Justifying The Murder Of A Nation?: A Study Of The Morality Of Shimon And Levi

After the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden at the end of World War II, resulting in the death of an estimated 25,000 civilians and destroying much of the city, there was much controversy as to the moral justification and legal basis for the attacks. Ever ready for sensational propaganda, the German government seized the opportunity, exaggerating the number of civilian deaths nearly tenfold, while using the attacks as a pretext for abandoning previously signed agreements on humanitarian rights, and claiming that the city of Dresden had no war industries and was solely a cultural center.

There was much unease in some British intellectual and political circles as a result of what some deemed a morally repugnant act, for numerous reasons that are beyond the scope of this paper. However, there were many who found the Allied attacks to be morally and legally justified, specifically the Air Chief Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Arthur Harris, who said the attacks were “strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.”1 He countered the German sensationalists by noting that Dresden was, in fact, a government center and a “mass of munition works.” After an investigation into the matter, a report by the U.S. Air Force Historical Division concluded that there was legitimate cause for the attacks, and the subsequent death and destruction was therefore justified. Essentially, the report suggested that, because of the circumstances surrounding the attacks, and the necessity of achieving certain military goals, the murder of 25,000 civilians in furtherance of those goals was morally and legally justified.

Millennia before the Allied bombings of German cities, a close-knit Jewish family roamed the Land of Canaan and became an unwilling party to a tribal war. A local Prince, Shekhem, son of Hamor, kidnapped Dinah, the sole daughter of the Jewish patriarch, Jacob, and raped her. With rage and determination to defend her and their family’s dignity, Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi killed both Shekhem and Hamor and all of the males of their city, aptly named Shekhem, at their weakest and most vulnerable state. Based on classical Jewish sources and analysis I will attempt to show that Simon and Levi’s brutal murder of the entire male population of Shekhem was morally and legally justified, even though ostensibly only Shekhem and Hamor themselves were actually guilty of any crime.2

To be sure, there are those who suggest that the people of Shekhem were not guilty for the actions of their leaders, and were innocently punished for crimes they did not commit. Before I explore this further, it is necessary to explain the story in light of the involvement of the citizenry of Shekhem. After Shekhem himself kidnapped and raped Dinah, he was so infatuated with her that he desired nothing more than to marry her. His father, King Hamor, offered to make a deal with Jacob’s children.3 In exchange for agreeing to allow Dinah to marry Shekhem, and to trade with the people of Shekhem, the sons of Jacob demanded, ‘with guile,’4 that all of the males of Shekhem undergo circumcision, for they would not let a female from their family marry an uncircumcised man. Pleased with the terms of this deal, Shekhem and Hamor presented this ultimatum to their citizens, albeit very differently, as pointed out by Nehama Leibovitz. She points out that, unlike their original request of the sons of Jacob in which they first proposed to make marriages between their family and their own citizenry, and only after sought an economic allegiance5, Shekhem and Hamor presented the agreement to their people in the opposite order6. First, they presented the economic opportunities possible by an alliance with the sons of Jacob. Only after did they present what Nehama Leibovitz called the ‘domestic side’ — the opportunity to marry the women of Jacob’s family. But even then, as she points out, Hamor ‘clothed his personal motives in the vestments of public interest.’ For good measure, Hamor also added that Jacobs sons’ cattle, possessions, and beasts would be theirs, even though there was no such mention of this in his agreement with Jacob’s son. The males of the city agreed to undergo circumcision, assuming that they would benefit greatly from this deal, as it was presented in a manner that made the ends seem to justify the means. Little did the people of Shekhem know that their agreeing to Hamor’s proposal would enable Shekhem to marry Dinah, the ultimate motivation for Hamor’s request that they undergo circumcision.

Nehama Leibovitz quotes Nahmanides’ approach to the story: Jacob reprimanded Simon and Levi for killing the entire male population of the city of Shekhem7 because they violated the trust of the people of Shekhem, as they had agreed to dwell with the people of Shekhem and become one people8. Nahmanides maintains that had Simon and Levi and all of their family kept their side of the deal, Shekhem, Hamor, and the people of Shekhem might have repented and returned to G-d, thus making Simon and Levi’s murders without cause, for they had done no evil at all. Nahmanides assumes that Shekhem and Hamors’ request from Dinah’s family for permission to marry her and proposal of a trade agreement was an act of teshuvah in and of itself. Moreover, the acquiescence of the male population of Shekhem in the kidnapping and rape of Dinah was misguided — they were under the impression that their circumcision was for their own economic and domestic benefit, not for the illicit motives of their leaders. Therefore, according to Nahmanides, Simon and Levi’s collective punishment of the entire male population of Shekhem was neither moral nor justified.

Maimonides, though, maintains that even before the male population of Shekhem agreed to undergo circumcision, they were guilty. In Hilkhot Melakhim9, Maimonides states that because the people of Shekhem saw and knew that their leaders abducted Dinah10 but did not judge them, they were to be punished with death11. Maimonides is suggesting that if a party does not prosecute someone for a sinful act, or at the very least protest the act, it is considered as if he himself is guilty of the same sin and is therefore deserving of the same punishment as the sinner. Even if Maimonides would concede to Nahmanides’ position that the males of Shekhem were not guilty on grounds of their active participation in their leaders’ sin, he would still maintain they were guilty due to their failure to act. For Maimonides, a party’s failure in condemning and persecuting sinful acts on the part of another party makes the many culpable for the sins of the few, because their inaction amounts to a nonverbal agreement to and acknowledgement of the correctness of the sinful party’s actions.12 In this case, those guilty of inaction in the eyes of Maimonides are no less culpable than those guilty of the action itself. As one modern day writer put it, “to be silent in the face of injustice is to be implicated in the act itself.”13 Thus, in the case of the murder of the entire male population of Shekhem, despite the active sinning of only Shekhem and Hamor, Maimonides justifies the collective punishment inflicted by Simon and Levi on the entire male population.

Many have looked to the reaction of Simon and Levi’s father, Jacob, for an understanding of the moral issues presented by Simon and Levi’s actions. Due to Jacob’s rebuke of Simon and Levi in Bereishit 34:30 and 49:5-7, one can quickly assume that Jacob did not approve of their actions, finding them detestable and morally repugnant. However, a closer look at the pesukim detailing his response will reveal that Jacob, in fact, did not take issue with the collective punishment inflicted on the male population of Shekhem. In 34:30, Jacob admonished Simon and Levi for the practical consequences that their actions might have had, and not the actions themselves. Indeed, Jacob is noting that, even when an action is justified, one must consider the practical ramifications of his actions. He was worried that as a result of the massacre, other nations in the Land of Canaan would attack and kill their relatively small family. After Jacob’s rebuke, Simon and Levi responded in pasuk 31, “should anyone be permitted to treat our sister like a prostitute?” to which Jacob did not respond. His silence indicates that he recognized that their motivation — the dignity of their family and their sister — and their harsh response was morally justified. In 49:5-7 Jacob again rebuked Simon and Levi, this time cursing only their rage.14 However, Jacob does not seem to admonish their brutal murder of the entire male population and the moral issues therein; rather, he only takes issue with the emotional impetus of their actions.15

Thus, Jacob does nothing more than attack the strategy of Simon and Levi as short-sighted. While their motivation was correct, their timing was not. It is clear, therefore, that even Jacob’s rebuke — both immediately after the massacre and on his own death bed — was not a protest of the immorality of Simon and Levi’s attacks, but rather a rebuke due to practical and emotional concerns that their actions presented and demonstrated.

Some go further, suggesting that the Divine Assistance and Protection extended by G-d to Simon and Levi in their executing collective punishment on the male population of Shekhem itself justifies and sanctifies their actions. Bereishit 35:5 speaks of the ‘terror of G-d’ that befell the cities around Jacob’s family as they left Shekhem, indicating that G-d’s hand was apparent in the success of their attack and a Kiddush Hashem16 was made. Additionally, during the sojourns of the Jewish nation in the desert, the tribe of Simon was permitted to proudly display an image of the city of Shekhem on their tribal flag17. Levi was also the progenitor of the priestly family of Kohanim and the less priestly, yet superior family of Leviim that produced Aharon and Moshe respectively, the two great leaders of the Jewish people during the Exodus from Egypt. G-d would not have allowed for Simon’s public display of pride, nor would he allow the greatest of prophets and Kohanim to come from the tribe of Levi,18 had He found Simon and Levi’s actions morally unjust. Jacob also claimed the city of Shekhem for his family, bequeathing it to Joseph on his deathbed,19 which he would not have done had he viewed the conquest thereof as illegitimate and unholy.20 Thus, we find in G-d’s and Jacob’s implicit approval of Simon and Levi’s murder of the entire male population of Shekhem basis for the moral justification of collective punishment.

The brother of the aforementioned Nehama Leibovitz, the scholar Yeshayahu Leibovitz, found moral justification for the collective punishment inflicted on the people of Shekhem, citing the pasuk that says that Jacob’s sons “spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister”. Yehuda Meltzer points out that there is a Midrash22 that states that the people of the city were not free from punishment because they were ‘in the same counsel to defile her’.22 In fact, as Yeshayahu Leibovitz notes, the pasuk says defiled in the plural form23, clearly stating that it was not only Shekhem and Hamor who were guilty of defiling Dinah, but the entire population of the city. According to Yeshayahu Leibovitz, the fact that the entire population of Shekhem took part in the plans to defile Dinah makes them guilty of the same crime and punishable by the same punishment as Shekhem and Hamor.

Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, has an entirely different approach24 in which he does not seek to find the male population of Shekhem guilty for their own actions or inactions. Yet, he does find justification for Simon and Levi’s actions. He asserts that, when we are attacked or assaulted in any way by another nation, we are permitted to respond to the provocation and take revenge. Moreover, we would not be liable for the deaths of any innocent non-combatants that are killed as part of a battle plan to kill combatants, provided that the attacks are not frivolous and solely aimed at civilians, because it is the way of war for civilians of a warring nation to be killed.25 In probably the most extreme justification of collective punishment, Maharal claims that the murder of the entire male population of Shekhem was morally justified because it is the way of war to attack and kill non-combatants of an opposing nation as part of the war efforts, because after all, they are part of the nation that instigated. Maharal essentially argues that an attacked nation may respond to their attackers and justifiably murder non-combatants of the attacker nation simply because of the instigating nation’s leaders’ decision to instigate a war.

Although one may easily find Simon and Levi’s decision reprehensible and impetuous, there is no shortage of moral justifications for their infliction of collective punishment on the population of Shekhem. The same can surely be said about the Allied attacks on Dresden in February 1945 — justifications abound for the murder of 25,000 German civilians. As moral as collective punishment might be, it can still be bad — most people are not settled by a technical halakhic, legal, or moral justification of the murder of many civilians because of their ruthless leaders. But that does not make collective punishment wrong. Jewish law and values are often times difficult for the modern Jew to accept and appreciate, as they often collide head-on with the modern zeitgeist and the definition of that which is bad. But we must not be misled to think that because something is bad, it is necessarily wrong. We must recognize when our laws and values go against our natural feelings and stay true to that which is true, not to that which is good and comfortable.26

1. Longmate, Norman (1983). The Bombers p. 346.

2. It must be noted from the outset that this paper will only address this specific instance of collective punishment in detail. However, the principles outlined herein may be applied to other similar circumstances in Tanakh, as well as modern day halakhic questions regarding the Israeli Defense Forces. See Rav Chaim Jachter’s “Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties” at koltorah.org.

3. Bereishit 34:8-18

4. Citation from Bereishit 34:13 — במרמה

5. Ibid, 9-10.

6. Ibid, 21-23.

7. Ibid, 30. ‘Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and, I being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.’ Jacob also rebuked them while on his death bed for a different reason. Both will be discussed at more length below.

8. Ibid, 16.

9. Chapter 9, Halakha 14

10. Maimonides does not say that their sin was raping Dinah. He only refers to their kidnapping as the sin. Some have explained that there was no issue of illicit relations because Dinah was not a married woman, an אשת איש.

11. In his commentary to Mishneh Torah, Yad Peshuta, Rav Nahum Rabinovitch notes that the source of Maimonides’ ruling in this halakha probably is the Midrash Hafetz Hayim, which can be found in the Torah Sheleima Humash on Bereishit 34 (59). Rav Soloveitchik also discusses this in “Abraham’s Journey”, p. 64.

12. There is a concept in the Talmud called שתיקה כהודאה- one’s silence is equivalent to an admission [of the legitimacy of the other’s position]. See Yebamot 87b.

13. See Adina Graver’s “Collective Punishment and Collective Responsibility” at myjewishlearning.com.

16. Kiddush Hashem is a sanctification of G-d’s name which is regarded as an antidote, or tikkun, to a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name. It is entirely possible that Simon and Levi were motivated by the desire to create a Kiddush Hashem by killing those guilty for Dinah’s kidnapping and rape, which they felt was a Hillul Hashem. Support for this can be found in 34:7, when the Torah calls Shekhem and Hamors’ actions an “outrage in Israel”, implying that the crime was directed toward the nascent nation of Israel, and by extension the G-d of Israel Himself.

17. Bamidbar 2:2 and Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7

18. See Rav Hirsch’s comments on the story of Shekhem and Dinah in Perek 34.

19. Bereishit 48:22

20. Nehama Leibovitz acknowledges that there was an increased level of Divine Providence at play here, but claims that the success of their injustice does not prove its’ correctness or permissibility and G-d’s approval.

21. Midrash Sekhel Tov of Rav Menakhem Ben Shlomo, Shlomo Buber Edition, Berlin, page 194.

22. "היו באותה עצה לטמאה"

23. "טמאו"

24. Gur Aryeh on Bereishit 34:25

25. See Rav Chaim Jachter’s “Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties” at koltorah.org.

26. This distinction between Good/Bad and True/False is a formulation of a teaching of Rav Mendel Blachman by his student, Devir Kahan.

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