Rage and the Rape of the Innocent

June 23, 2009

15 min read


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

One of the most shocking incidents recorded in the Bible, the destruction of the city of Shechem by Shimon and Levi, is in our Parsha. The issues raised by this story are plastered on the front pages of the newspapers of the world these past months, and we can shed some light on them by studying them from a Torah perspective in the light of our Parsha.

Maimonides and Nachmanides, two of the greatest Torah commentators, each offer a theory to explain the behavior of Jacob's sons. Before we discuss these theories it is important to get the story straight.


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Shechem the son of Hamor, the ruler of the city of Shechem, kidnapped and raped Dinah, Jacob's only daughter. He fell in love with her and therefore wanted to legitimize his relationship and win her willing consent to cohabit with him. In order to accomplish this he had to obtain her family's consent to formally accept him as a son-in-law.

As he had physical possession of Dinah, who was kept locked up in his house during the course of the negotiations, and as he was the ruler's son with an army to back his position, he figured that he had Jacob and his family over a barrel. Unless he voluntarily let her go, they couldn't recover Dina in any case, and if he was nice and polite and also offered them a lot of money along with assurances for her future well being, he figured that they would bow to the inevitable and accept him. After all, he was a nobleman and a good catch, and they could surely see that he was genuinely smitten with her. It couldn't have been easy in those days to find a brilliant match for a girl who had been publicly raped.


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Rescuing Dina was a difficult strategic problem. Jacob and his sons were fully behind the circumcision stratagem. The plan was to go in on the third day, when the inhabitants would be too sick to offer much resistance, rescue Dina, kill Shechem the rapist and head for the hills.

But then Shimon and Levi decided that this wasn't enough and destroyed the city, killing all its male inhabitants. It was clear that Jacob didn't condone this act, and what's more -- he never forgot it. On his deathbed, as he was distributing his blessings, it was still at the forefront of his mind.


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Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter! With their congregation do not join O! My honor! For in their rage they murdered people and at their whim they hamstrung an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel. (Genesis 49,5-7)

The rabbis tell us that this separation and dispersal resulted in the tribe of Levi being placed in the position of living off tithes, a humbling situation in life which also forced the Levites to live scattered throughout Israel, whereas the tribe of Shimon became elementary school teachers, hardly an exalted position in society, which also compelled them to spread out, parallel to the country’s school system.


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Maimonides offers the following rationale for the killings. (Laws of Kings, 9,14) One of the seven Noachide laws mandates the establishment of law and order. Human societies are held responsible for the creation of a legal system to administer the Noachide laws. Laws that are not enforceable aren't worth the paper they are inscribed on. The failure to set up such a system is a social rather than an individual crime.

The inhabitants of Shechem were in violation of their duty to set up such a system. The rapist/kidnapper Shechem continued to circulate freely among them with no apparent loss of stature or esteem. Indeed, so much was he honored, that he was able to persuade the entire population of Shechem to accept circumcision and enter into a confederation with the Jewish people. The high esteem retained by a rapist/kidnapper is symptomatic of a lawless society. As Shechem was a lawless society, it deserved to be annihilated under the Noachide laws.

The Sforno (Genesis 34,27) adds some depth. Shechem didn't rape just anyone; he selected his victim carefully. Dinah was a child of a foreign tribe and must have been considered fair game. People rarely do the unacceptable, even when they have power. Even leaders worry about their popularity and are always looking ahead to the next election or to its counterpart in those times. The fact that Shechem raped Dinah and kept her prisoner by force after the rape without shame, while he attempted to blackmail her family into reconciling themselves to the situation, is demonstrative of the fact that he was engaged in what was considered acceptable behavior in the eyes of his city.


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We are looking at a society that finds the mistreatment of defenseless strangers acceptable, which has one standard for the citizen, and another standard for the stranger.

This view is reinforced by the stratagem adopted by Jacob and his sons to deal with the situation. Jacob and his sons responded to Shechem's offer by in effect saying, "We are only willing to countenance the match if you enter into a full union with our tribe and we become one people so that we are granted full citizenship rights. Otherwise we find your proposition unacceptable, as we have no guarantee of fair treatment in the future. As long as we are regarded as a foreign element, what is to prevent you from taking back everything you promise at your whim and throwing us out? Indeed, even if you agree to accept us we cannot believe that you are serious unless you and the inhabitants of the city demonstrate your willingness to tolerate us in your midst by voluntarily undergoing the painful rite of circumcision as a demonstration of your good faith."


