“Who is committing genocide against whom?” I asked a good friend who’d recently returned from Bangladesh. She regularly brings her medical expertise to the region. This particular trip included a visit to areas where nearly one million have fled for their lives from neighboring Myanmar. “Buddhists are killing Muslims” she said. “How long has this violence been going on?” I asked. “For many generations” she lamented.
Religion and violence. Although the two concepts should be strangers to each other, they are, alas, all too familiar. More than one quarter of the world’s countries today are experiencing some form of religiously inspired hostility. And while the most violent movements of the last century were driven by atheistic ideologies (Germany, Russia, China), today’s dark attraction between religion and violence is not new to human history.
The Torah’s case study in religious violence is represented by the Tribe of Shimon. He joins his brother Levi in violently avenging the rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34). His descendants go from being one of the largest Tribes and the beginning of the Book of Numbers to one of the smallest by the Book’s end. Tradition associates Shimonites with the defiling idolatry that is stemmed by Pinhas’ zealous intervention (Num. 25:14). Indeed, when Moses blesses the Tribes at the end of Deuteronomy, Shimon is not even mentioned.
The Tribe of Levi, by contrast, is given additional responsibilities to be guardians of the holy. Their lot is defined by high expectations and rigorous discipline. Descendants of Levi merit a ‘covenant and peace’ (Brit Shalom) and ‘eternal ministry’ (Kehunat Olam) (Num 25:12-13). The violence Shimon and Levi originally shared when they sought to defend Dinah’s honor, ultimately finds their fate going in opposite directions. As constraints make Levi more accountable, Shimon’s wild ways become more odious. He comes to represent spiritual disorder.
Violence may be spiritual disorder’s most destructive form, but it also foments ugly impulses like arrogance and dislike of the unlike. But well-ordered religious life, by its very design, should solace grief, deepen joy, and nourish growth.
Today’s world yearns for paths that are illumined by the soft glow of the sacred. It is added accountability that can bring there.