Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Quote for the Day: Cruel to be Merciful?

In mercy, obectification of the other, racism, Roger Cohen on March 31, 2009 at 2:08 pm

One who is merciful to those who are heartless will end up being heartless to those who are merciful.(Midrash Zuta, Midrash Tanchuma, Yalkut Shimoni)

This quotation ia attributed to Resh Lakish, R. Elazar, R. Shimon Ben Levi, R. Yehoshua Ben Levi. It is apparent that this belief was widely held.

The proof brought is from Shaul who against Divine decree, spared Agag, the Amalekite leader, and then seven chapters later Shaul slaughters a town of Kohanim blinded by his jealous rage for David. The Rabbis read I Samuel Chapter 22 in light of what Shaul had done in I Samuel Chapter 15 where Agag is temporarily spared only to be killed by Shmuel.

It is difficult to understand how one’s sympathy even for a heartless monster could cause one to be heartless toward an innocent. Maybe the Sages felt that when one loses a moral compass for right and wrong, cruelty and kind, all things are possible. A moral order requires judgment, and without that, the wrong people will be on the receiving end of ones wrath.

We live in a world where phrases like “objectification of the other” indicate a sin akin to racism. We hardly ever ask the question, “When does “the other” deserve to be “objectified” as cruel.

The Sages knew that we have never been, nor ever will be always “the same”.

This is the flaw of proportional response in certain conflicts. If the expressed goal is to wipe one off the map, should the fact that the enemy is not successful at it be a mitigating factor? Or, like Roger Cohen, do we choose not to believe them because he knows that this is merely overblown rhetoric contradicted by the kindness that he has been afforded by some of the local citizenry.

Whatever political strategy one adopts, it would behoove one to heed the notion that to enter the brotherhood of man there needs to be an entrance exam.

There is a heartless nihilism that in the name of human decency should not be “understood” and doing so, will ultimately cause one to be cruel to the merciful. Words are powerful and they often reflect the deepest held passions and beliefs of individuals.

In the new age of dirty bombs one can’t afford to dismiss them.

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  1. The point is true, but requires elaboration.

    One cannot be merciful to those who deserve no mercy — a serial killer should not be freed as an act of mercy so that he can kill again.

    Yet, on he other hand, one must not impose a death sentence on the person guilty of jaywalking.

    The challenge is in situations that are not as extreme as these to determine when mercy is warranted or not.

    Should a person who committed assault be treated as one who killed, because assault can kill?

    And, in the case of politically motivated violence, how does one factor that motivation into the equation?

    Does George Washington deserve to be condemned because he led a violent movement against the lawfully established government under which he lived and was a member?

    These are all difficult problems.

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