יום רביעי, 20 באוגוסט 2014

The paradox of compassion


Pinhas Leiser

The context is which these words appear (Devarim 13:18) is – at first blush – odd and unanticipated.  Only a few passages earlier, the Torah charges us to treat the inhabitants of the ir hanidachat (a condemned city) with the full severity of the law: “Strike down, strike down the settlers of that town with the edge of the sword, consign it to destruction, it and all that is in it, and its animals, with the edge of the word..” Regarding this, the poet would question “They say there is mercy in the world – where is mercy here?”

Many commentators, beginning with Chazal, dealt with this difficult issue of collective punishment. In the mishna we find  a marked tendency to limit possibilities of practical application of the law of ir nidachat -- “A Condemned City”. {A similar  inclination may be found regarding a ben sorer u’more -- “A Rebellious Son”).  The Mishna in Sanhedrin (10:4) states: “The inhabitants of a condemned city have no portion in the World to Come, as is written, ‘Men, base men, have gone out from among you and have subverted  the settlers of their town . . .”  They are not to be killed until they have been subverted from that city and from that tribe, and until the majority have been subverted and until they have been subverted by males.  If women and/or minors were subverted, or if only a minority was subverted, or they subverted settlers from outside the town – all these are considered individuals [who have sinned]. And there must have been two witnesses who forewarned each of the sinners. In this respect, individual are punished more severely than communities, for  individual sinners are executed by stoning [the harshest form of court-imposed execution] – and therefore their property is spared. Communities are punished by the sword, and therefore their property is destroyed.”

An additional  tendency towards limitation of possibilities of application is to be found in the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 14:1)
“Minors of a condemned town who were subverted with the rest are not to be executed”;  Rabbi Eliezer says, “They are to be executed.” Rabbi Akiva said, “What is the practical application of the text ‘And show compassion to you, having compassion on you and making you many’ ? If to have mercy for the adults, it is already stated ‘Strike down, strike down’; if to have pity upon their livestock, it is already stated ‘and its animals with the edge of the sword”. What then, is the application of ‘and show compassion to you”?  It refers to the minors in it.
Rabbi Eliezer says: “Even adults are not executed, unless there are witnesses and forewarning. What is the practical application of  ‘And show compassion to you etc.’?
Lest the Bet Din say, ‘If we make this an ir nidachat, a condemned city, tomorrow their brothers and relatives will conspire in hatred against us,’  says the Omnipresent: ‘I will show compassion to you, and I will fill their hearts with love, that they say ‘We harbor no ill feelings against you, your verdict was just.”

            Rabbi Akiva, peerless interpreter, discerned in “And show compassion to you” a practical Halakhic order not to punish minors. But Rabbi Eliezer does not recognize any possibility of punishment unless it has been preceded by a valid judicial process (witnesses and forewarning).  At the same time, he read the phrase “And show compassion to you” as a promise that the execution of true justice will not result in social enmity, for all will understand that that what was done was necessary. Perhaps Rabbi Eliezer’s words can be read as condition and criterion, and not just as promise; only post facto can one be certain whether the punishment, brutal in itself, was justified; if the brothers and relatives of those executed in the ir hanidachat are able to say  “‘We harbor no ill feelings against you, your verdict was just” –  we will know that there has been an act justice accompanied by compassion.  If there is hatred in their hearts, then there was neither justice nor compassion; there is the danger that the hatred will develop and lead to vengeance, to a cycle of violence which may be difficult to break.
Sapient Chazal, in line with the hallowed traditions of the Oral Law, knew how to discern between principle and practical application. They well understood that “Inhabitants of an ir hanidachat have no share in the world to come”, that they have no right to exist in the world –they knew that everything said regarding them in the Written Torah is declarative truth, similar to “eye for an eye”, which comes to point out the severity of the act; but in practical application extreme caution must be exercised, taking into consideration a totality  of complex factors.

            Commentators of later times relate to the psychological damage which may be experienced by one who executes cruel punishment.  Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, 18th century author of “Ohr HaHayim,”   writes:
And show compassion to you” – The meaning of this passage is as follows: Inasmuch as He commanded that, in the ir hanidachat,’ they put the entire city to death, including the livestock, such action can produce a cruel nature in man’s heart, as the Ishmaelites tell us of a band of murderers subservient to the king, who murder with great passion; compassion has been uprooted from them, and they have become cruel. This characteristic can be rooted in those who annihilate the ir hanidachat. Therefore, they are promised that God will give them “rachamim” – compassion; even though they will have developed a cruel nature, their fountain of mercy will  shower them anew with the “power of compassion” to nullify the force of cruelty engendered by their actions.  “And show compassion for you” – Whenever man Possesses a cruel nature, so will God relate to him, for God has compassion only for the compassionate.  (Shabbat, 151b)

Rav Chayim ben Attar explains that cruel behavior can transform any person into a brutal person; only the ‘source of compassion’ can immunize one against cruelty. The author of the Ohr HaHayyim interprets “and show compassion to you” as a qualification of the promise; the promise is given only to the compassionate and not to the cruel. The gift of compassion is dependent upon the ‘source of compassion’ and upon the person himself.

The Netziv of Volozhin, one of the Torah giants of an earlier generation, elaborates upon the damage (‘evils’ in his terminology) which may affect the individual and society as a result of imposing the prescribed sentence upon the inhabitants of the ir hanidachat:

1st.       One who kills develops a cruel personality.  When an individual is executed by a proper court, the punishment is administered by a chosen appointee of the court; when an entire city is to be wiped out, of necessity we must train many people to kill and become cruel.
2nd.          Every inhabitant of the ir nidachat must have relatives elsewhere; hatred will increase in Israel.
3rd.           Israel’s population will decrease, creating “bald spots” on the population map. Scripture promised that if we execute the commandment without any personal benefit from spoils, God’s wrath will subside.

The Netziv, then, strictly adhering to the plain reading of the text, discerns a connection between the beginning of the passage “No part of the banned property may adhere to your hand” - and its continuation “so that God will turn back from his burning wrath, and He will show you compassion.”

The ethical message emerging from a careful reading of Chazal and later commentators is unambiguous.
On occasion, one is called upon to perform acts which are necessary, which serve noble causes. Cruel acts, involving bloodshed, are never noble; in any case, even when done for a noble and necessary cause, they have a deleterious effect upon the soul.  The only possibility for minimizing the damage is dependent upon God’s grace. Decreasing such damage depends upon the purity of intent and upon absence of any personal involvement and pleasure in performing the cruel acts.  This, too, is dependent upon God’s grace. The justice of a cruel, but necessary, act must be observed and measured by the result -- acceptance of the sentence by the relatives of the punished.

Ben Gurion labeled the cannon that he ordered to fire upon the Altelena “the holy cannon”.  He was wrong.  There are no ‘holy cannons.’

King David, sweet singer of Israel, servant of God, was not allowed to erect the temple:   
But the word of the Lord came to me, saying: You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house unto My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My name.” (Chronicles I, 22:8)

War and bloodshed are often unnecessary and must be prevented. Occasionally there are situations of ‘ayn berayra’ – ‘no alternative’ – and we must fight, kill, and be killed. It is essential to differentiate between the two situations. In any case, bloodshed and the building of the temple are not compatible; bloodshed makes the Land tamei (impure), drives away the Shekhina, and causes spiritual and psychological damage.

Today, there seems to be a dangerous tendency to forget this simple moral truth. Therefore, we must remember, remind, and repeat – there are unnecessary wars, and there are wars which are ‘necessary evils’  - - there are no holy wars.
                                                                                                Pinchas Leiser is a psychologist

אין תגובות: