An authority or country that is accused of collective punishment is generally thought of as cruel and unjust. If one person committed a crime, why should his whole family or community get punished? For that reason, it is prohibited by international, as well as Israeli, law. But even if we assume that we are bound by it, that does not make such a perspective the last word.
I think an interesting angle on this is to be found by a deeper look at the commentators’ efforts to understand a difficult passage in Vayikra 10:6. The verse warns Aharon and his remaining children not to show outward signs of mourning for Nadav and Avihu, “lest they die and He/he/it be enraged with the whole congregation.” There are basically two approaches taken here. The first is that God’s rage against the congregation will be an indirect result of the potential sin of Elazar and Itamar. For example, one of the commentators suggests that if the three remaining Kohanim die, there will no longer be anyone available to atone for the Jewish people when they sin.
Whereas the above approach is not necessarily driven by a preference to not invoke collective punishment (though I sense that it is), the second approach certainly is. That is made clear by the fact that Rav Saadia Gaon, and the many commentators that follow him, explicitly ask how it could be that God would punish the congregation for the sins of three individuals. Since they seem to think that this is impossible, they bypass the simplest reading of the words. Instead, they interpret the passage to be saying that the death of these priests will bring about a situation of distress for the Jewish people, and not that God will be angered.
Of course, no less a figure than Moshe, himself, asks God about the justice of collective punishment (Bemidbar 16:22) after Avraham had asked a similar question about Sodom. But in spite of all of these objections, the Torah does not show that God agrees. To be fair, one can qualify what Moshe and Avraham were saying by suggesting that they only objected to the lack of difference in the punishment that they thought God was going to mete out to the perpetrators and the rest of their communities. Since the perpetrator has greater responsibility for his actions, it would seem to be unjust for the community to receive the same exact punishment as the perpetrator.
But even the more qualified objection to collective punishment is likely predicated on a limited understanding of the self that the Jewish mystical tradition considers ultimately incorrect. That tradition tells us that the reason we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves is because our neighbors are ourselves – literally. Hence that commandment is meant to enlighten us about ourselves even more than it is meant to teach us ethical behavior. Accordingly, such a view compares different individuals to different limbs of the same body that generally all share the same fate.
Getting back to our verse, then, the potential sin of Aharon and his sons would be a potential sin of the entire Jewish people. If so, there should be no reason to object to the idea that their sin would bring about Divine anger against the whole people. Yet that would lead us to the unlikely – though not impossible – conclusion that the previous commentators all missed this.
To avoid such a conclusion, I would like to suggest that – starting with Avraham – Jews have always been concerned about the negative consequences of working with truths that are not easily accessible: Since most people will never understand that we are all one collective body, they will also not understand the justice of collective punishment. That being the case, God’s collective punishment would make Him look bad, even though it would be completely justified. And so all the commentators that bypassed the simplest explanation of the passage under consideration may well have just been following a well-established tradition meant to enhance God’s glory to the rest of mankind.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast episode, Groundhog Day, the Israeli Elections and Collective Punishment!