On Torah and Privilege: Parahsat Vayishlach

Asaf Bar-Tura

Asaf Bar-Tura

by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA

This week’s Torah portion is parashat “Vayishlach.” In this portion Jacob’s daughter – Dinah – is raped by the son of a king (Shechem).

Two of Jacob’s sons – Shimon and Levi – avenge this horrific act by killing ALL the male residents of the city. Jacob is furious at his sons for what they did, and even says on his death bed (in a later parasha): “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel.”

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, this raises the question of collective responsibility. Should all the people of the town be held responsible for the deed of the prince? Maimonides and Nachmanides disagree on this point (the former sides with the sons and the latter with Jacob).

privilegeMy take: It is important to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. A great example is white (and male) privilege. I am not guilty of having white male privilege. But the fact that I have this privilege places a responsibility on me to take an active role in pursuit of social justice and equity. If by having this privilege I am in an advantageous social position, I must use this unfair social advantage to combat oppression and collaborate with those who are oppressed.

So, Shimon and Levi had the right instinct that the citizens of the town are not uninvolved. They bear responsibility for what happens in their midst, especially to those who are socially vulnerable. But Jacob was also right that responsibility should not be confused with guilt.

When not evident, responsibility must be explained. It is often a hard topic. Rather than killing the town’s people, Shimon and Levi would have done better had they opened a space of dialogue, and then perhaps made room for advocacy and organizing to hold the town’s leadership accountable.

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