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Let us sum up Maimonides' proposition in light of the Sforno's explanation: a society that isn't outraged by the unprovoked oppression of the defenseless, and is willing to tolerate and accept the kidnapper/rapist in its midst and fully sanction and protect his crime is not worthy of survival under the Noachide Laws. We shall see later that Jacob's opposition to the killings did not arise from any disagreement with this basic proposition, but was prompted by other considerations.

Nachmanides disagrees with this position. (Ibid 34,13) In his view, the obligation to establish a fair legal system is a positive commandment. A violation of a positive commandment cannot be considered a capital offence under any set of laws, certainly not under Noachide law. While Maimonides is correct in judging the people of Shechem at fault for tolerating the outrage, he was wrong in suggesting that the correction of this fault could have served as the justification for the killing of the inhabitants of Shechem.


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Nachmanides theorizes that the inhabitants of Shechem must have been in violation of the negative Noachide commandments, which do carry a death penalty under Torah law, such as the laws against idolatry, armed robbery or murder. Shimon and Levi took advantage of the weakness of the population of Shechem to carry out the Torah's edict, and executed the people of Shechem for their past capital offences. He offers textual support for the proposition that the Canaanite society of which the Chivites, the tribe that the people of Shechem belonged to, was evil and corrupt and deserved destruction.


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But when we examine this position closely, it really differs very little from that of Maimonides. Shimon and Levi were certainly unacquainted with the individual inhabitants of Shechem. They may have known that on the whole many of them had violated the Noachide law, but they also must have known that many innocent people who had never done any harm to anyone also resided in Shechem. What is more, they couldn't have known who was innocent and who was guilty, and in fact they executed the entire adult male population without making any distinctions.

No matter how you twist or turn, the actions of Shimon and Levi were based on a collective judgment. Their justification for wiping out Shechem was that it was an evil society, and as such whoever was a part of it, was a participant in the evil and could not be judged as an innocent.


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In fact, there are many passages in the Torah indicative of the same policy. The Tochacha, or chastisement portions, Vayikra 26, and Devarim 28, apply the collective principle in both directions. When society is good, the wicked enjoy prosperity along with the rest, and when society is not the way it should be, the righteous suffer the tribulations of exile along with everyone else. It would appear that even God doesn't maintain a judgment policy based purely on individual considerations in this world.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant in God's eyes. Even within the overall policy that He applies to everyone, there are significant differences between the fates of individuals in this world. We may all go into exile, but the experience will be more difficult for some and easier on others. These differences testify to the fact that Divine Providence does give recognition to individual spiritual achievements even in the here and now. And of course, each of us will face the ultimate judgment in the next world purely on the basis of his or her own individual choices. Nevertheless, it is a fact that in many respects God seems to practice collective punishment and lumps the innocent with the wicked.

It is legitimate to wonder why. In the case of God, who is all seeing and all powerful, this difference between the way things work in this world versus the way they operate in the next cannot be based on the practical difficulties of distinguishing between people living in close proximity. There must be a good reason why things operate differently here.


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Whereas in the next world we are an assembly of individuals, in this one we are all integral parts of a social group. Our cultural environment has far more impact on our lives than our physical surroundings. There is a two-way dependency relationship between the individual and his social group. Each individual contributes to the collective power and prestige of his group by the addition of his particular talents and activities to the collective whole. The collective whole attained by the sum of all the individual contributions determines the parameters of the possibilities life offers each individual. In a society that has no universities, higher education is not an option. Insofar as the collective whole is intolerable and evil, and the individual is inextricably part of its mixture, each individual is justly regarded as a part of the intolerable mass.

But doesn't this smell of collective punishment, one of the most abhorrent tools of evil tyrants?


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To understand the answer to this question we have to appreciate how confusing labels can be. Historically the abhorrent examples of collective punishment have invariably arisen in the context of situations that were unjust to begin with. For example, the Nazis employed collective punishment as a means of crushing resistance. If one unidentified concentration camp victim did something out of line under the camp rules, fifty inmates would be executed. But concentration camps were an outrage to begin with. Such abhorrent phenomena necessarily survive only on the strength of the terror they manage to inspire in their victims. The same can be said for all the horrendous applications of this vicious policy that come to mind.

