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The Avodah Blog

There’s a Riot Goin’ On: Talking about Violence and Power, Part II: D’var Torah for Parashat VaYehi

“Shim‘on and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence their trade” (Bereishit/Genesis 49:5).

Four weeks ago, in Parashat VaYishlah, we read of Shim‘on and Levi’s premeditated massacre of all men of the town of Shekhem in order to rescue their sister Dinah, from captivity in the home of the governor, whose son had likely raped her, kidnapped her, and then tried to whitewash it, pressuring her family into compliance. We saw that the Torah ends the story on a blunt and unresolved note, showing our Patriarch, Ya‘akov, excoriating his two impetuous sons for their outrageous violence, but giving them the last word and offering no alternative path toward rescuing Dinah. We saw that the great, medieval jurist, the Rambam, went out of his way to point out that all residents of Shekhem were actually liable for the death penalty, since operating a justice system is a core human requirement, and they neglected to prosecute their governor’s son for kidnaping. We considered a troubling question: when the state executes violence or allows its powerful citizens to execute violence against its vulnerable residents, what is the place of violence in those vulnerable populations’ strategies for liberation? Are there always non-violent alternatives and what if there are not? We noted that “the Torah leaves clues elsewhere that Shim‘on and Levi were not nice guys…[b]ut 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.” We promised to return later in the year to Shim‘on and Levi, violence, and vigilante justice, and this week is our time to do that.

Zealots, Sociopaths, and Vigilante Justice

The Rambam does not say that Shim‘on and Levi were authorized to take the law into their hands. He also doesn’t say that they weren’t. The Rambam is interested in the citizens; he’s interested in us: Are we all capital criminals when we fail to prosecute police, the 1%, government officials, and other powerful people when they commit violence against poor or vulnerable people? That’s the Rambam. But what do we make of Shim‘on and Levi, of people who enact bloody, vigilante justice? The Torah leaves clues that Shim‘on and Levi were not gentle, nice guys. Although they got the last word in their fight with their father after the rescue mission and massacre, Ya‘akov gets the last word in our parasha, on his deathbed, when he gives final charges to each of his twelve sons. He lumps his second and third sons together, ominously pronouncing, “Shim‘on and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence their trade. In their council, may my person never come, in their assembly let my honor not join. For in their rage, they killed men; at their pleasure, they maimed an ox. Cursed by their rage, so fierce, and their wrath, so rigid. I will divide them in Ya‘akov, scatter them in Israel” (49:5-7). The Rabbinic tradition unpacks these words to refer not only to the massacre of Shekhem, but to a pattern of violent behavior that bonded them. 

When Yosef (now self-presenting as Egyptian Prime Minister Tzafnat Paneah and unrecognized by his brothers), holds one of his brothers in jail while they return home to bring their baby brother, Binyamin, he chooses, without explanation, Shim‘on (42:24). Was Shim‘on, perhaps, his most brutal tormenter in his youth, and this is vengeance? Or is it a strategic way to isolate the brothers from their worst influence or prevent an uprising against him? Rashi (1040-1105, France) thought so and commented about Shim‘on that “he had cast him into the pit and it was he who had said to Levi, ‘Look! Here comes the dreamer-man’. Alternatively, it was Yosef’s intention to separate him from Levi lest the two of them might conspire to kill him.” Rashi follows midrashic close reading to surmise that when Yosef was 17 and his brothers assaulted him, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery, there were ring-leaders and followers: “They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said, one man to his brother, ‘Look! Here comes the dreamer-man!’ Now, let’s go kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say a wild animal ate him. We’ll see what comes of his dreams!” (37:18-20). “One man to his brother”, according to this reading, wasn’t ‘each one to another,’ but literally, one brother to his brother — Shim‘on to his special brother, Levi. How do we deduce that Shim‘on and Levi were the likely ringleaders? The other two of the oldest brothers, Reuven and Yehuda, couldn’t have done it, because they actually tried to intervene and stop the murder (37:22 and 37:26-27). The younger brothers and the sons of the concubines would likely have had lower status in the family. Shim‘on and Levi, already known for leading an act of violence which the other brothers followed, in Shekhem, become the most likely culprits (Rashi’s comment to Bereishit/Genesis 49:5, based on Midrash Tanhuma VaYehi 9:6).

Shim‘on and Levi continue to be associated with violence, but apropos Ya‘akov’s deathbed premonition that these two brothers will be henceforth divided, we no longer see them in consort with each other. Generations later, in the desert, when the masses revolt, declare God and Moshe obsolete, and build and worship a Golden Calf, it is the Levites who answer Moshe’s calls for religious zealotry, issued in language reminiscent of the Shim‘on and Levi story, ruthlessly killing 3,000 of their idolatrous brethren (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:26-28): an act of brutal violence explicitly sanctioned in order to arrest a greater crisis of mass violence.

