Western democracy used to promote the ideal of live and let live; in a polyglot world, the more room we leave for each others’ foibles, the more likely we are to stay away from destroying each other, ourselves, and the small planet we share. Rambam and Ramban’s discussion of Shim’on and Levi’s destruction of the city of Shechem enriches our picture of how the Torah sees the issue of commenting on or interfering with other people’s conduct.
Ya’akov Avinu clearly objects to their killing all of Shechem after their prince (also named Shechem) kidnapped and raped Dinah. We usually assume a Patriarch is right when he disagrees with other characters. Rambam and Ramban complicate the picture, partially because, as Ramban notes, Ya’akov’s sons were also righteous, progenitors and namesakes of tribes of the Jewish people. It’s hard to imagine they would commit an atrocity.
Societies Are Responsible For Their Members
Rambam, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 9;14, articulated the legal justification for their actions. In his view, the people of Shechem deserved death for their complicity with their prince, Shechem. The obligation of dinin means societies must set up courts and enforcement mechanisms for all the Noahide laws. The citizenry’s failure to intervene made them capitally liable.
Ramban disagrees, but let’s stay with Rambam for a second. He thought the Torah made minimal rules for non-Jews—they could not worship any power other than Hashem, murder, commit sexual crimes, steal, blaspheme, or eat from a live animal—but required all members of a society to enforce those laws.
Ramban thinks Ya’akov’s objections disprove Rambam’s claim. The verse has Ya’akov express only practical worries, what the surrounding nations will do. Were Shim’on and Levi correct in principle, once it all worked out without repercussions, he should have congratulated them, not held it against them as late as his deathbed.
He also sees dinin as a matter of laws rather than judges or enforcement. In his view, the obligation (and, as an obligation, he thinks failure to fulfill it did not bring a death penalty) was for non-Jews to set up a code of civil law, defining how to act in various financial or tort instances. For each of those legislated crimes, however, he thinks the penalty would be death.
The society he envisions is somewhat closer to “live and let live,” since each individual (and society as a whole) is not as obligated to stop others’ wrongful actions. At the same time, it has many more rules, perhaps death-penalty ones, which extends the arm of the law farther than in Rambam’s presentation.
It Wasn’t For Shim’on and Levi to Intervene
Coming back to our story, Ramban thinks Rambam didn’t need to reach for this crime to assume the Canaanites were liable for death. They worshiped powers other than Hashem and were the epitome of sexual perversion, a society the Torah later singles out to warn the Jews against emulating. In Ramban’s view, Ya’akov objected to the killing because he thought he and his family were not empowered to punish people outside their society.
In saying so, he raises another moral issue, interventionism (which, ironically, many liberals endorse even as they object to laws which interfere with what they see as their private behavior). When are we so sure of our moral standards as to allow ourselves to censure, stop, or punish members of other societies who act differently?
Ramban thinks Ya’akov opposed doing so in this case for practical military reasons as well as because Shim’on and Levi had to lie to set up their attack (an interesting idea for another time, also much forgotten today: the ends do not justify the means). They, on the other hand, thought the people’s complicit acquiescence to the king’s plan opened them up to punishment even from outsiders (closer to Rambam).
Ramban adds one last complicating factor. The people of Shechem agreed to be circumcised, which raised the possibility they were starting on a road to repentance. Since Shimon and Levi couldn’t know, it was wrong for them to short-circuit what could have been a positive development.
Shechem becomes, for Rambam and Ramban, a lesson in society, government, and international relations. Rambam learns from it a requirement to intervene in evil within one’s own society, and a right for outsiders to step in when the society itself does not. Ramban takes it to tell us to set up a more expanse civil code of law, and to be open to the repentance of others once they start on a good path.