Aside from being one of the most controversial authorities in Central Europe during the eighteenth century – he was accused of being a follower of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi – Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschutz (1690 – 1764) was also a brilliant scholar and incisive Torah commentator.
In his analysis of Genesis 34:15, he asks why the sons of Jacob resorted to the subterfuge of inducing the residents of Shekhem to circumcise themselves before launching a retaliatory attack following the rape of their sister, Dinah. While there may be a clear military advantage in attacking a wounded and immobilized foe, it makes the victory somewhat tainted. Moreover, to resort to this kind of trickery suggests that the sons of Jacob did not believe they could win otherwise. But surely if they were guided by God’s hand, their victory would have been assured even without their stratagem.
Almost anticipating the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric characteristic of European life within a century after his death, Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschutz explains the thinking of the sons of Jacob with more than a touch of cynicism. He writes that once circumcised according to Jewish ritual practice, the residents of Shekhem were, for all in tents and purposes, members of their tribe – what today we call Jews. Thus, when the sons of Jacob attacked the Shekhemites, they were, in effect, attacking fellow Jews. When Jews attack Jews, the world is silent. But when Jews kill non-Jews – even for good cause – the world protests. Since the sons of Jacob realized they could not take on the entire world and succeed, they cleverly designed their strategy to escape the criticism of other nations. Rabbi Eibeschutz concludes that when Jews are murdered, there is never a world outcry.
It is hard to see how things have changed since Rabbi Eibeschutz made his trenchant remarks. Kobili Traore lived in the same Paris apartment building as 66-year-old Sara Halimi. On April 4, 2017 he broke into Halimi’s apartment shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and beat Halimi mercilessly before throwing her off her balcony to her death. Others neighbors heard him say that he had “killed satan” – referring Halimi’s Jewish identity. Yet French authorities refused to characterize Halimi’s murder as a hate crime. In fact, world media paid little regard – if any – to this outrage. (Three months later, French president Emanuel Macron admitted that regarding the Holocaust the French were silent and regarding Halimi the French were silent “because we did not want to see.”)
Yet rather than be resigned to victimization and the world’s injustice as was Rabbi Eibeschutz, Jews today must somehow emulate the sons of Jacob and find ways of legitimately defending ourselves.