Mourning for Our Enemies | Congregation Beth Am

Mourning for Our Enemies

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
November 23, 2002

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion there is a sigh of relief. “And Jacob arrived safe in the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan,” says the verse, in Genesis chapter 33 [v.18]. Jacob is a survivor of trauma – a man who has endured two profound ordeals. He has wrestled through the night with a mysterious adversary who wounds but does not kill him; and he has come through the stress and anxiety of meeting again with his brother, Esau – the man he cheated years before out of what was rightfully his.

Now, these troubles behind him, Jacob has come to Shechem. “Va-yavo Ya’akov shalem ir sh’chem.” The Torah says that he arrived “shalem” – whole and unharmed; materially and spiritually complete, as Samson Raphael Hirsch understands it. The sense, says Ramban, is that at last Jacob feels secure. Why? Because he has come back to Eretz Yisrael. No more is he a stranger in alien lands, living in Mesopotamia at the mercy of his malicious father-in-law, Laban. No more is he a vulnerable traveler through the territory of Esau, worried for the safety of his wives and children. Now he has come home, to his own place.

But, as happens so often in the Torah, the sigh of relief is an ironic one. For Jacob’s troubles are far from over. Despite his long journey, despite his years of labor and travail, he and his family have not yet found security – not even in their promised land.

Our story begins with the desire to take a walk. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, went out, the text says, to “visit the daughters of the land.” We can understand why she might want to meet some other girls. She is, after all, the only daughter in a family of 11 sons.

“Va-teitzei Dinah” – Dinah, whose name is derived from “din,” the Hebrew word for “justice,” went out alone to an alien city. She tries to break out of her isolation; she goes out, beyond the borders of her own settlement, to get acquainted with her neighbors, Canaanite girls in the nearby town.

The rabbis of the Midrash blame her for this; they call her “yatzanit – a gadabout.” Dinah, they say, violated the code of modesty and acted in a way unbefitting a daughter of Israel. Says one commentary: “She paraded about bedecked in jewelry, and thus she attracted the attention of Shechem,” prince of the neighboring town, says one commentary. Her parents should have forbidden her to go out unchaperoned.

Perhaps the rabbis have to see her this way – shameless, reckless, provocative, inviting trouble. And perhaps it was an unconventional, even a dangerous thing to do in those days. How else can we endure the verse that comes next, when Dinah is seized and raped and violated – the text uses all three verbs – how else can we endure it but to distance ourselves from the victim? She had it coming; she had no business going into that neighborhood, we say – especially dressed like that; what did she expect?

The alternative is too painful to contemplate. For we would have to ask ourselves: How can it be that a young girl, an innocent young daughter of Israel, living in the land of Israel, cannot simply go outside for a walk? How can it be that the simplest act puts her into danger?

Stripped of the romantic imaginings of The Red Tent, the rest of the story is ugly and harsh. Shechem, the rapist, becomes deeply attached to Dinah, and comes with his father to tell Jacob that he will marry her. No apology for the crime is offered; instead they offer Jacob and his sons material incentives – land and trade and property. Jacob’s sons accept the offer, but with guile. They say that, before any marriage can take place, Shechem and the men of his community must first have themselves circumcised.

Shechem and his father speak to their own people at the gate of the city. Making no mention of the rape, they persuade them to go along with the circumcision, again with a promise of material gain: “these people…all their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms.”

Then, on the third day, when the Canaanite men are in pain, Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi, who are Dinah’s full brothers, all children of Leah, come armed into the city, take Dinah from the house of Shechem, where she is still being held, and kill all the men of the city. Revenge for the assault on their sister is, apparently, what interests them; but, while they are departing with Dinah the other brothers fall on the town and plunder its wealth – seeing it, perhaps, as compensation for the damage their family has suffered.

When his sons return home, Jacob upbraids them, but in a peculiar way. “You have brought trouble on me,” he says to Shimon and Levi, “making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.” The verb he uses, ‘havisheini,’ literally means “you have made me stink” -- as Samson Raphael Hirsch puts it, “You have given my reputation a foul smell.”

Jacob offers no moral condemnation of the attack; instead, he is worried that his sons’ actions have endangered the whole family, who will now be at the mercy of the surrounding natives. “My men are few in number,” Jacob says, “so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

But his sons have the last words, and with their remark the story abruptly ends. They answer: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”


The city of Shechem, site of this shocking and blood-soaked story, was called by Rashi “makom muchan l’furanut – a place predestined for misfortune” [comment to Gen.37:14]. It is an ancient and important city, settled since Neolithic times, first mentioned in an Egyptian text from the 19th century BCE. The physical center of the land of Canaan, in the heart of the north central mountain region, Shechem is the first place where Abraham stops when he enters the promised land; it is the site of his first revelation from God, the place where he first builds an altar.

