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 http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/exodus-should-be-morally-troubling-for-jews/383611/?single_page=true.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.