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The Avodah Blog

There’s a Riot Goin’ On: Talking about Violence and Power — Devar Torah for Parashat VaYishlah

This week, we’re going to talk about violence. It will take us a little more time than usual, as this loaded topic may require, and I offer a content warning that this essay and the texts in it refer to violence, including sexual violence. This week’s parashah tells of perhaps the Torah’s most morally complicated episode of vigilante justice. After Ya‘akov and his big family acrimoniously, but safely, part ways with dishonest Uncle Lavan and head back to the Old Country, Ya‘akov fearfully confronts his estranged twin brother ‘Esav, who wanted to murder him last they saw each other, but it goes well, and they reconcile! The clan settles in a town called Shekhem, purchases the land “from the children of Hamor, Shekhem’s father”, dedicates it with an altar to God (Bereishit/Genesis 33:18-20), and all seems good and well, until it all falls apart, destabilizing any sense of the safety of “home”.

I. An Assault and a Massacre: A Power Analysis of Bereishit/Genesis 34 

Ya‘akov and Leah’s daughter Dinah “went out to see the girls of the land” (34:1). While she was out, that same Shekhem after whom the city is named, and whose father is now identified as “Chief of the Land — נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ”, “saw her, and took her and laid her, abused her” (34:2). While there is some question among commentators and scholars as to the nature of Shekhem’s crime in the eyes of the Biblical author, for our purposes, we’ll suffice to say that the language points to sexual assault or rape, and that is how many commentators have understood it (eg, the Ramban). As I summarize and describe the continuation of the story, pay attention to Dinah and to the power relationships between different characters.  

Shekhem then wants to marry Dinah and asks his father to acquire her for him as wife. The narrator calls Dinah a na‘arah, indicating a teen or so; Shekhem, speaking to his father, calls her a yaldah, a little girl (34:3-4). Word gets out about what happened: Ya‘akov hears, but does nothing until his sons come back from work (34:5). Governor Hamor goes to speak with Ya‘akov (34:6). Meanwhile, the brothers hear what happened, become incensed, and rush home (34:7). The Governor proposes the marriage to Ya‘akov and sons, adding that their family should fully assimilate into the majority, in marriage, residence, and finances (34:8-10). The text does not say how Ya‘akov or the brothers heard: the word seems to be out. Dinah’s brothers, Shim‘on and Levi, demur, saying that the family could agree to the marriage only if every man in the town got circumcised; if not, “let us take our daughter and go”. The narrator tells us that they were speaking “deceitfully”, implying that it was a ruse to get out of the crisis, that they expected the Governor to decline, and hopefully, restore Dinah to her family (34:13-17). Likely to everyone’s surprise, the Governor and his son like the plan, agree to it, and immediately go and tell their townsmen to agree, emphasizing the great wealth of Ya‘akov’s family, which will be absorbed into the community if this gets legitimated. So they did it, all of them (34:18-24). We don’t hear how Ya‘akov’s family reacted immediately, but on the third day after the mass circumcision, “when they were in pain, Shim‘on and Levi, two of Ya’akov’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each one his sword, came upon the city powerfully, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shekhem by sword, took Dinah out of Shekhem’s house, and left” (34:25-26). Then the other sons ransack the city, kidnapping women and children as captives, and raiding property, but Ya‘akov expresses outrage not at the brothers, but only at Shim‘on and Levi, for ruining him and putting the family in danger with future neighbors. Shim‘on and Levi get the last word, for now: “should our sister be treated like a whore?!” (34:27-31).

How should we understand this extreme act of violence by Shim‘on and Levi? On one hand, massacring half the adult population of an entire city seems awfully extreme. The instinct to eschew violence is a good, moral instinct. But the opposition to violence has to propose actual, preferable, alternative, non-violent strategies and explain how they stood to be effective. Otherwise, non-violence isn’t a moral theory, but bourgeois escapism from confronting the abundant violence that surrounds us and from which a small number of us are able to hide our eyes. 

