“Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of violence are their methods”.
The title is the way Jacob starts his deathbed “blessing,” an inaptly named review of his sons and their characters. The rest gets no better. “May I not fall into their conspiracy… Cursed be their anger, for it is hard….” The summary is general, but the clear reference is to the tale told in parashat Vayishlach, wherein Jacob’s daughter Dinah is taken by Shechem without Jacob’s approval, a pact is negotiated whereby the whole male citizenry of his household is circumcised (an early conversion?) and the marriage is accepted, but her brothers Shimon and Levi take it upon themselves to slaughter the post-operative, relatively defenseless men in the name of their sister’s honor. Jacob: What have you done? You have ruined me! Shimon and Levi? Are we to let him treat our sister as a whore?
Some years ago a local rabbi and educator wrote a column for JT marveling at their passion and wistfully wondering whether he could be as forceful. I responded with a letter to the editor noting Jacob’s responses and refusing to see them as a positive model. The ethics of such a mass slaughter is, shall we say, problematic. But this is an old debate. I recently came across one part of that debate and thought it would be instructive to share it.
Rabbi Judah Loeb, the Maharal, of Prague, a rabbi best known for the Golem stories, but generally well known for his muscular philosophic defense of Judaism in the sixteenth century, wrote the following in his Biblical commentary Gur Aryeh:
It is difficult: Shechem may have sinned, but the whole town, how had they sinned such that they deserved to die? But it seems that this is not at all problematic, for they were two separate peoples, Israelites and Canaanites… and it is permissible to engage in battle when one nations sets out to make war against another.
One should not see this as a matter of justice, but as a matter of warfare, and never mind if the provocation suffices, nor are there any protections for non-combatants or prisoners of war. [To be fair to Maharal, the laws of warfare and of prisoners of war had not yet been set out, and mass slaughter as a normal stratagem of warfare was culturally common in his day. The same cannot be said of those who take such a position today.]
In light of the missile fire from Gaza, and terrorism in general, there is a strong pull to a Maharalian understanding that this is war, and all’s fair. They rain death upon us. What are we to do? Unilaterally disarm? But the best of Jewish thought wants to insist that one can engage in warfare while maintaining a concern for the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, amid careful calibration of collateral damage, and thus is repulsed and indignant about a Palestinian penchant for hiding among non-combatants for their protection, knowing that we dare not shed our moral compunctions and, in Shimon and Levi fashion, carpet bomb the Gaza strip into oblivion.
The justice vs warfare debate has been in evidence as well in the American debates about drone strikes on terrorist targets, especially American citizens [Awlaki]. May we kill them by administrative decision without granting them appearance before a court of law?
Just a few years ago, I’ve mentioned this before, two West Bank rabbis published a book called “The King’s Law” (referring to God as King), which argued that to kill a gentile, even a non-combatant, is permissible if it is to save a Jew. They based themselves, in part, on this conclusion of Maharal that all’s fair in warfare between nations. Many voices were raised in Israel, both in the secular world and in the rabbinic world, against this conclusion. But one voice speaking in its defense was that of Israeli threatrical producer Menorah Chazani, who argued passionately that the detractors of this book “oddly failed to take into account the context, that we are at war with the worst murderers, people who shoot in cold blood at women and children.” But what she failed to take into account is that she was defending the notion that we should allow ourselves just such leeway because we are at war. And if we may murder them, for this is war, why may they not murder us equally?
That has been, too often, the calculus of warriors. It is not the calculus we seek to emplace. Passion may lead there, as it did Shimon and Levi, as it does Chazani, as it has and will yet lead those so swept away to cruel and unforgiveable acts. We need to reign in our passion, not give in to it, and find another better, more compassionate way, even in war. Better yet, as a prelude to peace.