Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayishlach

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.


Parashat Vayishlach- 5759/1998

The Rape of Dinah: The Torah's View on Spilling Innocent Blood

Shammai Leibowitz

Kiryat Ono

The portion of Dinah reaches its climax with the brutal killings carried out in Shechem by Simeon and Levi. All the males are massacred, the women and children are taken prisoner, the flocks and possessions are plundered. In response to their actions, we find two opposing stands: That of Jacob, who says with anger, "You have brought trouble on me" (34:30), and that of the two brothers who responded: "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" (34:31). How are we to understand that the incident gives "the last word" to Simeon and Levi?

The Torah gave Simeon and Levi the last word as if to say, just as in a criminal trial the last word is reserved for the accused before judgment is passed, so the Biblical story hints to us that before we, the readers, pass judgment on the two, let us hear what they have to say in their defense. Only then may we judge them.

Jacob actually had two responses to the affair, one here in our parasha, the other in Parashat Vayehi (Gen. 49:5-7). Here, his response is pragmatic: The act is indefensible because it puts Jacob's entire family at risk-- "My men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed" (35:30).[1] But from his response later on in Vayehi we learn that his objection to their actions is grounded in the spilling of innocent blood. When, on his deathbed, he gathers his sons around to bless them, he does not forget the massacre which Simeon and Levi perpetrated against the inhabitants of Shechem.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let my person not be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when 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.

From this reaction we learn that Jacob did not accept their justification, that they were obliged to protect Dinah's honor. The moral crime in the massacre of innocents is so great, that even Shechem's barbaric deed could not justify it. It is not the pragmatic aspect that rendered their deeds unacceptable, but rather the moral evil in it.

Moreover, when Jacob's pragmatic objection was proven wrong, for the Canaanites and Perizites never attacked the sons of Jacob, the moral taint remained. At the momentous occasion of the blessing his sons, Jacob does not hide his loathing for their act of revenge and instead of blessing them he curses them with a curse, the likes of which we do not find in the entire Bible. Simeon and Levi's last word in our parasha, their justification, carries no weight for Jacob.

What was their justification for the deed? On the face of it, it was "the violation of family honor", a concept well-known in Israel, where murders are committed amongst the Arab population against a background of protecting the family honor. But the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893) finds an additional motive which he cites in his commentary Ha'amek Davar:

"Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for setting this fire: one came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor--such a fire is to be considered a foreign fire (Heb. esh zara) [i.e. an unacceptable motive]. The other came with zealousness for G-d and without any personal considerations, and this fire is the fire of the Lord (Heb. shalhevetya, see Song of Songs 8:6). Nevertheless, even with such a fire one must take extreme care to direct its placement and timing, otherwise it can do incalculable damage."

Only one brother acted out of personal family considerations, while the second was not an avenger but was motivated by religious conviction and zealousness for the Lord. But specifically against that brother who acted "bearing G-d's name, as it were, in his mouth", we must ask: Can fear of Heaven take the form of such monstrous actions?

Not only the Netziv claims that the brothers acted out of Halakhic motivations, also Nahmanides in his commentary to our parasha raises this claim. He deals with Maimonides' view (Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings, ch. 9, 14) that in fact all the inhabitants of the city of Shechem were subject to the death penalty because they did not try Shechem the individual for his rape of Dinah, and thus they violated one of the Seven Noahide Laws ( to establish a court system and to judge). But Nahmanides rejects any attempts to find halakhic justification for the act. Both Netziv and Nahmanides agree that whoever tries, on halakhic grounds, to justify the murder of so many with no discernment, errs grievously and grossly misrepresents the Halakha. Against such a miscarriage of justice Jacob railed, when he vilified the actions of his sons and shunned them for all generations.

Also Shabtai Ben Yomtov, the author of Hamikra Kifshuto, explains in a similar vein the verse "because he had defiled their sister Dinah" (34:13): "The Torah gives the reason why they spoke with guile (Heb. bemirma); it was because they gave themselves a halakhic hetter (permission), namely because Shechem had committed an outrage, just as Rashi explained, save that he [Rashi] uses clean language [Rashi calls their guile 'wisdom' and then says that in fact there was no guile because of their justification] to protect the honor of the sons of Jacob."

The intent of his words is clear: Simeon and Levi were well aware that they were about to spill innocent blood but they found a justification and halakhic permissibility because of their desire to take revenge. It follows that all the commentators whom we cited raise the same astounding point: One cannot explain away the massacre with the simplistic claim that "Simeon and Levi were barbarians". Quite the contrary, they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. The lesson is that even such people are liable, by virtue of excuses and hetterim, to sink to a level where they are capable of wiping out an entire city without sensing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order.

The pseudo-halakhic justification for abominations such as these was not the lot of Simeon and Levi alone. The Talmud relates that in the Temple itself a murder took place. "It once happened that two priests who were both running up the ramp of the altar to offer sacrifices, when one of them came within four cubits of his kinsman and the one took a dagger and plunged it into the heart of the other... to teach you that the laws of defilement of garments was of more import to them than spilling blood" (Yoma, 23b).

This terrible event symbolizes the moral downslide which took place, according to the Rabbis, in Second Temple times. It shows that moral vacuity did not pass over the scholars and priests either. The Netziv in his now-famous introduction to Genesis makes the same point: "To justify G-d's destruction of the Second Temple... because [the people of that time] were righteous and studied the Torah, but they were not 'straight' in their worldly affairs, and because of hate without reason (sinat hinnam) they suspected those who acted in matters of religion in a manner different from them to be heretics, and thereby they came to bloodshed and to all the evils in the world...For the Lord is righteous (i.e. "straight", yashar) and does not tolerate such 'tzaddikim'..."

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah, 52) finds a prime example for the terrible outcome of religious zealousness in the first murder recorded, the killing of Abel by Cain. "R. Joshua of Sikhnin says, both brothers received land and both possessed moveable objects. About what were they arguing? One said, 'The Holy Temple is to be built on my property', the other said, 'No, on mine'. By and by, 'Cain arose against Abel and killed him'." The Midrash teaches us that already at the dawn of history people used religious justification for murder. As in our parasha, the text there rejects such a justification completely.

[1] Even this pragmatic objection is most forcefully worded: Jacob uses the word "making me odious" (Heb. lehav'isheni). This is a rare Biblical word and testifies to a feeling of outrage and shock. Compare Ex. 5:21, 2 Sam. 16:21.