The Justice of Collective Punishment – an Apologia

I was taught the difference between apology and apologia best by my Rabbi and teacher, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein. This will be an apologia, a justification of collective punishment.

This is largely a reply to Emma Green’s article at The Atlantic

Emma Green’s article is characterized by two things: a shoddy (at best) understanding of the Bible; and a spurious view of ethics.

First, to narrow down the scope of the apologia, we will deal with what she simply got wrong and put it aside. Emma Green writes:

Then again, this idea, that whole peoples should be punished for their sins, comes up repeatedly in the Bible. Examples include Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were destroyed by God, and Nineveh, which ultimately was not. The consequences of sin in ancient times were total and intense; God wiped out quite a few civilizations in the course of crafting early humanity.

Nineveh will not be dealt with here, other than to say that God sends a prophet to get them to repent, they do so, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Sodom and Gommorah are flawed examples at best — they simply do not represent collective punsihment. This is not “whole peoples should be punished for their sins”.

The story appears in Genesis 18:

כג  וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע. 23 And Abraham came near, and said: ‘Shall you destroy the righteous with the wicked?
כד  אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם, בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר; הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם, לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ. 24 Perhaps there are fifty righteous people within the city; will you indeed destroy and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
כה  חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ–הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. 25 Forfend that you shall do such a thing! To slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked?Forfend! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’
כו  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם. 26 And the LORD said: ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.’ [Implication: there aren’t (M.S.)]
כז  וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אֲדֹנָי, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר. 27 And Abraham answered and said: ‘Here I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, and I am but dust and ashes.
כח  אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם, חֲמִשָּׁה–הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה, אֶת-כָּל-הָעִיר; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא אַשְׁחִית, אִם-אֶמְצָא שָׁם, אַרְבָּעִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה. 28 Maybe they lack five of the fifty righteous; will you destroy all the city for lack of five?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five.’
כט  וַיֹּסֶף עוֹד לְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, אַרְבָּעִים; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה, בַּעֲבוּר הָאַרְבָּעִים. 29 And he spoke unto Him yet again, and said: ‘Perhaps there are forty there?’ And He said: ‘Were there forty, I would not do it.’
ל  וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה–אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, שְׁלֹשִׁים; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה, אִם-אֶמְצָא שָׁם שְׁלֹשִׁים. 30 And he said: ‘Oh, let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak. Perhaps there are thirty there?’ And He said: ‘Were there thirty, I would not do it.’
לא  וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אֲדֹנָי–אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֶשְׂרִים; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֶשְׂרִים. 31 And he said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD. Perhaps there are twenty there?’ And He said: ‘Were there twenty, I would not do it.’
לב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ-הַפַּעַם–אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. 32 And he said: ‘Oh, let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Perhaps there are ten there?’ And He said: ‘Were there ten, I would not do it.’
לג  וַיֵּלֶךְ יְהוָה–כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה, לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אַבְרָהָם; וְאַבְרָהָם, שָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ. 33 And the LORD went His way, as soon as He had left off speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned unto his place.

This is in no way, shape, or form an example of unjust collective punishment. Rather it is punishing a large number of people, all of whom are individually wicked. Further proof of this can be found when they demand to rape Lot’s guests, in the next chapter:

ד  טֶרֶם, יִשְׁכָּבוּ, וְאַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר אַנְשֵׁי סְדֹם נָסַבּוּ עַל-הַבַּיִת, מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן:  כָּל-הָעָם, מִקָּצֶה. 4 But before they lay down [the angels/guests – MS], the men of the city, the men of Sodom, encircled the house, from the young to the old, all the people from every quarter.

The emphasis here is on the fact that it is everyone. There are not even ten righteous people. This would be the first and obvious example of collective punishment being justified: when every single individual in the collective is guilty. This is akin to punishing for gang rape, they are each individually guilty.

While the words ‘collective punishment’ never appear, it is clearly referenced. Emma Green writes:

The Egyptians were theoretically culpable for the lives they led at the cost of Hebrew slave labor, yes. But to slaughter innocents because of the actions of their leaders—and because their race was not chosen to be part of an ancient covenant—seems appallingly cruel.

This begins the second part. It is idiotic to believe that the moral obligation of the Individual ends at the walls of his house, or worse, the walls of his room. People have a responsibility for the way the educate their family. And most importantly for this specific case, they have a moral responsibility for the actions of society. Slavery in the United States, for instance, was a widespread moral failing. The slaveholder, certainly, is the most to blame. But the neighbor also bears responsibility. He could have assisted their fleeing. The people as a whole could have abolished slavery. Leaders are not leaders in a vacuum. Even dictators require support.

Exodus 5:

יג  וְהַנֹּגְשִׂים, אָצִים לֵאמֹר:  כַּלּוּ מַעֲשֵׂיכֶם דְּבַר-יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר בִּהְיוֹת הַתֶּבֶן. 13 And the taskmasters were urgent, saying: ‘Fulfil your work, your daily task, as when there was straw.’
יד  וַיֻּכּוּ, שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר-שָׂמוּ עֲלֵהֶם, נֹגְשֵׂי פַרְעֹה לֵאמֹר:  מַדּוּעַ לֹא כִלִּיתֶם חָקְכֶם לִלְבֹּן, כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם–גַּם-תְּמוֹל, גַּם-הַיּוֹם. 14 And the officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, saying: ‘Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your appointed task in making brick both yesterday and today as heretofore?’

