INSIGHT

5767 - #08

IDEALISM AND PRAGMATISM

Vayishlach

 

            The disagreement between Yaakov Avinu and his sons, Shimon and Levi – as presented in Bereishit 34:30-31 -- on the surface seems to reflect the classic confrontation between the idealist and the pragmatist.2 Yaakov’s critique of his sons’ actions seems to be solely based on the potential negative consequences that may ensue. His response is practical; his argument is simply that this behaviour may lead to further problems. Shimon and Levi’s response to the criticism of their father, in turn, is simply a re-statement of the ideal. Their actions reflected what was needed to be done in order to right, as much as possible, the terrible crime that was committed against their sister. It would seem that there was no disagreement in regard to the facts. Shimon and Levi do not respond by challenging Yaakov’s assessment of the situation. Shimon and Levi, it would seem, knew as much as Yaakov knew, that there could be dire consequences for acting as they did in destroying Shechem. Similarly, Yaakov does not seem to disagree with his sons’ assessment of what justice required in this matter. It would seem that Yaakov agreed with this pure evaluation of the appropriate punishment to fit the crime. The argument indeed would seem to have been a classic case of the confrontation of idealism and pragmatism. Yaakov contends that it would have been better to have considered the potential harmful consequences and not carry out the ideal response of justice. This is the way of the pragmatist – to consider the effects of a specific behaviour in determining the propriety of such behaviour. Shimon and Levi disagree, contending that proper behaviour must find actualization regardless of the consequence. This is the way of the idealist – to consider what is proper without concern for effects.

            In Bereishit 49:5-7, though, Yaakov’s tone changes. No longer does he attack his sons’ behaviour based on pragmatic considerations but rather in direct terms. He now declares this behaviour to be motivated by anger and personal will; it was, as such, inherently incorrect, not just wrong in consideration of the potential results. The machloket, disagreement, between Yaakov and his two sons now shifts in its basic essence. There is no indication that Shimon and Levi changed their perspective; they still may have believed their actions to have been correct. Their disagreement with their father, though, now lies in the very nature of the ideal. Shimon and Levi believed their behaviour to have been the proper manifestation of justice and, as such, the right thing to do. Yaakov, on his death bed, now contends that this behaviour was actually the result of anger, thus not a manifestation of an ideal but rather inherently incorrect. But could not justice and anger co-exist? Does not the case of Pinchus, who in his zealousness killed Zimri,1 indicate that justice and anger can indeed co-exist? This indeed could be Shimon and Levi’s retort to their father’s later critique; perhaps injustice should breed anger, they would contend, and thus their anger and behaviour were appropriate. A careful reading of Yaakov’s words, though, seems to indicate that Yaakov’s contention was not solely that Shimon and Levi were wrong because they were motivated by

anger. He seems to also deem their actions to be inherently wrong. The argument is not longer between pragmatism and idealism but in the very definition of the ideal. In the eyes of Shimon and Levi, injustice should breed anger and a response of this nature. In the eyes of Yaakov, the anger still distorted the matter and yielded an incorrect response. But then, what would have been, in the eyes of Yaakov, the appropriate response? And how do we relate this machloket in the realm of the ideal with the previous presentation that the disagreement reflected the continuous battle between the pragmatist and the idealist.

            Ramban, Bereishit 34:13 attempts to determine what Yaakov thought should have been done. His first suggestion is that Yaakov originally thought that Shimon and Levi would only go into the city to re-capture and save Dina, perhaps also to bring justice to Shechem himself. To this he would have acquiesced. Yet, if this is what Yaakov would have accepted, the pragmatic argument he presents in the verse is somewhat problematic. Would not the people of Shechem seek vengeance after being tricked and suffering through the pain of this circumcision? Ramban presents another possibility in explaining what Yaakov was thinking; perhaps the people of Shechem would have done teshuva, repented, and would have become God-fearing. This perception, however, would not be substantiated by Yaakov’s pragmatic view expressed in the wake of the attack. Ramban, though, does quote Yaakov’s words at the end of his life to substantiate this perspective.

There would seem to be two possible ways of understanding the change in Yaakov’s challenge of Shimon and Levi. One is that Yaakov’s view of the problem never changed; his argument with his sons was always in the realm of the ideal. Yaakov, however, chose to present a pragmatic critique in the aftermath of the event, perhaps because he believed that Shimon and Levi would not, at this time, hear anything else. Only later, when there was no longer an opportunity to delay his true idealistic critique or when he thought that his sons would listen, did he present his true perspective. The other possibility is that Yaakov himself did go through a transformation in his perspective. At the time of the event, his problem with Shimon and Levi’s behaviour was pragmatic; only later did he develop an idealistic critique. 3 There is actually a third perspective that yields a different perspective on the nature of pragmatism and idealism. Perhaps, Yaakov did feel that Shimon and Levi’s behaviour was inherently wrong but he could, at the moment, only articulate a pragmatic challenge. Sometimes, it would seem, pragmatism can also be a stage in the development of a more complete idealism.

         Ramban’s second explanation of what Yaakov may have been thinking also touches upon pragmatism. Yaakov believes that the brothers should have waited to view the effect, to see if the people would have truly repented. Somehow we see this still as somewhat more idealistic than simply being concerned about the family’s welfare and potential harm. Nevertheless it is based upon the same principle of viewing not just the cause but also the effect. Idealistic pragmatism is not simply that the end justifies the means but it recognizes that the end may be a signal in our evaluation of the means. Yaakov may or may not have developed his eventual critique of his sons’ anger at the time of the event – but he still recognized that something was wrong. His critique was formulated in the realm of the practical – but it was not solely practical. The potential negative consequence resulting from Shimon and Levi’s behaviour also indicated to him that there was something idealistically amiss. Perhaps we will be attacked – could such evil emerge from a righteous act? Perhaps the people would have repented – does righteousness lead to a loss of righteousness? Perhaps the answer is sometimes yes. Perhaps, though, the pragmatic concern is to lead us to a re-evaluation of the ideal. Yaakov’s first response may have been in the realm of the practical but he then allowed this realm to cause him to consider anew the realm of the ideal – and develop his later critique of Shimon and Levi.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Notes

1 See Bamidbar 25:1-9.   

2 In regard to this machloket between Yaakov and his sons, Shimon and Levi, see also The Balance of Nationhood, Nishma Insight 5756-07. Certain perspectives developed in this earlier Insight form a foundation for the ideas developed in this Insight.

3 This view, of course, would be challenged by the words of the Ramban


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2006 NISHMA