Ask the Rabbi: Did the Bible sanction collective punishment?

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

Gustave Doré, 1832-1883: ‘The Plague of Darkness,’ one before the final First-Born Plague (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Gustave Doré, 1832-1883: ‘The Plague of Darkness,’ one before the final First-Born Plague
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
Yet as Prof. George Fletcher has noted, even if one believes in collective guilt, this does not necessarily warrant collective penalties. Not all moral shortcomings demand punishment. As Fletcher notes, the sons of Jacob certainly sinned in their treatment of their brother Joseph. They themselves recognized this when they declared, “We are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.”
Yet Joseph spared them from actual retribution because he deemed the entire process of exile into Egypt as being a part of God’s greater plan.
The experience in Egypt, however, raises questions of collective punishment. God’s plan for the enslavement was already declared to Abraham in the Covenant of the Parts. This prophecy raises the specter that the Israelites suffered for the sin of their forefather, even though he himself died in peace at a ripe old age. Some talmudic sages and later commentators contended that the Israelites deserved their harsh punishment because, once in Egypt, they abandoned commandments like circumcision while assimilating into the immoral Egyptian culture. Yet others asserted that the Torah clearly plans for the Jewish enslavement at an earlier stage and this can only be explained as a form of trans-generational punishment. Nahmanides, following earlier sages, asserted that this was a punishment for moments when Abraham doubted the divine plan for his descendants to inherit the land of Israel. Abarbanel alternatively suggests that the Jewish people suffered for the harsh treatment of Joseph. While Joseph may have spared his brothers for throwing him into a pit, divine poetic justice was administered when their offspring were thrown by Pharaoh into the depths of the Nile.
If correct, these interpretations would indicate that collective action done in the name of the corporate community (in this case, by the founders of a nation) may warrant collective punishment, at least by God. This seems especially true when the descendants commit other grave sins, as in the case of the Israelites in Egypt. This might be a manifestation of a different biblical verse: “God will visit the guilt of the parents on the children – upon the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.”
A notion of collective responsibility may also be found in the last plague lashed upon the Egyptians. God struck down “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon.” Undoubtedly, the indiscriminate killing of the firstborn was a deadening strike against an Egyptian culture that gave strong preference to the firstborn. Moreover, it too was a form of poetic justice against every family in Egypt, which had mercilessly killed newborn Israelites.
Yet as Seforno notes, the firstborn raised in captivity seemingly had minimal responsibility for the slavery of the Israelites. Why was it necessary for indiscriminate killing of all firstborn when some members of that society did not commit an actual offense? The sages, as Rashi notes, were sensitive to the problem of their punishment and attributed some culpability to these prisoners. According to one midrash, they remained smug at the Israelites’ suffering, while according to another, they remained content in prison as long as the Jews remained enslaved. Another midrash similarly deems all the Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea as worthy of death since they had all heard the declaration to kill Jewish children yet did nothing to protest. The self-identification with the maliciousness of the Egyptians, or even the failure to protest it, was sufficient not to spare them from the punishment justly administered to the rest of the country.
These answers do not justify the direct killing of Egyptians who passively supported Jewish enslavement, but rather explain why they should not be spared from collective punishment. The sentence targeted those who committed the atrocities, yet those who stood by or cheered on cannot complain that they deserve to be spared when justice is administered to the country. Passover, it would seem, teaches us that just as we rejoice in the triumphs of our people, we must accept some responsibility for their wrongdoing, especially when we did nothing to stop it. ■
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.