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Ancient Torah scroll

Twin brothers once lived in a single city.

One of them rose to become king; the other leader of the outlaws.


When the bandit leader was caught and executed, the king ordered the body to be publicly displayed.

But all the passers-by said:  The king has been executed!

So the king ordered the body taken down.

The simplest way to read this story is as tragedy.  Two men raised to rule and alike in every way inevitably end up contesting their father’s throne.  One succeeds; the other refuses to surrender, and is eventually captured and executed. The victor seeks to publicly demonstrate his victory by displaying the dead brother, but no one can tell which twin is alive and which dead.  No one mourns either way.  Really it seems not to matter which of them is king.

A more complex reading goes as follows: The king first mounted a campaign to erase his brother from the national memory.  No one ever mentioned publicly that the rebel chief had an equal claim to the throne, and likely most people forgot his heritage.  But in the king’s moment of victory, the moment when his throne should have become secure, he undercuts himself by displaying the body.  Do the comments of passersby reflect ignorance as to which brother is dead?  Or are they subtly expressing their true belief about the king’s legitimacy?

I offer these interpretations not for their own sake, but to make you understand how startling it is that Rashi, following Rabbi Meir (Mishnah Sanhedrin 46b), identifies the king as G-d and the rebel as a human criminal.

Rashi uses the story to explain Devarim 21:22-23.  The Torah there commands us to display executed criminals for no more than a day, and then to bury them, “ki killelat E/elo?im) talui”, because (the sight of) a crucified (human being, even a legitimately executed criminal) causes G-d to be treated with unbearable lightness, intensive kalut.  What is the connection?  Human beings are the tzelem Elokim, the representations of G-d.  So the death of any human being makes G-d chas veshalom seem mortal.

There is almost certainly an anti-Christian bent to this metaphor; circulating images of the crucified outlaw chief will create the same misimpression as the actual corpse.  But as often happens with polemics, it may concede too much for the sake of landing a punch.  I prefer Rambam’s contention that the human mind rather than the human body is the true tzelem Elokim.

This critique may be one motivation for a fascinating Tamudic colloquy (Yebamot 79b) regarding 2 Samuel 21, where King David permits the Giv’onim, descendants of Canaanites who had converted out of fear and through deception during the initial Conquest, to execute seven of Shaul’s descendants and display their crucified bodies as revenge for a wrong Shaul had done them.

Doesn’t Scripture say “You must not let his corpse stay on the wood”!?

Said R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimon ben Yehotzedek:

It is fitting for a letter of the Torah to be uprooted to enable the Name of Heaven to be sanctified in public.

The passersby would say: Who are those?

(Jews replied:) They are children of (our) kings.

What did they do?

They abused weakly committed converts (gerim gerurim: the translation is uncertain).

The passersby would then say: There is no nation so worthy of our joining as this one! If they do this to children of kings, all the more so to commoners! And if they do so for weakly committed converts, how much more so for Jews! (or: for those who convert for the sake of Heaven!)

Immediately 150,000 were added to Israel (via conversion) . . .

Here the display of criminal corpses serves as a glorification of Divine justice, and this glorification is intensified if the corpses are of people close to the king!

The tension between these midrashim embodies a critical tension between ‘particularism’ and ‘universalism.’  On the one hand, as Rabbi Meir tells us, we need to protect the images of those who look like us, because everyone will see us in them.  The sins of one Orthodox Jew taints all our reputations.  This generates the temptation to whitewash or cover up real sins, often with real victims.

But Rabbi Yochanan warns us that nepotism also damages reputations.  The king cannot let his bandit-brother off free because of their relationship.  His job is to ensure that people have a way of distinguishing which brother is which by some means other than physical appearance.  So too, Orthodox Jews cannot let the criminals among us go free out of fear that their arrests and convictions will cause chillul Hashem.

What is true of Orthodox Jews is true all the more so of members of political parties or affiliations.  There is a natural temptation to explain away the nasty and intemperate statements of the side we identify with, while setting upon the other side’s gaffes with ferocity.   But in the end this asymmetry undermines our reputation for justice, and thus our capacity to persuade rather than overpower.  In the rabbinic idiom, “the gain is more-than-offset by the loss.”  Even Rabbi Meir must concede in the end that the Torah permits displaying the executed corpse of the king’s brother until nightfall.