God.