Updated: Jun 3
The protections of free speech and free press in America are cornerstones in the advancement of social justice. These freedoms enable us to speak truth to power. They are also one source of the dramatic displays of the successes (but mostly failures) of celebrities. These days, for example, the media outlets are taking precious time in their investigative work to chronicle the stunning court proceedings between the actor, Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, Amber Heard. The court of public opinion is ruling on the case moment by moment, so much so that it is the most popular news story of these recent weeks, more than Elon Musk, the concern for the fate of Roe v. Wade, and the war in Ukraine.
There is a moral imbalance tipping the scales when justice becomes entertainment. There is no doubt we should be concerned about the outcome of this case, particularly because it confronts sexual aggression and the damaging effects of slander. The high profile nature of this case overlooks the ultimate truth - human retribution is not divine.
This value was first dramatically exposed in one of the powerful questions expressed in the Torah. The presence of a question here challenges us to deepen our resolve to pursue justice faithfully.
The book of Genesis briefly chronicles the episode of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and her encounters with the men of Shechem as a painful awareness of unrestrained sexual force. The brother’s attack upon the people of Shechem is in response to their prince's lustful connection to Dinah when we read that she was taken ‘by force.’ In response to the violation of Dinah's dignity, the people of Shechem reach out to build connection and relationship with Jacob's family, even offering to perform circumcision to gain entrance into the tribe. But, Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, lead a stealth mission into the camp of Shechem and kill the male inhabitants as they are healing from their willful circumcision. The town is pillaged by the rest of Jacob's sons, exacting retribution for the disgrace of their sister.
Jacob, the father, is concerned for his reputation among the other tribes in the land of Canaan. After detailing his concern for their retribution against him and his family, Shimon and Levi respond by asking, "Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?"
Once again, we are unsettled by a question that has rhetorical undertones, especially since it marks the end of the narrative. We do not know the response from Jacob here as the text promptly moves in another direction. Behind the thrust of the question itself is this search for identity as a family and as a people. Shimon and Levi are simultaneously responding to the moral indignity Shechem casts upon them and the role and reputation the children of Jacob will maintain in the comity of tribes in Canaan. They feel like they have a reputation to defend too.
The power of this moment framed by a question is the moral judgment it places upon us, the readers. Does their question resolve their discomfort? Is it even possible to agree with their actions, without a degree of unbidden vengeance? As readers we know that Jacob’s disapproval will culminate in his indictment against them in the final words he speaks before his death. And yet, there is no retribution, human or divine, that results from this act. Where is the God of Abraham to stand in their way, to exert some moral force and compel the sons of Jacob to bring the people of Shechem to God’s justice?
Grappling with these uncertainties makes this narrative vital to the Torah narrative, and it will sustain a powerful attitude toward power and sexuality that endures even today. Whatever the popular fascination is with movie stars, we must not lose sight of the moral imperative of speaking truth to power, and enabling our systems of justice to protect the dignity of all our citizens.