The Morality Of Retaliation


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 4:19 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 32:4-36:43                                                

Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12(Ashkenaz);
Ovadiah 1:1-21 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:19 p.m.

There has been considerable debate in recent years over the morality of war. In Israel’s 2012 military operation against in Gaza, Israel engaged exclusively in precise aerial strikes directed against specific terrorist leaders and buildings used by Hamas. A ground invasion would have brought many Israeli losses as well as more Palestinian civilian casualties. Still, many Israelis would have preferred that Israel “finish the job” with a ground attack. Perhaps that would have prevented the Hamas threats and attacks that have continued. Would an Israeli ground attack have been morally and religiously justified?

This week’s portion of Vayishlach contains a fascinating precedent in the form of the military operation by Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, against the civilian population of Shechem.

Let us review the facts: Jacob has left Laban and returns, together with his “tribe,” to Canaan, his ancestral home. He purchases a piece of land from Hamor, the prince of the city, and erects an altar to God. Shechem, the son of Hamor, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dina, leaving Jacob and his sons outraged [Genesis 34].

Shechem and his father come to meet Jacob’s clan. Hamor announces that his son, Shechem, desperately wishes to marry Dina and that they are willing to give an exorbitant dowry. Jacob’s sons answer “with subterfuge,” if every male resident of Shechem’s city will circumcise himself then Shechem can marry Dina and the two large clans can join together. “But if you will not listen to us to become circumcised,” say Jacob’s sons, “we will take our sister and leave” [Gen. 34:17].

From this last phrase, it is clear that the meeting of the potential in-laws took place under the cloud of Dina’s captivity; the sweet-talking Hamor was holding Dina hostage. To the surprise of Jacob’s sons, Hamor accepted the condition of circumcision. Shimon and Levi took their swords on the third day after the mass circumcision and killed every male in the city, including Shechem and Hamor. They then rescued Dinah.

Jacob chides Simon and Levy: “You have sullied me, causing me to be odious among the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites. I am few in number, and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated — I and my household” [Gen. 34:30]. But what gives closure to the incident, and the final words of the chapter, is the reply of Shimon and Levi: “Should they be allowed to make our sister into a harlot?” [Gen. 34:31].

It is especially important to note that Jacob does not charge his two sons with moral opprobrium; his condemnation is on political rather than ethical grounds. Plus, the Torah itself informs us in the very next chapter, that Jacob’s fears had no real basis; much the opposite: Jacob and his entourage “traveled on, and there descended the fear of God upon all the cities roundabout, and no one dared to pursue the sons of Jacob” [Gen. 35:5].

Maimonides, the great Jewish legalist-philosopher, offers a startling post-script to this incident. He rules [Laws of Kings 9:14], “The Gentiles are commanded to keep the Seven Noahide Laws, the seventh being the establishment of (a legal system), courts and judges to rule and enforce the compliance. … Any Noahide who transgresses any one of these is to be killed by the sword.” And it is for this reason that all the householders of Shechem were guilty of death. “Shechem stole (and raped Dina); the Shechemites saw and they knew and … they did not bring (him) to justice.”

Nachmanides disagreed, interpreting the Noahide law to mean the requirement to legislate the details of a civil legal system; he does not hold every Gentile responsible for the proper execution of each criminal [Ramban on Gen. 34:13].

But Maimonides has a most compelling argument, especially in light of recent history. Shechem would never have permitted himself to rape Dina had she not been a Hebrew maiden, a stranger who was isolated from the rest of the city. Once you are dealing with people (be it Shechem or Hamas) who believe that it is power which gives one the right to dominate, then you must use even more power if you hope to survive. Germany and Japan became very different nations after World War II, but only after they were convinced that they could not beat the allies militarily. And remember, it was the residents of Gaza who brought Hamas into power.

I’m very proud of Israel for doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, even — and often — risking the lives of our own soldiers. This is what makes us so different from our enemies. But we cannot allow this sensitivity to be the means by which we hand victory to our enemies. That would be the ultimate immorality.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.