Thursday, December 8, 2011

Shimon and Levi: Navigating the Dark Side of Biblical (and Modern) Justice

I love sweet inspirational texts, but I find my imagination is always more engaged by the darker, complex stories of the Torah. The stories that my elementary school Torah teacher tried to act as if they didn’t exist (“we won’t be studying chapter 34 because we don’t have time”),which of course made us students actually want to read them… This week’s parsha includes one of the darkest:
A family of newcomers to the land of Canaan, Dina, the daughter of Yaakov, is raped by Shekhem, the entitled son of local nobility. When he offers his hand in marriage to Dina’s family, the brothers trick Shekehm’s townspeople into circumcising themselves as part of a covenant. And then:
But on the third day it was, when the [townpeople] were still hurting, that two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, took each man his sword, they came upon the city secure, and killed all the males… they took Dina from Shekhem’s house and went off… for they had defiled their sister.
Yaakov said to Simon and Levi: You have stirred-up-trouble for me, making me reek among the settled-folk of the land! They will band together against me… and I will be destroyed!
But they said: Should our sister then be treated like a whore!?
(Genesis 34:25-26, 30-31)
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹתָם כֹּאֲבִים, וַיִּקְחוּ שְׁנֵי-בְנֵי-יַעֲקֹב שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אֲחֵי דִינָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל-הָעִיר, בֶּטַח; וַיַּהַרְגוּ, כָּל-זָכָר... וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת-דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל-לֵוִי: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי; וַאֲנִי, מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי, וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי.  וַיֹּאמְרוּהַכְזוֹנָה, יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת-אֲחוֹתֵנוּ?!
בראשית לד:כה-לא)

It is a story of vengeance and retribution, of hot headedness and betrayal. By the end of the story you too might want to bury yourself with shame, as Yaakov did.
But I am a Levite, and I can’t help but also sensing a moment of pride in all this. Shimon and Levi’s cry for simple retributive justice, unanswered by Yaakov, rings true: “Should our sister then be treated like a whore?” Simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the power of vengeance, I seek to navigate these dark waters.
Some might be so repulsed they want to erase the story from the canon. Any other year, we could get away with taking the moral high ground on our tribal ancestors. But this year we can’t just shove this story back into the recesses of Mesopotamian life.
In a year when crowds cheered outside the White House, excitedly waving American flags, upon Osama bin Laden assassination, and extrajudicial executions, even against American citizens (like cobelligernt Al Awlaki) , are a prize presidential war-time tactic, we must ask when are we happy for justice to be meted out without due process, and when do we require a higher standard, even at the price of endangering our nation.
To take a much more extreme example: When the body of Libya’s horrific dictator is mutilated and dragged across our TV screens, it might be simple to dismiss this as a barbaric act, but it awakens us to ask where is the line drawn between just retribution and unethical vengeance.
I am not trying to make an analogy between the story of Dina and modern occurrences which themselves are complex and distinct. Rather, I am demarcating a dark territory - call it “Shimon and Levi Land,” and it demands of us to define a limiting factor for retribution that would help us make the distinction between retribution and vengeance. As I was asking myself this question, I returned to the late philosopher Jean Hampton’s “A New Theory of Retribution”, quoted here as presented in Martha Minow’s “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness”:
Retribution at its core expresses an ideal that can afford proper limitation, and thereby differ in theory from vengeance. This ideal is equal dignity of all persons. Through retribution, the community corrects the wrongdoer’s false message that the victim was less worthy or valuable than the wrongdoer; through retribution, the community reasserts the truth of the victim’s value by inflicting a publicly visible defeat on the wrongdoer. The very reason for engaging in retributive punishment constrains the punishment from degrading or denying the dignity even of the defeated wrongdoer. Thus, “it is no more right when the victim tries to degrade or falsely diminish the wrongdoer than when the wrongdoer originally degraded or falsely diminished the victim.”
(see Hampton’s beautiful use of the Brothers Karamazov at the opening of her essay)
According to this definition, Shimon and Levi were acting out unjust vengeance, for their desire was to degrade and diminish the rapist (and his entire town!) just as the rapist had done to their sister. Qaddafi’s mutilation is another example of acting out of the (human) desire to shame and degrade a person that had shamed and degraded so many others. Not showing the body of Bin Laden might have been an attempt to maintain the sense of dignity of even our arch nemesis, inflicting a publicly visible defeat without unnecessary degradation (Israel made a similar choice when executing Adolf Eichman, never releasing pictures of the act – counter to popular demand – and appointing wardens and executioners only from countries where the Holocaust did not occur, to avoid the semblance of direct revenge).
At the end of the day, my own momentary pride in Shimon and Levi standing up for their sister is surpassed by the deep injustice of their actions. No one sees this more clearly than their father, Yaakov. True, in this week’s parasha he falls short: at first he is silent about the rape, then about the deceit, finally he rebukes them for the murders but on a political pragmatic level, not a moral one.
Only at the end of his days, while giving out blessings to his sons, Levi and Shimon are bludgeoned by him, in one of the most scathing poems I’ve ever read:
Shimon and Levi
Such brothers,
Wronging weapons are their ties-of-kinship!
To their council may my being never come,
In their assembly may my person never unite!
For in their anger they kill men,
In their self-will they maim bulls.
Damned be their anger, that it is so fierce!
Their fury, that it is so harsh!
I will split them up in Yaakov,
I will scatter them in Yisrael.
Genesis  49:5-7
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים
כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם.
בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי,
בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:
כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ,
וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז,
וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה;
אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב,
וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
(בראשית מט:ה-ז)

Shimon and Levi are punished for their acts by becoming wanderers, never receiving a proper portion of the land. May we merit a better fate as we navigate these tough decisions in our countries and in our personal actions.