The saga of the relationship between these typologically violent brothers reaches a head in the sequel story to the massacre of Shekhem, the Torah’s signature episode of political violence, chapter 25 of the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. Toward the end of the desert narrative, the whole Israelite community gets seduced into an idolatrous orgy led by the overpowering majority culture Moabites and Midianites. God is enraged (25:1-3): this is the Torah’s version of a national security crisis, as the Israelites are being swallowed by a perverse, aggressive, hegemonic culture. God reads this as a political collapse, sees the entire Israelite leadership structure as irredeemably corrupt, and commands Moshe to execute all the political leaders by public hanging (25:4). Moshe doesn’t do that but, instead, instructs the judges to kill those civilians who have cleaved to the foreign god Ba‘al Pe‘or (25:5). Meanwhile, in this leadership collapse, one brazen couple, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, flaunts idolatrous lawlessness, copulating, flagrantly, right in the front of Moshe and the whole people. Everyone’s watching, but all they do is cry (25:6). Just then, Pinhas, the grandson of Aharon the High Priest, the central line of the tribe of Levi, took the law into his own hands, grabbed a spear, stabbed the couple graphically, through their conjoined midsections, slaying them, and staying the Divine wrath, which had already killed 24,000 Israelites in a plague (25:7-9). Finally, the Torah names the offending parties: the Israelite man was Zimri, son of Salu, a Chieftain of the tribe of Shim‘on, and the Midianite woman was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, a Midianite Chieftain. Shim‘on’s and Levi’s predilections for violence meet again, but now, filtered through Ya‘akov’s charge, they are foes, Shim‘on as the brazen sociopath, out to exacerbate a crisis breaking down the community, and Levi as the zealot, who risks his life to commit gory violence in order to stop and prevent greater violence.

There’s a Place in a Movement for Zealot, but Beware the Sociopaths

Not all violence is the same. Some people are driven by zealous pursuit of justice, by any means necessary. Some are driven by the thrill of danger and bloodshed. They may be hard to tell apart sometimes. Zealots may be susceptible to being drafted for sociopathic ends if convinced by a narrative of righteousness. Sociopaths may be drafted to righteous causes, simply for the thrill of the fight. But it will be important to separate them. In Israelite history, Levi, the zealot, becomes the religious leadership, directing Divine service through animal slaughter and song in the Temple. But — and this is crucial — no one in the tribe is allowed to own land; they must all be supported by public tax funds, through produce tithes and other entitlements. Moreover, Levites do not live together, but are dispersed evenly among the other tribes, providing sparks of energy to the whole people, but always being constrained and controlled by the public (Bemidbar/Numbers 35:1-8): beware of zealots consolidating power. Their familiarity with violence comes in handy, as they are assigned the task of managing the rough Cities of Refuge, where reckless manslaughterers live out their days. Shim‘on, the sociopath, on the other hand, gets isolated and swallowed: the entire tribe is omitted in Moshe’s final blessing (Devarim/Deuteronomy 33) and historically, the tribe of Shim‘on is not apportioned its own land allotment, but is contained and kept in check by the large, powerful, tribe of Yehuda (Joshua 19:1). 

Political Violence is a Mirror Image of the Breakdown of the Criminal Justice System

The Rabbis understand the Pinhas story as a warning siren about a failed judicial system. While they show ambivalence toward Pinhas and discomfort with his extrajudicial action, they put themselves on the hook, asking, What makes a vigilante do what he does? In their retelling, Pinhas responds rationally to the failures that they can imagine for themselves:

At that time, Pinhas responded, saying, “Isn’t anyone here prepared to kill at risk of being killed?! Where are those Legal Lions — ‘Yehuda is a young lion’ (Genesis 49:9), ‘Dan is a young lion’ (Deuteronomy 33:22) [referring to the two tribes most associated with the judiciary]?! He started to scream. When he saw that everyone was staying silent, he stood up from his own Sanhedrin (court), took out his spear, placed it in his belt, leaned on his staff, and started walking. Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar #131:2

This is a story about power. God says that the culprits are the Israelite political leaders and Moshe is unwilling to follow God’s instruction to take out the leadership. He kicks it to the judiciary, and they also freeze. In the Rabbinic emphasis, the criminal justice system is entirely unwilling or unable to prosecute someone with power, a tribal leader. This story dramatizes that judicial acquiescence to violent criminality by the powerful is itself a grievous act of violence and no one can expect anything other than ugly, violent, vigilante justice. You don’t like Pinhas’s violence? Then you’d better make sure that the criminal justice system shows some muscle against powerful people. You can’t choose your vigilante. Yeah, the person who does it will probably be a hothead, a fanatic. You don’t like it? Then make sure the sober, judicious people do their job. Unlike much of today’s moderate punditry, at least the Rabbinic punditry recognized their own weaknesses and made sure to make an uncomfortable story more uncomfortable by broadcasting that the story is about them and their own, likely shortcomings. 

The Rabbis’ warning finds contemporary echo in a brief, 2016 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Near Certainty of Anti-Police Violence”:

“…Last week, 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson murdered five police officers in Dallas. This abhorrent act of political extremism cannot be divorced from American history—recent or old. In black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence. A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable…. 

…There is no shortcut out. Sanctimonious cries of nonviolence will not help. ‘Retraining’ can only do so much. Until we move to the broader question of policy, we can expect to see Walter Scotts and Freddie Grays with some regularity. And the extent to which we are tolerant of the possibility of more Walter Scotts and Freddie Grays is the extent to which we are tolerant of the possibility of more Micah Xavier Johnsons.”

The question is not so much whether Pinhas was good or bad, whether Shim‘on and Levi were right and wrong. Bloodshed is bad. We definitely want to avoid a world with stories like these. The question is whether we, the body politic, really eschew violence, or only hate having to confront violence, while we live comfortably with it as long as it happens to the voiceless, out of sight, out of mind. Do we abhor violence or just disorder, the consequence of the oppressed ceasing to accept the violence done to them? The question is, if we truly eschew violence, what are we prepared to do to stop the greatest perpetrators of violence, the wealthy and powerful, from doing so? 

Shabbat shalom.

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