Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The State of Israel? Or the State of Simeon and Levi?

How apt that, when the State of Israel is waging a war of "national honor," "restoring deterrence," and "destroying a group of lawless terrorists," we read in the synagogue last Shabbat of Jacob's "blessing" of his sons, Simeon and Levi. Earlier, Simeon and Levi had led the sons of Jacob in a massacre and plunder of the Shechemites, after offering them peace, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dina. Jacob's response appears there to have been more pragmatic than principled; he feared for his clan's position among the peoples of Canaan. Now, on his death bed, he curses them for their anger, and for their attack on Shechem

Two years ago, Hebrew University Avi Ravitsky was supposed to give a Shabbat talk on what he called Jacob's different reponses, principled and pragmatic, to the actions of Simeon and Levi. When Avi was hit by a bus in Jerusalem (he still has not recovered), I volunteered to pinch-hit for my friend and teacher.

Here is my Devar Torah/Torah Talk from then. It is even more timely now than it was then, unfortunately.

When Jacob first learns of the massacre of the people of Shechem, the seizure of their property, and the carrying off of the wives and children, he says to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanite and the Perizite; my men are few in number; so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed." Jacob doesn't appear to be making a principled criticism, certainly not a moral one; he seems to be concerned only with the practical consequences of the massacre. Simeon and Levi's response: "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" appears to be a principled response. It is left unanswered, as if to say, perhaps, that the principle of national honor trumps all practical considerations.

Not until Parashat Va-yehi, when Jacob blesses the tribes, do we hear his ethical response:

Simeon and Levi are brothers: their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council. Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when are angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless, I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel," etc.

Liberal religious zionists, are bothered, almost embarrassed, by Jacob's purely pragmatic response in Va-yishlah. Is this the only criticism that Jacob can make of the massacre? By contrast, when they read Jacob's response in Va-yehi they breathe a sigh of relief. The Bible is now vindicated for them as a source of moral authority, a bit late, perhaps, but better late than never.

This was to have been Avi's topic – the question of the pragmatic and principled responses to Simeon and Levi. And I decided to use it for my own topic today. But the more I read, the more I came to question the assumption of the different responses. Can Jacob's two responses be neatly labeled as "pragmatic" and "principled," respectively? Whose principles and whose pragmatism? Consider the interpretation of the Schechem story by Avi's ideological opponents in Israel, those who view Simeon and Levi not as worthy of censure, but as positive role-models. I am not referring to the rightwing secular Zionists of yore who criticized the galut mentality and morality implicit in Jacob's responses, but rather to their present-day disciples, the religious Zionists of the ultranationalist camp. Unlike their secular forebears they are reluctant to criticize Biblical figures like Jacob -- patriarchs are still patriarchs for the fundamentalists. So they have to cope with Jacob's criticisms of their heroes.

How, for example, does the rightwing understand Jacob's harsh blessing of Simeon and Levy recorded in Va-yehi?

Well, one exegetical move is to note that Jacob does not curse Simeon and Levi directly, either themselves or their deed, but rather he curses their anger. Had the two slaughtered the men of Shechem dispassionately for the greater glory of God and Israel, then their actions would have been entirely praiseworthy, according to this interpretation. Some of the religious ultra-nationalists criticize the sons of Jacob for taking spoils; others are not happy about the capture of the gentile women, needless to say. But on the whole, they justify the sons' behavior, and truth to tell, there is a long exegetical tradition behind them that does not shirk from explicit description.

Let me, for example, linger on the scene of the massacre, as described by the fourteenth-century philosopher, scientist, and exegete, Levi Gersonides, in his commentary on the Torah. The problem facing the Gersonides as an exegete is not a moral one. Rather, it is to explain how only two men, Simeon and Levi, were able to kill all the male inhabitants of Shechem without raising the alarm. His reconstruction of their silent but deadly rampage is a tour-de-force of exegesis: Once the men of Shechem had agreed to undergo circumcision, for example, they needed, of course, mohalim (circumcizers), and who were the logical candidates if not the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi. On the day following the circumcision, the third day after the violation of Dina, the mohalim made follow-up visits to treat their patients. In house after house the process repeated itself; first they would ask the families to leave the room so they could treat their patients; then when the door was closed they would kill their patients with their swords -- – the same swords, presumably, that had been used for the circumcision. On their way out, they would ask the families to leave their patients to recuperate alone. In this way, the two men were able to decimate the entire male population before anybody found out; once their opposition had been rubbed out, they called in their brothers to finish the operation.

Their tactics may not have been pretty but given the relative weakness of the sons of Jacob, the argument of the ultranationalists goes, they had no choice. In any event, the commentators emphasize that their cause was just: in failing to bring the perpetrator to justice, the men of Shechem were complicit in his crime of rape, seduction, or unnatural intercourse, according to the commentators. True, Hamor had spoken of peace to Jacob but he also had promised his own people that they would acquire the cattle and property of the sons of Israel as soon as the two peoples united, a duplicity no doubt typical of the men of Shechem. It is also true that the sons of Jacob did not hear these promises, but perhaps they could infer it from the willingness of the people of Shechem to be circumcised.