It is from Shechem that Joseph sets out to search for his brothers, who then cast him into the pit; it is in Shechem that the bones of Joseph are later buried, according to the Book of Joshua. It became in time the center of Samaritan culture; and it is known today as Nablus, largest city on the West Bank.

Makom muchan l’furanut -- A place predestined for misfortune.


The lives of our patriarchs, says the Talmud, are emblematic of the lives of their descendants. As Jacob came back to Eretz Yisrael with a sigh of relief, so modern Israelis know what it is for a people to have come home, to your own land, to come after years of suffering and trauma and to believe that you are safe at last – only to find that security eludes you, and that your children cannot go out for a walk unmolested.

As the ancient city of Shechem was drenched in blood, so it remains today a grim reminder of the tragedy of two peoples who are both neighbors and adversaries. We remember that dreadful day in September, 2000, just a week after the start of the current intifada, when Nablus witnessed a horrific scene: a Palestinian mob seized control of Joseph’s tomb, ransacked the Jewish holy site, smashed it with pickaxes and set it on fire.

Shlomo Riskin, once the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and now a settler in the West Bank city of Efrat, recently wrote a D’var Torah on the story of Dinah’s rape. In it he asks a provocative question: Who are the real terrorists in this story?

On a first reading of the story, he says, we are overwhelmed by the slaughter of an entire community – the murder of the innocent men of Shechem. Surely Shimon and Levi, who carry out this massacre in retaliation for the crimes of a few, are the villains of the story. On a further reading, however, he argues that “the actions of Shimon and Levi become understandable – and perhaps even justifiable.” Riskin points out, as we have noted, that until her rescue, Dinah is being held captive in the house of Shechem, prince of the city. Thus, the rapist has gone unpunished. This tells us something important about what sort of city this was.

Riskin cites the comments of the medieval philosopher Maimonides, who defends the actions of Shimon and Levi. Maimonides teaches that, while Jews are commanded to observe 613 mitzvot, non-Jews were given only seven basic laws necessary for civilized human life – including the prohibition of murder and rape and the obligation to set up courts of law. Therefore, Maimonides says, the men of Shechem were not so blameless after all. “All residents of [the city] were guilty and deserving of capital punishment. After all, Shechem seized [and raped] Dinah; they saw it, they knew it, and yet they did not bring him to trial.”

For Shlomo Riskin, this is a lesson about the culpability of citizens who live under immoral regimes. Maimonides, he says, “is arguing that evil, totalitarian regimes do not rule in a vacuum; they are aided and abetted by people who enable them to rule in such a manner – either by actively protecting them or passively acquiescing to their evil. Had the German people risen up as one on November 10, 1938 after Krystalnacht and screamed that such inhuman actions are unacceptable, demanding the punishment of the Nazi perpetrators, some of them may well have been murdered…, but the Holocaust would have been stopped in its tracks.” And Riskin concludes: “The only way evil can be prevented is by the citizens of ‘evil empires’ taking responsibility and not letting such cruelty continue. If they remain silent in the face of evil, they become partners in crime and must share both responsibility and guilt!”

For Shlomo Riskin, the massacre of the men of Shechem can be justified; they were not truly innocent victims but complicit in the evil deeds of their leader. Of course, he is not writing his D’var Torah primarily to attack the Germans of 1938. He has another aim. What is the status, he wonders, of those who are killed nowadays as “collateral damage” in the course of a battle against terror? When America conducts a war against Taliban Afgahanistan, or Israel battles Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- when a bomb is dropped on an enclave in which a terrorist leader lives, perhaps alongside family members or neighbors – what may we say about the ethics of taking these innocent lives?

By now it should be clear what Riskin’s answer is. There are no innocents here. The Palestinian people are guilty of harboring terrorists in their midst; they are guilty of allowing terrorism to flourish among them, of actively encouraging or passively enabling the terrorists to commit their heinous crimes against Israel. Therefore, he says, while the Israel Defense Force should of course try to target the perpetrators themselves, minimizing “collateral damage,” the goal of eliminating terror “must take precedence over protecting the lives of those guilty individuals who are enabling terrorism to flourish by their silence.”

That is the end of Riskin’s D’var Torah – but that is not the final word on the story of Dinah’s rape. The episode, as we have seen, ends with a troubling question that hangs in the air: “should our sister be treated like a whore?” Or, as we might say today: “Are we supposed to put up with this abuse? Should our children be blown up on busses while we sit on our hands?”

