Last night I went to Torah group, despite the fact that I had not been able to read the portion scheduled for discussion. It was in fact an interesting, provocative portion of Deuteronomy, that part of the Torah where Moses revisits the rest of the books, putting his own spin on the long trip through the wilderness, and setting the pattern for what would be after his death.
As usual, the rules unfolded in this portion range from the sensible and humane to the sensationally cruel. Although the famous "eye for an eye" proclaimed the law of revenge, it was couched in such a way that it was in actuality seldom carried out. There had to be two eyewitnesses to the crime, and they had to be willing to take up the first stone to punish the guilty party. Few would probably speak up under these circumstances. People who insisted upon worshiping other gods or natural forces such as the sun or moon would not be tolerated, but instead (again) stoned to death. And while vanquished peoples would not be slaughtered if they surrendered to the Israelites, this rule did not hold for the nearby peoples, the Canaanites, who must be eradicated to the last goat because of the threat their pagan ways of worship represented.
While one can see the rule of law taking shape in these books, the basis for civilization as we know it, unfortunately, the murderous behavior so prevalent today among nations is there as well. Interestingly, one person in the group who took up study of the Torah hoping to gain an understanding of God and the faith she had been born into now says that she has determined that God to be a fable, and human beings to be mostly a lost cause, with islands of community and good feeling like our synagogue being all we can cling to.
With recent events in my personal life, I cannot agree. But I understand the feeling.