Friday, February 22, 2008

Reward and Punishment - Natural Consequences or "Spritual " Connections - A Dialogue.

My last post about earthquakes elicited some interesting comments on the blog and also in separate email exchanges. The following is an edited version of an exchange I had with a very learned Talmid Chacham. I think it is very important as it shows how we hard we have to work to really read our great Rabbis’ words with an open mind. This is posted with permission from my correspondent.

R. Ploni:

"To suggest that one would prevent earthquakes by not encouraging homosexual activity is making Mitzvot into magical potions. That is close to Avodah Zara which is much worse than homosexuality."

I am not sure what I think about this. Doesn't the Torah state that certain rewards are linked to certain Mitzvos (e.g. shiluach hakein and long life)? And the Mishna links certain punishments to certain sins (e.g. women dying in childbirth due to neglecting certain Mitzvos). So while the above statement might be making the wrong link, why is the idea of a link, per se, idolatrous?

To which I responded – a bit of a ramble – with edits for clarification.

Re Shiluach Hakein, see Chulin 142 where it tells us it means Layom Shekulo Tov [a long afterlife].

However, you do make a good point regarding the case of the women. What do Hadlakat Haner, (lighting candles) Chalah and Niddah have to do with Childbirth?

The first basic issue here is can one use threats that one knows are exaggerated to reinforce a good behavior? Case in point is Hotza'at Zera Levatala (male masturbation) where they say Ein lo Chelek Le'olam Haba.

See Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 3:14 -

ויש עבירות קלות מאלו, ואף על פי כן אמרו חכמים שהרגיל בהן אין לו חלק לעולם הבא, כדי להתרחק מהן ולהיזהר מהן.

There are lesser prohibitions than the above [Rambam just listed 24 cases where the transgressor does not attain Olam Haba], that the wise said that one who makes them a habit does not attain Olam Haba. [They said that] to distance one from them and to warn away from them.

There is a whole school of Medieval followers of Rambam who understood this to be a central tenet in his thought. I believe this requires a much more elaborate and thorough analysis. Apparently, there is a utilitarian and educational reason behind some of the threats for punishment.

The second issue is does the threat, if we accept that as a possibility, have to make sense and be related to the Aveirah? This brings us back to childbirth. I would take it in the historical context. As you know, it was the greatest killer in olden times. Most men married more than once because of it. They had no idea why women died. They used that mystery to reinforce a good behavior. Using it nowadays would be a Chilul Hashem. We know that since hygiene came into medicine, childbirth mortality is quite rare. In fact, nowadays there are more widows than widowers. To do the subject justice one would have to analyze every case where such threats are found. I would wager that they all are logical either based on the science of the time they were said or there is some connection with the transgression though maybe not obvious.

Now as to earthquakes, we now know that they are caused by the movement of plates and Israel happens to be located on a fault. Suggesting that homosexuality has anything to do with it is a Chilul hashem and does make Mitzvot magical. Anyone that lives in California for example knows that it is prone to earthquakes and remains there without making sure that his building is reinforced, should do Teshuvah. That may make him rethink whether greed overcame the importance of self-preservation - he should either move away or spend the money and reinforce his building. In the case of Israel, where we cannot move away, there is only one choice - reinforce the building. The commandment of "Vekivshu'a" applies here. [God commanded Adam (man) to populate the earth and conquer it]. Use technology to control your environment. The secular are right and Benizri was mechalel Shem Shamayim.

I will end this rambling reply with Hil Ta’aniyot 1:2 -

ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו אלה" (ירמיהו ה,כה) לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

ג אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות

This [ritual of fasting, prayer and horn blowing when tragedy strikes] is among the paths to repentance. For when a tragedy comes people’s way and they cry out and blow horns they will realize that it is their bad deeds that brought this bad thing about. As it says in scriptures, your sins brought this about. This will cause the tragedy to go away.

