Ask the Rabbi: Did the Bible sanction collective punishment?

Did the Bible sanction collective punishment against the Israelites and the Egyptians?

April 13, 2017 11:03
4 minute read.
Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré, 1832-1883: ‘The Plague of Darkness,’ one before the final First-Born Plague. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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In the previous column, we discussed the propriety of destroying the homes of terrorists as a deterrent against future acts of extremism and whether it is compatible with the biblical sentiment “A person shall be put to death only for his own crime.”

Yet do we believe that broader society is not responsible for sins committed in the name of the polity? As the philosopher John Kekes notes, we regularly take great pride, and even credit, for a family member’s accomplishments or in a country’s Nobel Prize winners and Olympic medalists. Conversely, we also see how many societies feel a deep sense of collective guilt over their ancestors’ sins. Even if they were born years later, many Germans and Japanese look at the events of World War II with great contrition. Citizens and patriots who identify with their country believe that acts done in the name of the group bring with them (for better or worse) a sense of collective action and even responsibility. In the case of those who lived during World War II, such culpability might stem from them not doing enough to prevent the atrocities; for their descendants, there is a sense of shame alongside an intuition to make amends on behalf of the state or pay reparations, when possible.


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