Sunday, January 1, 2012

What's wrong with the Sikrikim?

One of the several reasons why religious fanaticism so easily leads to violence is that religion - and Judaism is no exception - provides sources and precedents which can be used to justify violence in any forum. People who are pathologically greedy or arrogant, and who are restrained only by religious principle, can find justification within that religion for acting on their desires. Mohammed violated a treaty and massacred Jews at Khaibar, so today's Muslim can do the same. Popes sanctioned and promoted any number of Crusades, so today's Christian can do the same.

As much as I loathe any comparison between my religious heritage and these others, extremist Jews can point to biblical examples like Shimon and Levi's massacre of the city of Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah, to justify smashing store windows in Meah She'arim and threatening children in Beit Shemesh. The sikrikim are not murdering, of course - but they are using abuse and violence in the name of their outrage and 'righteous' indignation, and they point to religious precedent. [Although I do find it odd that they use the Sicarii of two thousand years ago as a model; per the Talmud, such as Gittin 56a-b, the leading rabbis of the day opposed the Sicarii?]

Generally, moderates wave away examples of biblical violence by saying "That was different" and not expanding, but I believe this is a mistake, leaving room for extremists to say, "My case is not different." Often moderates deny the validity of violence altogether, which comes across as inauthentic/dishonest and unconvincing in light of Torah.

We who generally accept biblical practice as model are obligated to examine those biblical precedents, understand where those sources do sanction violence, and explain why we believe those are not models for action today.

To address the above-cited example of Shimon and Levi, here are the comments of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv (Hebrew original at the end), from his commentary to the Torah. He does not deny biblical sanction for zealotry, and even violence - but he highlights Yaakov's rejection of this approach as it was used in Shechem:

Comment to Bereishit 34:25, the attack on the city of Shechem
Biblical text - "The two sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi [attacked the city of Shechem]"

The word "two" is extra; in the story of Nadav and Avihu it only says, "And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took." This [word] comes to teach us that even though they were unified in their great anger to destroy a city and its entire contents, and they were also unified to enter into great danger, they were still "two". This means that they were different in their intent to kindle this fire.

One came with human intent, outrage for the honor of his family, which induces a "foreign fire", as is known. The other came from outraged intent for Gd, without any personal bias or desire, "the flame of Gd." One must also be very careful of this fire, to choose the right time and place; otherwise, it will destroy much. Yaakov specifed both of these approaches in his rebuke, and did not agree with the elevated fire either.

Comment to Bereishit 49:5-6, Yaakov's curse of Shimon and Levi
Biblical text: "Shimon and Levi are brothers; they have tools of violence in mecheiroteihem. In their secret let my spirit not come, and in their gathering let my honor not be united."

We should not think that Shimon and Levi were identical in everything; it is not so. They were identical in that tools of violence were mecheiroteihem, meaning their kinyan; tools of violence were what they used to bring their thoughts and desires to action.

He did not say that they were identical in their thoughts and desires, for in this they certainly were not identical. In the events of Shechem they were not identical in the intent which brought them to that deed, as we wrote earlier (34:25) based on the specifications of the text. One of them came to right the outrage against Gd, and he entered into danger as Pinchas did in the incident with Zimri. The other came out of outrage for his family's honor.

Therefore Yaakov specified as well, "In their secret [let my spirit not enter]" – When they stand in the 'secret of Gd', to be outraged for His honor. Even though our patriarch Yaakov would not have said regarding this, 'Let not my honor be united [with them],' for it certainly would be honorable for one such as him to be united with them [in the service of Gd], but, still, 'Let my spirit not enter' in this manner.

This is like the Talmudic passage (Taanit 4a), "When a Torah scholar boils, it is Torah that is boiling within him… and yet he is obligated to conduct himself gently, as it is written (Kohelet 11:10), 'And remove anger from your heart.'" Due to rage, foreign deeds, beyond any proportion to the matter at hand, are performed, and this corrupts more than in it mends.

"And in their gathering" – When they gather for a personal purpose, out of outrage for honor, it is entirely prohibited for them to enter a dangerous situation for this, and they are called 'a gathering of evil-doers'. In this, "let my honor not be united." There is no honor for me in being united with them.

The Netziv highlights a few points to consider, when weighing such actions:
1. To choose a path which does not destroy more than it mends;
2. To choose a path which is not one of anger, and is gentle;
3. To choose a path which is truly proportional.