The taskmasters are yet another class of people doing evil of their own volition. The urgency, the diligence; were they good they wouldn’t be diligent here. They chose to enforce it effectively. They chose to beat the slaves. Pharaoh himself can’t go around whipping everyone; he requires sycophants to do it for him. While it is true that after the seventh plague the servants of Pharaoh say: “How long shall this man be a snare unto us?”, even then, they have not repented, rather only shown a desire for self-preservation. Self-preservation is not repentance, it is just fear of the consequences. They haven’t recanted the action. All in all, the Egyptians never truly repent, and only give in when it is too late.

So what is it that we see here? Yes, indeed, this is collective punishment. But the collective punishment is punishing a collective sin. Egyptian society is content for over a hundred years to enjoy the fruits of slavery. They all are complicit in the crime. It is not merely Pharaoh — it is the higher-ups, it is the taskmasters; it is the previous generation of leaders, rulers, and taskmasters. Egyptian society sins in this way for multiple generations and only then do they finally get punished.

Modern liberal thought often overemphasizes the individual, and here it is the case. The apathy of the people, the vigorousness of the taskmasters, and the moral corruption of the society as a whole incur the punishment. This is collective punishment for collective sin. Even the person who himself is not a taskmaster is complicit in this sin. A person cannot isolate himself from society.

This idea is brought in Jewish philosophy and law in several places. I would like to focus on one: Egla Arufa.

Deuteronomy 21:

א  כִּי-יִמָּצֵא חָלָל, בָּאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ, נֹפֵל, בַּשָּׂדֶה:  לֹא נוֹדַע, מִי הִכָּהוּ. 1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him;
ב  וְיָצְאוּ זְקֵנֶיךָ, וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ; וּמָדְדוּ, אֶל-הֶעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר, סְבִיבֹת הֶחָלָל. 2 then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain.
ג  וְהָיָה הָעִיר, הַקְּרֹבָה אֶל-הֶחָלָל–וְלָקְחוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא עֶגְלַת בָּקָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עֻבַּד בָּהּ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-מָשְׁכָה, בְּעֹל. 3 And it shall be, that the city which is nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke.
ד  וְהוֹרִדוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, אֶל-נַחַל אֵיתָן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יֵעָבֵד בּוֹ, וְלֹא יִזָּרֵעַ; וְעָרְפוּ-שָׁם אֶת-הָעֶגְלָה, בַּנָּחַל. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley.
ה  וְנִגְּשׁוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים, בְּנֵי לֵוִי–כִּי בָם בָּחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשָׁרְתוֹ, וּלְבָרֵךְ בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה; וְעַל-פִּיהֶם יִהְיֶה, כָּל-רִיב וְכָל-נָגַע. 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near–for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be.
ו  וְכֹל, זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא, הַקְּרֹבִים, אֶל-הֶחָלָל–יִרְחֲצוּ, אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-הָעֶגְלָה, הָעֲרוּפָה בַנָּחַל. 6 And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.
ז  וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ:  יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שפכה (שָׁפְכוּ) אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. 7 And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
ח  כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ, יְהוָה, וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם. 8 Forgive, O LORD, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them.
ט  וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ:  כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה.  {ס} 9 So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD. {S}

The Babylonian Talmud has a discussion on  this (Sotah 45:).

זקני אותה העיר רוחצין את ידיהן במים במקום עריפה של עגלה ואומרים: (דברים כא) “ידינו לא שפכה את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו.” וכי על דעתינו עלתה שזקני ב”ד שופכי דמים הן? אלא, שלא בא על ידינו ופטרנוהו בלא מזון, ולא ראינוהו והנחנוהו בלא לוייה.

The elders of the city wash there hands in water at the place of the breaking of the calf’s neck and say: “Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see.” And it would cross our mind that the elders of the Beth Din are spillers of blood!? Rather, that we did not let him leave without food, and that we didn’t see him leaving so that we could not accompany him.

Rashi explains:

לא בא לידינו ופטרנוהו.  בגמ׳ מפרש בלא מזונות והיינו ידינו לא שפכו לא נהרג על ידינו שפטרנוהו  בלא מזונות והוצרך ללסטם את הבריות ועל כך נהרג:

לא ראינוהו והנחנוהו. יחידי בלא חבורה והיינו ועינינו לא ראו:

Did not let him leave without food. That we didn’t fail in this regard, that is, that he did not need to try highway robbery to avoid starvation, and get killed that way.

We didn’t see him leaving. We didn’t leave him to face the dangers alone. (He should be accompanied until the next city – M.S.)

The common thread here is that this is potentially a failing by the city, a communal sin.

This law is unused in practice, but the message is clear. People act as individuals and as a society. And when society fails, the members of the society are culpable.


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