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The Netziv on the Dangers of Legitimate Violence

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #13:  The Netziv on the Dangers of Legitimate Violence



R. Berlin was concerned with the impact of violence – even when religiously legitimated – upon society and upon the personalities of those who commit it.  Noting that the biblical Pinchas received “a covenant of peace” after running through the sinners Zimri and Kozbi with a spear, Netziv asks why this covenant was an appropriate reward.  Netziv explains that, in the nature of things, aggressive acts leave a lasting impression on a human being.  Pinchas might grow accustomed to violence.  Due to his acting purely for the sake of heaven, Pinchas receives the reward of an untainted personality still yearning for peace.[1]  According to R. Berlin, authorized violence remains perilous, but those with the purest of motivations and no self-interest avoid the peril.


In a later passage, Netziv lists a variety of dangers inherent in violence.  The law of ir ha-nidachat mandates that a city full of Israelite idolaters be put to death.  R. Berlin mentions three potential types of negative fallout.  First, those carrying out the killing may turn cruel.  Given the scope of the operation, this is a greater problem here than when carrying out other halakhic punishments.  Usually, the courts have their agents put criminals to death, but wiping out a city demands a much larger work force.  Thus, the character of more people may become adversely affected.  Secondly, many Jews from other areas will have lost relatives in the destroyed town.  Their resentment will lead to growing enmity amongst the Jewish people.  Finally, the sheer diminution of the number of Jews hurts our people.


In a very clever interpretation of the penultimate verse of the ir ha-nidachat section, Netziv argues that the Torah addresses all three concerns.   “And nothing of the banned thing shall cling to your hand, that God may turn from the fierceness of His anger, and show you mercy, and have compassion upon you, and multiply you, as He swore to your fathers” (Devarim 13:18).  This verse addresses each of the three concerns.  The promise that “God may … show you mercy” indicates that those that carry out the punishment will remain merciful.   The clause “and have compassion upon you” means that others will love you – namely, the punishment will not spawn deep ill will between different sections of the nation.  The reference to multiplication counters the fear of dwindling numbers. 


Netziv reiterates his contention that the blessing preventing any negative effects depends upon purity of motivation in those who perform the violent acts.  The above verse with the three-part blessing begins with a prohibition on taking the spoils of the destroyed city.  If so, the verse reads beautifully.  Not taking spoils reveals a purity of motivation that enables the blessings in the rest of the verse to follow.[2]


The theme of pure motivation has further impact in Netziv’s thought.  When Moshe seeks individuals to punish the golden calf worshippers, he calls out: “Whoever is for God, let him come to me” (Shemot 32:26).  R. Berlin explains the specific nature of Moshe’s call.  A degree of danger exists for all who engage in violence; even violence committed in the fulfillment of a mitzva provides no guarantee of physical safety.  However, Netziv posits, if the person performing the mitzva has the most idealistic motivations, he receives an assurance that he will not come to harm.  Moshe seeks the most nobly motivated to put the idolaters to death, because they will remain safe.[3]


At first, it seems that Netziv refers only to a special form of divine protection.  He later adds that the pure motivation impacts on the communal reaction.  Those who punished the golden calf revelers harmed their very own relatives (Shemot 32:26).  R. Berlin contends that this shows the absence of ulterior motives.  When it is clear that those punishing are not in it for themselves, opposition is less likely to arise.[4]  Thus, noble motivations provide greater safety in multiple ways. 


A footnote in the Harchev Davar adds one last theme.  Netziv mentions another reason why punishment of the wicked should not be carried out by their personal enemies.  As already noted, the lack of pure motivations endangers them, since they have no protection from the danger of physical harm inherent in all such confrontations.  Additionally, enjoyment of inflicting punishment is a religious flaw worthy of punishment.  A midrash (Bereishit Rabba 67:4) says that Ya’akov was punished for the cry of Esav after Esav discovered that Ya’akov had taken his father’s blessing.  If Ya’akov deserves blame for the episode, why is he punished for the cry of Esav but not for the distress he caused his own father Yitzchak?  Netziv explains that Ya’akov received no joy from his father’s pain, but he did enjoy his brother’s anguish.  For this, he deserved punishment.


This idea enables R. Berlin to elucidate another midrash.  A verse in Kohelet (3:15) says that “God will seek out the one pursued” (to redress his suffering).  The midrash (Vayikra Rabba 27:5) adds that God will help the one pursued even when a tzaddik pursues a rasha.  Why should God aid the wicked just because he is being pursued?  Netziv explains that when the righteous person derives pleasure from the pursuit, then God wants to punish him.[5]  Apparently, enjoying inflicting punishment represents a serious character flaw.


Netziv offers several reasons to worry about legitimate use of violence.  Such acts may corrupt people, they may prove dangerous, and they may be religiously objectionable if they engender evil pleasure.  Purity of motivation solves these problems, but such purity is not easily achieved.  Of course, these concerns do not mean that R. Berlin was a pacifist.  He derives from the mention of “brothers” in the murder prohibition (Bereishit 9:5) that the prohibition exists only during times of brotherhood but not during wartime.  For Netziv, the ability to shoot at an opposing army does not stem from the normal principles of “rodef” or “ha-ba le-horgekha” (forms of self-defense), but rather from war representing a totally different legal reality.  At the same time, legitimating certain instances of the use of violence does not contradict fears about that very violence.  Netziv thought that Jews sometimes have to fight wars and to punish transgressors, but the various potential practical and spiritual pitfalls of such operations must be kept in mind and combated.