Lest you think I am getting carried away, let me quote you an article from the neoconservative Israeli journal Azure/Tekhelet,entitled, "Plowshares into Swords: the Lost Biblical Idea of Peace." The author, David Hazony, the former editor-in-chief of the journal, writes with respect to Jacob's response in our parsha as follows:

While Jacob responds with what today would be considered a "pro-peace" argument, that is, a willingness to sacrifice one's integrity or concern for justice for the sake of avoiding conflict, the rogue brothers retort that the family's honor and the punishment of evildoers are principles that far outweigh Jacob's political concerns. If the "peace" between the peoples was ruined, it was the rapist and his cohorts, not the victims, who were to blame. And the scriptural account goes on to vindicate the brothers. For even though the argument appears to end in a stand-off, ensuing events prove Jacob's judgment to be misguided: "And they traveled, and the terror of God was upon the neighboring cities, and they did not pursue the children of Jacob." Not only did Simeon and Levi ensure that justice was carried out and the family's dignity maintained, but their uncompromising action went much further in preventing conflict and neutralizing the threat of war than Jacob's policy of appeasement. The security that the family of Jacob suddenly enjoyed, which enabled them to travel freely and accumulate wealth, was due precisely to the strength demonstrated by the brothers in defending the purity and honor of God's chosen, and of God himself, by extension. (Italics mine)

With respect to Jacob's second response, the blessing/curse in Va-yehi, Hazony writes,

It is unlikely that Jacob ever fully appreciated the merit of his sons' position, for Levi's tribal elevation later on comes in direct contradiction to the curse they received from Jacob on his deathbed.

In other words, the "pro-peace" liberal Jacob just didn't get it.

I quote this at length not because of its novelty – there is nothing here that has not been said before by rightwing Jewish nationalists, or, for that matter, by rightwing nationalists anywhere -- but because I think it calls into question the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical responses of Jacob. According to the rightwing nationalists, Jacob's first response is not at all pragmatic; it is based on the principle of a pseudo-peace, i.e., the principle of defeatism and appeasement. On the contrary, pragmatism is to be found in the rhetorical question of the brothers, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" For the practical consequences of Jacob's "peace" would be far worse than the failure to take harsh military action. In a land like Canann whose inhabitants only understand the language of violence, deterrence is justified both on principle as a practical policy.

But the neat division of pragmatic and practical is hard to sustain even for the liberal religious zionists. Why can't Jacob's first response be viewed as a principled one, the principle being that the peoples in Land of Canaan should behave peaceably towards each other. Can we really infer from Jacob's response in Va-yishlah that the only considerations moving him are practical, that had he been more powerful than the Canaanite and Perizite that he would have approved of Simeon and Levy's tactics? Likewise for the patriarch's response in Va-yehi, surely it is as pragmatic as it is principled. Given Simeon and Levi's record, it would be imprudent to give them a significant inheritance in the land of Israel, to allow them to develop a power base that would be constitute a thorn in the side of the tribes. Jacob's language is harsh in Va-yehi, but there is no reason, to my mind, to interpret his words to Simeon and to Levy as based on moral principle rather than pragmatic policy. For children with the unbridled zeal of Simeon and Levy, inheriting the land is a curse rather than a blessing; let Simeon have some land so long as it is dispersed among the lands of Judah, and as for Levi, let his religious zeal be channeled into the Temple service. For their own sakes, as well as for the sakes of the fellow Israelites, they should not live united on the land. This is as much the blessing of a realist as it is the curse of a moralist.

In any event, whether one accepts the liberal religious Zionist interpretation of the responses, or the ultranationalist interpretation, or neither, my broader point is that when it comes to defending war or peace, pragmatic considerations and moral ones invariably go hand in hand. There are very few dyed-in-the-wool realists who entirely divorce pragmatism from moral principles. Everybody wishes to appear moral, but it is not true, pace Michael Walzer, that everybody agrees on what morality means, nor does everybody agree on the relative weight of the moral values.

So now that I have completely undermined the premise of my title, that one of Jacob's responses is pragmatic, the other ethical, how should we, then, characterize them?

To my mind, Jacob's first response is that of a parent who rebukes his son after he has committed a heinous act for the first time. The parent does everything she can to scare her son so that he will not be a repeat offender. She tells herself that this was an isolated incident, that her child's act does not reflect a vicious character, that he can listen to reason and change. Later, after a lifetime of offences, when she sees that the vice cannot be eradicated by scare tactics or moralizing, she attempts to minimize its damage by coping with it. Jacob, at the time of the initial incident, knew little of his sons' vicious character. His response to Simeon and Levy's action was to reason with them, perhaps to scare them a little. At the end of his life, he knows them all to well. He does not disown or disinherit them; they are his children. But the time for reasoning with them is over; a parent can only lament their character flaws, while trying to cope with them in some way. His blessing is to remove them from political power, for their sake, and for the sake of the Israelites.

For a State of Simeon and Levi cannot endure for long.


Anonymous said...

That is a fantastic post.

LeaNder said...

Jer, yes it is. It's exactly these posts that made me fan of The Magnus Zionist.

I have absolutely no doubt one would find a similarly complex pattern in the Just War debate over the centuries.

Islam And The West said...

The Magnes Zionist asks should it be the state of Israel? Or the state of Simeon and Levi?

Islam And The West Accelerated Links

Anonymous said...

Levi was "elevated"? Or coralled?
You reveal his elevation as both curse and blessing. Surely an act of God. Halelujah.

Also, at the end of the 40 years wandering, wasn't Simeon half the size he was at the beginning? And he's the only tribe not blessed by Moses in Deut. 33?

- John

[the site isn't letting me log in with my Google Account, so I've used the Anonymous option]