Let’s do a power analysis: first, Dinah’s voice and desires are glaringly absent from this story. It’s tempting to chalk this up to the Tanakh’s general androcentrism and sexism, but Biblical androcentrism mainly takes the form of not introducing women in the first place and when it does, often having them serve interests of men, and never interacting with each other about topics other than men: the Torah does not pass the Bechdel Test. When the Torah does introduce women to the story, however, they are often verbal and active, including elsewhere in this week’s parasha. Dinah’s silence is thematic. In verse 26, at the end of the massacre, we read that Shim‘on and Levi took Dinah out of Shekhem’s house, which tells us that throughout that long negotiation, for this whole time, since the assault, Dinah has been held captive in the house. How does that affect your assessment of the massacre? Maybe it was justified to kill her captors, the Governor and his son, but notice that they killed every man in the town before reaching the Governor’s mansion. This implies, as logic would indicate, that the house was in the deepest, most central, best fortified part of town. If they did, somehow, make it to the house and perform a daring rescue mission, with or without killing the rapist/kidnapper and his enabling Governor father, how would they get out? Was there a method to rescue Dinah without all the bloodshed? These verses must inform how we go back and re-read the negotiation. The Governor’s civility masks the brutal violence he is committing at that very moment, talking of coming together in harmony, to the family of the captive currently trapped in his house. The negotiations are a farce; the Governor is making Ya‘akov ‘an offer he can’t refuse’. People in power can hide, sanitize, or justify their violence, controlling the public narrative along the way. Make no mistake, though; it is violence. 

Dinah’s silence is critical; Shim‘on and Levi understand exactly what’s happening: the Governor’s son, accustomed to taking what he wants and getting away with it, rapes an immigrant and asks Daddy to make it legit. This is the Governor’s interest, too, which the brothers understand: Either way, your sister is not coming back; we can do this the nice way, and it will be a state marriage at the additional cost of your identity and wealth, or, we’ll do it the not-nice way. People will talk — they’re already talking, as we know, since Ya‘akov and sons heard about it. Dinah will be Shekhem’s concubine as long as she’s useful, until she’s not, at which point she’ll be blamed, defamed, slut-shamed, cast-away, and destroyed. Their choice is clear. They can’t prosecute, they can’t sue, they can’t vote, much as immigrants, outsiders, and poor people often have no recourse to any of these theoretically universal levers of power. The moderate in this story, the voice of anti-violence, Ya‘akov, commits the violence of washing his hands of his daughter. His non-action is thematized and from this moment through the rest of the book, he loses control of his family to his sons. Non-violence is a powerful, effective strategy when a violent oppressor can be exposed and when the oppressor cares about being exposed. But where there are no cameras and the Governor controls the narrative, in such a world of violence, there is no non-violent alternative, just different paths of violence. Violence is just not the same on both sides of a power divide. 

II. Violence and the Criminal Justice System

Most of the Torah and Rabbinic literature address the specific responsibilities of the Jewish people. The Talmud does take care, though, to deduce from the early chapters of the Torah Divine commandments for all of humanity. These are known as the Seven Commandments for descendants of Noah, ie, for everyone, and constitute basic pillars of social organization without which a body politic cannot be deemed civilized: 1) Civil laws; and prohibitions on 2) Blasphemy; 3) Idolatry; 4) Incest; 5) Bloodshed; 6) Robbery/kidnapping (both captured by one word in Hebrew, גזל-gezel); 7) and tearing a limb from a living animal (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 56a). Peoples will testify to their revelations and divine truths; we have no reason not to take them at their word unless they violate one of these core laws.

What does the Talmud mean when it says “Civil laws” (one word in Hebrew, דינין-dinin)? In his codification of the Seven Noahide Laws, the great medieval sage of Jewish law and philosophy, the Rambam (1135-1204, Egypt), defines “civil laws” concisely: “And in what way are people commanded with regard to civil law? They are obligated to seat judges and magistrates in each and every municipality, to adjudicate those six mitzvot, and to warn the people.” Every body politic must have a functioning justice system, in name and in deed. The Rambam continues, explaining the consequences, theoretical though they may be, of a society failing to adhere to these seven basic laws: “And a descendant of Noah who violates one of these seven commandments must be killed by the sword.” The Rambam does not end there, but quite uncharacteristically adds an explanatory aside not grounded in any Talmudic text: “and for this reason, all the people of Shekhem were liable for the death penalty, for after all, Shekhem kidnapped, and they saw it, knew about it, and did not prosecute him” (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Melakhim 9:14). Kidnapping is a capital crime and not operating a justice system is a capital crime. The rich kid kidnapped someone, everyone knew about it, and the state didn’t prosecute him. That state does not have a functioning justice system — it’s a state governed by bloodshed — so its inhabitants are liable for the death penalty. 