Until now, we have discussed the dangers of halakhically permissible violence.  But, at times, we must question the very legitimacy of the violence.  In one responsum, R. Berlin contrasts the justified zealotry of Pinchas with the problematic violence of his forefather Levi. Both risked their lives to stamp out sexual immorality, but one received great reward and the other received his father’s censure.  Only a highly discerning wisdom can distinguish between these types of cases.[6]


His commentary on the Torah adds further depth to the analysis of the Levi example.  Levi and his brother Shimon avenge the rape of their sister Dina by wiping out the town of Shekhem.  Ya’akov offers an immediate pragmatic critique of their actions (Bereishit 34:30), but seems to state a deeper critique when he speaks to all his children toward the end of his life (Bereishit 49: 5-7).  Commentaries engage in a well-known debate over the evaluation of Shimon and Levi’s aggression.


R. Berlin notes that the Torah describes how “shenei benei Ya’akov” (two sons of Ya’akov) took their swords (Bereishit 34:25), in contrast to a later episode where the Torah refers to Nadav and Avihu as “benei Aharon” (sons of Aharon) without adding the word “shenei” (two).  This extra word indicates a duality in the thinking of the two perpetrators of the massacre of Shekhem.  One son, Shimon, was motivated by the “foreign fire” of defending family honor, while the other, Levi, was genuinely zealous for God without a personal stake in the endeavor.   The first type of motivation has no place in our tradition, and even the second can be utilized only with great caution.[7]


Yaakov’s final message to Shimon and Levi also distinguishes between the two sons.  “Let my soul not come into their secret or my honor into their assembly” (Bereishit 49:6).  R. Berlin argues that these are not two identical clauses.  The first refers to the “sod Hashem” (secret of God) of a person motivated by godly concerns.  Ya’akov would not find it dishonorable to be in such a group, but he still keeps his soul from joining due to his concern that zeal for God causes wild actions beyond what is truly necessary.  The second clause, referring to the “assembly,” speaks of those gathered for the mundane task of defending honor, a cause for which it would be forbidden to engage in dangerous activity.  Regarding this latter group, Ya’akov does not consider it honorable to be listed among them.[8]


The final verse brings Ya’akov’s solution to the fore.  “I will divide them in Ya’akov and scatter them in Israel” (Bereishit 49:7).  Netziv sees this not only as punishment but as a proper channeling of zealotry.  Sometimes, the community needs a few hotheads, but too many of them in one area creates a conflagration waiting to explode.  Scattering them around the country solves this problem.   In any given place, some individuals will stand ready to zealously protest immorality, but no city will consist mostly of zealots.[9]  


In last week’ shiur, we noted Netziv’s concerns about the potentially antinomian quest for the religious experience of cleaving to God.  This week, we have noted the dangers of religiously legitimated violence.  One final element will complete the portrait of the dangers of religious passion.  Netziv also expresses concern about overly aggressive dealing with those who differ from you on religious issues.   In one of his most famous passages, his introduction to Sefer Bereishit, Netziv sets forth this problem and blames it for the destruction of the Second Temple.


Before analyzing the passage, we must mention Gil Perl’s article, which shows that R. Berlin was hardly an advocate of contemporary pluralism.  Perl cites numerous examples of Netziv’s willingness to endorse religious coercion and of his negative opinions regarding various groups of heretics.[10]  Nonetheless, this illuminating context does not diminish the force of Netizv’s introduction to Bereishit.


Netziv argues that the word yashar always refers to interpersonal decency.[11]  This assumption enables his interpretation of Devarim 32:6, which speaks of the righteousness of God’s judgment and concludes “tzaddik ve-yashar Hu.”  R. Berlin understands this verse to be a justification for God bringing about the destruction of the two Temples.  Since God is a “tzaddik,” He could not tolerate the sexual immorality present during the period of the First Temple.  Since God is a “yashar,” He could not stand the corrupt interpersonal behavior of the Second Temple period.[12]


Because of the groundless hatred in their hearts, they suspected anyone with a different religious practice of being a Sadducee or heretic.   Due to this, they came to extreme bloodshed and to other evils until the Temple was destroyed.  Regarding this came the justification of the divine judgment, because the Holy One, blessed be He, is a yashar, and He cannot tolerate righteous people like this unless they also function with decency in their dealings with the world. (Introduction to Bereishit)


As Perl points out, this passage should not be extended too far.  Netziv certainly did not believe that all versions of Judaism deserve legitimacy.  Yet Netziv’s fiery exhortation still inspires us.  There must be some groups with whom we significantly differ regarding religious issues, yet whom we have no right to exclude from Torah-true Judaism.  Furthermore, we must be wary of making poor judgments due to “the groundless hatred” in our own hearts.  Here, R. Berlin’s concerns with purity of motivation returns.  If excluding heretics stems from a less than noble place, it can ultimately lead to calamity, including murder and the destruction of the Temple.        


Passion for religion and its ideals is a good thing that we do not want to stifle. Yet positive things also create certain hazards.  In a host of passages, Netziv reminds us of the dangers of various kinds of religious passion and of the need to look out for impure motivations.


[1] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 25:12.

[2] Ha’amek Davar Devarim 13:18.

[3] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 32:26.

[4] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 32:27.

[5] Harchev Davar Shemot 32:27.

[6] Meishiv Davar 1:44.

[7] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 34:25.

[8] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 49:6.

[9] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 49:7.

[10] Gil S. Perl, “No Two Minds Think Alike: Tolerance and Pluralism in the Work of Neziv,” Torah U-Madda Journal , Volume 12 (2004), pp. 74-98.

[11] See, for example, Ha’amek Davar Devarim 12:28.

[12] Ha’amek Davar Devarim 32:6.