Jewish Life

Torah Portion – Vayishlach

By Shlomo Riskin

Israel’s military operation “Pillar of Defense” was greatly successful in ending the rocket attacks on the residents in the south whose lives were constantly being threatened by rocket fire from Hamas, the same Hamas that is now threatening another Intifada.

That war gained a great deal of moral support from the neutral bloc of nations because we engaged exclusively in aerial strikes, directed with pincer-like precision, against specific terrorist killer-leaders, as well as the major Hamas buildings of operation, media and banking. A ground invasion would have brought in its wake Israeli losses, as well as more Palestinian civilian casualties.  This would have removed Israel from the moral high ground, and might very well have caused us to lose the support we now enjoy from our “friends.”

Still, many Israelis are concerned that our army did not “finish the job.” They would have preferred a much more forceful ground attack, which would have destroyed Hamas’ ability to attack Israel, while bringing about a significant number of Palestinian civilian casualties. It would have prevented Hamas threats today. Would such an attack have been morally and religiously justified?

This week’s Biblical 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 Shekhem. A debate in legal theory between Maimonides and Nahmanides about the legitimacy of their action provides fuel for our discussion.

First, let us review the facts (Genesis 34). Jacob has left Labanland and returns, together with his “tribe,” to his ancestral homeland, Canaan. He purchases a piece of land in the city of Shekhem from Hamor, the prince of the city, and erects an altar to God. Shekhem, the son of Hamor, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah, leaving Jacob and his sons outraged.

Shekhem and his father come to meet the Hebrew clan. Prince Hamor announces that his son desperately wishes to marry Dinah, and that they are willing to give an exorbitant dowry for her. Jacob’s sons answer “with subterfuge” that only if every male resident will circumcise himself can Shekhem marry Dinah and the two large clans join together: “But if you will not listen to us to become circumcised, we will take our sister and leave” (34:17). From this last phrase, it is clear that the meeting of the potential in-laws took place under the cloud of Dinah’s captivity; Hamor was holding Dinah hostage. To the surprise of Jacob’s sons, Hamor accepted the condition of circumcision. Simon and Levi took their swords on the third day after the mass circumcision; they slew every male in the city, including Shekhem and Hamor. They then rescued Dinah.

Father Jacob chides Simon and Levi: “You have sullied me, causing me to stink among the inhabitants of the land…I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated – I am my household” (34:30). But what gives final closure to the incident is the statement of Shimon and Levi: “Should they be allowed to make our sister into a harlot?” (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.

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 law courts and judges to rule on and enforce the compliance to the first six. Any Noahide who transgresses any one of these seven is to be killed by the sword. And it is for this reason that all the householders of Shekhem were guilty of death. Shekhem stole (and raped Dinah); the Shekhemites saw and they knew and… they did not bring them to justice.”

Nachmanides disagreed, interpreting the Noahide law to establish law courts and judges to mean to legislate the details of a civil legal system; he does not hold every Gentile responsible for the proper execution of each criminal (Ramban to Genesis 34:13).

But Maimonides has a most compelling argument – especially in light of recent history. Shekhem 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 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 nation-states after the Second World War, 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!

Allow my position to be made very clear: I’m very proud of Israel for doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, often even at the risk to 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. As long as the enemy is a Jihadist, that would be the ultimate immorality.

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

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