Worth considering. Here is the Netziv's Hebrew:

העמק דבר, בראשית לד:כה
שני בני יעקב שמעון ולוי: תיבת שני מיותר ובנדב ואביהוא כתיב "ויקחו בני אהרן נדב וגו'". ובא ללמדנו דאף על גב שנתאחדו בכעס גדול להחריב עיר ומלואה, וגם התאחדו להביא עצמם לידי סכנה עצומה, מכל מקום היו שנים, היינו ששונים היו בדעת המבעיר את האש הזה, אחד בא בדעת אנושי המקנא לכבוד בית אביו, המביא לאש כזה והוא אש זרה כידוע, ואחד בא בדעת קנאת ד' בלי שום פניה ורצון היא אש שלהבת י-ה, ומכל מקום מאש כזה גם כן יש להיזהר הרבה לכוין המקום והזמן, ובלא זה היא מקלקלת הרבה, ויעקב אבינו פירש בתוכחתו שתי הדעות שהיה בזה, ולא הסכים גם לאש המעולה

העמק דבר, בראשית מט:ה
כלי חמס מכרתיהם: שלא נחשוב שנשתוו שמעון ולוי בכל דבר לא כן אלא בזה נשתוו שכלי חמס מכרתיהם היינו קניינם במה שמוציאים ורצונם לפועל הוא בכלי חמס. אמנם לא אמר שנשתוו במחשבותיהם ורצונם דבזה ודאי לא נשתוו דבמעשה שכם עצמו לא נשתוו בדעות על מה הגיעו לאותו מעשה וכמ"ש לעיל לד:כה מדיוק המקרא דאחד מהם בא לקנא קנאת ד' צבקות ונכנס בסכנה כמו פינחס במעשה זמרי וזה בא לקנא כבוד בית אביו. על כן פירש יעקב גם הוא: 'בסֹדם' - בשעה שעומדים בסוד ד' לקנא על כבודו, ואע"ג שבזה לא היה יעקב אבינו אומר אל תחד כבודי, דודאי כבוד לאיש כמוהו להתאחד אתם, אבל מכל מקום 'אל תבא נפשי' באופן כזה; וכדאיתא בתענית (דף ד, א) 'האי צורבא מרבנן דרתח, אורייתא הוא דרתחא ביה כו', אפילו הכי מיבעי למילף נפשיה בניחותא, שנאמר: 'והסר כעס מלבך'. שעל ידי כעס נעשה דברים זרים יותר מהנדרש לצורך הענין, ובזה יהיה קלקולו יותר מתיקונו. 'ובקהלם' - בשעה שנקהלים על דבר הרשות לקנא על כבוד - וזהו איסור גמור להכנס בסכנה בשביל זה ונקרא קהל מרעים - 'אל תחד כבודי'. זה אין כבוד לפנַי כלל להיות מתאחד עמהם.


  1. What is wrong is that the Sikrikim are acting outrageous in a civilized society which values life, feelings, etc., and the protection of women and children. Besides for violating Torah law, they are violating civil norms (aka כבוד הבריות). What they don't realize, if you look at precedent in Tanach, is that for their behavior they would've been wiped out man, woman and child for their behavior. Just look at Pilegesh B'Givah, or Gidon's after-revenge for models of Jew-on-Jew behavior.

  2. Just a note, that was not meant to be incendiary, just an observation that we live in a different age w/ different norms and morals (for good and for bad) than was in Biblical times.

  3. Anonymous-
    I agree - but does pointing out that today's norms are different count as a logical argument against reversion?

  4. It would be far better to try to reach the level of Torah knowledge and practice that existed back then. In fact, if we did that, we'd become a lot more knowledgeable about when not to be violent.

    Modern pipsqueaks who claim the mantle of Pinchas et al. are an affront to Judaism.

  5. So what are the differences? What would you respond if (theoretically, at least) one of these guys was willing to engage in rational discourse with you?

  6. Rabbi--

    how about other things from the Netziv's commentary on the Torah that back this approach up --his intro to Sefer Breishit (in conjunction with what he writes about "tzadik v'yashar hu" in ha'azinu) regarding the strong value in relating to others in a respectful and civilized manner and his commentary on "hin'ni notein lo briti shalom" in which he makes clear that zealotry, even in cases where it is justified, carries with it a high cost. I suspect there may be more but that is where I look to Rabbis like yourself for guidance.

  7. Bob-

    Anonymous 11:16 PM-
    I think I would use the Netziv's 3 points as the starting point.

    Very true. And look at this coming week's Toronto Torah for more on this...