Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Jewish Values Viewpoint on Collective Punishment: A D'var Torah for Vayishlach

The Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, cautions us against the practice of collective punishment,  a form of retaliation whereby a suspected perpetrator's family members or acquaintances are punished, even though they may have no direct association with actions and motivations of the perpetrator.  This is a lesson for us all, regardless of where we live, or where our loyalties lie.

As our parashah begins, Jacob is on his journey away from his father-in-law: He has left Laban’s employ a wealthy man.  And although we read this week that he assumes the noble name Yisrael – striving with God – this designation seems still to be one of potential rather than one of accomplishment (see Gunther Plaut).

Jacob’s sons disappoint him because of their wanton destruction of Hamor’s town, on account of the rape of Dinah.  They perpetrated the murder of every male in the city, and they seize the town’s women and children, and all its property, as the spoils of battle.  And all this as retribution for the crimes of two of the town’s citizens.

The description of the booty taken by Jacob’s sons includes a word that could be seen as redundant.  Therefore it is ripe for interpretation!

In addition to the ‘flocks and herds,’ the ‘children and their women,’ and ‘all that was inside the town and out’ – phrases about the spoils that imply that they took everything that wasn’t fastened down – they took also what the Torah calls “kheilam” (Genesis 34:29).  Many translations render this word as “their wealth.”  But this word can also be translated as “their strength” or “their vigor;” I suggest, in this context perhaps, even “their dignity.”

The implication:  Jacob’s sons purloined the very humanity from the population of an entire town because of the crimes of two boorish perpetrators.

There is no doubt that Shechem’s rape of Dinah, and his father’s willingness to keep her hostage during these negotiations, are crimes worthy of punishment.  But our Jewish conscience is offended at the collective punishment of the entire city.

Our traditional revulsion at this act, however, has not prevented something similar from happening in our time.  Israelis have recently borne witness to the reinstatement of house demolitions as a “deterrent” against the families of terrorist suspects, and many of us have reacted to this resumption with disbelief.

It was not long ago that these collective punishments were deemed by the Israeli justice system to be illegal.  And their reappearance is a haunting reminder that, in every generation, we must be on guard to protect the civil liberties all of Israel’s citizens.

When Jacob realizes that his sons have taken revenge to a frightful level, he worries only about what people will think of him, and how his personal reputation will be sullied.  For us who understand how these collective punishments in the West Bank and in Israel proper will negatively affect the future of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, we recognize a broader imperative, which is to strive toward a re-imposition of a ban on such punishments, and to ensure due process in all criminal proceedings.

In these ways we strengthen democracy and decency in the Jewish state.  May our efforts, and those of the Israel Religious Action Center, be successful!

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