According to the Rambam, is everyone in the state of New York liable for the death penalty? Police officer Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner, everyone saw it, the coroner ruled it a homicide, and the state did not prosecute the murder. Is there any state in the U.S. about which we could not ask this question? According to the Rambam, is there a criminal justice system anywhere in the U.S.? How widely is it taken for granted that powerful people, whether via money or political clout, will not be held accountable for their crimes against poor people? If a couple of extremists, like Shim‘on and Levi, were to destroy the whole state, killing everyone in sight, would they actually be murderers? According to the Rambam, is anyone innocent? 

The Rambam’s position is actually pretty controversial in halakhic jurisprudence and was criticized harshly by the RambaN (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) and students of his school. According to them, the Noahide law of “civil laws” refers to various, specific, core civil laws, such as prohibitions on judges taking bribes or knowingly issuing a corrupt ruling. “Civil laws” can include civilians to the extent that they are included in the judicial system, such as giving false testimony or, in our time, ruling dishonestly on a jury. A disciple of Ramban’s approach, Rabbeinu Nissim (aka, The Ra”N, 1320-76, Girona) explains, “But the citizens who were sitting and keeping to themselves, and did not establish judges in each and every city and jurisdiction, are not liable for the death penalty, to actually be physically executed”; it is a positive responsibility on everyone to set up a justice system, but individuals cannot possibly bear capital responsibility for the failure to do so. I think it’s terrible what that cop did to Eric Garner, but what do you expect me to do about it!? The Ra”N continues: “Moreover, [the Rambam’s statement] is difficult to me, because in Shekhem’s place, it’s possible that there were judges, but since Shekhem, son of Hamor, lorded over them, they couldn’t prosecute him.” In the Jewish legal tradition, when there is pushback at the opinion that all citizens give up their right to life when their state doesn’t have a justice system, that pushback ends up justifying itself by accepting the reality of different justice systems for powerful people and regular people. If we won’t acknowledge that we’re all mortally culpable for the unpunished murders of Fred Hampton, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Loreal Tsingine, Kayden Clarke, and the rest, are we, necessarily, accepting that police and other powerful people cannot be expected to be subject to the justice system? The Rambam established his high bar for personal culpability even not in the context of a democratic society. The Ra”N, too, objected in a non-democratic world. How does this dispute translate when prosecutors are elected, when police contracts are ratified by elected officials? How much blood is on our hands? How would we act differently if we truly thought that blood was on our hands?

My instinct is to be horrified by Shim‘on and Levi’s massacre, but if I really face it, that’s because I can’t see myself in it. I can more comfortably hear the marriage negotiations as a cordial, civilized discussion than I can imagine myself carrying out the bloodshed necessary for the rescue mission. My whole life, I’ve been taught to identify with power, even as it exploits and murders poor people, profits off their blood, and calls it freedom. I’ve bought into the fraud of gentility. I’ve been shocked by Shim‘on and Levi while I didn’t even notice that Dinah was held hostage in the Governor’s mansion by her rapist and everyone knew about it. The Torah leaves clues elsewhere that Shim‘on and Levi were not nice guys; we will return to them later in the year, with God’s help. But the extent to which we eschew zealots and sociopaths like them and don’t want them to monopolize bravery is the extent to which we must say J’accuse to the reasonable people, the moderates, like Ya‘akov, maybe like us, who did absolutely nothing to try to rescue Dinah. The extent to which we’re bothered by the massacre must be less than the extent that we’re bothered by state violence. The violence did not start with Shim‘on and Levi massacring the city. What do we even mean by our revulsion at violence, if we only or primarily direct that revulsion at those responding violently to the violence done to them? If we’re going to teach non-violence, we have to teach power. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it sharply during the 2015 Baltimore uprising, after the police murder of Freddie Gray: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con” (The Atlantic, “Non-violence as Compliance”, April 27, 2015).

The blunt ending to this story is a challenge: what do we really think about violence, especially for people who have been robbed of every non-violent recourse by oppressors whose own violence is not treated as a scandal? 

Shabbat shalom.

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