In fact collective punishment is so abhorrent primarily because it is a sub-branch of punishment; a system that is intolerable in its entirety. Punishment for its own sake is a valueless process that corrects nothing and merely vents the pent up rage of the person or people inflicting it. Jewish tradition teaches that all Divine punishment is therapeutic and all human punishment is defensive.


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God's punishments are in the nature of painful operations required to remove the spiritual cancer caused by sins, whereas the punishments the Torah commands Jews to inflict are all based on the principle of and you shall destroy the evil from your midst (Devarim, 13,6) a phrase that is mentioned in the Torah no less than seven times always in connection with capital punishment. Untreated evil is a festering sore that destroys healthy societies. The execution of the evildoer is to be regarded in the light of a defense mechanism.

All physical violence is rooted in spiritual evil. As the Sforno explained, in a society that was totally intolerant of unjustified violence directed at defenseless victims, Shechem would have restrained his desire to rape Dinah. The tolerance of evil people among us raises the ceiling of what is considered conceivable behavior by those with an innate tendency to violence and ultimately translates directly into physical and spiritual injury inflicted on the innocent. The Torah allows us to defend ourselves against evil by 'destroying the evil from our midst.'


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This defense principle is the rationale of Jacob's opposition to Shimon and Levi's actions according to the commentators. The difference between legitimate execution and senseless punishment lies in the need to defend yourself. Jacob's condemnation was based on the fact that far from accomplishing anything positive, the killings merely endangered the existence of the budding Jewish people.

Jacob said to Shimon and Levi, "You have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated —- I and my household." (Ibid., 34:30)

If the rationale of punishment is defense, an act of punishment that threatens your very survival cannot be justified. As an act of defense, it is absurd. It can only be regarded as an act of rage. As such, it was justly condemned by Jacob, regardless of whether the inhabitants of Shechem were liable to execution under Torah law or not.

The justice of Jacob's concern is attested to by the text.

They set out, and there fell a Godly terror on the cities which were around them, so that they did not pursue Jacob's sons. (Ibid., 35:5)

In other words, if not for God's direct intervention, Jacob's fears would have been fully realized.

The Torah gives Shimon and Levi the last word in this debate. Their response, "Should he treat our sister like a harlot?" (Ibid., 34:31) This is the Artscroll translation of the text, following the ordinary meaning of the Hebrew word zonah. Rashi does not agree with it, and translates the world more symbolically. According to Rashi, the response should be understood as, Should he treat our sister like someone lacking protection, easy prey for any passerby interested in sex?

Explains the Ohr Hachaim: Shimon and Levi argued that the killings were in defense. In a country where the norm was to oppress the stranger, Jews would have no chance of survival in any case. Wherever they went they would be preyed upon. The establishment of the norm that even strangers have human rights was a defensive act, and therefore the imposition of the Torah laws against evil societies was justified.


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The parallels to the situation that prevails in the world today are striking. All perpetrators of evil feel that they are justified. No doubt Shechem felt justified in raping Dinah as a means of discouraging Jewish settlement. Why should foreigners be allowed to come in and exploit the resources built up by the local population? Similarly, the people who perpetrated the outrage of the Twin Towers massacre, or those who are attempting to kill people with the anthrax virus feel justified by some mistaken, fanatical idea which transforms their horrendous actions into something holy and sanctified.

But evil must be judged objectively. It is against God's law to slaughter innocent people who are doing no harm. It is even wrong to punish the guilty except in the special case when such punishment amounts to self-defense. Our Parsha teaches us that even the imposition of punishments prescribed by God must be condemned unless they are carried out in the interests of self-defense.

The United States is in precisely this position of needing to defend itself and its citizens against an evil onslaught. It has every right and even a moral obligation to impose God's laws and punish the evildoers even if it is impossible to separate the innocent from the wicked. A society that tolerates the granting of martyr status to the perpetrators of such great evil is an evil society. According to the Divine rules that apply to this world such a society is culpable as a whole. There is no moral obligation to attempt to distinguish between the evil and the innocent if the lack of ability to make such a distinction would make it impossible to proceed.

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