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Spurious Distinction
Wed, 11/27/2013

My teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin much too glibly interprets Jacob’s response to his sons in Parshat Vayishlach (“Sabbath Week: The Morality of Retaliation,” Nov. 15) when he writes that Jacob’s “condemnation [of Shimon and Levi, for killing every male in the city in retaliation for Shechem’s rape of their sister Dina] is on political rather than ethical grounds.”

This is, to begin with, an arguably spurious distinction: If an action is politically risky, in that (as per Jacob’s fears in this case) it might make enemies and endanger one’s people, it thereby becomes an unwise and, in the end, unethical choice. But the problems with Rabbi Riskin’s dismissal of the ethical considerations involved in Shimon and Levi’s actions are deeper than that, and engage Torah text itself.

Rabbi Riskin fails to note Jacob’s “blessings” of his sons in Parshat Vayechi, in which Jacob says of Shimon and Levi:  “Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! ... For in their rage they murdered people. ... Accursed is their rage ... and their wrath.” 

Jacob’s condemnation of Shimon and Levi is not, as per Rabbi Riskin, merely “political”; his recalling of their behavior and harsh judgment of it as he prepares to die — by which time he knows that his people actually did not pay a “political” price for their violence — makes clear that Jacob’s judgment is a moral/ethical one.

Fresh Meadows, Queens

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