Monday, July 24, 2006

Why Questions

A Rabbi Garma, a graduate of Lakewood, has written an over-the-top racist book, which has been pulled from the shelves and condemned by everyone including the head of the Lakewood Yeshiva. The details can be found here . I don’t want to discuss the racist part which doesn’t interest me. What caught my eye was the following paragraph in the Forward’s summary of his views.

The Jews themselves brought about their own destruction during the Holocaust, since they arrogantly endeavored to overcome their very essence, dictated by divine law, by leaving their ghettoes and trying to assimilate into Christian European society. The confrontational approach of the Zionists, their boycott of German products and anti-Nazi demonstrations in particular, only exacerbated the peril to European Jewry. For this, they were massacred by Hitler who, while himself an evil person, was acting as God's agent in punishing the Jews.

A thesis, similar in its logical structure was argued last week by Rabbi Strernbuch. "We have not protested enough against this parade of abomination and therefore we have received this warning," warned Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the extremist Eda Haredit rabbinic court, in a hand-written message to his followers. "Who knows where things will get to if we do not act further and more stringently against it." He is saying all of Israel is being punished by Hezbollah because the gay pride Parade is about to take place in Jerusalem.

The first Satmar Rebbe, and the old Munkazcer Rebbe, the Minchas Elazar, said the same thing, except for them the culprit was mainly the Zionism that sought to establish an independent state. (The core text is Vayoel Moshe, which, to my knowledge, has not been translated into English).

As an aside, I would not call the Edah extremist. Maybe ultra-ultra Orthodox. There is nothing extremist about them. It is we who have changed. They are doing what any normal 18th century Jew would do. My version of the Duchess of Windsor’s aphorism “You can never be too rich or too thin” is “Once you are Orthoprax, you can never be too frum, or too secular.” Vehamavin yavin.

Let’s analyze the structure of these arguments. We can call it, in philosophy of science jargon, an inference to the best explanation argument.

1) God rules the world.
2) If a major event occurs it is because He willed it.
3) A major event has just occurred, e.g. the Lebanon War
4) God must have willed it.
5) God is good and just.
6) He would not have willed the event unless we deserve it.
7) We wouldn’t deserve such a terrible collective punishment unless we had sinned in a manner such that the punishment visited on us was appropriate.
8) Since the punishment is serious, the sin must be equally significant.

(Once we get to this point all the theorist needs is a convincing sin.)

9) The sin was X.
10) If you disagree, what else could it be? Can you think of a bigger sin?
11) The best explanation why the event occurred is X. QED

The argument is found in the Torah again and again. The book of Deuteronomy, Kings 1 and 2, and the prophet Jeremiah all agree the Temple was destroyed and Judea was forced into exile because of the evil of idolatry. The prophets warned Israel, they did not heed the warnings, so God used the Babylonians, and before them the Assyrians, as His vehicles to punish the Israelites. We had entered into a covenant, we knew the terms, we broke our part of the arrangement, and the punishments flowed naturally.

All the wise guy Modern Orthodox bloggers who make fun of this kind of argument have a small problem. Why are the Deuteronomist’s version legitimate and other contributions to this type of historiography illegitimate? The structure of the argument is always the same.

It is true there are other books and voices in the Bible that take a different approach. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes come to mind. But no one can deny that the front and center view is the one exemplified in Deuteronomy.

A person cannot reject the first 4 premises and still believe in divine providence and the efficacy of prayer. Without going into details, I would say the book of Job questions #5. Premise #6 requires a deserts theory of punishment, which has big problems, the details of which can be found in any standard moral philosophy textbook

My own opinion is that the theologically fruitful approach would be to stop after #4, and try to give an account; a narrative of what God has been up to that would tie the events of the last few hundred years together. If there was such an account, even if it wasn’t a didactic lesson in how the Jews got their comeuppance, at least it would maintain God’s sovereignty and the large scale coherence of history. In any event, there is a real puzzle why good and bad times tend to cluster rather than being distributed randomly.


At 10:04 AM, Anonymous shael siegel said...

Interesting piece. What interests me the most is your "As an aside". They are extereme- even for the 18th century. It depends on where they were geographically in Europe. East or West. How do you think the Rambam would have viewed such a phenomenom, or the Ibn Ezra, or for that matter Yehuda Halevi. It isn't an issue of time frame but atttude they have to Am Yisroel or in their lingo clal yiroel.
By the way we know each other. This is Shael, we met at Jane and David Shapiro and also share other people in common, Balinsky's as well as the Glimmers. E-mail me at I also started blogging recently at Good luck on your blogging. I look forward to visiting often.

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Some Guy said...

Why are the Deuteronomist’s version legitimate and other contributions to this type of historiography illegitimate?

Well, the simple answer is that the "Deuteronomist’s" version is traditionally considered to be the work of Judaism's preeminent prophet. He has the hotline to heaven, so he actually knows what's what. The small-minded rabbis who are pleased to proclaim the guilt of an entire generation, on the other hand, do not know what's what, and by all indications do not even know their head from their tuchus.

A person cannot reject the first 4 premises and still believe in divine providence and the efficacy of prayer.

Not sure that's the case. Gersonides holds that God's providence extends to general principles, not particular events. With regard to prayer, it was never very clear what influence prayer might have on God. A post here describes Rambam's view that prayer cannot possibly produce any effect on God. "Such an idea is not only absurd it is blasphemous." Prayer influences the one who prays, that's all we can ever be certain about.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Anonymous-Your point about prayer are well taken. I am not in a position to evaluate these arguments because my knowledge of the gilgulim of Aristotle in Arabic and medieval Jewish philosophy is limited. My point is phenomenological. Every Jew when he prays has as a justified or as a folk belief the idea that he can talk things over with Hashem, and that he will be heard. Jews also believe, justified or not that God rules and that His will prevails. I feel it is important to give an account, what I called a narrative, other than the one that goes poo happens, life is random, history has no meaning. I am sure you would agree, simply out of ahavas yisroel that such an account would be valuable.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

In response to Shael Siegel's comments I think the Rambam would say the Edah really are slow when it comes to philosophy, and Yehudah Halevi would complain of their inability to write poetry. Other than that, I think they would really appreciate how you can find continuous minyanim for mincha. I doubt if the Rambam would much care for the Brisker yeshivot. He would say it is more about them, though he would like all the attention. Just kidding. Good to hear from you.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger subtlefanatic said...

A: Simcha from Jerusalem's Sheraton Plaza Hotel. Haven't been back to Chicago just yet, but haven't forgotten our conversation. Blog is excellent; have read all your posts. I'm more of an on and off blogger. My spot is


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