We can hear the frustration and anger that fuel the question Shimon and Levi ask. An atrocity has been committed, they say; are we not allowed to respond? Later – 14 chapters later in Genesis – the Torah gives an answer to that question. Jacob is on his deathbed; his sons are gathered around him, and in his last moments the patriarch of Israel utters his judgment on what Shimon and Levi have done.

“Shimon and Levi are a pair,” he says.

“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.”

“Cursed be their anger so fierce.” On his deathbed, Jacob rejects the argument that Shimon and Levi’s massacre was justified by the terrible deed done to their sister. His last words to them are words of loathing and moral revulsion; he leaves them with a curse.

So also, Maimonides’ defense of Shimon and Levi was challenged by others among our Sages. Nachmanides, for instance, said that there can be no grounds in Jewish law for justifying the murder of so many innocent people. And Rabbi Naftali Berlin, writing in the 19th century, writes that no matter what Shimon and Levi’s motives were – revenge for their sister’s dishonor, moral conviction or religious zeal – their acts were still a miscarriage of justice; the spilling of innocent blood is a moral crime. Remembering their judgments on bloodthirsty Shimon and Levi, we can only imagine what these Sages might say today about West Bank settlers who, in the wake of a terrorist attack, take the law into their own hands and attack, loot and burn a neighboring Arab village.


Last Friday night, after our service at which Peter Edelman of the New Israel Fund spoke, a man I didn’t know came up to me as I left the sanctuary. He was obviously angry. “When you got to the Kaddish,” he said, “how come you only read the names of Israelis who had been killed that week? Why don’t you say Kaddish for the Palestinians who were murdered? Do you believe that Palestinian lives are worth less than Israeli lives?”

I answered him, briefly, by saying that I didn’t believe it would be appropriate to honor Palestinians with a Jewish prayer of mourning; I doubted that it would be meaningful to them or to their families. My full answer would have been a more painful and complicated one.

The truth is that I don’t mourn the deaths of Palestinians with the same visceral grief that I feel for Israelis, just as I can’t feel the same grief for a stranger who dies as I do for my beloved relative or friend. I have family and friends in Israel; I have lived there; I am bound to that place by powerful bonds of love and solidarity, and I feel its wounds keenly, as my own. My feelings about Palestinians are shaped by the tragic events of the current intifada. It’s impossible to recall the footage of Palestinians celebrating the lynching of two Israeli soldiers or the fall of the World Trade Center without feeling revolted by the hatred exhibited in those scenes.

Even so, I cannot be indifferent to the deaths of innocent Palestinians, nor can I believe that their lives are worth less than those of Israelis. And here I differ with Rabbi Riskin, who would argue that there are no innocent victims among the Palestinians. Can one really hold an entire populace responsible for the actions of a few evildoers? Must we, for instance, hold all the elderly Russian emigres at Beth Am responsible for the crimes of Stalin, because they did not rise up to try to topple him from power?

Polls conducted on the West Bank indicate that a majority of its residents do support suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Nevertheless, I believe that there are Palestinians who do not favor violence – who simply want to get on with their lives – but who do not and cannot speak out against terrorism because in the current climate, such speaking out has proved to be fatal.

I believe that there are Palestinians, including many children, who have been killed by Israel in its fight against terror for no crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is true that Israel tries hard to minimize such casualties; it is true that such deaths occur because the terrorists live amidst the civilian population; but it is not the children’s fault that they were born into this vicious and dangerous system.

There are indeed innocent victims among the Palestinians. I believe, in fact, that the Palestinian people as a whole are victims of their leaders, who have served them over the years with abominable stupidity and cruelty -- lying to them, feeding their fantasies and fanning their hatred, passing up every opportunity to win them a decent and dignified existence in a state of their own. And they are victims of Arab leaders throughout the Middle East, who have refused to use their enormous wealth to alleviate their lot, who have neglected and exploited Palestinian suffering to divert their people’s attention from the corruption of their own regimes.

Last April, speaking at a large pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, after reiterating his unwavering support for Israel and deploring terrorist attacks on Israel, observed that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well.” His remark was greeted by the crowd with jeers and boos.

We may not choose to say Kaddish for Palestinians; we may not have the capacity to feel genuine grief when Palestinians are killed. But surely we have humanity enough to acknowledge that there are victims on both sides, and there is tragedy enough to go around in this miserable situation. The Torah would have us do no less. The Torah reminds us this week, in the powerful story of Dinah, a girl whose name means “justice” – that the shedding of innocent blood, though sometimes unavoidable, is always wrong, and always to be mourned.

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