Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You Get What You Give?

Hi everyone! This post will also not have a summary of everything, since it’s covering an entire chapter. If you want to know about a story where Rabbi Akiva is really nice and reasonable to a woman, some interesting things about burial customs, or what kinds of teachers one should study with (and you should, because they’re all great!) you should read the rest of this perek.

The third perek of Avot d’Rabbi Natan includes many didactic sayings and stories that tell us to behave well because otherwise, bad things will happen to us in a way that is very neatly correlated with what we did wrong. For example, Rabbi Akiva says that if you take tzedakah when you did not needed, you will live to be dependent on the charity of others; and if you hope for your brother’s death so that you can marry his wife, he will outlive you.

Next, there is a series of explanations of a verse from Kohelet: “Baboker zerah et zarecha vela’erev al tanah yadecha”—“In the morning, sow your seeds, and in the evening, do not rest your hands.” The rabbis interpret this to mean that we should build redundancy into important systems to make sure that we accomplish what needs to get done. In the first, and most literal, reading, Rabbi Dostai says in the name of Rabbi Yannai that if you have sowed during the first rain, you should sow again in the second rain, in case there is hail and the first planting dies. Then, Rabbi Yishmael says in the name of Rabbi Yose that, even if you have studied in your youth, you should still study in old age, because you do not know which will take hold.

Those teachings culminate in a very odd anecdote about ghosts that is very long, so I will tell only part of it, even though all of it is really cool. A man had a fight with his wife and went to sleep in the graveyard. While he is there, he hears two spirits talking to one another about what they have heard from “beyond the veil.” One of them says that there will be a hail storm, and anything planted at the time of the first rain will die. The man goes home and plants at the second rain, so his crops survive, and everyone else’s die.

After that, there are two more didactic stories. There was once a pious man who was accustomed to give tzedakah. Once, he was on a boat, and the boat sank. He went to the bottom of the sea, but the waves said to one another, “Let us bring this man up from the sea because he has given tzedakah all his life.” The next story is very similar: Benjamin the Righteous once gave a starving widow some of his own money because there was no communal money to give her. When he got sick, the angels said to God “Didn’t you say that anyone who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world? This man saved not only the widow but also her seven children, and here he is dying in bed.” God immediately gave him twenty-two more years to live.

These stories all display a retributive idea of justice—the punishment should literally fit the crime. I’ve been reading a lot about retribution lately as part of my independent study. There’s a quality about retributive justice that feels very fair to people: it feels complete for an offender to be punished in proportion to how bad his crime was. Retributive punishment also usually works as a good deterrent: if everyone knows that every time anyone commits a particular crime, a known, predictable bad thing will happen, they will know not to commit crimes. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault points out a few criteria without which the deterrent system will not work. The one that is the biggest issue for the system Avot d’Rabbi Natan describes is “the rule of perfect certainty”: “the link from [crime] to [punishment] must be… unbreakable” so that there is no chance of committing a crime and not being punished for it.

Obviously, that is not the situation in our world. In each of these stories, people who behave according to the principles of good behavior get direct rewards. It makes sense that if you plant early and often, it’s more likely that some of your crops will survive, but we all know that, sometimes, charitable people die young with no supernatural help from the waves, and people who take from the community without giving back go on to lead happy lives before dying of old age.

Leaving aside from the theologically troubling proposition that only good things happen to good people in this world, I don’t understand why the Rabbis would say that. The stories are set up didactically, but as fables, that sort of thing could work only until people push it. If you had a group of people who were behaving well because otherwise, proportional bad things would automatically happen to them, they would probably stop as soon as they saw a bad thing happen to someone who was following the rules. I try to work with the assumption that Chazal were not stupid, so what were they thinking here? Could they be making these statements to show up how unfair the world is? Maybe their intended audience was not very intellectually sophisticated and they thought this might work? Those don’t seem very persuasive to me, so I’d welcome any other ideas from our learned readers. 

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