Ash The Rabbi: Does the Torah endorse mass destruction of sinful cities?

Do the narratives of communal punishment in the Torah represent a norm, or are these stories the exceptions to the rule?

The Statue of the Maharal in Prague (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
The Statue of the Maharal in Prague
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
In our previous columns, we noted how the Bible regularly condemns notions of collective punishment. Yet this sentiment seems to be contradicted in two Biblical passages – one, regarding the city of Shechem and the other a so-called “wayward city.”
In the first incident, Levi and Simeon killed the men of Shechem after its leaders violated their sister Dinah. Jacob criticized his sons for endangering their ability to live in tranquility amongst other Canaanites. The brothers responded, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”
As Yaakov Blidstein has documented, some midrashim believed that this was a sufficient argument. Others, like Rabbi Shimshon R. Hirsch, contended that in a world ruled by the sword, such actions are sometimes necessary, even as he asserted that the sons went too far in taking revenge on innocent people.
Maimonides vindicated the brothers by arguing that the city residents were guilty of not setting up a justice system, as mandated by the Noahide Laws, that would punish the city leaders for raping Dinah. Many criticized Maimonides’ explanation as naïve, since it was unrealistic for the citizens to execute justice against their powerful leaders.
The Maharal of Prague alternatively contended that this incident should not be viewed as strife between two families.
Instead, this was an unprompted act of warfare between two nations, and in all warfare, some non-belligerents may be killed. This statement of the Maharal has been distorted by a few extremists (including the authors of the infamous Torat Hamelech) as justifying the intentional and indiscriminate killing of innocent non-belligerents. Yet as Rabbi Yaakov Ariel has noted, the Maharal was justifying the inevitable death of bystanders, not their intentional killing.
Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli has similarly concluded that there is scarce basis in halachic sources to support the intentional killing of sympathizing non-belligerents who did nothing to stop the evil in their midst, especially given that their inaction may stem from other factors like fear.
In any case, as Nahmanides noted, the Torah had little sympathy for the evil habitants of Shechem. Yet the Torah gives the final word to Jacob, who repeats his condemnation of Simeon and Levi on his deathbed, and this time for more fundamental reasons: “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness… Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless.” Based on these verses, Rabbi Shlomo Goren concluded that the Torah’s normative ruling prohibits the intended killing of non-belligerents, including women and children.
This conclusion, however, is seemingly contradicted by the punishment given to the wayward city (ir nidahat) whose habitants have been led astray into worshiping idols.
“Put the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction. Gather all of its spoil into the open square and burn the town and all of its spoil as a memorial to God.”
One could read this passage as a battle call toward utter annihilation. Yet as Moshe Halbertal has documented, the Sages interpreted this commandment as a call for justice, not warfare. Based on the Torah’s command for a thorough investigation, the Sages concluded that the rules of a court, not war, would apply to the city. Only those who were previously warned yet nonetheless committed such grave sins would be punished; other residents of the city, however, would be spared.
Accordingly, instead of requiring the utter annihilation of the city, the Torah demands the discriminate execution of the guilty parties, with the city property only getting destroyed if more than half of the residents were found guilty. (In fact, one sage went so far as to assert that the requirement to destroy the city’s possessions made the law entirely theoretical, since this would only be permissible if no sacred writings, including a mere mezuza, were found in the city).
The sages further debated whether an idolater’s children would be executed as well. Some said yes, noting the seemingly all-encompassing punishment ordained by the Torah. Maimonides asserted that this would even include the spouses of the idolaters. R. Aharon of Lunel defended this novel position by asserting that it was consistent with other passages in the Torah that call for communal punishment.
Yet other sages demurred. R. Akiva noted that the Torah promises divine compassion for fulfilling the mitzva of destroying the wayward city and creatively asserted that this entails mercy on the children. Abba Chen argued more fundamentally that punishing the children would violate the verse “Children will not die for the sins of their fathers,” thereby forcing us to interpret the passage in a way that avoids kin punishment.
In the 12th century, R. Meir Abulafia harshly criticized the expansive position of Maimonides and contended that we should adopt the more merciful approach that minimizes the “blood guilt” of kin punishment.
Ultimately, the debate stems from a question of orientation: do the narratives of communal punishment in the Torah represent a norm, or are these stories the exceptions to the rule? One late collection of midrashim gave an extraordinary answer to this question. Moshe complains to God that he does not understand the verse in the Ten Commandments that promises punishment onto the children of sinners, given how we know that so many righteous people came from wicked homes. God, in a remarkable response, asserts, “I nullify my words before yours, and declare, ‘A person shall be put to death only for his crime.’” Accordingly, the lasting norm for the Jewish people is to execute justice based on the deeds of the person alone.
■ The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.