Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Shimshon, Terrorism and History

Elliot Resnick of the Jewish Press blog posted today on Terrorism and Shimshon (Samson). In it, he makes note of the fact that the Victoria Philharmonic Choir portrays Samson as a terrorist and a suicide "bomber."

His end conclusion is that yes, Shimshon was a terrorist and that terrorism is not evil - merely a tactic of war. As he states in his post:

But terrorism per se is not evil. It is a tactic of war, just as shooting guns is a tactic of war.

Of course, he fails to make the distinction that in war, one is usually shooting guns at other people who are shooting at you too. Terrorism deliberately targets those who *aren't* shooting at you.

Personally, I find his conclusion that terrorism isn't evil very troubling. How anyone today can not see the targeting of innocents as evil is simply beyond me. Stating that terrorism is simply a legitimate tactic of war only serves to turn real terrorists into legitimate freedom fighters.

So, then, how does one reconcile Samson's actions with the idea that terrorism is evil? Is the Victoria Philharmonic correct?

Personally, I think that the VP is making the mistake of judging historical characters by today's standards. People do not exist in a vacuum - they are a product of their environments. The ideas and norms of Shimshon's day helped shape the person he was. Were he living today, he would no doubt have been a very different person.

A similar idea can be expressed about Abraham Lincoln, one of the most celebrated presidents in the history of the United States. Aside from George Washington, I don't think any other president has a more hallowed place in American history. And yet, although he was a radical in his day, most of his attitudes and ideas are definitely racist by today's standards. If you somehow plucked Lincoln from 1864 with a time machine and plopped him down in the United States in 2007, he could never be elected president. His ideas and attitudes regarding race are so out of touch with today's attitudes that he'd be branded a blatant racist.

However, that's not how we judge Lincoln. We don't judge him on the basis of today's attitudes, but on the basis of the attitudes that were prevalent in his day. Likewise with Shimshon -- he can only be judged based on what someone from his day would have been expected to do. He cannot be judged on the basis of what is good or evil today. To judge him (or any historical personage) in that light is simply unfair and wrong.

So, does that mean that terrorism was OK in his day and unacceptable now? The answer is an unqualified yes. Standards of behavior in everyday interactions and war change as time progresses. Back in his day, a general who conquers a city would usually enslave the young inhabitants, rape the women and kill all the men. That was considered normal back then and was expected of almost any general. A military leader who does this today would (rightly) be placed on trial for war crimes. So, too, with Shimshon's actions. What was acceptable in warfare then is not acceptable now - and there is no need to "defend" Shimshon's actions by stating that terrorism is not evil.

The Wolf

UPDATE: (6:25PM) -- it looks like they took down the post, but you can find it here.


Larry Lennhoff said...

If terrorism was ok then and forbidden/imoral today, can the reverse apply to homosexuality? That is the thesis of Rabbi Bradley Artson, among others. Rabbi Artson asserts that the type of homosexuality known in the days of the tanach was based on an unequal power relationship (e.g., in Greece homosexual love was usually between a boy and an much older man), or was promiscuous, or was tied to pagan religious rituals. Rabbi Artson asserts that loving monogamous religiously sanctified homosexual relationships were not present in those times, and thus could not be banned.

How is this different than your argument?

BrooklynWolf said...

That's a fair question.

However, it could be answered by stating that homosexuality was forbidden at God's express command. Something that God expressly prescribed or proscribed cannot be changed by the whims of society.

Shimshon, however, was not commanded to do what he did -- he did it of his own volition. As such, what he did that may have been OK then could be viewed as evil now.

The Wolf

Larry Lennhoff said...

I don't believe we've added a rabbinic commandment (or minhag) against terrorism. Rather we've expanded the definition of what falls under the prohibition of "don't murder". Now this is making things more stringent rather than more lenient, so there is a lot more support for it.

Mike S. said...

I think you are wrong as to both the Biblical and modern standards.

Biblical ones first. Hakadosh baruch Hu offered his explicit approval by granting Shimshon miraculous aid in pulling down the temple. therefore, Shimshon was acting with direct Divine approval, so his actions were morally correct, by definition.

As to the modern standard, the Temple did contain the military chieftans (S'ranim) of the Philistines, and these seem to have been the principal targets of Shimshon. They would be legitimate targets under modern rules of war. That would make the civilians "collateral damage". Shimshon might, by modern standards, be a war criminal, if it were judged that the harm inflicted on the civilians was out of proportion to the military benefit gained. However, given that the destruction of the temple seems to have resulted in the Jews getting a respite from Philistine attacks for a period of years, that would be a tough argument.

Now, if you wanted to suggest that Shimon and Levi were terrorists for their treatment of Sh'chem, you would have a better case, since they pulled off their slaughter by subtrifuge and natural means, rather than miracle. And Ya'akov Avinu condemned their act both at the time and after 30+ years of relection. Which would make it hard to claim Divine approval for their act.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Shimshon was a failed shofeit, worse than Yiftahh... that's why the book is ordered in that way, from the heroism of Eihud, Devora and Gid‘on in the beginning, through the flawed YIftahh and thuggish Shimshon to the tragedies of Mikha and his idol and Pilegesh baGiv‘a.

Shimshon was meant to be a hallowed nazir who would save his people. Instead he used his God-given power to fight a personal vendetta war against the Pelishtim, causing such trouble for the Israelite nation as a whole that his own people turned him in. He had a thing for Philistine women, and would go hang out in vineyards (wait? isn't he a nazir?!) to get at them.

He's not a role model.