Eliezer Finkelman

Magical thinking

Near the end of the Book of Esther registers as magic. The Jews, at long last given royal permission to defend themselves, kill enormous numbers of their enemies. This they accomplish without the usual complications: Readers do not learn about how the Jews train for the operation, how they identify the enemies, how they avoid collateral damage, or how they avoid casualties to their own side. They just magically succeed in killing their enemies, without complications.

Where else does that happen?

That happens in scripted dramas in popular entertainment. Past the middle of the scripted action, the good side begins to use their weapons, and the enemies get defeated. Good characters escape unscathed, and bad guys die or get captured. Start using weapons, in popular entertainment, and the weapons deliver poetic justice. Bullets somehow know who deserves to get shot.

If we expect that magic to work in practice, we can easily feel the wisdom of taking arms against our enemies. We judge the central government as lacking the power, wisdom, or courage to punish our enemies properly, but we can do that ourselves. We trust that untrammeled self-help, without organization, or with informal militias, will result in relatively painless (to us) destruction of easily-identified enemies.

Torah has a more skeptical view of violent self-help.

Read between the lines of the laws of the Avenger of Blood (Goel haDam), and you can see what used to happen before there existed a central authority capable of, or interested in, punishing violent crime.  According to the Torah, the Avenger of Blood kills only the individual murderer (Num. 35:21).  The Torah apparently warns us against an earlier assumption, that the victim’s clan should exercise collective punishment on the perpetrator’s clan.

The Torah warns us against taking a monetary payment, a ransom, as an alternative to punishing the murderer (Num. 35:31).  The Torah warns us against negotiating a payment to let the murderer go free, even if the aggrieved clan would be well satisfied with the payment.

The Torah prescribes the City of Refuge to protect the accused murderer until he gets brought back for trial (Num. 35:12).  After hearing the evidence, judges – not the aggrieved clan — determine the defendant’s guilt.  If the judges find the defendant not guilty, the defendant gets no punishment (Ex. 23:7); if they find the defendant culpably negligent, he returns to the City of Refuge (Num. 35:25); if they find him guilty of murder, the Avenger of Blood puts him to death (Num. 35:19).

The Torah thus limits self-help in the role of the Avenger. In a system where a formal trial judges the individual defendant, and seeks only individual punishment, letting the Avenger carry out the punishment endures as a lone remnant of the old self-help, clan-based, collective method of maintaining order.

But the new system promulgated by the Torah has several advantages over the old method: The new system has a mechanism for protecting the innocent.  The new system does not result in never-ending feuds between clans.  It protects against a large and wealthy clan exploiting its power advantage over smaller and weaker clans.  It allows punishment even when the Avenger has poorer military skills than the perpetrator.

In a modern country with a strong central government, a police force, and an army, the government has an interest in domestic tranquility, and it enforces the law.  Since the time of Henry II (1154-89), in English law, the aggrieved party becomes, not the surviving family of the victim, but the Crown.[i]  Even if the family feels too weak or frightened to pursue justice, the government has its own interest in punishing criminals.

But what about Parshat Zakhor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), which we read in synagogues yesterday?  It prescribes collective punishment (genocide!) against all Amalekites in every generation.  It seems to require . . . but note that it applies “when the Lord your God grants you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess” (Deut. 25:19).  I wonder when that condition will be met. Nearly all commentators and legal analysts understand that this commandment imposes a governmental obligation, not an invitation to free-lance violence.

Look at the news. Some have called for, and committed, acts of vengeance against communities without regard for individual culpability.  Living in a powerful country, with police, an army, a court system, these people actively yearn for the condition before the Torah limited the powers of the Avenger of Blood.  They seek approval for free-lance wreaking vengeance on hated clans.  Perhaps they expect to reenact the magical results of the Book of Esther.  Perhaps, as in scripted entertainment, they believe that unregulated violence will result in the death of the bad guys, and have no bad consequences for the good guys.  In other words, magical thinking.

Or maybe a step worse than magical thinking: Not thinking at all — just feeling angry enough to strike out, without contemplating what seems likely to happen next.

Or maybe a step worse than unthinking expressionist violence.  I once heard a swarm of teenage boys joyously singing the last prayer of Samson, asking for the power to act as “revenge for my two eyes” (Judges 16:38).  His prayer granted, Samson then brings down the temple of the Philistines, killing himself along with his tormentors.  The teenagers, by invoking the prayer now, display a romantic fascination with mutual destruction.

Non-magical thinking faces the consequences of the primitive situation before the Torah limited the scope of the Avenger of Blood.

  • Identifying the guilty by ethnicity, and killing on that evidence, constitutes MURDER. The Torah forbids murder.
  • Random, stochastic violence, invoking everyone’s “right to bear arms” in a just cause, does not guarantee everyone’s wisdom or skill to use them effectively.
  • Other groups will can fight back, and will be forced to fight as groups. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, this enlists each member of the group in war.
  • Each group on “our side” will have its “well-trained militia,” but under whose command? Different commanders seem likely to wind up fighting against their own family.
  • It makes sense to suspect the central authority, but not to replace it with chaotic free-lance violence.  We should not reproduce Hobbes’ vision of “the war of all against all,”[ii] conditions of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[iii]

[i]  Clarence Ray Jeffrey, “The Development of Crime in Early English Society.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume 47: Issue 6 Article 2. Accessed March 5, 2023.

[ii] Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, “Preface.” “bellum omnium contra omnes.”

[iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1. 8. 9.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman currently resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Until recently, he taught Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and served as half the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
Related Topics
Related Posts