“The Proper and Improper use of Zealotry”
(updated and revised from Vayishlach 2000-5761)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we encounter in Genesis 34, a very painful and distressing account of the rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and sister of the twelve tribes.

Jacob and his family settle outside the city of Shechem (today Nablus), and Dinah, daughter of Leah, goes out to see the women of the land. Shechem, the Prince of the region (Don’t get confused, his name is the same as the city!), sees her, takes her, lays with her and violates her.

Shechem becomes deeply “attached” to Dinah and pleads with his father, Chamor, to approach Dinah’s family so that he can take the girl for a wife. Chamor, Shechem’s father, goes to negotiate with Jacob.

Since Jacob’s sons were in the field when the rape occurred, they were unaware of what had happened. When they learned about what Shechem had done to their sister, they were deeply distressed by the outrage that had been committed. Eventually, Jacob’s sons respond to Shechem and to his father’s proposal with deceit, and declare that if all of the men of the city of Shechem undergo circumcision, only then will Shechem be permitted to marry Dinah. Chamor and Shechem accept the proposal and convince the people of Shechem to accept the terms as well.

On the third day after the mass circumcision of all the males of the city of Shechem, two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, who are referred to by Scripture as “Dinah’s brothers,” each take their sword, attack the city and kill all the defenseless males. They rescue Dinah from Shechem’s house. The remaining sons of Jacob then plunder the city which had defiled their sister, seize the flocks, cattle, women and children, and appropriate all the wealth of the city.

Jacob was extremely displeased with the violent actions of Simeon and Levi, so much so, that he roundly berates them, saying (Genesis 34:30): עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, “You [Simeon and Levi] have made me vulnerable and odious among the inhabitants of the land. Now the Canaanites and Prezites are going to attack me, and I am few in number and will be annihilated, I and my household.” The brothers reply sharply to Jacob (Genesis 34:31): ?הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ “Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?!” In effect, the brothers respond by declaring that they are obligated to defend their sister’s honor, by not permitting Shechem’s behavior to go unpunished!

At this point, Scripture does not record any response on Jacob’s part. He obviously did not agree with his sons’ contention that their extreme violence was justified. But, at least at this point he did not condemn them. In fact, the Torah indicates that there may have even been a Divine confirmation of the brothers’ actions that protected Jacob’s family from vengeance. Scripture reports in Genesis 35:5: וַיְהִי חִתַּת אֱלֹקִים, עַל הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיהֶם, וְלֹא רָדְפוּ אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב, When Jacob’s family set out to leave the area, a Divine terror descended on the surrounding cities, so that they did not pursue Jacob’s sons.

Despite his previous silence, when Jacob lay on his deathbed, and offered his final blessings and prophecies for his sons, he lashes out angrily when he speaks of Simeon and Levi, (Genesis 49:5-7):

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים, כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם,  “Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter, within their congregation do not join, O’ my honor, for in their rage they murdered people and at their whim they maimed an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.”

Uttering his final words before passing away, Jacob condemns the brothers and condemns their violence, accusing them of unjustly murdering the people in Shechem, and coincidentally, of conspiring to get rid of Joseph. He curses their rage and their wrath, and says that he will “separate them within Jacob and disperse them in Israel.“

As we know, when the tribes of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were all given patrimony, tribal territories in the land of Israel, with the exception of the tribes of Simeon and Levi. Levi, being the clergy of Israel who served in the Holy Temple, had no patrimony, but were given forty-two Levite cities plus six Cities of Refuge throughout the country, dispersed among the other tribes. The tribe of Simeon, however, never received its own land. Instead, the families of Simeon dwelt within the tribal territory of the strongest tribe, the leadership tribe of Judah, as if the tribe of Simeon had to be kept under the thumb of the authorities at all times.

It’s odd that of all the twelve tribes, the zealous tribe of Levi is singled out and designated to serve as the religious leaders of Israel. On the other hand, the tribe of Simeon is put down, relegated to perhaps the lowest position of all the tribes. While Simeon and Levi were both zealous, their fates were entirely different.

Perhaps the patriarch Jacob was saying, “Zealotry is an extremely dangerous passion. As we see in Shechem, zealotry can be terribly destructive, even though the basic intentions were indeed constructive. These two boys of mine must be watched and controlled.” It seems as if Jacob is saying that Simeon’s zealotry is not only genetic, but perfidious. He is a lost cause, and that unless he is kept under the watchful eye of the great leader Judah, he is likely to unexpectedly erupt and cause untold harm and destruction. Therefore, never, ever, grant the tribe of Simeon any temporal power.

On the other hand, Jacob feels that Levi’s zealotry was of a different sort, one that can be directed to a positive end. Yes, never give Levi temporal power, but in the spiritual realm there is room for “positive” zealotry.

I have often said that, that parents who would like their children to grow up to be moderate and balanced religiously, given the blandishments of contemporary society, must aim to be passionate, not “fanatic,” but truly passionate, about their beliefs and their commitment to Judaism. If parents aim to be moderate in their beliefs, their children will grow up with moderate or weak convictions. Jewish parents who are casual or lack commitment in their own beliefs, may very well wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren! Although there is danger of going overboard in the name of religion, when it comes to religious education and training, there is no such thing as overdosing.

Perhaps, this is what Jacob is saying: Give the Levites the religious leadership, allow them to sublimate their destructive passions by expressing them as constructive religious passions, but do not dare give them political or temporal powers. If they practice their spiritual leadership properly, then their zealotry can be a true and valid source of inspiration for the Al-mighty’s People.

The story of the rape of Dinah is surely a most intriguing way for the Torah to convey a vital message about passion, control and zealotry.

May you be blessed.