But if the will not cry out and blow horns, saying that it is just happenstance and the way of the world, that is cruelty. It causes them to stay with their erroneous ways and the tragedy will only get worse and other mishaps will come their way.

Clearly, Teshuvah here is for what was done that directly caused the tragedy. If one does not change their ways we repeat the same mistake וגורמת להם להידבק במעשיהם הרעים.

To which my friend replied –

Thanks for your reply. But that quote from Hilchos Ta’aniyot seems to work

the other way, no? After all, most bad things that happen, according to you,

are linked to either natural causes or neglect of material hishtadlus,

rather than to spiritual sins?

To which I replied –

Where do you see anything but natural causes? Avonot means relying on "spirits" rather than doing. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Rambam to the wise men of Marseilles -

וזו היא שאבדה מלכותנו והחריבה בית מקדשנו והאריכה גלותינו והגיעתנו עד הלום.

שאבותינו חטאו ואינם, לפי שמצאו ספרים רבים באלה הדברים של דברי החוזים

בכוכבים, שדברים אלו הם עיקר עבודה זרה, כמו שביארנו בהלכות עבודה זרה, טעו

ונהו אחריהן, ודימו שהם חכמות מפוארות ויש בהן תועלת גדולה, ולא נתעסקו בלמידת

מלחמה ולא בכיבוש ארצות, אלא דמו שאותן הדברים יועילו להם. ולפיכך קראו אותם

הנביאים סכלים ואווילים.

And it is the sins of our ancestors that caused us to lose our land, destroyed our Beit Hamikdash and lengthened our exile bringing us to our current situation. They found many books written on this subject of astrology, which are at the root of idolatry, as I explained in Hilchot Avodah Zara, and mistakenly followed them. They imagined that this [astrology] was an admirable science that afforded great advantages. They therefore did not learn how to fight wars nor did they conquer lands, believing that these things would help them [prevail]. That is why the prophets called them [our ancestors] evil fools! They were evil fools for following hopeless nonsense!”

To which I got the following –

Wow, I never thought of looking at it that way. I have to think about it.

I post this exchange because it illustrates how difficult it is to read texts with an open mind without preconceived notions that we have been inculcated with since childhood. The truth is in front of our eyes but elusive at the same time.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. The same passage that the Rambam quotes from Jeremiah also describes very nicely the problem with these leaders that are blaming earthquakes on homosexuality
    "26 For among My people are found wicked men; they pry, as fowlers lie in wait; they set a trap, they catch men. 27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit; therefore they are become great, and waxen rich; 28 They are waxen fat, they are become sleek; yea, they overpass in deeds of wickedness; they plead not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, that they might make it to prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge. 29 Shall I not punish for these things? saith the LORD; shall not My soul be avenged on such a nation as this? {S} 30 An appalling and horrible thing is come to pass in the land: 31 The prophets prophesy in the service of falsehood, and the priests bear rule at their beck; and My people love to have it so; what then will ye do in the end thereof?"

  2. The crowd at Hirhurim chews over the Reb Yochanan story in all its possible permutations in the Slifkin post of 2/21.

    I think the way to approach the case of recalcitrant observations is to recognize there are usually three variables , the current observation, the agadata and the theory that explains the observation. Which way doubt we doubt our eyes, revise the theory or give chazal a non literal interpretation cannot be decided except one case at a time, depending on the particular circumstances. (See the Quine-Duhem thesis in any basic philosophy of science textbook.)

  3. EJ I agree with you wholeheartedly. What you are saying can be said bekitzur - the sechel dominates - use it!

  4. RDG, I can reply to this Rambams letter (leshitosom), that the ancestors who were subservient to astorology which was false, and therefore no histhtadulus was necessary. However today we rely on Hashem and his Torah and therefore in consequence is NOT what the Rambam was talking about. Therefore we don't do any (or much) hishtadlust because our hishtadlus is learning and teaching Torah.

    (my take) Obviously this has significant ramifications to how you relate to the State of Israel, going the army, working, getting and valuing a secular education, and ones overall weltanschung.