The BEST: Crime and Punishment

Natan Levin  Tradition Online | August 4, 2022

Summary: Crime and Punishment (1866), by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, tracks Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov — a troubled former university student — before, during, and after his brutal murder and robbery of Alyona Ivanovna, an elderly corrupt pawnbroker, and her sister. The reader witnesses the consciousness of a person motivated by desire to rise above the mere human, to become a “great man” for whom everything is permitted. After the murder, Raskolnikov behaves erratically and experiences pronounced physical illness. Dostoevsky captures the detective’s art in tracking the suspect and uses Raskolnikov’s relationship with the saintly Sonya to bring him to confess and accept his punishment. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Why this is The BEST: Through Raskolnikov’s narrative, Dostoevsky engages with deep philosophical questions regarding the relationship between tradition, rationality, and the individual. Dostoevsky’s strategy is especially relevant to Orthodox Jews facing Raskolnikov-like challenges today. By carefully painting the mindset of his protagonist, Dostoevsky argues that social and moral traditions and obligations ought not to be disposed of. 

Raskolnikov grounds his revolt against conventional ethics by arguing that the “thousands of good deeds” that will result from Ivanovna’s death outweigh the comparatively “tiny crime” of killing her. This argument assumes a total understanding of the nature and consequences of the moral system against which he rebels. Raskolnikov professes — in Thomas Sowell’s terminology — an “unconstrained” conception of humanity, one which posits that humankind is essentially unlimited in its ability to understand and create. 

However, people do not possess the knowledge necessary to fully understand social systems that have developed and matured over the course of history and are products of the cumulative wisdom of many generations. This insight is immediately manifest in Raskolnikov’s unplanned murder of Alyona Ivanovna’s sister upon her witnessing the original assassination. This unintended consequence serves as a symbolic paradigm that highlights the impossible precision necessary when rebelling against these types of social and moral institutions. 

Moreover, Raskolnikov’s inability to fully internalize his professed radical worldview reveals a psychological component to Dostoevsky’s argument for the inherent value of those moral convictions. After the murder, Raskolnikov immediately experiences a tangible sense of guilt, leading him to steal a smaller sum of money than he could have from Ivanovna and eventually to abandon the little that he stole in remorse. That same guilt further tortures him throughout the novel’s remainder, manifesting both physiologically, as he consistently undergoes faintness at the mention of Ivanovna’s homicide, as well as existentially — demonstrated by his paralysis in contemplating whether or not to confess. These expressions of his self-perceived sin, in addition to his eventual decision to admit to his crime, testify to his inability to fully absolve himself of traditional ethical norms. Setting aside the theoretical considerations that might lead to Raskolnikov’s position, Dostoevsky effectively argues that it remains pragmatically untenable; one cannot truly inculcate a value structure that totally negates traditional morality and will suffer the horrific psychological consequences undergone by Raskolnikov as a result of attempting to do so. This is true of an individual as well as of society as a whole.

Dostoevsky’s arguments align with many elements of traditional Jewish thought and practice. The concept of a chok, generally thought of as a logically inexplicable command, attests to the limitations of our cognitive tools in comprehending behavioral norms. Furthermore, the institution of halakha dictates that even commandments that are able to be grasped by the human intellect and psyche, such as murder, cannot be accepted or rejected on an individual, independent basis. Readers rooted in halakhic thinking can find support in Dostoevsky’s literary portrayal of the significance of social institutions.

Natan Levin, a graduate of Maimonides School, spent the past two years at Yeshivat Har Etzion and will begin his studies in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College this Fall. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


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